Just Like a Rolling Stone
My father met the Rolling Stones somewhere on the road, the year he ran away from us.
I found out thirty years later while my brother Danny and I were cleaning our grandmother’s house shortly after she passed away. The radio was playing oldies when a Stone’s song came on. Danny grinned and said, “Every time I hear them, I think about Dad meeting them.”
I dropped the garbage bag I was filling. “Wait a minute. He met the Rolling Stones?”
Danny rolled his eyes. “Yeah, when he ran away from us and went out west. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you.”
I picked up the garbage bag, tied it, and threw it into a corner. “Dad didn’t tell me a lot of things, Danny.” Dust danced in a ray of sunlight as the bag landed near a window.
“Oh, well he met them on a bus and rode a long ways with them, Oklahoma I think.”
“Come on,” I said, quickly changing the subject. “Let’s get this crap out of here.”
His trip out West—now, that was something that I did know about. It was not long after he had taken me fishing, and told me—right there on the banks of the Illinois River—how he would be going away for a very long time. To a ten-year-year-old, a very long time was somewhere between lunch and supper and supper and breakfast.
This was just right after he had helped me reel in what turned out to be a five-pound catfish.
“I got it, Daddy, I got it, Daddy,” I said excitedly.
“Careful, son,” my father coached patiently. “You don’t want to reel in too fast.”
He stood behind me and ever so carefully, as not to damage my confidence, took hold of the pole and helped me reel in the fish. Together we watched it flapping around, mouth and gills gasping, at the end of the line.
“That’s a good one, son,” my father said as he put his arm on my shoulder. “That’s got to be at least a five-pounder.”
And then he sat me down on a rock and told me he was leaving. He had made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wrapped in waxed paper; he handed me one, but I wasn’t hungry. They were too warm and soggy.
“When are you coming back, Daddy?” I blinked back the tears.
“I don’t know, son,” he said. “Not for a while.”
Years later, that trip out west turned out to be a story told and retold when everyone got together for the holidays, usually after too many drinks, and usually after some coaxing from one of his brothers. There we were—uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, grandma and grandpa—sitting around the decimated holiday turkey, vestiges of cold yams in coagulant puddles of giblet gravy, and a melting Jell-O fruit ring when he launched into the “story.”
Except, there was never any mention of The Rolling Stones.
“It was just outside of Flagstaff,” my father began, popping open a can of Hamm’s. “I was out of money and hadn’t eaten since Tulsa.”
The amount of embellishment was proportionate to how much or how little he had to drink that year. One year he described how he hadn’t eaten since St. Louis. Another year, he threw in that he stole an apple pie cooling on the windowsill of a farmhouse he passed on the outskirts of Rolla, Missouri. Well, not actually stolen, my father added. He left a note with his address in Illinois and the promise that he would send the money once he found work. I think that might have been some scene he saw in a movie and tailored it for his story.
“I had crossed this field when I thought I heard singing. It started out low and got louder the more I walked. Like a beacon. It echoed off the mountains and rolled across the desert. Well, I followed this melody wherever it was coming from. And there it was—this small church in the middle of the desert. It was Sunday morning. That choir’s singing was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. I walked inside and sat in the back and fell asleep.”
Probably drunk someone snorted, followed by laughter.
“After the service, I met the preacher and his wife and told them that I had gone out to West to look for work,” my father said. “They invited me into their home, gave me something to eat, and offered a bed to sleep in that night. I was so tired I slept until the next day.”
Those expecting a more dramatic ending might have been a little disappointed with what followed next.
“The next day I called home,” my father continued, “and Dad wired me the bus fare. I was on the next bus home.”
End of story.
There had been a few groans and sighs before someone turned on the football or basketball game. If it hadn’t been my father who had run away, it might have been a good story. Perhaps, the kind of story if we had heard we could have laughed about it over a couple of beers ourselves.
It wasn’t entirely my father’s fault, though for never talking about the time he met the Rolling Stones or caught a line drive foul ball off the bat of Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. They were not the kind of stories he could bring up when we did get together during his monthly visits.
No, I never recalled him talking about anything out of the ordinary. With Mom sitting in the kitchen and listening in on the conversations we had with our father, he kept it simple. His repertoire of questions was relegated to asking about school and what we wanted for our birthdays.
Before he came over though it was my mother who did all the talking—prompting Danny and Me what to say and what not to say. The few times that he managed to get us out of the house alone he was generally quiet.
He always dressed up when he came over in a nice pair of slacks and shirt. Even when he lost his job at Caterpillar, he still made sure to at least make a good impression during those monthly visits.
Then there were all those awkward Christmas mornings when he came over to pick us up to take us over to our grandparents’ house; the birthday’s that he’d remembered; the occasional camping or fishing trip that were meant to fill in for all the parenting he had missed. We went through the motions of being father and sons. I think Danny was lucky. He was too little to remember.
Dad never knew what to say, even then. I suppose, we never knew what to say, either. When we got back home, though, Mom asked us what he had said which was usually followed with, “Did he give you any money?”
What I remembered most, though, was him leaving. That much had been ingrained in my young, impressionable mind I guess. He used the excuse of going fishing to get me alone so he could tell me that he was leaving and that he might not be back for a long time.
Later, my father and I were just friends. I went into the Army. We had our beers when I was on leave. “Hey, everyone, this is my son. He’s in the Army.” Then, after I got out of college, we had our beers again. Dad cashing in on being the father of a college graduate. Of course, he hadn’t given me a dime. Still, I let him celebrate.
Over the years, we still saw each other on the holidays if I was in town. There were still the birthday cards or phone calls and later email to stay in touch. But by then we had drifted so far apart that not even the Stones could have saved us.
Danny and I had the onerous task of going through most of the stuff that our grandmother had collected over the years—stuff she picked up on all the trips she took with our grandfather—no doubt despite his constant protestations that it was, after all just junk.
“Probably made in China,” he would murmur with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. His most famous utterance to anything he felt was inferior.
Dad didn’t have the heart to tell Grandpa Pete, who recently took up residence at the Prairie View Nursing Home, he had to sell the house. I remembered Grandpa Pete always going on and on about how he had worked his whole life for the house and how happy he was the day in 1970 when he finally paid his last mortgage payment. Now, he was going to lose it without even knowing about it. Grandma’s medical bills had drained his bank account and had started to draw on my dad’s.
When his two older brothers Bob and Ray couldn’t help out, everything fell on my father’s shoulders, and it had started to wear him down.
I could see that Dad was in a foul mood when he pulled up in the truck he borrowed from a buddy to haul everything to the landfill. He was coming back for the fourth trip now and with each additional trip, his mood soured. Most of the stuff that had not been carted off to the landfill was going to be put in storage, the rest burned.
“You guys about done?” he asked, getting out of the truck.
“Yeah, we just have to haul some more stuff out of the living room,” Danny said. “We got everything out of the basement like you asked.”
“We’ve got to finish today,” our father said, puffing on the last of a cigar. “I’ve got a guy from Century 21 looking at the house tomorrow. He says he’s already got someone lined up to buy the house.”
One thing my father and I both agreed on was that we hated to see the house go. My father had grown up in the one story, prefab house Grandpa Pete built in 1946, and I spent many summers here. Even though Mom and Dad got divorced, as soon as school ended in June, my grandparents would pick me up, and I would stay until the beginning of August.
I know it broke Dad’s heart as much as it did mine to have to sell the house. Even without grandmother’s medical bills the month she was in the hospital before she passed away, the house was just too much for my grandfather to take care of, especially after having a minor stroke a few years ago.
“I want to get this stuff down to the landfill before it closes,” my father said, tossing another bag of garbage into the back of the truck. “I think one more trip ought to do it. The rest of it we can burn in the back. You want to have some beer and chicken later?”
Danny said he had to get back to Chicago.
I had nothing else to do.
“Sure,” I said.
“How come you never told me that you met the Rolling Stones?”
After my father had taken the last load to the landfill, we met up at the Rainbow Tap about a mile down the road. We were on our second beer and waiting for our chicken dinners: a quarter dark with a side of fries, salad, and a chunk of Vallero’s Italian bread. Three guys seated at the bar were watching some bowling tournament. We had a table off to the side, close to the kitchen.
“The Rolling Stones. How come you never told me you met them? Danny said you met them when you were out west.”
My father furrowed his brow as he thought hard for a moment, trying to remember something he hadn’t thought about in years. “Oh yeah, the Rolling Stones. Why are you bringing this up now?”
“We heard one of their songs on the radio this afternoon and Danny said that you had met them. I just wondered why you never mentioned it to me.”
“Just never crossed my mind, I guess.”
“You told Danny.”
I watched my father shook some salt into his beer, something he learned from Grandpa Pete and watched the foam rise in the glass. I wasn’t quite sure about the science behind this beer trick. It was fun to watch, though.
“It would’ve been cool to know that my old man met the Rolling Stones,” I said.
“We just talked. They asked where I was going and—” He stopped mid-sentence and gestured to the bartender for another round. “I wanted to know what they were doing in America. One of them had a guitar and played a song. I had no idea who they were until years later when I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show.”
“It’s not like you only met them. You practically partied with them,” I took a drink of beer. If I had known this bit of information when I was in college, I would have been a god. “You know all those times you told the story about when you went out West, you never brought it up.”
“It was nothing, really.”
“It might have been something to me,” I said.
My father stared at me from across the table. He raised his hand as if to point at me but then grabbed his beer. He shook his head and took a drink. He was too tired to get into it over the Stones.
I was not about to let him off too easy, though. There was still one question that one question that I had always wanted to ask him. Maybe it was not the best time to bring it up, but this was just as good a time as any. Suddenly, I was that ten-year-old on the banks of the Illinois River and this time I wanted to know why.
“Why did you run away from us?”
There, I finally said it, but I should have chosen my words more wisely. My father glared at me and rubbed his chiseled chin. Someone dropped a metal pan in the kitchen. We both looked in the direction of the kitchen and then turned back to the table. My father sighed deeply, as he leaned forward, placing both arms on the table.
“I was out of work and running out of choices. I needed some time to think,” he said. “Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do at the time, especially when I had you and your brother to think about. I thought if I could get a good job she would want to take me back.”
“Why did you have to go all the way out to Arizona to find a job? It seemed more like you just wanted to get away from everything.”
My father stared at his beer and then looked up at me. The past two months had been rough on him with Grandma Loretta passing away and having to put Grandpa Pete in a nursing home.
“You’re right, I did run away. It was wrong I know, but I came back ready to patch things up,” he continued. “The same day I got back home I called your mom and wanted to meet her.”
I studied my father’s face. All those years I never really looked at my father closely. Most of the photos I had of him were of a younger man. Now, he looked so tired.
“She wanted nothing to do with me,” he said. “I tried, but I guess we were just different. We were too young when we got married, and I suppose, we both fooled ourselves believing that we could ever patch things up.”
My mother, known more for her stubbornness than her openness, especially when someone crossed her, never talked much about why she divorced Dad, but for years, the bitterness she had in her heart for him, ate at her more than the cancer did. She could be mean and unforgiving when she wanted. My father never stood a chance.
“You know, all those times when I came over, it really hurt me that I could only get to see you once a month or on holidays,” he said slowly. “One time, not long after the divorce, I was late sending her the support check, so I decided to bring it over. She wasn’t home—you and your brother were at your grandparents’ house at the time—but I spotted her car outside Norma’s Diamond Horseshoe Inn. I was foolish to go in there, but I feared her wrath more if she didn’t have the check on time.
“She was in there all right, at the far end of the bar sitting with two guys, Don Woodshank and Lester Jackson. When I tried to give her the check, she told me—” My father stopped and was silent for a few seconds. “Let’s just say it wasn’t too nice. She threw the check back at me. I left and the next day, I put the check in the mail like I should have in the first place. Two days later, I get a call from her attorney threatening to haul me back to court for being late with the check.”
Funny, when I’d waited so long to finally hear my father’s side of the story it made me feel sad for him. To think he had kept this inside of him all these years. And if it hadn’t been for the Stones, I probably would have never known.
My father was silent for a few minutes as he stared at the beer in front of him. “You know, I never knew my real father.”
I wasn’t ready for that revelation.
I wish I could have known who he was.” He stopped and took a drink of his beer. “Your grandpa was a good father. He took very good care of my mother, your grandmother, and me.”
As a kid, I was always curious about why my father’s last name was different than his brothers. Of all the things my father and I did talk about in later years—when I was old enough to know better—the two things we never talked about was the divorce. The other was that my father was adopted.
From what I pieced together over the years, my grandmother’s first husband had run out on her when my father was just a baby. He probably couldn’t handle having to take care of one more baby during The Depression. Though my father’s older brothers went to stay with an aunt, Grandpa Pete adopted my father not long after he had married my grandmother, just a couple of months after World War II ended. My father never knew his real father.
One Christmas, when I was fifteen, I asked my father why his last name was different from my uncles’ last names.
“It’s a long story,” he said.
Just like his trip out west I thought at the time and left it at that.
Now, I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. What we should have talked about years ago was finally going to see the light of day.
“Did Uncle Bob or Uncle Ray ever talk about him?”
“It was just one of those things we never discussed, just like why your mom and I got divorced. I was just a child when your grandmother finally divorced him,” he said, “probably no older than you were when your mom and I got divorced.”
We ordered another round of beers and another plate of chicken and french fries. The bowling tournament was replaced by some fishing show. Two men were casting their lines from a boat in the middle of a lake hemmed in by towering pines with snow-capped mountains in the background.
“When hauling in his Northern Pike,” echoed the voice-over narration. “Brad realized that his line was about to snap.”
“Oh, he’s going to get away,” yelled Brad from the television.
“Steady, Brad. Just reel it in slowly.”
My dad, who was an avid fisherman himself, had momentarily gotten caught up in Brad’s struggle with the Pike. He shook his head and muttered, “Tsk, tsk” when it appeared that the fish was going to get away.
“Amateurs,” he mumbled and turned back to me.
“So what did you find out?” I asked.
“I made a few inquiries here and there, located a distant cousin,” my father said slowly. “He wasn’t a bad man. He just made some mistakes, and that is why your grandmother divorced him. He died a few years after. Your grandmother married your Grandpa Pete, and life went on. I don’t know why I waited so long to find out about him but then what would it have changed?”
I tore off a piece of chicken and dipped it in some ketchup. “Nothing really, but at least you would know. Kind of like why I wanted to know what it was like when you met the Rolling Stones.”
“To be honest with you, after all those years, when I finally did find out about him, it didn’t mean anything to me. He wasn’t even a memory.”
“Perhaps it was just for a peace of mind,” I said. “Like me wanting to know why you ran away from us.”
My father nodded.
“I know I should have done more for you and Danny, and that has been something that I have had to live with and try to make up for,” he said. “I am sorry that I couldn’t do more. I know I should have.”
It was the first time my dad had ever said he was sorry.
It was getting late, and my father still had an hour drive home after he returned the truck to his friend.
“How long are you going to be in town?”
Someone opened the door, and a blast of wind rushed in. My father and I turned to see the gray sky threatening rain. It’s a good thing we finished when we did, I thought. Maybe if it got any colder, it could snow.
“Until the day after tomorrow,” I said, swirling a soggy, cold french fry in a pool of ketchup. “That’s when I fly back to Portland.”
“You wouldn’t want to come over for dinner,” my dad said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“And after that struggle, Brad finally reeled in that Northern,” the narrator from the fishing program said. “That’s one mighty fine Pike.”
My dad and I looked at the TV and grinned.
On the fishing program, the camera panned to the right showing Brad holding up the fish. Standing next to Brad was his father.
“Now that’s one very proud father and his son,” the narrator added.
“Why not,” I said.
Jeffrey Miller has spent over two decades in Asia as a university lecturer and writer. Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, he relocated to South Korea in 1990 where he nurtured a love for spicy Korean food, Buddhist temples, and East Asian History.
He is the author of eight books including War Remains, Ice Cream Headache, and The Panama Affair.
He lives in Daejeon, South Korea with his wife and four children. If he’s not working, writing, or reading, he’s usually chasing little kids around his home.