June 2008

Rick Bragg

Paternal instincts
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When he was a child, growing up dirt-poor in a small Alabama town, Rick Bragg seldom had any coins jingling in his pocket. But even if he had, he would never have spent a penny on a Father's Day card.

As Bragg chronicled so eloquently in his best-selling memoir, All Over but the Shoutin' (1997), his father was a hard-fisted, abusive alcoholic whose lust for whiskey far outweighed any feeling of obligation to his family. When he finally abandoned his wife and three sons, young Rick had scant good memories of Charles Bragg, none of them worthy of a card celebrating fatherhood.

But at age 46, Rick Bragg inherited his own son when the confirmed bachelor surprised himself and everyone else by marrying a tall, red-headed woman, who was "just a little bit slinky." Stumbling into the role of stepfather to a 10-year-old boy not only made Bragg examine his position in this new relationship, it also made him want to learn more about his own father. The result is the third in his series of family memoirs, The Prince of Frogtown.

Speaking from his office at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he is a professor of writing (a title he finds quite amusing), Bragg elaborated on his desire to investigate the life of a man he reviled in his first memoir a decade ago.

"I'm older now and having a boy of my own makes me look at things differently," Bragg says. "I did not want to vanish from this world and have people believe that was all he was. As I said in the book, I've written an awful lot about people in prison, and I've written how they're there for their worst moment on earth – because they caught their wife cheating on them, or they saw some ugly look, you know, and they did something that brands them and sums them up forever. But it's not all they are. I guess in a way we were my daddy's worst moment. But it's not all he was, and I wanted to find people who would say something good about him. And I did." For three years Bragg tracked down his father's friends and the family members who knew him before alcohol turned him into the bitter, brutal man Bragg remembers.

"More than anything, I wanted to write about my daddy as a little boy because I didn't know anything about him. He never said to me, 'When I was a boy, I did this.' I wanted to see what he was like as a 12-year-old, I wanted to see what he was like as a teenager. And now I know." Although he grew up near Jacksonville, Alabama, the mill town where his father spent most of his life, Bragg felt that to understand the man he needed to know more about the people whose lives depended upon its giant textile factory. Talking to the workers who breathed cotton dust day after day to earn their paltry paychecks made Rick's admiration for them turn into something much deeper.

"People sometimes talk about Southerners and working-class folks, blue-collar folks, with this kind of hokey charm – aren't they quaint? Well, you know, people bled into their machines, they lost pieces of themselves at work, they stood over these machines for 12 hours at a time and did a job that quite frankly, most people just aren't tough enough to do," Bragg says.

The Prince of Frogtown alternates between two worlds. One chapter explores the father who is gradually becoming a more fully realized person to Bragg. The next examines his own attempts to understand the boy who has become his son. The hardscrabble existence Bragg endured as a child often has him baffled by a 10-year-old who still takes comfort in a "blankey," who demands to be tucked in at night, who wants hugs and hand-holding. But Bragg wasn't just afraid his son might never be "tough enough." As he writes in the book, his fears went deeper.

"I didn't care if he rode bulls or danced ballet, and that's the truth. But what made me crazy was the idea that he was the kind of boy I used to despise, the kind who looked down his nose on the boy I was. That was it, I realized. . . . That was what needled me. My mother cleaned their houses, cooked for them, diapered them. I would not have a boy like that." But even though this boy was growing up with privileges Bragg couldn't have imagined at that age, he discovered his son has a generous spirit, not a condemning one. "I was worried he might not like my people, or worse than that, he would feel a detachment or separation – which never materialized," Bragg says. "He's a good boy and he's got a good heart and he loves going home to see my people." Juxtaposing what he learned about his father's life with what Bragg feels are his own shortcomings as a parent doesn't change the countless ways Charles Bragg betrayed his wife and sons. But it does give Rick Bragg a better understanding of the man who died young from three things: bad luck, bad decisions and too much whiskey.

"I didn't try to recreate some daddy for myself in this book—that's the least of the things that happen in it. I just wanted to know who he was as a boy and as a young man, before he fell apart. I don't think that would be too hard for people to understand, to see why I would want that to happen." Bragg also heard from Jack Andrews, his father's lifelong friend, who contributed what is probably the saddest story in this eloquent, beautifully written and moving book. Right up until the day he died, Charles Bragg continued to talk about how much he loved his wife and boys and how much he regretted the way things turned out. As Bragg writes in The Prince of Frogtown, it wasn't enough. But it was more than he had before.

"I wish it had been different, but I cannot see it. I cannot see him living off his pension, or singing a hymn, or lining up to vote. I cannot see him going home to a paid-for house, with pictures of his boys on the wall. And I cannot see her there with him, to make it complete. But now I know he did see it, and that has to be worth something." Rebecca Bain, formerly the host of the public radio author interview program, "The Fine Print," writes from her home in Nashville.


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