This one's for John Larry Brantley:
Thanks, Dad. For real.
Since we’re nearing the end of my twisted tale (TV nerd alert: the third episode of Wishbone to ever air was titled “Twisted Tail,” our take on Oliver Twist), I suppose it’s only fitting that I give props to another family member, who I have painted in these pages in a less than flattering light. In fact, earlier in this book I called my dead father an asshole. I stand by that statement. Some folks miss their shot at redemption, either because they never see their chance when it comes, or they check out of this life too soon. I don’t think my father put a bullet in his mouth solely to fuck the rest of my mom’s life (though, based on his last words to her, that clearly was a part of it). The simple truth is that John Larry Brantley was psychologically unhinged at the end of his short and tragic life. He suffered from a severe mental illness at a time (1980) and in a place (small-town Texas) where that kind of shit never even got mentioned, let alone talked about in the open. The legacy he left my sister and me was one of sadness, anger and confusion. But I do have to give him credit for one good thing.
My dad was a reader of the voracious variety. He was the kind of man who never went anywhere without a book, usually a very dog-eared paperback, sticking out of his back pocket. If dad was in the bathroom longer than five minutes, it was a good bet that he’d long since finished his business, and was simply trying finish a chapter. There were literally stacks of books piled up in his bedroom, his bathroom (which he referred to as “The Library”), underneath the end tables next to the sofa. Oddly enough, I can’t remember any house or apartment we ever lived in having actual bookshelves. The books I remember the most were these serialized action novels by author Don Pendleton, about a character named Mack Bolan, aka The Executioner. Mack Bolan made John Rambo look like a mincing little pussy. Bolan fought the entire Mafia, and kicked its ass. Then he took on global terrorists, and kicked their asses. He hand picked two counter-terrorist teams (which each got their own spinoff series), Able Team and Phoenix Force, and all those guys did was fly around the world and punch evil dudes in the nuts, before utterly destroying them with their superior military tactics and firepower.
They were pulp novels, to be sure, mostly devoid of anything approaching literary merit. The point is, I saw my dad reading a lot. When you’re a little kid, no matter how many times you’ve been emotionally scarred by your old man, you still look up to him. You tend to believe that whatever he is doing, is a good thing for you to do, also. If I’d seen my old man smoking cigarettes, I likely would have swiped a few when he wasn’t looking, and given it a shot. If I’d seen him shooting craps or throwing back Scotch, I probably would have given those things a try years earlier than I actually did. Dad does it; it must be a good thing to do. But what I saw my dad do most of the time – when he wasn’t watching television, or going off for long walks by himself – was read. Everywhere.
So I started reading Dad’s books. And I started looking for books on my own. I read the Encyclopedia Brown series, the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, and everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. Then I stumbled on a book called The Hobbit, and that changed everything. Tolkien fired my imagination as nobody else had before, not even Stan Lee and his universe of Marvel Comics superheroes. In fact, there comes to my mind, finally, here near the end, one good memory between my dad and me. I think I was nine or ten when I first started reading The Hobbit. It was during the summer, I remember because I would spend hours and hours with my nose buried in those pages of Middle Earth. My dad must have seen something in that obsessive reading that he recognized in himself, because one evening, as we were eating dinner in front of the television, I was reading instead of watching The Carol Burnett Show – and everybody in the house knew that I adored Carol Burnett. (Red headed women that can make me laugh are still sexy as hell to me.)
“Whatcha readin’, Bub?” I can still remember him asking.
“A book called The Hobbit,” I answered.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a place called Middle Earth, and this guy named Bilbo, well, he’s not really a guy, he’s a hobbit, like a midget, but he’s friends with a wizard, and he has to travel to a place called Lonely Mountain and steal something from a dragon.”
“Is it any good?”
“Yeah. It’s really good.”
“Hmm. Maybe I’ll read it when you’re finished,” he said.
And he did. And then he burned straight through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then – so help me God – he even read The Silmarillion, which even a lot of hardcore Tolkien fans are afraid to tackle, because it’s basically the Scriptures of Middle Earth. It was the first – and last – time in my life that my father tried something because I said that I liked it. For one all-too-brief moment we shared a connection – even if it only existed in a mythical land created by the mind of a brilliant English author. But it’s also why I’m a Tolkien fan to this day.
The one habit that has contributed to my imagination more than any other – the fuel that has fired my Making Shit Up Engine – has been a lifelong love of reading. And I owe that to John Larry Brantley. So I say, without irony, or cynicism, or any other kind of –ism: Thanks, Dad.
John Larry Brantley.