Author Billy Coffey speaks about the effect his father had on his life, and where it’s brought him now.
Growing up, I believed the expression “born on the wrong side of the tracks” had been coined with my own town in mind, and my own father, and even me. The Norfolk Southern Railway cuts through the center of our meager downtown, a shimmering artery of steel rails and wooden ties that was once our lifeblood but is now a minor inconvenience. Twice daily, the choreographed symphony of songbirds and farm tractors will be silenced by the train’s approach. The crossing lights will blink to life and the electronic gates bisecting Main Street will jerk and lurch downward, interrupting a slow procession of rusting trucks and cars streaked with mud and salt. Progress must yield to daily life even in the country. The train must always have the right of way, its purpose more vital than our trips to the Food Lion or the post office, and so we wait as that long black snake heaves and rolls on, biding the time by waving to neighbors or counting empty boxcars and the hoppers pregnant with Appalachian coal.
From the time the engine whines past until the faded red caboose lumbers through, our whistle-stop burg will effectively be halved. There will be those on the side of the town proper, with its stoplights and small businesses, and those waiting on the other side, where loom the mountains and hollows. In my world and the world of my children, those sides go largely unnoticed. The barrier between them exists only when the crossing lights flash and the gates lower, or in the passing moment when the truck tires thump over the tracks. It was not always so.
My father’s world was different. He came up in a time that has since faded deep in my memory, back when the boundary that separated one side of our town from the other was crafted from prejudice rather than steel. Townfolk were gentrified, as sophisticated and open-minded as country people could be. They looked down upon their hard and earthy kin across the tracks, just as those hard and earthy kin looked down upon them. Townfolk and mountain folk would mingle, but never for long. Their interactions were often for business purposes alone, and with the understanding that once completed, one or the other person would retreat to his or her own side of the tracks, back to where he or she belonged.
My father was and remains a mountain person. Born into poverty, he left school in the eighth grade to help provide for his parents and siblings. The army followed. He met my mother after, who gave him a son and a daughter. He spent nearly forty years behind the wheel of a big rig, hauling freight through snowstorms and hurricanes, logging over two million miles before finally retiring. There: a single life in five sentences. And yet the spaces between those sentences mirror the ones in my father’s life, gaps that define an ordinary man who is also the greatest man I’ve ever known, a man who remains at sixty-nine larger than life to me.
His dreams were no smaller than yours or mine. Dad wanted to move to town. He wanted to craft a life not merely for himself, but for his family. For his children. For me. It was by grace and sweat that he made his way in the world, mile after lonely mile, all the while looking to home, to the small bricked ranch with a sitting porch in front and a wide yard out back, where corn and potatoes and peppers still grow in the summertime. That was the world in which I grew up. Across the street sat a cornfield. Beyond lay the tracks. Even now, Dad will stop what he’s doing when he hears the train whistle. He’ll take a few steps toward the road if he’s outside or drift toward the door if he’s in, and he’ll just watch. I never knew what he watched for. Now I think that whistle is a siren song to him, a marker laid down for him twice daily so he can pause and know how far he’s come.
Though he has softened a bit with the years, my father remains a hard man. He accepts no excuses for work that goes undone and isn’t above cussing, should the situation warrant it. His temper is extraordinary. My father is not without flaw, which makes him no less a man—no less human—than I. Had I understood that as a child, I expect the gulf that grew between us would not have been so hard to cross. Yet that gulf formed nonetheless over the years, slowly, dug one handful at a time by a father who only wanted a better life for his children, and by a son who always understood that he could never be as hard and unafraid and thoroughly confident as the man he most admired. That’s the problem with larger-than-life fathers. The shadows they cast are both long and wide, and often swallow the sons they love.
I wilted in that shadow.
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others and gauge where we stand among them. My father was always my measuring stick, and I always found myself wanting.
His shadow waxed in my teens and twenties, then waned in my thirties—the noontime of my life. I am in my forties now. I will not say the shadow of my father is no longer there, but I will say it’s smaller now. I have a wife and family of my own. We live in a house on the other side of the tracks, against the mountains and hollows. I grew older, yet I never grew up until I realized that no boy can ever be like his father. He must instead become his own best self, whatever that self may be. Time has brought a balance to our lives. All those things that once went unsaid are spoken now in our own private ways and despite our own rough edges. And in the process, my father and I have both discovered this one amazing thing—much of what I’ve always admired in him is what he now admires in me. I no longer stand in his shadow, nor he in mine. Instead we walk together, side by side, stumbling our way through the years.
Billy Coffey is the author of four novels, including the critically-acclaimed When Mockingbirds Sing (2013) and the upcoming The Devil Walks in Mattingly (March 2014). BookPage recently compared him to Flannery O’Conner.
—Photo Sharon Mollerus/Flickr