Learning To Walk Like A Man

Charlotte NC Leader Newspaper, 1998-06-19, by: Gene Lazo
I was sad when I heard that Douglas Springsteen, the 73-year old father of rock legend Bruce Springsteen, died this past April 26 in Belmont, Calif. While I've never met either man personally, I do feel like I've gotten to somehow understand their relationship though many of Bruce's songs. I can see the similarities in my relationship with my own dad and I can sense some evolutionary underpinnings as my sons begin to grow into their lives. Perhaps these feelings emanate from some paternal karma which flows through men's veins, sort of the quintessential guy. Perhaps, as it was in my case, it has more to do with attaining resolve and learning why its important to walk like a man.

For those unfamiliar with Bruce Springsteen's career, some poignant pieces of his work have explored his rather complex relationship with his dad. Springsteen has said that when he was growing up, there were two things which were unpopular around his house, 'The first thing was me, the other was my guitar'. To Springsteen the son, his guitar was a means to change the world and meet girls all at the same time; to his dad, it subconsciously represented blind faith optimism by his son in a fickle and dangerous world that would steal what you weren't strong enough to defend.

Douglas Springsteen, with his wife of 50 years Adele, raised Bruce and his two sisters in a working class house, located next door to a gas station in the central shore area of New Jersey. His world, much like my own Dad's, didn't involve culture or art or introspection but work. He was a man who worked hard to provide the best he could for his family, believing the implied American promise that if you followed the rules and kept your nose to the grindstone, you'd always be able to make a good life for your family. And that was the bottom line. But he saw those rules turn on him in mid-dream, sanctimony expressed as words his son would later write in The River, 'Those memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don't come true / Or is it something worse?'.

He worked in a textile mill. When the factory closed down, he worked as a cab driver and a prison guard and a bus driver, taking whatever jobs need be to provide for his family. His world, like that of his son, was one of hope under assault. For Douglas it was the realization that he, and his family, were trapped. For Bruce it was the determination to break free of that trap. Springsteen recalled that his father would come home from work everyday complaining loudly about his f-ing boss; it was this misery that propelled Springsteen to decide right then that, "One day I was going to be the f-ing boss".

During his live shows during the early 1980's, Springsteen would often tell a story about how, during the Vietnam War era, he would continually put off coming home at night to avoid talking with his father. He'd tell about how his dad would often times be waiting up for him, sitting in the dark at the kitchen table, about how he'd see the glow of his dad's cigarette as he walked through the door. He'd tell how he'd tuck his hair under his collar, to try and disguise it's increasing length. How he'd try to sneak upstairs without being noticed. His dad would invariably call him over and ask him how things were going and about what he was doing with his life. Just as predictably, the conversation would lead to shouting between father and son, shouting that more than once involved the elder Springsteen telling his son how he couldn't wait until the Army got hold of him and 'made a man out of him'. One day, the draft notice arrived. Springsteen stayed out with his friends the night before he was to report to the induction center. When he finally returned home, his dad asked him where he had been. He told him he had gone to take his physical. His dad asked what happened, and Springsteen told him he got rejected. "That's good," was his dad's reply.

The relationship between fathers and sons is curious and often difficult to understand, probably just as complex as the relationship between men and women. If we juxtapose Van Morrison's observation that, "The girls go by dressed up for each other" against James Brown's lamentful boast that "Its a Man's World" we can see the groundwork for the generalized difference between how moms and dads see their sons. Moms will try to teach their sons to do right by the world based upon maternal standards involving compassion and clean underwear. Dads teach their sons that they need to make the world, for better or worse, a place which meets their own standards. After all, you don't need to stop and ask for directions when your home is the center of the universe.

Fathers and sons often find themselves at odds with one another because, as Springsteen admitted, dads and sons can often be 'too much of the same kind'. Sometimes the discord comes from the son trying to 'be a better man than my father'. This is a good thing. Sometimes it comes from the father being unable to be a better man. This is not.

I was fortunate that, much like Springsteen, while my dad and I had our differences, we grew to understand and respect each other. In his song Walk Like a Man Springsteen wrote: "All I can think of is being 5 years old / Following behind you at the beach tracing your footprints in the sand / Trying to walk like a man." As a child we try to trace our father's footprints, then as an adolescent we try to out run them. As an adult we look back to see the waves reclaim the footprints as we are left to look ahead and walk on. The conclusive lesson a father will teach is how unimportant we individually are, except to our sons.

Happy Father's Day, dad; I'm walking right behind you.