Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Would Have Been 97 Today

Storyteller and writer extraordinaire, Garrison Keillor, once told this story about one of the dads in Lake Wobegon. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder. E. J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He’d spit and curse and rail at him. And if a son hit a home run, E. J. would say, “Blind man coulda hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit.

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it. Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfield fence for a long, long fly ball. He threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and the glove. When he turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, E. J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes. The batter was called out, the third out. Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad. E. J. sat chewing in silence and finally said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago. But he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”

I’ve known a lot of people over the years who had a dad like E. J. Schroeder—a dad who loved his kids for sure but had a hard time showing it, a dad who found it easier to find fault than to applaud and encourage.

My dad was not exactly like E. J., but to be honest, I don’t really know what my dad was like. At least E. J. was there for his kids. For the most part my dad ceased to be an active part of my life in the middle of my third-grade year. He did have time to pass on his love of sports to his three boys. My dad was a star athlete in Lakeside High School in Lake Village Arkansas, class of ’32. And I have yellowed newspaper clippings of his exploits as a fullback and punter for Arkansas College in Batesville (now Lyons College) where he played until financial restraints forced him to drop out of college and find work (it was the Great Depression, you know). My dad taught me how to throw and catch and love any good old American game that involved a round or oblong ball. The sad thing was: after my third-grade year he never saw me play again. So, would he have been an encouraging dad or an E. J?

I suspect he would have been a little bit of both. On most visits (which weren’t numerous) he would take my brothers and I bowling. He would show us how to do it, encourage us when we did it right and correct us when we did it wrong. I remember playing catch with him on some of those rare weekend visits. “Good throw, John Scott, but get your arm up here instead of down there.” He’d throw me a grounder: “Nice catch, John Scott, but don’t reach for the ball; scoot over, get your butt down, and keep it in front of you.” I played catcher for a couple of years of my Little League career, and when my dad found out, he bought me a full set of catcher’s gear—chest protector, shin guards, mask, the works. I really liked the gift. I remember standing in front of a full length mirror in my gear, dreaming of throw-outs at second and tag-outs at the plate. But I would have traded the gear in a heartbeat just to have him in the stands to watch me play. It’s not that he didn’t want to see me play, but he lived in Little Rock, my mother had moved us to Branson, Missouri, and things were complicated. But you can see what I mean, can’t you? I think my dad had some E. J. in him for sure, but he also could be encouraging.

A few things stand out in my memory. He hurt me emotionally several times and in several ways across the years—maybe that’s the E. J. in him. But I’m choosing today to remember better things. On those rare occasions when he made a visit, especially when I was still in grade school, I would run out to his car when he pulled up in front of the house, and he would greet me with a kiss on the mouth. His family was affectionate; my mother’s family was not. Why is it that I remember a warm kiss on the mouth from my dad? Did I yearn for touch and affection (so missing in my Branson home), or did I just want my daddy? I don’t know, probably both, but I remember it.

Another memory: my dad paid for the first three years of my college education. I got married early in my senior year, and he told me that if I was old enough to get married, I was old enough to make my own way. I appreciated both the first three years and the lesson he taught me in the fourth. But it’s something from the first year that stands out most in my memory. I received a valentine from him in February that said something like, “Valentine, you’re at the head of the class.” Go figure—I don’t think my dad had ever sent me a valentine in my life. I remember thinking that was strange at the time. What prompted him to do that?

Still another thing that sticks out in my memory is the 1964 Ford Fairlane Ranchwagon. I had no car my first year in college. I needed a car for my summer job. My dad sold me his old ’64 wagon for one dollar. I got ripped off. The car was junk. My college friends called it the Ratwagon. The heater didn’t work. It had a hole in the floorboard. It broke down at least three different times between Fayetteville and Branson. I replaced most every part over the next three years. But it was a car. I had wheels. I had independence. When I traded it in for something better in December of 1977 I got 200 bucks for it. And my dad made it happen.

Another memory: my dad was dying of cancer in a Jackson, Mississippi, hospital. I was going to make the trip to see him but couldn’t get away until after Christmas. I am a pastor. I had Christmas Eve Service, then I had a wedding to do the day after Christmas. His doctor told me he expected my dad to live for another week or two. Daddy and I talked by phone the night after Christmas. I told him I was leaving the next morning to head down to see him. He said he appreciated that. We small-talked a bit (which was hard for both of us, I think). Then, just before he hung up, he thanked me for reaching out to him and he said, “John Scott, I love you. I’ve always loved you.” My aunt called me not an hour later to tell me my dad was dead. I never saw him alive again, but those words of blessing and love still linger in my mind.

Still another memory: when we were cleaning out his apartment after his death, my aunt found a written prayer folded up in an envelope in a drawer. It was a prayer for “John Scott McCallum II.” It was line after line of petition to God that “John Scott McCallum II” be the best minister he could be. It was a prayer that God give me wisdom and peace and knowledge and understanding as I carried out the ministry to which God had called me. I don’t know if it was a prayer he wrote or a prayer he copied and then just inserted my name. I do know that I still have that prayer.

And one memory more: after his death, we found in his apartment every card and picture and letter any of us boys had ever sent him—every one. The cards and letters were neatly filed away; the pictures were on the dresser, the chest, and the walls. He saved them like treasure, hoarded them like a miser. It was as if he wanted to be surrounded by reminders of his children and grandchildren, yet he couldn’t or wouldn’t just pick up the phone and call us. And I don’t know how many times after his death we heard this from people who knew him: “He was so proud of you boys. He talked about you all the time.” That was good to hear, but I couldn’t help but wish he had said such things to us while he was alive. I think it would have built some bridges. I think it would have made things different in the relationship (or lack thereof) we had with our father.

So there you have it. My daddy was a little bit of E. J. and a little bit of an encourager too. Mostly he seemed pretty clueless as to how be a dad to his kids—especially after the divorce. He wasn’t perfect by any means. I don’t idolize him in my memory. But he was my daddy. He loved me as best he could, I think. And I loved him as best I could. I write this today because this is his birthday. If he were still alive he would be 97 years old today. And even though we never knew one another all that well, even though from the time I was 8 until his death I rarely saw him, and even though he’s now been dead for 23 years, that old man is still on my mind.


  1. Hey John, I found your blog from a link on Bob Johnston's blog. He's my dad's pastor and friend. Odd how they can be your pastor, but not your friend...they are good for each other though. I hope God has blessed you with friends in your church.
    Anyway...thanks for this post. I remember moving back home when I was 27 and working for my dad for 6 years till I got married and moved away. I worked my ass off for dad and got paid very little for it and still had occasional "things" every once in a while. Vestiges of a selfish, self-centered, adolescence I suppose. While home, working for him, I got to see his character as a businessman and as a man in general for the first time, as an adult. I got see why, when he would come home from work he would be so frustrated and quick to anger when I was acting like turd, or being self-absorbed. I got to see how much was demanded and asked of him, and I got to see how well and respectful he treated folks who were often treated as "the least of these". I worked really hard for him, followed his lead in business and even helped start a church in a low-income/trailer park area of our town. He saw me minister to "the least of these", he saw me be responsible and mature. And he rode me harder than anyone at work and paid me less because he didn't want anyone to think he was showing me favor. It was a tough road at times, but I often heard from people in town about how proud he was of me, proud of what kind of man I had become, what kind of servant/leader I was to the poor and outcast. But, I never heard it from him.
    After I married and moved to Denver, they heard me preach at the church plant we were part of and I shared how moving home and working for him and being around him was healing for me and for us. I shared that for most men, all they long to hear from their fathers are the two things that they rarely, if ever hear: "I love you, and I'm proud of you". At my sister's later that day, he told me those things, but my response was "next time, try it without prompting". Quite loving I know, but a fella never wants to go fishing for that, he wants it when it comes unannounced, you know?
    Since then, he's been (a little) more forthcoming in his praise for me, and each time it's like a salve on a wound or a...well...a compliment from your father.
    I just wanted to thank you for your words and the reminder of my own father. I try to be more verbal to my own son, but find myself adding "help" along with the praise. I should be more extravagant and less critical.

    thanks again John.

    jeff jamison

  2. Thanks for your response, Jeff. I'm grateful for the healing that has happened in your relationship with your dad. I'm grateful you never wrote him off or decided to punish him by inattention for the rest of his life because of the way he treated you. I've learned, as have you, that most of us are the way we are because of reasons. Glad you are understanding of your dad and for being candid in your comment. Your comment will no doubt encourage those who read it.

    By the way, if you are interested in more of my dad's story you can find it in the blog archive on Jan 5, 2010 under "Happy Birthday, Daddy."

    Thanks for reading the blog.