The Father Effect: Chapter 1

by John Finch

For years I denied how deeply my father’s death had affected me — and not just me, but all of my relationships. I didn’t want to get to know the man who had inflicted such a deep wound on me. To forgive my father, I knew I’d have to learn more about him.

There was so much I didn’t know, and not just about that day. What was he like as a child? What were his parents like? How long did his dad stick around? Was he happy as a kid? What were his friends like? What did he do when he wanted to goof off? What did he excel at? How did he meet my mom? These questions spawned more questions.

Everything within me screamed in righteous anger over being asked to discover my father’s history. I felt like a child who’s burned his hand on the stove being asked to forgive it. If he hadn’t cared about me, then why should I care about him now?

Internally kicking and screaming like the adult-child I was, I began to learn about my dad. What I discovered changed my life.

MY FATHERLESS FATHER

When Big Jim was nine-year-old Little Jim, his father died of pneumonia. In other words, for most of his life, my dad didn’t have a dad. Though Big Jim would never have called it by name or likely even acknowledged its existence, my father had a deep father wound of his own. This alone broke my heart for him, but it was the progressively complicating factors of his life that would cause me to deeply empathize with this man I’d known for only a short while and with whom I’d been angry for decades.

Two years after his father’s death, Big Jim’s mother married a man who she later found out was already married. To escape embarrassment, they moved from Millington, Tennessee, to New Orleans, but moved back just a year later. Before marrying my grandfather, Van, she’d been married four times. I surmise that my dad’s emotional and relational growth as a man was severely stunted because of his upbringing. He’d lost his dad, only to have multiple fill-in fathers let him down even further.

My dad also had to deal with a mean mom whose dual mottoes were “Only the strongest survive” and “Every man for himself.” Consequently, he sought to become the strongest man for himself with as little help as possible from anyone else. In looking over the many bad decisions he’d go on to make during his life, it would seem that these intrinsic values seldom served him well — especially when it came to being a father.

At sixteen, Big Jim was dropped off in New Orleans to live on his own. To make enough money for lunch, he’d hunt for scrap metal before school started. Six years later, at just twenty-two years old, he married my mom. As further damning evidence of the kind of parental support my father rarely, if ever, received, his own mother didn’t even attend their wedding; nor did she care to, from the stories I’ve heard.

Big Jim and my mother had known each other for years before getting married, as my dad had been inseparable friends with her brother, Bill. Big Jim and Bill both excelled at football, so much so that my dad was once offered a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. For reasons unknown, he never tried out.

It’s stories like these — the ones where a single choice may have led to a drastically different life for both him and me — that give me pause. What if he had tried out? What if he had made it? What if money hadn’t been such a big problem for him? What if he had been rewarded for what he excelled at?

The fatherless are unrivaled at the what-if game. Even from this brief biographical sketch, it’s easy to see that so much of what I was missing from Big Jim was the same as what he had missed from his own dad. His father had died when he was a child. Later in life, he became an entrepreneur (of sorts), always out for that one big score that would solve all his problems and secure a future where he would never have to worry about money. He thought he had to be the strongest or the best to gain respect and provide for his family.

And I don’t have proof of this, but I assume it’s true because it’s been true for me: He was desperately lonely, believing he was the only one enduring the struggle known as life.

When I finally chose to stop defining my dad by his worst qualities and tragic end, I discovered a man with a father wound just as deep as mine. He may have been my father, but we were brothers.

HOW TO BREAK INTO FORT KNOX

At one point in his life, my dad owned four tire stores appropriately named “Big Jim’s Tires.” A natural salesman, he did well for a time. The stores made money. Our lights stayed on.

But my father was susceptible to the promise of easy money. Through his business, he met men in organized crime who ran a counterfeiting operation. There’s likely no easier way to make money than just to print your own. Unless you get caught.

My father got caught after stepping off a plane. He was promptly sentenced to the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas, for two to five years. But just eight months later he was released for good behavior. His conscience — or his desire to stay out of prison — had spoken up. To commute his sentence, he had agreed to turn state’s evidence against the men with whom he’d been counterfeiting money.

Now, recall that these men were in organized crime. Think The Godfather. These were not men to be trifled with or to turn on. Yet my father, in what I hope was a turn toward doing the right thing (and not just to save himself), willingly chose to testify against these coldhearted criminals.

While still in prison, he would travel from time to time to testify for the prosecution against these men. And with each piece of damning testimony from my father that put away more men, you could be sure that others in their criminal organization were taking note.

A few months after my father was released from prison, the FBI called to inform him that his name was the last on a hit list, below the names of three people who had recently been killed in violent ways. His name was next to be crossed out, and they suggested that he and our family go into witness protection to avoid danger. We were to relocate to Fort Knox, of all places. I can imagine my dad’s response: “You’re gonna put a known counterfeiter in Fort Knox?” A few days later, we started packing.

As an older child, I had faint memories of being taken from my home in the middle of the night, but I’d argue with myself that it was only a dream. However, when I became an adult and learned the truth — that the FBI really had absconded with my family in the middle of the night when I was just two years old — I couldn’t argue against reality anymore.

We really had lived under witness protection in Fort Knox, as “the Smiths” no less. We lived there for ten months. Ironically enough, the men who’d put out a contract on my father’s life eventually became state’s witnesses themselves, effectively canceling the contract. The FBI cleared our family from any imminent threat, and we moved to Texas. Did my dad leave Fort Knox with a gold bar or two? I don’t think so, but memory’s a funny thing. Knowing what I now know about my dad, I wouldn’t have put it past him.

HOW TO STAY OUT OF PRISON

My dad couldn’t quit his fast-money lifestyle, even though our lives had all been put in jeopardy because of his inability to work for a living on the right side of the law. Big Jim’s checks bounced like overinflated basketballs. Our electricity was cut off multiple times. Mom even had to heat our water so we could have lukewarm baths. Bills wouldn’t be paid for months at a time.

Sometimes we stayed in hotels where calling the accommodations “squalid” was being nice. In fact, I recall my mom placing an ironing board against the front door as a rudimentary burglar alarm. If it fell, we’d all hear it, wake up, and shout in fear. Then, I guess, my mom would have thrown the iron at the intruder. Thankfully, no such event ever happened.

My dad ran away from his problems, but he would always try to find a quick fix, regardless of its legality. He would disappear for a few days, only to return with a sly smile and a proud declaration that he’d solved our problems yet again.

Much to my mom’s chagrin, he’d act as if nothing had happened. Yet it was my mom who was truly the savior and would somehow scramble to get the money to pay the debts my dad had left behind.

I assume that my dad tried the best he could to provide for our family. Unfortunately, he’d had no example growing up of how to do that. How can a man understand what’s required of a father and husband when he doesn’t have anyone to show him or tell him how to be a provider?

There’s no telling exactly what he’d done to get the money we’d needed, and I doubt my mom asked him for fear of incriminating herself. But, as had happened before, Big Jim’s poor choices caught up with him.

On April 10, 1979, my father’s lawyer told him he was most assuredly headed back to prison after his court meeting later that day. Before that date, my father had reiterated to my mother dozens of times that he would never go back to prison. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he’d also read medical books to figure out the best place to shoot yourself so you’d die the fastest.

He held to his promise. He never went back to jail. On April 10, 1979, my dad shot himself.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE FATHER EFFECT

Based on the feature film of the same name, THE FATHER EFFECT is a must-read for the millions of men and women who have lost their fathers through divorce, death, or disinterest. Find out more here.

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