While on the topic of fathers and sons, I post for your delight this week another guest post from my high school classmate Ned McDonnell.
Drinking alcohol was against the rules at our boarding high school. Transgression resulted in an 10 days unanticipated visit home for the first offense. You could surprise the folks by coming home!!! And permanent banishment on the second. Since I was on my way to Theologian studies at the Vatican, I was never subjected to this harsh process.
Unfortunately for Ned, he got busted.
This is his story about going home and the reception that awaited him there.
My Far-away Father
My father, John Gordon McDonnell, was an engineer by training and a World War II Navy drill instructor. That made him a tenacious disciplinarian with a very cut-and-dried view of life. After we moved back to Pittsburgh from Sydney in 1968, my father and I did little together since he no longer needed a jib-man on his week-end sailing adventures. For a perfect snap-shot of our ‘rapport’, listen to “Earache My Eye” by Cheech and Chong.
The Plane! The Plane!
“Good afternoon, we are approaching Pittsburgh International Airport. Please make sure your seat-belts are fastened, seats upright and cigarettes extinguished. Skies are clear at thirty-five degrees. Thank you for travelling with Allegheny Airlines and we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving 1975. Go Steelers!”
As DC-9s were wont to do, this smaller jet rocked in the coming winter’s wind. That weaving legitimated a creeping, contingent nausea. No, I was physically in good shape after the extra day on campus laying down the varsity basketball court and the wrestling mats, etc. in the School’s gym. My defiant manner of that moment failed to hide my gnawing shame of letting my family down by facing expulsion from prep school and dishonoring my family.
Landfall or Last Call?
My physical unease reflected two great uncertainties looming over me that day as a high school senior. First, I did not know if I would return to the School. Busted twice in two weeks for sloppy drinking, but let off the hook the first time, I was arguably in line for expulsion. That Fall semester I had earned good marks; lettered in a varsity sport (finally!); and, aced the SATs.
But possibly, all for naught.
The second bust had proven to be the stuff of comedy. Trying to show off my presumed senior year sophistication with Schlitz and grenadine – which my saner friends had politely refused – I stubbornly consumed eight or ten of these perversions, after which I decided to go ‘do’ a Camel non-filter inside the enclosed fire escape. When the surge came, I hurled so quickly and violently, I had no chance to get close to the bathroom.
Instead, I splattered the rough stucco wall with pink stained beer. Two years later, when I brought a college class-mate curious about the School to that dorm, I showed him the scene of the crime. The swish mark was still there since the rough stucco had been impossible to clean. So I wagged my finger at my private mark of manhood and declared, “President so-and-so left his mark on the School and so did Ned McDonnell!”
My academic future weighed on me. The bigger deal was how my parents would react, particularly my father. Would my mother break down in tears? That would be tough to take.
But Dad would be the killer. The worst he could ever do was to simply stare at me mournfully and say softly, “Ned, I am disappointed in you. You are better than this…” Whatever ‘this’ was, I did my damnedest not to do it again…ever! At least up to that moment.
As I disembarked, I recalled my two conversations with Dad earlier that week, before and after he spoke with the School. Mom, to be sure, had expressed her dismay directly to me which was a lingering sting. That was only a prelude. Dad had been a sphynx, a pissy one. Walking over to the pay phones, I shuddered as I reluctantly called my father – as he had made clear – at his office to come to the Airport and pick me up.
The usual drill was for me to take an airport bus into town for a hero’s greeting. This exception-to-policy did not bode well. My car was a goner – but what else? Dad would surely pillory me in front of my cousins and various family friends during Thanksgiving dinner. Nausea burned through me, even after three Winstons.
When he pulled up, Dad simply waved and smiled; maybe there was some lingering hope for me after all. So, I put my suitcase in the back-seat and took the passenger seat adjacent to him. Dad quickly kissed me hello in his warm and enduring way. Otherwise he said little, looked ahead and filled me in on the Steelers and the Pitt Panthers, both having big years.
As we pulled onto the back-way into town, a business route brimming with billboards, Dad said something odd. “Son…” Yikes! He had never used that word! He continued, after his pause, “Ned, I want you to look carefully at the advertisements on our way in.”
At least he gave me something to do prior to the blind-fold and last cigarette.
The fateful moment approached as we pulled up to the house – lots of leaves still in the yard. Good! A chance for me to work off my penance. As he backed the car into the garage, Dad stopped the car and paused for a moment.
He asked me with an even-tempered voice, “Ned, of all those billboards you saw, how many involved alcohol?” Now, I started getting an inkling where this was headed; I answered at least half a dozen.
“That’s the point. Alcohol is only 1% of the G.N.P.” My father looked at me for dramatic effect.
“Think about that for the rest of the time you’re home, ole timer…” He winked, patted me on the knee, and backed the car into the garage.
That magic moment was the one that made me realize that I had lucked out with my Dad. Thus started an unexpectedly mirthful Thanksgiving and the beginning of the end of my career as a heavy social drinker, where something wasn’t right, anyway.