My father was John Wayne.
Not literally, as if I was the product of a Hollywood lifestyle and offspring from one of the actor’s three marriages.
Figuratively speaking, during my childhood years my father was John Wayne – bigger than life, a commanding presence at home and work, a movie star among mere mortals.
Coincidentally, John Wayne was my father’s favorite actor. Dad loved to watch World War II films starring John Wayne (Dad was born in 1936, so he was an impressionable five-year-old during the attack on Pearl Harbor and nine-years-old when the war ended).
According to Dad (and Hollywood), John Wayne simultaneously fought for four different service academies during WWII: Army (“Back to Bataan,” “The Longest Day”), Navy (“Fighting Seabees,” “In Harm’s Way”), Air Force (“Flying Tigers”), and Marines (“Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Flying Leathernecks”). In all these films, John Wayne’s character was firmly in charge, just like my father when he came home from work.
The first-born of seven in an Italian-American home in Terre Haute, Indiana, John Richard Fenoglio grew up under the influence of America’s “greatest generation,” so called by Tom Brokaw in his book by the same name.
According to the book’s cover notes, “This generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values – duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and above all, responsibility for oneself.”
He became a physician after graduation from Indiana University’s Medical School. His residency programs guided us to homes throughout Indiana; Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana; and finally to his general practice in Rockford, Illinois.
When he came home after a long day of caring for patients and managing the office staff, he usually kept his boss’s hat on, ordering his seven children to pick up our stuff, feed the dogs, help Mom, and let him know when dinner was ready.
We all knew when he was home.
And yet, he wasn’t all business and commands. There was often a softer, emotional side to my father. An avid Big Band fan, from him I learned the language of music. We listened together as he told me how orchestras, bands and different vocalists use their talents to convey a wide spectrum of human emotions.
While at church, I watched and listened to my father as he proclaimed the day’s Scripture lessons. He was calm and relaxed at the lectern as he read the passages for everyone present.
During the summer, we drove to great museums, classic ballparks and historical sites during memorable family vacations in our black station wagon. Just like John Wayne barking to his troops in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” when my father yelled “Lock and load,” we knew it was time to get into the car and begin the next leg of our journey.
My father passed away in 2005 and I still think of him almost every day. I especially think of him when I watch one of his all-time favorite movies: “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
In this atypical John Wayne film, Wayne portrays Sean Thornton, a tough American boxer who returns to Ireland to purchase his birthplace White O’ Morn, a wee humble cottage outside the town of Innisfree.
Throughout the film (directed by John Ford), we are treated with delightful differences between American and Irish cultures over courtship, personal fortune, gender, religion, and social conversations.
Upon arriving on the Dublin train, Thornton meets many of the townspeople, including matchmaker Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond). None of them, however, makes an impression on him like Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), whose keen, curious eyes and fiery red hair foretell the passion that will embroil their lives together.
Thornton appreciates the slower pace of the Irish culture and doesn’t shy away from the hard work of clearing his farmland of so many stones. “Now I know why you have so many rock walls around here,” he says to Mary Kate as he tosses another stone aside.
Still, he makes time during his hard, long days to enjoy the beauty around him, like the roses he plants near the new garden wall.
Thornton, who left America after killing another boxer in the ring, just to win a large amount of money, realizes he can’t escape his responsibilities. He must fight again for money to win the respect and love of Mary Kate. In the end, he wins the love of his Irish wife, the friendship of his brother-in-law, and the respect of the entire village.
When my father watched “The Quiet Man,” even if it was only for a few hours, he took a welcomed escape from the extraordinary pressures felt in his medical practice. Perhaps he even fancied the idea of living in a wee cottage with his own Irish wife, my mother Judith O’Connor Fenoglio. He certainly relished the moments when he called out to her just like Sean Thornton: “Woman of the house, where’s my tea?”
So this Father’s Day weekend, give your father a call or remember him in a very personal, special way. Take a moment away from the grind of daily life and add some beauty to your life.
As for me, I will be watching a John Wayne movie and thinking of Dad.
Lock and load!
First published in the June 15, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio