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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.


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

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