“Pop saw no reason that my youth and gender should prevent me from being interesting company for him. So, while other little girls learned decorum and how to curl their hair, I listened to baseball on the radio and, on Friday nights, to the Friday night fights, presented by Gillette. (‘To look sharp . . .’) I knew who Archie Moore was, and Sugar Ray Robinson. I learned about an incredibly talented boxer named Cassius Clay, of whom, and of whose hype, Pop made fun, until, of course, Clay beat Liston. At that point, my father, ever one to recognize reality, said, ‘If you can do it, you’re not bragging,’ and jumped on the bandwagon.”— Jean Carroll Nolan
By Jean Carroll Nolan
SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—June 2018—My father, Jim Carroll, died on June 9, 1965. I was 15 years old at the time, and he was 60. The cause of death as listed on the death certificate was carcinoma of the left lung, unsurprising in a man who had smoked Bull Durham most of his life, and whose idea of a balanced diet for himself consisted of an assortment of alcoholic beverages. He rotated between bourbon (Jim Beam), gin (Gilbey’s), and brandy (Christian Brothers), the brandy being the last resort when he was really ill, and could not stomach stronger brews. On holidays, or when he picked the right horse, or when he won a bet on baseball (praise the Yankees of the 50s), Johnny Walker Red was the order of the day, accompanied always by a Whitman’s Sampler and a box of Yardley Lavender soap for my mother.
He was not the father of TV sitcoms and Spencer Tracy movies. He was not cuddly, nor comforting nor particularly kind. He was profoundly unsympathetic to emotional woes.
He did not work. In the euphemistic language of the time, this was because he had ulcers. In fact, it was because he was an alcoholic. He drank on an epic scale, sufficient to ensure that for three years following his death, we continued to find stashed whiskey bottles. We, my brother and mother and I, would shout to each other, “Found one,” and then wistfully smile, wondering what it was that caused him to squirrel away empties. He had a bad temper, was often childish and unreasonable, and was prone to endless lectures.
He did not believe in God. He had the utmost respect for believers who lived their faith, but no patience at all with religious hypocrisy, viewing it as a symptom of spiritual and intellectual weakness. He swore, though never scatalogicaly, but moderated his language carefully in company, not wishing to offend anyone whose sensibilities might be jarred by a careless “Goddamn it.” This was an odd nicety in a man who rejected out of hand almost everything society at large held dear, and who delighted in poking holes in pious platitudes, but he was a strange and contradictory man.
Drunk or sober, he read constantly and productively, truly the best read and best informed person I have ever known. (My brother may have bypassed Pop’s total book count by now, but only because he has lived many more years.) To this day, I cannot think of a subject other than music or art appreciation that I could not present to my father in confident expectation that he would know about it and have a new and interesting twist to put on it. Where teachers and preachers taught me about George Washington confessing to cherry tree murder, my father pointed out that a frighteningly large percentage of the Father of our Country’s yearly income was spent on alcohol. It was years before I realized that this piquant fact was due to the simple reality that in Washington’s day, the President himself contributed largely to the country’s state entertainments. No matter. My difficult father had set the hook of history, never to be dislodged from my maw.
He behaved like the Victorian he nearly was, reserved, except when enraged, and oddly formal. He referred to my mother as “Mrs. Carroll” when they were dealing with outsiders, this in a third- floor walk-up with hot and cold running cockroaches. I believe he would have died before donning a short-sleeved shirt or a pair of shorts.
He considered animal research perfectly sensible and laudable, and thought the least human being superior to the best creature, with the possible exception of several race horses. His world view was a product of his time, colonial and Eurocentric. He believed in self respect rather than what is now called self esteem, and thought the former was earned, not granted, an interesting perspective for a man whose active work life ceased when he was 48 years old. He was a puzzle to us all, and along with the grief we experienced when he died, there was also a sense of relief. It is wearing to live with the exceptional, and he was in every sense exceptional.
A child psychologist today would be absolutely horrified at Pop’s demands on my brother and me. I recall most distinctly giving him an essay to check before I handed it in. I was, I believe, eight or nine, very young in any event. Alas, in my very first paragraph, I had written, “I feel that blah-blah-blah is important.” Mistake. “What is this nonsense? Do you ‘feel’ with your hands? Or is it a sensation that washes over you? For Christ’s sake, do it again and be precise. Be clear.” And I got the easy end of life with Mr. Carroll. In 1950, when I put in an appearance, Pop was older, more mellow, and weaker. My brother, by contrast, got both barrels from a younger, sharper, less indulgent father. My brother was a Quiz Kid; was, if I recall correctly, the youngest member of the Civil War Round Table, and went to Harvard on a scholarship, but carries to this day emotional scars inflicted on him in youth.
So why, one might ask, did anyone put up with this unemployed, often intoxicated, argumentative man?
Ah, the thing is, you know, that he was simply the most interesting conversationalist one could imagine. And, in odd ways, he demonstrated his affection for us. My mother worked, often two jobs, to keep the boat afloat, and my brother left for college when I was eight. Pop and I, perforce, spent a great deal of time together. My brother and mother took me to Lincoln Park Zoo, and to the Conservatory, but my father walked me to two libraries, and let me take out as many books as I was willing to carry home. We were hiking companions. I learned where the three closest bookmakers were and hovered outside them while he put down bets. We went to the old Maxwell Street Market, taking his portable Remington typewriter to put it in hock at a pawnbroker’s shop near the market, and back to redeem it after a time. We went to Navy Pier, and to the docks at the Tribune and Sun Times buildings, where he had last worked.
At night, in warm weather, we would go to the corner of Clark and Webster, to meet my mom, coming home around 10:00 p.m. on either the 36 or 22 bus. Pop had pals, a man named Woody, who was straight out of Damon Runyan, and a well-spoken, heavily built man named Ben, who had been an attorney, but had fallen on hard times, primarily due to ill health. (Both of these gentlemen tipped their hats to a puzzled but appreciative me. Different times.) My father and Ben would sit for hours, talking about history, baseball, politics, law, and the ways of the world. They disapproved of almost all of those ways. They were both products of the old school socialism that argues a stevedore should have the same approach to life as a millionaire. Education was always available, if one read. Books were key, and newspapers.
Pop saw no reason that my youth and gender should prevent me from being interesting company for him. So, while other little girls learned decorum and how to curl their hair, I listened to baseball on the radio and, on Friday nights, to the Friday night fights, presented by Gillette. (“To look sharp . . .”) I knew who Archie Moore was, and Sugar Ray Robinson. I learned about an incredibly talented boxer named Cassius Clay, of whom, and of whose hype, Pop made fun, until, of course, Clay beat Liston. At that point, my father, ever one to recognize reality, said, “If you can do it, you’re not bragging,” and jumped on the bandwagon.
He also welcomed argument. I was encouraged to take him on, and did, over issues as diverse as the aforementioned animal research, which of Shakespeare’s plays was the most historically accurate, and whether the Greeks or the Romans had contributed more to civilization. He held out for the Romans, as they were, he said, more practical. Roads. Bridges. Systems of government that still operate. Laws. Fire insurance. This all seemed to me to be rich, coming from a man whose concept of operational practicality was, insofar as I could see, a question of how best to squeeze out enough for a bottle without denying his children nourishing meals. Practicality? A superior trait?
So, I stuck to the Greeks, crying, Plays! Sculpture! Myths!, and he to the Romans, and we fought about it until the time of his death. He was whimsical, and had a mind that leapt to connections. He was funny. He knew, as far as I could tell, everything, with the possible exception of chemistry, which my brother grasped, so that was covered. He saw very quickly what would appeal to me. His approach was always made as if I were a peer. He never talked down to me. As a result, I have never in my life been intimidated by a man, by a lively conversation, or by any subject. I got over that by the time I was ten, thanks in great part to his apparently brutal insistence that I think. Oddly, while I would not employ all his techniques in raising my own children, I do not find them distasteful in retrospect. We were friends.
But, his greatest gift to me was the example of his intellectual curiosity, and his steadfast refusal to allow me to see material success as anything more than a convenience. Nothing was beyond me was the lesson I absorbed. It is one for which I am grateful, though, like my mentor, I have never chosen to chase “success.” Instead, I enjoy that which brings me pleasure. I love to write, but do not wish to sacrifice the integrity I can preserve by saying what I want to say, rather than what would “sell” a piece. I love to make music, but would lose half my joy if I had to work a market. There is value, he taught me, in doing what you want to do, not what is expected of you.
I began this essay speaking of my father’s death, and now I come back around to the starting point. I have said already that he was intelligent and well informed, but what I have not discussed is his curiosity. I find curiosity an optimistic trait. It argues engagement with the world and doings around one. Pop died on the 9th of June, but had been in the hospital for a week, having entered on the 2nd of June. On June 3rd, the Gemini IV space mission had launched, embarking on a four-day trip, the purpose of which was to determine the effects of lengthy space travel on man and machine. Lengthy, in this case, meant four days.
So, Pop went in to the hospital on June 2nd, and he was a very sick man. He had not eaten for days, was bleeding internally, and was in fairly severe alcohol withdrawal. He couldn’t breathe. He was dying, and he was smart enough to know it. Yet, the first thing he asked every visitor was if there was any news of the space mission. When the astronauts returned, he wanted to know every detail of the landing and pick up. He asked for only two things in the last week of his life. He wanted a drink, (I think we finally smuggled him some in a spice bottle, but I am not certain.) and he wanted to know about the most exciting and groundbreaking thing in the news. And that combination says almost all you need to know about him.
Life with another father would, almost certainly, have been both more comfortable and far easier. However, as I look back now, I am grateful for his life and character. We need, I think, more spirits that refuse to be contained, that struggle against conformity, and pursue interests with passion and brains. Those are the gifts my father gave me.
After his death, I wrote a predictably terrible poem. Surely every poet has a few klunkers lying around in his or her portfolio. At 15, the likelihood of producing rot is greater than at 30, and rot I produced. Three stanzas so embarrassingly overwrought than I won’t impose them on anyone.
But, as is sometimes the case, the last stanza had nothing to do with the dreck that preceded it. Children don’t grasp death, but they work around the edges, if opportunity knocks.
The quatrain below sums up, I think, a great deal about my father’s life, which, however hard he was on all of us, must surely have been even harder for him.
So, each condemned to life within a cage
Of thoughts and feelings no one else can see,
Must bang upon the bars in helpless rage,
And feed upon the ever growing me.
Thanks, Pop. Happy Father’s Day. I love you.