Spotter’s Guide To The November Road&Track

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The day will never come when I don’t find it thrilling to find my name in the pages of the same magazine I read as a car-crazed six-year-old, but this month is more special than most.


This month you’ll read about how I took the AMG GT-S and the 911 Carrera GTS to Carolina Motorsports Park so I could introduce them to a pair of Vietnam veterans — my father and his Carolina neighbor, a former Marine aviator named Jim. We had a brilliant time on that summer day in Kershaw. Jim couldn’t get his mind around the idea that I was the son of his very squared-off and correct friend: “Look, he just wears whatever clothes he wants! He just has his hair all the way past his shoulders! And he’s not really a marathon runner type like you, Kevin!” But at the end of the afternoon, after we’d lapped the track a couple dozen times, he told Dad that I would have been a great Marine aviator. I think he means that I would have been a great Marine aviator in an alternate universe where Marine aviators spent their time between missions at Ruth’s Chris and/or Guitar Center.

There are times I truly feel fortunate. Usually when I haven’t looked in a mirror in a while. To have an entire racetrack to myself so I could drive those magnificent cars and swap stories with my dad and his pal… well, it meant something. As a child I didn’t know if my father and I would ever really see eye to eye. I didn’t know if he would ever value anything I’d accomplished. We’ve always been such different people, doing different things. But when that blood-red 911 came to a halt in pitlane and we both stepped out laughing, it felt like the happy ending of a film forty-three years in the making. Having moments like that would be worth breaking my leg a dozen times.

If you flip backwards through the magazine the way I always did as a child, you’ll find Sam Smith’s monthly column after my comparison test. He tosses me a very kind name-check in the first few paragraphs, but the real meat of the story is in his careful dissection of how a single ritual — in this case, the operation of a manual transmission in a manner that satisfies his father — acquires meaning that is both permanent and ever-changing. Near the end of the column he confesses that at the time of writing he hadn’t spoken to his dad in a few weeks. I know that’s no longer the case; at the very least, the two of them are motorcycling together in the Pacific Northwest. Sam and his dad are both fundamentally much kinder and easy-going people than my father and I are, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t always on a journey themselves, from the misconceptions of childhood to the sorrow of the deathbed.

Within the pages of Iron John, Robert Bly writes that in modern times “…there is not enough father.” He contends that society venerates motherhood but it holds the father up as someone to be mocked, and that the children a man sees at the end of each day receive “only his disposition or temperament, which is usually irritable and remote.” Much of Iron John is about having the courage to seek out and know your father as well as you truly can, regardless of the difficulty involved.

Far more difficult than seeking out one’s own father, however, is the task of remaining just opaque enough to one’s own son. To communicate that you will always love him without accidentally communicating that you will always approve of what he does; that’s how helicopter parents and boomerang children are made. To inspire enough respect in him that he will follow your commands while simultaneously freeing him to excel above and beyond you.

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This weekend was tough for me and for John because we couldn’t really fight. We had to settle for a modified Marquis of Queensbury ruleset where I lay down on the couch and used my left arm as my sole entry in combat. He awarded me points for a clean strike but deducted them if he could punch or kick my arm before it withdrew. Every once in a while, if I started to pull too far ahead in the points, he would feint at my leg. He knew it was off limits but he also knew it was a weakness. To have a strong-willed son means to be continually evaluated for weakness, the way Prince Hal must have sat in the bar with Falstaff and considered every one of his options in the matter a thousand times.

When the weather popped above forty degrees, we poured water on the driveway so he could practice drifting his remote-control car. Since watching my race in the rain three weeks ago, he’s become very curious about what happens when cars hit low-traction surfaces. This allows him to test theories; on his own, he came up with the old highway patrol select-reverse-on-the-column-for-a-reliable-low-speed-180 maneuver, via the expedient of pulling back on the forward/back stick just as he initiates the turn sharply with the front wheels.

He’s also discussed with me his independent theory of why the January crash happened: a back wheel hit some ice, causing me to correct first to the left then to the right when the tires hit dry pavement.

“You see, Daddy,” he told me, with this grim seriousness on his face, “if you had just gotten the car straight after you hit the ice you wouldn’t have gone sideways the other way before the man hit us.”

“You don’t say, kiddo,” I replied impassively.

“So why didn’t you?”

“Can’t say, exactly. It’s been a long time since that happened.” Then, after the deep draw of breath to send the lie straight and true: “Haven’t given it much thought.”

13 Replies to “Spotter’s Guide To The November Road&Track”

  1. Avatar-Nate

    Damn Jack ;

    You’re a very lucky Man ~

    My Father toddled off after 93 years of not wanting me and criticizing every thing I ever did .

    I made sure to be close to my Son who’s way ahead of me in everything and is nice enough to not rub my face in it =8-) .

    Looking forward to many more happy John stories .

    -Nate

    Reply
  2. Avatarjz78817

    He contends that society venerates motherhood but it holds the father up as someone to be mocked, and that the children a man sees at the end of each day receive “only his disposition or temperament, which is usually irritable and remote.”

    most sitcoms and commercials are evidence of this. Dad’s always an ham-fisted bovine lummox, incapable of even putting a frozen pizza in the oven without getting dough all over the kitchen.

    Reply
    • AvatarGeorge Booth

      Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s always bothered me about shows like South Park and The Simpsons: the fathers are portrayed as dolts or hypocrites. Family Guy is worse still, but would be redeemed at least a little if it were funny.

      I’m biased, though. I have a good dad.

      Reply
  3. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    Growing up in the 60’s, in a blue collar neighborhood, most sons tried to emulate their father and were usually expected to follow his footsteps in the same trade. Some did, many didn’t as time wore on. Myself, I went into the trades, but different ones than my father. Many of my personality traits were either inherited or learned from him. This led at times to periods of estrangement as we were each determined to prove the other wrong at any cost. Over the years we have both come to realize that we are more alike than we are different and have accepted that there are some things we won’t agree on but can live with. Our relationship these days is better than it has been in 35 years as we have mellowed some with age.
    Not having a son of my own, I have no idea what type of father I would have been, but I suspect not the best one around. I have managed to “corrupt”(in their parents mind anyway) a couple of nephews by exposing them to fast cars, motorcycles and a steady procession of different women at my house.

    Therefore my childlessness has not been a total waste. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Avatardal20402

    Your writing about fathers and sons is the biggest reason I keep reading your stuff faithfully even when you infuriate me, which is more than occasional.

    My father was absent most of the time, being on a different continent most of the time, and was (is) a workaholic so severe that he was often absent even when we did happen to be in the same time zone. But he was very good to me when he was actually focused on family, and taught me a lot of important things. My own son is a year old, and even though I share my father’s penchant for focusing a bit manically on other things I have already promised him I will be there much more often. No one can teach a boy how to be a man better than a loving, but not helicoptering, father.

    Reply
  5. AvatarDeadWeight

    “Far more difficult than seeking out one’s own father, however, is the task of remaining just opaque enough to one’s own son. To communicate that you will always love him without accidentally communicating that you will always approve of what he does; that’s how helicopter parents and boomerang children are made. To inspire enough respect in him that he will follow your commands while simultaneously freeing him to excel above and beyond you.”

    Some, but exceedingly few things, genuinely warrant repeating.

    The quoted statements above most definitely qualifies.

    It is beautifully written, and I find it to echo my experiences in life, also.

    Reply
    • AvatarCanuckGreg

      Fully agree. I’d like to have it tattooed on the insides of my eyelids to serve as a constant reminder of how to engage and interact with my own kids.

      Reply
  6. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    The father-son relationship gets even better when the son is an adult. It’s never an equal relationship, of course but you’re both adults and there’s a lot more give and take. Some humility too because it’s no longer a question of a child following your commands, but rather an adult who can think for himself, and maybe come up with better solutions than you can.

    Much of this also applies to father-daughter relationships but it’s not quite the same thing.

    Reply
  7. AvatarVolandoBajo

    This whole article is so spot on, and so full of profound ideas.

    I barely know what to say about it all, so I will just say “Thank you once again, Jack, for something meaningful and well thought out, as well as being close to the heart.”

    My father tended to be somewhat cold and distant, though he was around a lot. It wasn’t until I was grown and found out that he had lost his father when he was 16 (and the youngest of five sons)…either to suicide on his farm, or there was also a theory that he was stubborn and refused to go along with a socialist/communist farmers’ collective in a Midwest state. I suspect that latter was more likely true, as both he and I, though we can be melancholy or even morose, tend to be people who keep on without giving up, not the profile of a typical suicide prone individual.

    Near the end of his life, when I had stopped trying to live out a personal cross between On the Road and Mailer’s The White Hipster, and was actually making good grades in engineering school, that we came to a place of piece.

    Plus he grew up in a time when men didn’t talk about their feelings, so he had a double whammy. But we managed to get beyond that to a point of love and mutual respect, and it has made me make an extra effort to let my son know how much he means to me, every day.

    He is now 21, and it is a strange jolt to know that you are supposed to be much smarter than the average bear, and yet your son has figured out something that eluded you or never occurred to you.

    As a former Marine, though certainly not any kind of Clint Eastwood, Sgt. Tom Highway died in the wool, Marine to the core type, and as a martial artist as well, I think I may have a slightly clearer perspective on where Jim was coming from.

    You seem to be able to live boldly, without any paralysis from fear, and though you carve your own arc in the world, you are always seeking to excel, and to make sure that things are squared away, so as to minimize unnecessary risk to yourself or to others.

    A go

    Reply
  8. AvatarVolandoBajo

    The end accidentally got omitted, as my last post got posted before I was finished.

    The rest is, that a good Marine, or a good martial artist, one imbued with a samurai spirit, lives true to his own nature, and is always aware, though not obsessed, with the details of life that spell the difference between success and failure.

    While you have chosen a different path, you walk it with that same combination of boldness and care that a good Marine has as his second nature.

    Always a joy and a spiritually uplifting event to read your work, Jack.

    You spell out the essence of life, without excessive frills, baroque or rococo embellishments, very much like the other writer I mentioned to you, Harry Crews. He too also wrote a very touching story of his relationship with his son, and with his uncle Alton, who raised him as if he were his own son, when Crews’ father died while he was in childhood.

    Powerful stuff, there and here. Thanks again.

    Reply
  9. Pete DushenskiPete Dushenski

    “You see, Daddy,” he told me, with this grim seriousness on his face, “if you had just gotten the car straight after you hit the ice you wouldn’t have gone sideways the other way before the man hit us.” << It's anecdotes like this that make me eagerly anticipate the maturation of my two-month-old boy. I can't wait to see the world through fresh, intelligent eyes!

    Reply
  10. AvatarSCE to AUX

    “Having moments like that would be worth breaking my leg a dozen times.”

    This phrase made me misty. Fortunately, there is no cosmic equation that demands this price.

    I had a good father. He died young (64), when I was 39, and that was some 12 years ago. We developed an easygoing rapport after I got married (not always before), and he was always supportive of my aspirations. I’ve consciously tried to emulate that attitude with my own kids.

    His most merciful moment with me came on July 10, 1982. While he was away on a fishing trip with his buddy, I totaled his car in a foolish accident which also totaled 1-1/2 other cars, with minor injuries to the other drivers. Dad’s car had just been paid off. He cut the trip short, drove back that day, and talked with me. After learning I was OK, and knowing we’d be put on high-risk in$urance for years, all he did was ask for my keys to the other car, and said he was glad it wasn’t worse. I didn’t drive for a week or so. He knew how low I felt.

    The gentleness of that response has stuck with me ever since. I hope my own kids never test me that way, but if they do, I hope I’m as merciful and gracious as my own Dad was with me.

    I miss him a lot, but mostly at big decision points in life – a major purchase, job change, how to guide my own kids – for which I’d often sought his counsel before he passed. He also had a terrific work ethic, often under very trying circumstances.

    So I was fortunate, and remain so with many good memories and lessons. Although not everyone’s birth father is so good, everyone needs a good man in their life that they trust and can confide in.

    Reply

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