Rachel Toor November 18, 2011 TWEET COMMENTS 0

Single-Serving Dad - Page 5

It took the rest of the sweeps a while to come in. When Tom finished, he was concerned. "I kept figuring I'd catch you guys," he said. "But every time I got to an aid station, the volunteers said you'd been there and gone. I couldn't catch you. I was worried." I told him how happy Bob had been, how thrilled to learn that he had been snookered. "I was afraid he might be mad," Tom said, and I could see that his worry hadn't been for Bob's health.

Later, when I asked him about growing up with Bob as a father, Tom demurred. "He was in many ways a different person. He worked too hard both in his profession and then at home so he was often cranky and only occasionally fun. When I retired from the Army and came back and began ultrarunning we started a new relationship -- more friends than father-son." Bob started running at age 60.

"My books are all disfigured by the sullen presence of my child-beating father, Don Conroy, and this one is no exception," Pat Conroy wrote in My Losing Season, a memoir about playing basketball at the Citadel. It's really about love among teammates, about leadership, about vile fathers and sadistic coaches, and about the transformative power of sports. It's a beautiful book.

Conroy tells of the unexpected redemptive consequence of writing The Great Santini. "My father may be the only person in the history of the world who changed himself because he despised a character in literature who struck chords of horror in himself that he could not face. He had the best second act in the history of fatherhood. He was the worst father I have ever heard of, and I will go to my grave believing that. But this most immovable of men found it within himself to change."

My own books, indeed my most intimate conversations, are notable for the absence of my father. I do not talk about him. He taught me to value higher education, but was unimpressed by my admission to Yale; to love literature, but refused to talk with me about Milton or literary theory; to push myself to overachieving limits, and to hate myself if I didn't live up to his unreasonable expectations.  When I started running, he would ask, after each race, "Did you win?"

It is a poignant moment when a son is first able to beat his father at something. It's a hallmark, a transition, a well-rehearsed narrative turn. The contested arena is usually physical, representative of the ways that manhood is often defined by the body. When I run with men who are much older than I, when I am stronger doing something we both value, I wonder: is this rewriting some old script? Is this my second act as a daughter?

Spending 20 miles with Bob Hayes meant something to me that had nothing to do with running. I don't know what kind of a father Bob was to his three kids. I have hunches, of course, about what it might have been like to be raised by someone who demands so much from himself. I'm pretty sure it was not easy to be his child.

For 20 miles on the ridge line of craggy mountains in my favorite state, Bob Hayes was the best companion I could have hoped for, a single-serving dad. I saw the man he had evolved into and caught glimpses of who he had been. I understood why Tom and his wife, Liz, both excellent runners, kept inviting Bob along with them on gnarly adventures. I understood the good fortune of a son who gets to revise his relationship with his father.

Perhaps, somewhere in the world, my own father is being kind and nurturing—even fun and playful—to someone who is not his daughter; perhaps he, too, has found a way to edit the story of vexed familial relations.

Rachel Toor teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running.



"Have you prepared yourself to traverse possibly the most rugged, technical 20 mile trail race in existence?"

—from race website

Where: Bozeman, Montana

When: Mid-August, 2011

Info: www.winddrinkers.org/BRR/BridgerRidge.html


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