Louder than Words: The Unspoken Code of Fathers and Sons
By J. Scott Janssen
As a young man living in New Jersey in the early ’80s, I became a Bruce Springsteen fan. The Boss’s music was everywhere, and the local imagery of his songs was as familiar to me as a well-worn jacket: dusty beach roads, boardwalks full of shady characters, muscle cars, freeways, factories, loading docks, and backstreets. The rough, taciturn world he described was the one I lived in, filled with people working hard to get by, clinging to their hopes while letting their deepest longings remain unexpressed or even unacknowledged.
The Springsteen story that touched me the deepest, however, wasn’t in a song, but in an introduction he delivered at a concert before he sang “The River,” a haunting, dirgelike melody about how one generation’s struggles can be handed down to the next. In his introduction, he described the spiral of hostility and misunderstanding between himself and his father during his teenage years. After their arguments, his father often angrily muttered, “I can’t wait till the army gets you.” It was 1968, and many young men in the neighborhood were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Some of these men, Springsteen remembered, never came back. The ones who did were never the same.
When he got his draft notice, Springsteen expected the worst. It looked like his father had gotten his wish. He hopped a bus and disappeared for three days. When he showed up back at the house, his father was waiting. “Where you been?” he asked.
“Got my draft papers. Went in for my physical.”
“They didn’t take me.”
“That’s good,” replied Springsteen’s father, choking back his relief but saying nothing more.
That’s good. Perhaps nowhere in the world of human relationships can so much be said in so few words than between fathers and sons. When I’ve felt closest to my own father, very little, if anything, was spoken between us. A few words have meant volumes, and the most important things have often been communicated in silence.
Recently, I’ve been thinking back to all the time we spent in the backyard, throwing a baseball back and forth. In my mind, it’s usually early twilight and the smell of freshly cut grass wafts in the summer air as the familiar sound of leather gloves popping with each catch creates its own unhurried rhythm, almost like a heartbeat. Little is being said, save for an occasional “nice catch,” “good try,” or “way to go, Hot Shot.” When I don my baseball glove, my name always changes from Scott to Hot Shot.