I’ve been partaking in Ken Burns documentary series ‘Country Music’. It’s fantastic. I’m not an avid country music fan but after watching the first few episodes I’m realizing I am one more than I thought.
Because I’m viewing the series via the PBS app, I’m a little ahead of the actual broadcasts.
In the episode “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” there is a feature on Kris Kristofferson. My dad was a fan of his, while my mother would bring home albums like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and Neil Diamond’s ‘Hot August Nights’. Dad would play songs from the storytellers — Johnny Cash, Kristofferson, Tom T Hall and CW McCall.
I remember the first time he played the album ‘Songs of Kristofferson’ I was hooked. Songs like ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, ‘Help Me Make Through the Night’ were pure poetry to me. Even though I was only seven there was something in that raspy voice that was barely in key that made me believe. At that age I probably had a different idea of the meaning of the lyrics.
One song on the album in particular, I would become attached to over the years.
‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ — I related to it, but it wasn’t for me — it was for my Dad.
Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad
So I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day
My dad was a Vietnam vet and it was only a couple of years before I heard this song he did his year long tour. The men who served with him told my mother that he did things most men wouldn’t do. “He was incredible.” They told her. But he would pay a price from nightmares to alcoholism.
I’d smoked my mind the night before
With cigarettes and the songs I’d been pickin’
But I lit my first and watched a small kid
Playin’ with a can that he was kicking
Then I walked across the street
And caught the Sunday smell of someone’s fryin’ chicken
And Lord, it took me back to somethin’
That I’d lost somewhere, somehow along the way
He was never an abusive alcoholic — in fact, he was quite the opposite. But his routine would make him absent and would frustrate my mother to no end. He was still in the Army and when he wasn’t in the field training, he would come home grab the newspaper and a beer. Then he would watch the evening news and have another beer. Then dinner with us and another beer. Then more beer and off to bed. Some of those nights would end with my mother sitting at our dining room table smoking a Salem and drinking a cup of hot water crying herself into a mental resolve.
On a Sunday morning sidewalk
I’m wishing Lord that I was stoned
‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
That’s half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleepin’ city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin’ comin’ down
For soldiers from my dad’s era there were no terms like PTSD, no way to process the inhumanity of humans that he witnessed. Self-medication into numbness was the answer.
My mother would pass away in 1998 at the age of 58. After her death, I would from time to time go to his house and have dinner with him. One evening, I fixed his plate for him and reached into the refrigerator for a beer. “Dad you’re out of beer, do you want tea?” I yelled out to him. He said yes.
When I sat down, unsolicited he told me he quit drinking.
“I missed too much of my life because of beer,” he said. “I missed you kids growing up and mostly I failed to focus on the most important person, your mother.”
It’s never too late to seek redemption even when no one is asking you to. I wonder what would have happened to my dad if my mother wouldn’t have been so devoted to him.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the songs they were singin’
Then I headed down the street
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’
And it echoed through the canyon
Like the disappearin’ dreams of yesterday