Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tom Petty and My Father


My dad often was and remains an enigma to me. His high expectations were often assumed; and my ability to discern subtext in a script owes much to what I learned while navigating the many unstated rules of my childhood. I learned to pay attention to things like the types of books he read, what the preachers he admired said, and his response to segments on the ABC Evening News[1].

Take sex, for example. I don’t remember my dad sitting me down and telling me that I shouldn’t hold a girl’s hand or make out with my girl friend, much less have sex. Those strictures were often hinted at in youth group[2]; passive-aggressive was the default teaching mode for most of my youth pastors[3]. However, openly discussed or not, I knew that one of my dad’s rules was that I wasn’t allowed to make out with my girlfriend. Dire consequences awaited me if I did.

So, it was with trepidation that I answered my Dad when he asked me why my girlfriend hadn’t been around in a while. You see, my girlfriend and I had been busted for making out. Her cousin saw us, and then ratted us out to her dad[4]. I don’t remember the amount of time our sequester was from each other[5]; but by the time my dad confronted me, it had been two weeks. Upon hearing the reason, he surprised the crap out of me and caused me to question everything I thought I knew about him by bursting out laughing and, in a sarcastic tone that I was unused to from my dad, bellowing out, “Well, what in the world did they think you would be doing?” I wasn’t sure if this was his way of granting me permission to make out with girls or not, but I was too afraid to ask and didn’t want to jinx my apparently lucky day.

There were several other moments during my teenage years that caused me to question what I thought I knew about my dad; but accompanying my dad to his Sunday morning radio show sticks out in my mind as simultaneously confusing and enlightening.

The church that my dad pastored had a Sunday morning show on WCOA 1370 AM. Unlike many preachers who had similar radio programs, my dad didn’t pre-record his segment. He did his show live, and he loved it. He enjoyed every aspect of radio, and the station turned the studio over to him for thirty minutes[6] every Sunday morning. Sometimes he would let me read an on-air promo or commercial for the station[7], teaching me how to watch the clock and evenly time out my reading of the fifteen or thirty second spot[8] so that there was no dead-air and no speeding up at the end.

All of that was fun, but my dad’s relationship with the DJ’s for WCOA’s sister station, Q-100, was confusing for me. Q-100 was a top-forty station, one that I secretly listened to on my walkman, and the station’s DJ’s were on my list of really cool people of whom my parents were the exact opposite. I was old enough to be able to discern between politeness and genuine interaction; and these long-haired men and tattooed women liked my dad. To make matters even more confusing, my dad genuinely reciprocated all that warm and fuzzy “liking.” There were times when I would be with my dad somewhere, and Q-100 would be doing a remote. My strict, unhip, fundy father would go over and hang out for a couple of minutes with the DJ’s while the cool teenagers would stand bashfully around, hoping to receive some affirmation from their local hero’s[9]. I, of course, took pride in the fact that these hip, chain-smoking paragons of coolness would interact with me while the public school kids could only watch.

My dad wasn’t supposed to know, much less befriend, people like that. Rock music was of the devil, and the purveyors of that music were enemy #1[10]. They represented everything that my church, school, and parents were hell-bent on shielding me from, and everything that I wasn’t supposed to emulate.

Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” plays in the background when I remember my dad’s Sunday morning radio show. This is probably because the first time that I went to the radio station with him, “Free Fallin’,” was the song on the air while my dad stood in the Q-100 booth talking to the DJ. It’s odd that one of my favorite rock songs has such a visceral connection to my father. He wouldn’t like that. Which is why he’s an enigma.   


[1] Apropos to nothing, (or maybe it is, whatever) Peter Jennings will always remain the quintessential news anchor in my mind. 
[2] My school, on the other hand, made it very clear what they thought about physical contact.
[3] To be fair, most of my youth pastors were PCC students and were still kids themselves.
[4] To make myself look better at the expense of this unnamed girlfriend – she had lied about it when her dad confronted her. I didn’t, even though I wanted to. I was too afraid of him to even lie to him.
[5] Probably an undetermined amount of time until her dad was able to see me without risking jail time.
[6] It may have been an hour, I can’t remember.
[7] At the very beginning of my career, I listed these on my resume under Radio and TV Work. I wasn’t technically lying.
[8] This skill came in handy later in life.
[9] Or at least a free Vanilla Ice cassette tape.
[10] Enemy #2 was the NIV.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. And a terrific tribute to your dad.

    My mother was a DJ at Columbia, SC's FM Christian station (WMHK, 89.7). When I see you, I will share some of my stories from hanging out at the station. I say DJ...she started there as New Director, then became the morning drive-time co-host and eventually, Station Manager. This was a big deal at the time—a female Station Manager at Columbia Bible College's radio station. Still, I was mostly embarrassed that my mom was kind of a famous Christian in town...at least at school, where pre-Jars of Clay and "vertical" worship music, Adult Contemporary Christian Music was mostly Sandy Patti, old Amy Grant, and Steve Green. But I did love going to the station on a Saturday morning, rifling through the Lps...looking for "red dot" records and listening to them via those awesome studio headphones. The "red dot" was stuck on a record...or maybe even a specific track...if the music was unsuitable for WMHK airplay. Basically...Christian rock music. (A green dot meant the music was "safe," a yellow meant the song was iffy...discretion of the DJ, better played during afternoon drive time.) When my mother became station manager, she came to know all of the Columbia radio people...through industry-related meetings and functions. They all expressed so much respect for her station, her leadership there...a few even lobbied for jobs. That too, made an impression on me. A positive one.

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