Despite being the correct age and hue, I’m not really a “Springsteen guy,” but I was in high school. So when someone texts to tell me that SiriusXM’s E Street Radio channel is playing the entirety of “The River,” I’m all in.
The timing couldn’t have been better. My schedule for the day: Drive from San Francisco to San Diego, putting the first step of my nefarious empty-nest plan (to crash as many of my wife’s business trips as possible) into play. I plowed through the Central Valley, cranked the Springsteen and prepared to be transported back to 1981.
I was the son then, not the father, and for the 16-year-old me, my father was still bigger than life. He’d appear at my baseball games after work, watching from near the on-deck circle and joking around with my friend Greg’s dad, both of them still in their work clothes, ties stuffed in their pockets and suit jackets slung over their shoulders, the smoke from their cigarettes mixing with the smell of newly mowed grass to form something that still reminds me of baseball.
I’m just outside of Kettleman City when Springsteen starts playing “Independence Day,” a song I remember from high school as being about a son who has to leave home because he’s no longer a child and is tired of butting heads with the old man. I also remember being able to sing along because the song didn’t require too much vocal range.
These days I have a different read: “Independence Day” is about a kid who’s too stubborn to realize that his father wants what’s best for him, and who has no idea what awaits him out there in the world. It’s about how growing up is heartbreaking, and how sometimes when fathers and sons seem to be fighting what they’re actually doing is hanging onto each other for dear life. Time passes either way.
I’m lucky; unlike the guy in the song, I’m not a brokenhearted father. My son didn’t leave home because he had to, and his giddy wave of “the world is my oyster” runs parallel to one that adds “and I can’t wait to tell my parents about it.” This is a joyous time for all of us, even our dog, who now gets to sleep on top of the bed rather than underneath it.
So why, as I crooned along with Bruce, were my eyes misting up? That’s never happened before, surely not when I was in high school. In high school, that song was a battle anthem.
Maybe it was something else. While I am a father, I am also a son, and sons who are 50 years old seldom still have dads who are larger than life. In fact, sons who are 50 are lucky to have dads at all. My father spent big chunks of 2015 in various hospitals, long enough for us to memorize hospital floor plans and form opinions about several nurses. At one point we were pretty sure he was never going to wake up to give my mother the password to their online checking account, which sent us kids scrambling to our iPhones to call our spouses and demand our passwords for online banking.
But he rallied, the passwords were shared, and now he’s home to fight another day. Greg from high school wasn’t so lucky. His father passed away last week.
I think I might be better at being the dad than I was being the son, and I suspect Greg might be, too; he is president of his boy’s Little League, after all. My son doesn’t play baseball, so I stay up late and watch an Adam Sandler movie with him on Wednesday because he leaves for college again on Thursday.
No way do we become these dads without some good guidance and solid role models. So now, instead of singing about girls and cars, Bruce Springsteen sings to me about fathers and sons. And as I drive down I-5 listening to “Independence Day,” our fathers are there, their coats slung over their shoulders, smoking cigarettes and kidding around with us as we wait our turn at bat.