If Pappy was a tyrant, he was a gentle and conflicted one, who did not relish the role. He yearned for a time when he would cease having to be one at all. What he hoped was that if he could somehow just make reading and studying appealing enough to his boys, eventually we wouldnt need his prodding anymore and wed simply do it on our own. To that end, he made sure not just to dangle punishment over our heads, Sword of Damoclesstyle, and leave it at that. He went out of his way to be fair. If we just did what he asked without too much complaint, he would do us some real solids in return, such as paying us generously for our time (Studying is your job, and an honest days work deserves an honest days pay), intervening on our behalf when our mother doled out chores (Studying is their only job), and tolerating a slew of hair, clothing, and dating choices that were in flagrant violation of his personal tastes.
Despite these enticements, Clarence would always find it difficult to take to long periods of study, and he went through fits of resistance routinely. Being the younger brother, I had the advantage of learning from his mistakes and avoiding most of his battles. I was what Pappy called a dutiful son. Most of the time this dutifulness of mine sufficed. We were rarely in open conflict with each other, and he was almost always patient and playfully encouraging with me.
Thomas Chatterton, hed say, addressing me by my middle name as I sped through his study on my way to the kitchen, oblivious to my surroundings. Do you know you wear the name of a brilliant poet, son? hed call from the other room.
Yeah, of course, Babe, Id say, poking my head into the refrigerator, looking for something sweet.
And do you know they call him the Marvelous Boy, his poetry was so fine? hed say, still talking to me from the other room.
Uh-uh, Id say with my mouth full.
Well, they do. His poetry was so fine, in fact, and he was so young when he wrote it, that the adults couldnt even believe the work was his own. They all accused him of copying someone else, someone much older.
They sure did. And do you know that he became so distraught by this, he became so discouraged, that he killed himself when he was only seventeen years old? He decided he couldnt live with the dishonor.
Yes it is, son. Life is not fair. But now youre going to bring honor to his name, arent you? Its very important that you do that, son.
But I dont know how to, Babe, Id say, returning to the study with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of soda in my hand.
Well, you dont have to be a poet, son. You can be a great philosopher, for examplepull up a seat.
A philosopher? Id say, and sit down.
Yes, in fact, youre a philosopher already, arent you?
I dont think so, Id say, my cheeks flushing.
Well, yes you are, son. Think about it: Do you question the things around you? Do you reflect on their meaning? Are you interested in the truth?
Then youre a philosopher, son, he would tell me, and I would laugh, embarrassed because I didnt feel at all like a philosopher, whatever that was I could only imagine. I felt ignorant, which is what I confessed to him. And he would tell me that ignorance is the beginning of knowledge and talk of men named Socrates and Confucius. He revered these two men perhaps above all other men, Socrates for his edict to know thyself and Confucius for his devotion to learning and personal excellence, he said. I would sit there at Pappys desk, exhausting whatever sugary collation I had brought with me from the kitchen, and listen to him talk. Well, Ive told you enough, hed eventually say. Now, you tell mehow am I going to grow up and be smart like you? Wed laugh and Id try to come up with some reply. These questioning talks I had with Pappy were so frequent in my childhood that to this day the name Socrates remains mingled in my mind with the image of my balding and bearded father seated in his study. I cannot think of one without inadvertently conjuring the other.
Excerpted from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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