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My father was John Wayne.

Not literally, as if I was the result of a Hollywood lifestyle or the offspring of one of the actor’s three marriages.

Figuratively speaking, my father during my childhood years was John Wayne — bigger than life, a commanding presence at home and work, a movie star among mere mortals.

The first-born in an Italian-American home in Terre Haute, Indiana, John Richard Fenoglio was raised 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.”

During my father’s youth, America was focused on World War II, coffee and gasoline was rationed, and the Hit Parade on the radio featured Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra.

War movies filled the silver screens during the next decades, often starring my father’s favorite actor — John Wayne.

According to the World War II portrayed by Hollywood, John Wayne was a hero simultaneously in all four service academies: 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).

Though he tended to act first and ask questions later, no one doubted whether John Wayne’s character was in charge. He was — and so was my father.

Following graduation from Indiana University’s Medical School, my father’s 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.

Yet he wasn’t all business and commands. There was indeed a softer, emotional side to my father.

From him I learned the language of music, with which orchestras, big bands and vocalists use to convey a wide spectrum of human emotions.

In my altar boy days, I watched my father read from the lectern as a lay minister. He pushed all of us in our studies and school sports. He encouraged us to have a professional career that was not tied to any one location.

We drove to museums, ballparks and historical sites during memorable family vacations in the black station wagon. Just as John Wayne barked in Sands of Iwo Jima, when our father yelled “Lock and load,” we knew it was time to go.

Watching John Wayne films became a calming diversion from my father’s stressful days with his medical practice. Perhaps that’s why he enjoyed The Quiet Man so much.

In this atypical John Wayne film, the actor portrays Sean Thornton, an American boxer who returns to Ireland and his birthplace “White O’ Morn,” a wee humble cottage near the town of Innisfree.Quiet Man2

After arriving on the Dublin train, he meets many of the townspeople, including matchmaker Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond). But neither makes an impression on him like Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), whose interested eyes and fiery red hair foretell the passion and conflict that will fill their lives together.

Along the way we’re treated with the delightful differences between American and Irish cultures over courtship, personal fortune, gender, religion and social conversations.

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.

Watching The Quiet Man gave my father a welcomed escape from the extraordinary pressures in his ordinary days, even if it was only for a few hours. Perhaps he even enjoyed the idea of living in a distant country 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 and if possible, do something special to escape the ordinary. Create a new memory, a new expression of love.

Me? I’ll be in Indianapolis to bring a little Irish to my Dad. I’ll find the place where he is lying, so I can kneel and say an Ave just for him.

CF

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First published in the June 15, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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Purchase from Amazon.com:
> The Quiet Man (Collector’s Edition)

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On a Saturday afternoon in late January, I turned off Interstate 74 onto Indiana highway 101.

Wide, flat farm land stretches out from both sides of the two-lane road. Brown stubs of corn stalks dot the empty fields, once filled with six-foot green guardians of varieties of corn. Small farm houses appear every other mile, with kitchen lights burning and white wisps of smoke twirling from the chimneys.

Farm life has not changed much for these people during the last one hundred years. The sun and the seasons still set the schedule for their lives. With the harvest in the barns and planting not scheduled for months, they can now concentrate on their passion: high school basketball.

I took a journey to the small town of Milan to see an icon of Indiana high school Milanbasketball. As my dad used to tell me, all Indiana high schools, large and small, used to compete in one state tournament. Against all odds, the team from this tiny town defeated the big city team from Muncie to win the championship in 1954.

At the gym, a side door was open for visitors. A solitary player was on the court, practicing jump shots. “Milan Indians” was screen printed on his shorts.

“You guys win last night?” I asked.

“No sir, we should have,” he said. “We were just too slow.”

“Well, keep up the hard work,” I said, leaving him to his shooting.

Folks in Indiana live and breathe basketball every Friday night, a truth that was superbly illustrated in the film Hoosiers. Written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, the film stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper.

Based loosely on Milan’s run for the state championship, the film chronicles the Hickory Huskers’s improbable victories against much larger schools.

But within the portrayal of last second victories, granny shots and picket fences, we find personal stories of faith, courage and redemption that inspire our own lives.

“Each of the principal characters was stuck (living their lives) in a certain way. They needed to get beyond where they were (but) were unable to do it on their own,” said Pizzo in the film’s commentary on the Collector’s Edition DVD. “They were each provided an opportunity to move on, either by another individual or by a group like the team or the community.”

Norman Dale, banished from coaching because he struck one of his players in Ithaca, NY, had spent the past twelve years in the Navy. He was given another chance to coach by his friend Cletus, the principal of Hickory High School.

The townspeople of Hickory, who took tremendous interest in every detail of the basketball team, were stuck believing that outside shots and zone defense were the best strategies. Coach Dale, modeled somewhat after Bobby Knight, showed them that a different strategy of hard work, a deliberate offense and man-to-man defense can win more games.

HoosiersShooter, the town drunk and father of a player, bummed change for a living but still remembered much about “the greatest game ever invented.” He was given a chance to help the team by Coach Dale, despite the concern of the town and Shooter’s son.

Jimmy Chitwood, the best player in town, avoided the game while he mourned the passing of the old coach who was like a father to him. When he saw the stern, tough love tactics instilled into the team by Coach Dale, he returned to the game he loved.

Myra Fleener, who looked after Jimmy, was afraid that he would only know success in Hickory and be stuck there. She herself was stuck in Hickory, caring for her family.

In a scene deleted near the end of the film because of time restraints, we learn that she planned to leave Hickory and finish graduate school in Chicago. “When I gave you a chance,” Myra says to Coach Dale, “it made me realize what I had to do for myself.”

At one time or another, we all need to get “unstuck” from bad habits, sinful ways or even the apathy that creeps into our routines and daily schedules.

These last few weeks of Lent are a great time to reflect on how we are stuck and what we can do to live freely again. It is clear that we can’t do it alone.

In the Gospel of John (9:1-41), we read how Jesus cured the man who had been born blind. But the Pharisees, stuck in their traditions and laws, could not recognize the obvious power of God. They were only concerned about how Jesus had performed this miracle during the Sabbath.

In Hoosiers, redemption comes at the end of the film as a coach wins the big game, a father reunites with his son, a star player hits the winning shot, a teacher gives herself a chance to grow, and the town enjoys a success unlike any they’ve ever known.

In our lives, redemption comes from our Savior, who wipes our sins away with his suffering, death and resurrection on Easter Sunday. We only have to let him into our hearts to free us from our sinful past, so that we can rejoice in a new life with him.

CF
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First published in the March 23, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio

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