In Ken Burns’ fabulous documentary Baseball, there’s an anecdote about Willie “Pops” Stargell. In 1971, Stargell’s Pirates won the World Series in 7 games, defeating the defending-champion Baltimore Orioles. Stargell, an eventual Hall of Famer, had a particularly brutal series at the plate, managing only 5 hits in 24 at-bats with 9 strikeouts and only 1 RBI. After the final game of the Series, a reporter found Stargell at his locker and asked how, in spite of his struggles at the plate, Stargell managed the restraint to not throw his helmet or bat, as is customary of struggling superstars. Stargell motioned over to where his young son was playing in the corner of the locker room and quipped, “Sometimes, a man has to decide to just be a man.” At that, Stargell quietly packed his belongings and his son, and left the ballpark.
Fatherhood has a way of drawing out the best in us. Sure, every Dad has his lesser moments — moments when we lose our cool, moments when we say things we regret, moments when we drop the ball and let our kids down. But fatherhood also draws us into a way of being that begs our better efforts, our best selves for the sake of our children…especially our sons.
By secular barometers, James Alton Bybee lived an ordinary life: born in Jackson County, Tennessee; never graduated from college; married a country girl from Castalian Springs; earned his keep as a salesman for the Cory Coffee company in Nashville; quietly raised his daughter and son in the fear and admonition of the Lord; died much too young at the age of 46. Amid all this ordinariness was a life of influence, a life of true significance. I know this because Al Bybee is my father.
What made my father great was his fierceness. Once, when my father was very ill with cancer, the associate minister from our church came by to visit us on a Sunday afternoon. My father — never a fan of huckster preacher-types anyway — graciously led the young minister to our living room, quite a challenge in light of Dad’s weakened and frail state. I had been playing with my toys in the living room that afternoon; Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars men were strewn across the floor. In my recollection, the minister had only been seated in our den about 4-5 minutes when he turned to me and said, “Jason, don’t you think you should pick up some of these toys from off the floor? I sure would hate to step on one of them. ” It was a throw away line, really; an attempt to acknowledge my presence in the room, perhaps. It was true. The toys were everywhere. He might actually step on one of them. But a line had been crossed and that was all there was to it. My father stood — bracing himself with the sofa armrest until he stood at his full height, all 74 inches of him.
“You can go now.”
That’s all he said. “You can go now.” The befuddled minister tried to stammered his way through an apology, but it was no use. His cancer-ridden bones could not betray the blazing fire in Dad’s eyes. Nobody was going to come into my father’s house and tell me to pick up my toys. Not this guy. Not anybody. “Don’t tell him what to do.” And with that, the pastoral visit was adjourned.
A transmission occurred in that moment, a translation I’d not yet fully deciphered. After the minister left and my Dad was back in the living room, I remember being a little embarrassed and I asked him, “Daddy, did I do something wrong?” He looked at me, his nostrils still flaring, and he said, “No, son. You’re just fine. Go back to your playing.” And he grabbed my hand and I knew it. I was loved. Fiercely.
In The Road (my all-time favorite work of fiction), Cormac McCarthy writes of a post-apocalyptic world charred by cataclysm, covered in ash and despair. The central characters, an unnamed father and son, journey south along an abandoned highway toward the sea with a dream of finding food, survivors and (mostly) hope. Along the way, the father realizes he is dying and, in his final words to his son, imparts an essential teaching:
“You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Is the fire real? The fire?”
“Yes it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road
The motif of “carrying the fire” — central to McCarthy’s work — especially resonates with me, not only as a son but as a father to two young boys. “Carrying the fire” is about living with hope; it’s about the fierce bond between father and son; it’s about an inter-generational identity that refuses to give in to a culture gone mad; it’s about deciding to “just be a man” as Stargell said. It’s a line that made me weep when I first read it. And I’ll weep again someday when I share it with my sons.
Stargell also once said, “I’m a God-fearing man who worships with my heart and with my life.” The same could be said of many men — men whose greatness is played out in relative anonymity…men who lead their families with unwavering determination and fierce devotion…men whose contributions will never make front page headlines for the seemingly ordinariness of it all…real men whose lives have left an indelible imprint upon us, the sons of greatness.
We are their legacy.
We are their sons.
And we carry the fire.
Fathers Day Weekend, 2011