originally at Lemuria Books blog
I was born on Father’s Day, 1968, in Springfield, Missouri. When I hear someone nowadays cry, “Oh, who would want to bring a child into this world?,” I marvel at what my then 28-year-old Dad, Carl Yates, faced bringing a son into 1968.
Vietnam was raging. The Tet offensive had just shaken the nation and flared again that May.
In April Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and seven days before my birth, authorities arrested and charged James Earl Ray, a fugitive from a Missouri prison at London’s Heathrow Airport.
That April, people in Kansas City, Missouri, rioted, looted, and burned their own neighborhoods in fury.
And twelve days before that Father’s Day, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed, the second Kennedy Dad had supported and lost not to a ballot but a bullet, to violence and hate.
History’s mayhem, mere anarchy loosed on the world. Study history from newspapers, any period, any place, and you will find the light and hope of new birth always glittering beside the blood-dimmed tide of Armageddon. Matter ever wins out over antimatter by the least margin of victory.
Having written and published Morkan’s Quarry, a novel about a father’s love for his son and that son’s loyalty in return during that old American catastrophe, the Civil War, I got questions from reporters about me and Dad. What was that relationship like? What in the book has to do with a father and son in real life?
Saint Paul gives me the best answer, “Show me the son whom the father chastiseth not.”
We are two willful, very verbal men. Dad is the son of an auctioneer prodigy, my late grandfather Roma Yates, famous in Dallas County for conducting major auctions when he was but a child of eleven years. Dad still practices law in the Ozarks. And he had long hoped one of us children, especially his son, would carry on that tradition in the law firm he headed: Yates, Mauck, Bohrer, and Elliff.
Dad’s jaw dropped when I told this story; I was answering some needling uncle’s question: “Why did you become a writer and not a lawyer?”
Well, Dad wrote speeches for a former governor of Missouri, and ran “Walking” Joe Teasdale’s first campaign. I would have been four then. And my father was pulled every which way—he had just left a sure thing to start his own law firm; the airport board was wooing him; he was embroiled in politics. He was becoming somebody.
Yet he stole every minute he could with his son. He came home in a rush, grabbed a yellow legal pad and pencil, and said, “Troup, come here. Sit on my lap, and we need to write this speech for Joe.”
Any time with my busy father, any activity, I was thrilled. I remember his block letters—neither of us write in cursive. And then he would stop and read aloud what he was writing, that booming, deep voice in my ears, and the feel of his heart-and-lung power against the curve of my spine. I have no memory of substance, but I do know the speeches were endowed with that Baptist hill preacher’s rise, the son of an auctioneer’s sense of rhythm and repeat, of pause, of quiet, of reason, enticement, then crescendo. And the light in his eyes as he wrote, as the spark fired his mind and singed the page in those graphite letters, precise as if burned into stone.
How could a child leave that loving embrace and not feel sure that what a boy did when he became a full-grown man was to write?
Poor Dad! He had hoped to blame his son’s writing ailment on Mother, maybe, who took me to every museum in St. Louis and Springfield, and entrusted me to the Brentwood Library so many afternoons, I could help patrons down the Dewey decimal trail.
He came to grips with my pathway, though, when the writing program at University of Arkansas admitted me and I had the same admission and opportunity at the writing program at Dad’s law school alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. Mystified but pleased, he advised me to take Arkansas’s package because Ellen Gilchrist studied at Fayetteville and U of A had a university press that published her.
Dad followed my publications with enthusiasm and hope, but with heartbreak and empathy when publishers didn’t want the novel, my story of a father’s love for his son, and didn’t want the story of civilians in a maelstrom in the Ozarks. Publishers wanted everyone to fall in love, babes with beaus, and wanted the war to be rousing and heroic, and maybe set somewhere famous, please.
Matter wins over antimatter. Ever against the blood-dimmed tide is the cry of birth, the pencil and block letters scratching into the blank page, and the sentences rising there, crying hope, shouting rise up to victory.
When the package came to our old home place, luckily my Sissy was there in from New York with her young daughter. Sissy had the phone with a camera and snapped this picture. Dad has just cut my novel free of its mailer. Sissy says he stood silenced and trembling with joy, trembling, for a full five minutes, his hand on the book his son wrote. And then he held up his son’s first novel, and she snapped this picture. Victory! Victory!
Don’t tell my publisher. Don’t tell booksellers. Please don’t even tell my wife. I have this picture and need no other good fortune to make me feel this book succeeded beyond any dream. Victory!
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
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Steve Yates’s novel Morkan’s Quarry is new from Moon City Press. He lives in Flowood, with his wife Tammy and is assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson. He’ll sign Morkan’s Quarry at Lemuria, Saturday, June 12 at 1 p.m. But on Father’s Day, he will be working for the Press at meetings in Salt Lake City. And that’s what his Dad would want as well!