Shortly after midnight on a Saturday a few months ago, my youngest son Jason and I decided to drive to Steak & Shake restaurant for a late-night meal (don’t worry, I only had a cup of chili). He had missed dinner, spending time with a female visitor and I hadn’t really eaten since around 3 that afternoon, due to an upset stomach.
I had just finished a movie on Amazon Prime and as we grabbed our coats, the channel automatically started a new (recommended) show: “Good Times”, a 70s sitcom about a low-income black family in the Cabrini Green projects of Chicago. We watched a bit of the pilot episode, paying close attention to the character James Evans, the patriarch (played by John Amos). In it, James was threatening two men who had barged into the family’s apartment unannounced. The Evans family had been served an eviction notice and the two men entered, not knowing that the apartment had not yet been vacated.
We smiled at the director’s composition of the scene, using two considerably taller men who towered over James, who didn’t seem at all intimidated.
“That was my father,” I noted, just as I had stated so many times to all of my boys. “Everyone has their TV dad. He was mine. People always ask why I choose and admire a character who lived in the projects, a character who only had a 6th grade education. They wonder why I didn’t aspire to be like George Jefferson, a successful entrepreneur or Bill Cosby, the doctor.”
“You like him because he’s quick to grab that belt,” Jason joked.
I laughed and said that was partially true, but not because of his actions. More that he had little-to-no tolerance for foolishness. He wanted more for his children. More than he had obtained in life at that point. He wanted them to realize their potential.
True, James Evans’ character was the first (if not still the only) father to actually “whoop” a child (a bully who antagonized his son Michael) on national television. But even then, it was to give that child the “father figure” type attention he so desperately needed, being disrespectful and uninspired about life in addition to his own lack of education and future. I added that he did any and everything for his family, never apologizing for his decisions or methods.
People often mistook his (James’) aggression as an extension of unrestrained, violent behavior; that he lacked the words and intellect to deal with a situation thoughtfully and diplomatically. What I saw was a man who protected his family in a world that presented uncompromising educational, financial and social challenges and threats on a daily basis. I think my favorite scene (other than the bully’s disciplinary session) was when James confronted the Satan’s Knights street gang, who had forced his son JJ to join them for an upcoming fight in a gang war. James stood his ground, telling them that his son would have no part in it, not wavering in the least.
I think the reason I loved his character is because he dealt with situations that I found more applicable to growing up in East Chicago. But what stood out to me from week to week was how much he loved his family. Not that you didn’t get that in other television fathers, but their family situations were more lighthearted than my reality illustrated. Like James Evans, my father was extremely streetwise. But he was also an educated man who was shrewd and very resourceful. In fact, one of his many attributes that I admired most was his ability to diffuse a situation reasonably and quickly.
“I always saw you as Uncle Phil,” my son answered as we walked out of the door and into the car.
“Uncle PHIL??” I replied, stunned. “From The Fresh Prince (of Bel Air)? Why him? Because I like to EAT?!?”
“It’s more than that, Dad,” he replied. You like to talk about your high school days, just like he shares his experiences. He talked about college, the Black Panthers, the pool hall. Stuff like that.”
“True,” I agreed, accepting the fact that family and friends know me for sharing my life stories. Just like you’re reading now.
“And your wisdom. You always have the right answer and you’re super-smart.” With that example, he sounded like my oldest son who once said I was like Laurence Fishburne’s character Furious Styles in “Boys In The Hood”; always dropping knowledge on his friends aka the young brothers.
I chuckled as I thanked him, knowing that despite my so-called wisdom, they never seem to take my advice, yet were always telling me I was right after their own decisions led to undesired results. But I attribute any wisdom I might have to experience, more than intelligence. Something I always try to impress on them; that with age comes understanding.
“Any other reason why I’m Uncle Phil and not the dad from Family Matters (Police officer) or Heathcliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show (doctor)?”
He paused, then answered, “The way you love us. The way you show it….
…and I love your hugs.”
Nothing more was said as he inserted his earbuds to listen to his favorite music for the 8-minute drive to the 24-hour restaurant’s drive-through.
As we sat in the hour-long loop around the building I sat silently, listening to my own outdated music, pondering the moment.
I had often wanted my children to know me for my strength, courage and ferocity when it came to protecting my home and family. I wanted them to respect and not fear me. I wanted to be perceived as a lion and warrior king, as I had seen my own father.
But my son reminded me of two qualities that were important to him, as I assume were the same for his brothers:
A/my strong presence is indeed paramount, but without the accompaniment of knowledgeable leadership, reasoning and unconditional love, all is for naught.
Nothing else was said.
As the drive-through line slowly moved, I thought long and hard on that OTHER thing he had mentioned.
…and no, I didn’t forget.
Yeah, like Uncle Phil, I like to eat.
Happy Father’s Day!
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