My father never wastes anything, including words. This is a story about three of his words that changed my life.
I was a high school senior in the winter of 1973, and Dad and I were off to visit a college I’d applied to in upstate New York, where the snow starts falling in September and doesn’t melt until May.
Just Dad and me on that long road, without Mom to keep the conversational coals hot. I’d never visited a college before, and Tony Carillo never went to college. I don’t remember what we talked about, or if we talked at all. Maybe we let the car radio pierce the silence.
My Dad never asked me much about school, but if he had, I’d have told him the score - I was strong in English, weak in math, and nervous about the whole college application process. I was punching above my weight by applying to this particular school, but you had to aim high to get ahead, right?
We reached the school after a few hours and started wandering around that beautiful campus, catching the obligatory whiff of marijuana outside the dormitories. We were two lost souls in this environment, and that’s when we were rescued.
He was a college senior with a wild black beard, black-framed eyeglasses and an all-knowing smile.
“You’re visiting the campus, right?” he asked. “I can show you around, if you like.”
Just like that, we were taken on a grand tour by this fellow. He loved this college, having defied his father to go there.
“I’m the rebel of my family,” he proclaimed. “First male in my family not to attend Harvard or Yale. I really bucked family tradition.”
He had trust fund written all over him, and he spoke in a relentless monotone. Maybe the silver spoon he’d been born with in his mouth was blocking his windpipe. He seemed to begin every sentence with empty lungs.
I looked at my father for his reaction to this guy’s “rebel” speech. My father, who’d finished school at sixteen, gone to work, served in the Navy, returned to work, and taught himself to draw and paint well enough to become an art director at the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, rising from messenger to a vice-presidency on sheer talent and determination.
Talk about a rebel!
But all Dad did was nod politely. Then the senior turned to me.
“Have you heard back yet from the admissions office?”
“Well, good luck.” He shook my hand. “Believe it or not this place is every bit as selective as the Ivy League. We only take the best and the brightest.”
We thanked him for the tour, then we went to the cafeteria for lunch. While we were eating a bunch of students at the table behind us were talking about a party that happened the night before.
“Yeah,” one of the students was saying, “We woulda went, but we had to be at another party.”
We woulda went. I swear, that’s what he said.
My father heard it, too. He stopped chewing and leaned close to me, jerked his head in the direction of the grammatical genius and cocked an eyebrow only as someone from Brooklyn can.
“He got in,” my father deadpanned.
He got in. Three words that have stayed with me ever since. Probably the best life lesson I ever got.
Because what my dad was saying, with his ad-man’s economy of language, was this:
Crazy things happen in life, so don’t let this college business drive you nuts. If you hang in there and live long enough, it all evens out, no matter where you went to college, or didn’t go to college. In the end, it’s about you, and what you can do.
That’s what shot through my mind, as I watched my father finish his soup. It was nothing less than an epiphany.
He put his spoon down. “Seen enough of this place?”
“Let’s go home.”
We laughed a lot on that long ride back, and only now does it occur to me that I’ve never thanked my father for that precious lesson. Father’s Day seems like a perfect time to do it.
So thanks, Dad. I’ve been taller than you ever since I was in high school, but I still look up to you.
By the way, I was rejected by that college. Not long after our visit I got the skinny envelope in the mail, containing the form letter from the admissions office saying they regretted that there would not be a place for me in the class of 1977.
What the hell, it wasn’t the end of the world. Even if they’d accepted me, I probably wouldn’t have went there.
Charlie Carillo’s latest novel is “Return To Shepherd Avenue.” His website is www.charliecarillo.co