The Influence of My Father on My Son

Horse racing brings out a father's folly

By Lincoln Steffens

If my father could watch my son for a while, he might realize his own immortality. A glance would not suffice. My brown-eyed, brown-haired son does not look like my red-headed, blue-eyed father. Not a bit. And the immortality I speak of has not taken on the angelic form my good father expected. The child is more like his grandfather than that. My father would invite me sweetly to come and sit on a stool at his feet, and, as I let myself trustingly down, he would gently kick the seat from under me - and laugh. I should like to have had him see his little grandson plant his sled on the basement door mat and call me out to stumble over the trap -and laugh. In both cases the victim, the devilish spirit, and the laugh were the same. So I say that if my father had the time to give to the observation of my son he might realize, if not his immortality, then the partial continuity of his character, disposition, and certainly his influence upon his line, and be - not satisfied, perhaps, but convinced, surprised, and— let me guess—amused or embarrassed.

He would be amused to see Pete, a child of six, who did not know his grandfather, wave his hand in the identical gesture my father used to make to indicate that a questionable assertion of his was obvious or final and decisive. I was highly pleased myself when I first

noticed it and recognized my father. I called it an inheritance direct from him till my matter-of-fact wife showed me that I had the same wave and used it in saying I didn’t.

My son’s mother, by the way, spoils many of our most wonderful fancies, Pete’s and mine, and that’s why he and I have agreed upon a sentiment which we say in unison behind her back, and sometimes in her presence. We sing: ‘Pete and Papa are wonderful. Mama and Anna [the maid] are absurd.’

My father would be amused at that, anyhow. He would say, ‘S-s-s-h! Don’t say such things,’ but he would recognize in it himself and his son and his wife and my mother. He and I were often in cahoots against my mother, affectionately, on the side. Mothers do not always understand a fellow.

He would have been surprised and he might have been embarrassed when I did not rebuke my son, as he would have rebuked his son, for tripping his father over that sled. This I’ll call indirect inheritance. My father, the practical joker, did not care for practical jokes on himself; he did not encourage the practice in me. I saw and I have reacted against this inconsistency with my son. I tease, too; I don’t approve of it, but my father and my grandfather in me make me play tricks on my boy, so I have to let him have some fun with me. But my son inherits the benefit of at least one half of my father’s fault.

My father required me to honor my father and my mother too much to put up games on them. I did on occasion. (That’s how I know that my son can’t help it.) I let my father mount my pony one afternoon in time to ride past the neighboring brewery just as the engineer let off steam, and my father was pitched off; and I laughed behind a tree, where, however, my father found me and - Well, I don’t do to my little boy what he did to his little boy. I feel my father in me want to, but I remember him and my feelings, and I laugh. The family laugh at the family trait.

My son ‘honors’ his mother, as I did mine. He would not plant a sled for his mother, as I would not for mine. On the other hand, if my son breaks something, he will run to tell me about it first, and then, when his mother discovers the wreck, he backs into my arms and bids her not to speak of it.

‘Daddy minded that,’ he says.

I asked him once why it was that he respected his mother and had no fear of me.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are a funny man. You can get mad, like Mama, but you laugh. And-and anybody that laughs can’t - can’t do - what Mama does.’

My father would have been surprised to hear this, as I was. My father was slower but he was severer than my mother, who was quick but light and irregular in discipline. It is just so in my son’s family. My mother would thump me sharply on the head with a thimble or a spoon if 1 became too noisy with the whistle when I was playing I was a steamboat captain. She had no sense of the dignity of command. My father seemed always to know not only what I was doing, but what I was being. He had too much respect for a steamboat captain to humiliate me before my crew. If I committed a crime, he would not break into the scene and spoil it; he would say quietly, as between him and me, ‘I’ll see you to-morrow morning right after breakfast about this.’ Now I find that I preferred my father’s way and I take it with his grandson, who likewise prefers it. His mother will call suddenly: ‘Pete! It’s bedtime,’ when she thinks of it, and off he must go, regardless of his occupation. I look first, to see that he is busy with, say, an important building operation, and I would no more interrupt him than I would a crooked contractor. If it’s late, I join my builder, we finish the job, and then he goes satisfied to bed, the day’s work done. -

One improvement I have learned from my childhood experience with my father; I do not threaten punishment in the morning. That was awful. Late into the night I would lie awake tossing and wondering what he was going to do to me. Usually he did nothing. A quiet, impressive ‘talking to’ was all I got. And no doubt his idea was that the postponement of penalty—to save himself from acting in anger—would set me to thinking and be punishment enough, but my father did not visualize the anxiety, the agony of my sleepless hours of anticipation. Hence it is that I do visualize a bad night, and so we go to bed in Pete’s house with a clean slate and a happy morrow to wake up to. No hang-overs for us, and I am pretty sure Pete feels this benefit he has from my correction of my father’s error. At the end of a ‘serious talk’ the boy and I had one day, he rested a moment, then got up and said: ‘Well, that’s all over, is n ‘t. it?’ and I assured him it was. ‘We’ll forget it now, Pete, and never mention it again.’

Dealing with my son makes me recall my father so clearly that I think now that I could state his policy with me and his philosophy, if he had one. Of the philosophy I am not sure. His acts and his sayings to me were all in the direction of freedom and independence. I let my boy go and do and say pretty much as he likes, as, and perhaps because, my father kept no string on me. I could roam as a child far afield; he gave me my pony to widen my range; and I am sure that I went where my parents did not know I went. My mother would ask where I had been, rarely my father, and he backed me up if I did not want to tell at the time.

‘No, don’t ask him that now,’ he would say to my mother. ‘He will tell us if he goes anywhere he shouldn’t.’ And later, sometime when the pressure was off, I would tell him that, say, I had gone down to the dangerous one of our two rivers. That was forbidden. I was afraid myself of that river; it looked cruel, snarling, grasping, but my mother’s fear-was excited and unreasonable. I could not tell her where I had been. My father, when I told him, would become very quiet, thoughtful, till, looking up inquiringly, he would say:—

‘You have been told not to go to that river?’


A pause. ‘You don’t often disobey us, do you?’


‘You must have wanted very much to go there if you disregarded our command that way. What was it that made you do it?’

I gave him my boy’s reason, straight: A man had been drowned and I wanted to see them drag for the body.

‘Did you?’ he asked, interested.

‘Yes, we saw them drag, but they didn’t get the body.’ And, because he was so keen, I described all that we boys saw, and did, and said, just as I would to ‘another fellow.’ We had a long, casual talk about the day’s work on the river and I had forgotten all about my disobedience when my father said:—

‘I should have liked to see that myself. I wish you had come by my office and taken me with you. Do that next time. Give me a chance. And say, I wouldn’t again disobey directly like that any of the few rules we lay down for you.’ That was all, except that at the next meal my father told my mother before me the story of my day without any reference to the disobedience part. He told it well, too; to my satisfaction, but not to my mother’s. She kept saying, ‘But—but—,

I loved my mother, but—but—my father respected me. He respected, as you see, my disobedience; he respected my bunk, my lies, my crimes. When I was a fireman, my mother made me clothes of red stuff that were suitable to a firefighter - sure; and she let me ride my pony to fires; but when one day there was an alarm during dinner and I leaped up so quick that I nearly upset the table, she remonstrated and forbade me to go to that fire. I wasn’t really a fireman to her. To my father I was. He sprang up too, put out a hand to stay my mother’s indignation, and he shouted: ‘Go it, boy! Get there first!’ I did. I got first to that fire, and when I came back I found that it had been settled in the family that I could go, fast, to any fire that occurred any time when I was on duty, any time of day except when I was in school or in bed.

This I have passed on intact to Pete, with a smile added. When the boy was in the so-called lying period (he was about five years old) he learned to tell his big stories to me rather than his mother. She was patient with them, but they were whoppers just the same. I joined in his fiction, as I did in his building or business operations. We ran a garage, I as owner, he as manager; we had a taxi and baggage service, which met all trains and responded, fast, to all private calls. It was real and pretty strenuous to us all, his mother, too,—but the test came when there was a train to meet at mealtimes. Then it appeared pretty plainly that Pete’s mother really regarded the garage business as bunk, or at any rate it was not as serious as his dinner!

Well, we business men held a directors’ meeting and decided and announced that, hereafter, our garage would close from one to two P.M. But we sang our little song: ‘Pete and Papa are wonderful, Mama and Anna are absurd.’

Mama, Anna, and many of our neighbors disapproved of this song. When we sang it together at a tea, women were shocked and some men wagged their funny old heads. ‘How can you teach your son such nonsense!’ they exclaimed-and if I explained that it does n’t matter what you teach a child, that all that matters is what he learns, they did not understand me. My father and my grandfather would have understood perfectly, as their grandson and great-grandson did. Maybe the following incident will clear it all up.

One day Pete came to my study door and said that he had just killed a bear.

‘Where?’ I asked.

Over there,’ he waved.

‘That’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘A coinci-dence. I just killed ten bears.’ He looked a bit dashed, but he inquired:—


‘Over there,’ I waved.

He looked so beaten that I rose and said: ‘Come on, Pete, let’s go and tell Mama.’

‘Oh, no,’ he protested, ‘not Mama.’

‘Oh, come on,’ I urged, offering to take his hand. ‘I’ll do the talking.’

Very reluctantly, he put his hand in mine and we went into the house, up to his mother, who was busy (writing fiction).

‘Mama,’ I said. ‘Pete killed a bear.’

Annoyed, she looked up at me and demanded why I encouraged the boy to lie like that.

‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ I said. ‘I just killed ten bears.’

‘Oh, go away!’ she exclaimed, in real irritation. ‘You are both liars and I don’t think it’s funny.’ And she actually pushed us.

We took hands again; we bear-killers, we liars, we slunk out of the house and sat down on the front steps, he at one side, I at the other, and we were silent a long time. I was wondering what was going on in the boy’s head. At last he spoke.


‘Yes, Pete.’

‘Daddy, Pete and Papa are not wonderful.’


‘No. Mama is wonderful. Pete and Papa are absurd.’

Well, I took that. We got up, hand in hand; we walked about a bit in the garden till we were called to luncheon. Seated at table, I wanted to break the strain, so I said: ‘Come on, Pete, let’s say it,’ and, with his grandfather’s twinkle of the eye, he joined me in saying: ‘Pete and Papa are wonderful,’ and so forth.

He knew. You don’t have to be careful with children, unless you have taken a pose and have to remember to keep it up; and even then

My father made with me one serious mistake which I see parents about me making. He got himself somehow into the awkward position of an authority; I thought he knew and was right on everything - for a while. He did not pretend to righteousness or omniscience. He seemed to me as a boy to be fair, and he seems to me now, as a man, to have been either very modest or well aware of the danger there is of exposure for a father who has been idealized. Just the same, he was idealized. I suppose that he did what I see these other parents do; he probably answered impatiently and, therefore, thoughtlessly and positively the prattling questions of my early childhood, of that impressionable period of the first seven years. Anyway, when I became conscious and my father took me and my problems seriously, he was already my household god. And then—and then—

Among the many places out in the world to, which I rode off alone on the pony he had given me was the State Fair grounds. Happening. to turn in there of a spring morning, I saw some jockeys exercising a string of race horses. I joined them; they objected at first to the kid, but one of them - a colored boy named Smoke -said I could stay, and by and by I was accepted. The trainers found a use for me: to ride bareback their trotting horses. I decided to become a jockey. My mother discovered the secret first. I did not eat - not regularly. I would fast for a day or two, then break down and gobble. She complained, scolded, questioned. Mothers are awful. My father saved me. He bade her leave me alone and he observed me for a day or two, then he took me aside and asked me quietly, ‘What is all this fasting for?’ He was so ‘nice and easy’ about it that I told him all about me and the jockeys and the trainers; and how they said that ‘if I kept my weight down I might be a winner.’

My father sat reflecting a long time, his way, before he answered, and his speech showed that he accepted my career on the turf absolutely. He began by advising me about fasting. I was n’t to do it as I had been doing it: going without food, then eating too much. A better way was to eat moderately, choosing foods that I did not like and usually avoided, like vegetables, for instance, and holding to what he called my ‘diet.’ He talked about horses and horse racing, which he named the king of sports and the sport of kings. What struck me was that he knew all about the turf, as he knew all about everything. Also he spoke to my mother, so that she entered into the game - not enthusiastically; she made faces and tended to utter protests, but my daddy ‘minded’ them. He stopped her with that immortal wave of the hand which I see his grandson wave.

So I went on as a jockey apprentice to learn all about horses, racing, and riding, till the spring meets. We knew the horses entered for those races, which were good, which were best, and we had our favorites. Smoke had one in his stable that could beat anything in sight. Smoke loved, we all respected, I adored that horse, and when he ran, sure to win, he lost. Smoke ‘pulled’ him. I saw it from my perch under the wire. I saw the horse fight for the bit with Smoke, who fought back. I saw it all, and I learned that horse racing wasn’t on the level, that some races were ‘fixed’ to catch the ‘suckers’ and give the racing men and jockeys a chance to make some money. Smoke blamed the suckers-‘they spoil everything.’ I blamed and I hated the suckers who spoiled everything.

I quit the track, I gave up the turf as a career, I ate my fill. My father noticed it, ‘asked me why, but I could not tell him right away. Too painful. And besides, he must know what racing was. He invited me to go with him to several races, but I refused till some big business friends came to town and joined in asking me to ‘Come on, boy, and see the sport.’ It was too humiliating to enter with them at the main gate. I went in ‘free’ through the stable door the jockeys used, joined them on the grandstand where the despised public sat, the suckers. They were betting on the favorite in the next race and talking wisely about his condition and past performances. It seemed to me they were pretending to know some things that they did not know. I got up, ran down to the stables and my friends, Smoke and the rest. They were laughing about this race. It was fixed; the favorite was to lose, and I heard the name of the horse that was to win. Darting back to my father's party of superior grownups, I said, not too loud, that the favorite they were betting on would not win and I named the winnerwho won. I knew; they did n't. Astonished, they asked me how I knew. I refused to tell them then. They were suckers. Of course most of them were; but my father? He asked me afterwards how I picked the winner and I told him then all about horse racing. He was all right; he listened, reflected, believed, and he tried to save some of my illusions.

But the tragedy of this little comedy, repeated in other departments of life as I was seeing it, was the discovery that my father did not know everything; he was not always right.

Now, I recovered from this, from all these experiences. I saw that he did not pretend to know all, that he felt and could admit that he was often wrong and in doubt. It was only my infant idol that suffered, my idealization of my father, and and myself. But that was enough.

When my son appeared on the scene, when he was a baby, I remembered the disappointment and distress of my young disillusionment and I determined to save him and his father from any such experience. The first time my father's grandson asked me a question, I said I did not know; and the next time, and the next. I have never known the answer. Sometimes I say, 'I don't know. Let's go and see.' So we find out things together. If that is not possible, if we can't see with our eyes what we want to know, I may say: 'I don't know, Pete, but I think it's so.' Or I say, 'Grownups say it's so, but we don't really know.' Indeed, we have a saying, the boy and I, which we repeat often in unison: 'I think so, but I don't know,' or 'I don't know, but I think so.'

The theory of this skepticism is that the child has everything to learn for himself and, for us, not only what we don't know, but also all over again what we think we do know. And to enforce his selfreliance I seek cases where he and I can differ. He thinks his ball went over there where I saw it go; I think it went over here. We look here first, and Daddy is wrong. We look over there, and there it is. Pete was right often.

I think that my father if he could observe us might wag his head over these exercises that have gone on for six yearsduring the unconscious, most sensitive period of his grandson's life. I don't know what my father would have thought when his grandson said the other day:

'My daddy is always wrong. My mama is always right. And Pete? I am half right and half wrong.'

I don't know, but I think that my father would have sat silent a long time, reflecting, remembering, and then seen that his influence upon his grandson through me was both directly and indirectly his very own, his immortal self. And he would have been convinced if he saw what I saw: that Pete thought that on the whole, humanly and socially speaking, it was rather better to be wrong than right, or, at any rate, more amusing.

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