Category Archives: Fathers & Sons

Big Talk: Looking for Dad

My weekly radio interview program, Big Talk, airs every Thursday on WFHB, 91.3 FM, or always and forever on the ‘FHB website. The podcast usually posts precisely at 6:00pm, just as the broadcast concludes.

I’ve been doing that gig since 2014. Big Talk started out as an eight-minute feature on the Daily Local News. By 2017 I was chomping at the bit to get my own stand-alone slot on the station’s programming schedule and then-news director Wes Martin helped me jump through the hoops to get it done. I’ve had hundreds of guests on in the nearly ten years the show’s been a thing. It’s basically a one-person operation with me handling booking, research, studio set-up, engineering, hosting, editing, post-production, and, for chrissakes, keeping the Big Production Room as tidy as possible.

My first guest, way back in January ’14 was cartoonist Nate Powell, who’s penned a passel of fabulous graphic novels, includes the three-volume classic, March, with the late civil rights legend and Georgia congressperson John Lewis. Following him, I brought on Bloomington’s grand dame of politics, Charlotte Zietlow. My chat with her inspired me to pitch a book idea to her and, lo and behold, six years later our book Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives hit the bookstores. For a couple of years, I was able to turn Big Talk editions into print profiles on Limestone Post for my regular column, “Big Mike’s B-Town.”

Some of my favorite shows have featured the likes of Dan “Carp” Combs, the homespun philosopher who’s long served as a local township trustee here in Bloomington; Pete Buttigieg, then-mayor of South Bend who came to town to speak to a house party of women voters (and, as I chatted with him in the kitchen that afternoon, I concluded he was a fellow with his eye set on the White House); Debbie Herbenick, the Indiana University sex researcher, Joe Varga, the IU labor historian; Ed Schwartzman, the restaurateur whose young son took his own life; Laura Lane, longtime Herald Times reporter; and Nancy Hiller, author, master woodworker, and all-around good egg, whom I had on several times.

I’ve had CIA spies, New York Times bestselling authors, filmmakers, scientists, cops, magicians (well, alright, illusionists), pizza moguls, comedy club proprietors, singer-songwriters, poets, painters, Hula Hoop-sters, historians, a couple of alumni from the Firesign Theater, and even a cos-player who wrote a book about raising Viking children.

When I’m on my deathbed and I look back on my far-too-short life, I’ll be able to say my greatest talent was getting people to talk about themselves. I’ll reveal the secret of why and how I became adept at that: my dad never really spoke with me. That’s the kind of bird he was. A good friend once tried to ask me, apropos of one thing or another, “When your father talked to you did he….” I put my hand up and said, “Hold it right there. My father never talked to me.” My friend couldn’t believe it, but it was true.

Other than yelling at me or telling me to do something, Daddy-o was mum. I figured he didn’t care much for me. Then I learned he was quite the bon-vivant at times when he was younger. He’d tell stories and jokes and even dance a polka at family gatherings and parties. I was able to conclude it wasn’t me, it was him. I was, in a very profound way, growing up.

Dad, I can only conclude, was terribly depressed for the last quarter century of his life. He’d come of age in an era when seeing a therapist was about as likely for a working class man as owning a tuxedo. So, my diagnosis is pure guesswork. But he exhibited all the classic symptoms, including an inability to connect with others and to demonstrate even the slightest hint of affection.

When I tried to work through my own depression under the care of a string of therapists, social workers, psychologists, and even the odd priest and nun (honestly, I’d gotten to a point where I’d try anything to get out of my emotional morass), all those experts assured me Daddy-o was a textbook case and that my malaise was clearly inherited.

One day, when I was suffering through the loss of a love (my fault; I was a young knucklehead), and the pain I felt was greater than any other human had ever experienced, I collapsed in a heap on my parents’ front porch. I heard Ma, inside, say to Dad, “Joe, go out there and help him. He needs you!”

Dad slowly emerged. He knew himself well enough to realize rescuing a knuckleheaded 23-year old from heart-pain was not one of his fortes. He sat on the stoop next to me. That, in itself, was novel inasmuch as he normally did everything in his power to avoid contact with other humans. “Jeez,” I thought, “they must really think I’m in bad shape.” (They were right: I’d even been ideating suicide.)

My heart felt as though it would burst just because my father had chosen to sit close to me. He asked me what was wrong and I told him about the girl who’d given me the gate. He didn’t respond, because he never did. So — and I have no idea why I did this — I asked him how he knew Ma was the one for him. Mirabile dictu, he opened up. He told me the story of meeting my mother.

As a teenager, he hung out with his pals at Hanson Park on Chicago’s northwest side. One afternoon a traveling girls softball team was playing there. The girl playing short centerfield caught his eye. She had curly hair and belly-caught pop-ups, like an old-time grocer catching a falling can of corn in his apron. Dad was smitten. He said, “I took one look at her and said, ‘I’m gonna marry that gal one day.'”

Ma & Dad, Summer, 1945.

The story itself was beautiful, but the fact that Dad actually shared it with me sent me over the edge. I sobbed, deeply and loudly, for long minutes. Dad was baffled: “What’d I say? What’s goin’ on?” He never would know, coming from the era and background he did.

That was the turning point in my heartbroken summer of 1979. I started healing.

So, let me amend my thesis: Dad did talk to me. Once.

From that minute on, my goal in life became to try to get people to tell me their stories. Who knows? Maybe I was trying to recreate that cathartic emotional release, that flood of endorphins or whatever other body drugs that start splashing around when one experiences deep joy or sadness. Or maybe I concluded that if I could get Dad to talk to me, I could get anybody to do it. I don’t know. I don’t need to know.

I only know it’s what I’ve done all my life, in print, online, and on the radio.

Another amendment: my first Big Talk wasn’t with Nate Powell. It was with my Dad that August night on the stoop in 1979.