Remembering Your Ghost


Dr. Robert B. Pankey

Growing up in Carbondale, Illinois, as a boy, I was constantly bombarded with what it means to be a man. From the time I could hold a toy pistol, I began acting out and challenging my friends about who could draw quicker, who could run faster, who could be the number one at hide and seek in the yard, who could be the most successful at ‘tag.’ Who is the best? Everything was a challenge, a competition!  We played war-games at school during recess. We chose gang names - the Buccaneers, the Musketeers - and terrorized each other running back and forth, trying to capture each other and force a surrender.  Competition is a tradition we begin as little boys, and it continues to this day, dictating that to be successful, you have to be strong and tough, you cannot show emotion, you have to dominate and accumulate points. What we don’t know as little boys is how these notions of competition can contrast and interfere with notions of love and an ability to show it, to care for others (or ourselves), to treat girls as if they could be equal partners in your circle of friends.

As an adult looking back over a lifetime of challenges and behavioral issues myself, it is evident to me that these ideas of manhood, damaging or not, had contributed to a distorted sense of maturity. I see that these behaviors they created are sometimes long-lived and continue today. We have become unwilling to compromise, have become divisive and untrusting. But I also see that, by forcing myself to look at and become aware of the relationships we developed with our father, played out over the past centuries, I can see the flaws our role models had to deal with, and begin to work on dealing with my own.

My father, Harry Pankey, died when he was a young man of 52 years. I was a Junior in high school. He and I didn’t really get to know each other very well.  He was a World War II Army Veteran who served in the Pacific campaign, and was awarded three Bronze Stars. I often go back and look at my old pictures, salvaged from the family, looking for glimpses of him.  There are only a few pictures of him actually holding me and my brothers. I never felt able to ask him was his story? Did he hold me very often? Did he come to my games?

All the war veterans of that era were taught to take on the characteristics of silence, to bottle things up, lest they be accused of complaining, or weakness.  Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) was called “Shell Shock” and many of the vets came home from the wars suffering from it. We now know that the more we have understood that talking about one’s traumatic stress can be a tool for recovery from PTSD, but that wasn’t the case then.  Many WWII veterans did not talk about their war, and married men of that generation didn’t talk about their love for their wives, with their children or anyone else.  My dad was simply an unknowable man to anyone outside his immediate select group of friends, mostly Elks Club Members.  Dad’s father lived only 30 miles from our family, but my brothers and I never knew him or saw him as we were growing up.  The only thing I knew about my Dad’s father was that he was a dirt farmer and was disgruntled during his lifetime.

Of course, with this great secrecy of my Dad’s life, and his disengagement from his own father, I now realize it carried over into his relationship with me. Like father, like son.

Harry Pankey loved to be on his own, whether it be on the road, or hanging out with his buddies at the Elks Club.  When it was time for him to come home, Mother would drive one of us boys over to the Club and send us inside to fetch our dad and bring him to the car. Which is why I remember so clearly our one family vacation. Dad took our family and two other families camping at Kentucky Lake. How cool it was to be with the family and his circle of friends, running around outside, fishing, swimming, playing, laughing and doing things other than silently watching our old black and white television together!

But we never returned to that vacation spot again and we seldom thereafter did things together with my Dad. We never went fishing, laughing, swimming as a family after that.  Instead, as Dad seemed to shrink from our lives, my brothers and I had to depend on each other more and more to grow up and establish our personalities on our own, probably much like Dad had to do while growing up on his family farm with his own 5 siblings. It has taken me a lifetime to learn how not to emulate my Dad’s behavior, even as I’ve realized at the same time that Dad, despite his difficulties and despite not flaunting it, possessed a magnificent redeeming quality – a good beautiful heart.

My mother, Mary Pankey, was a saint and without her and her father, Benjamin Bovinet, I’m pretty sure that I would not have felt nurtured or learned to love and remain close with my family members.  A retired postman, who worked most of his life delivering mail for the Illinois Central Railway, Grandfather Ben was a kind man who treated me well, and he taught me how to do things that my father hadn’t. We lived in a house in downtown Carbondale, only a few doors away from his home, so Grandfather Ben was always there for us boys. He gave us his undivided attention, and taught us how to fish, to use a hammer and saw, and play catch, and he provided us with those and other tools we needed to be able to build things.  Anytime we had a bicycle break down (which was often), he was there to repair a tire or hand us the proper wrench. He also liked to teach us important lessons we needed to become grownup men.

Ben clearly loved watching over us, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. Together we built tree houses and bird houses.  He also taught us how to use the lawn mower, which I later learned was his way to “Huckleberry” us into making his lawn look great in the summers. One time, after being disappointed with how I cut Grandfather Ben’s lawn, he said to me “Bobby, would you be happy if I cut your hair the way you just cut my lawn?” It was a good teaching moment and I always kept my lines straight from that time on!

I sobbed uncontrollably when my father died. Even though I knew it was not cool for a boy to cry. I knew enough of him, and had enough of him in me, to know even then that I missed him, and would miss him. And over the years I’ve learned his true impact on me. One of the things about having a father die so early in life or having a father that spent too much time elsewhere after work, was not being able to see my father create or fix things around the house. I don’t remember much, but I do remember doing assigned chores for him. We had a lot of chores, such as emptying the cinder box after the coal had burned, or mowing and raking our lawn.  My brother and I would rake the leaves every fall, help Dad paint the house, take out the trash, and clean up after ourselves. Dad would come into our bedroom some mornings and have us stand beside our beds while he would inspect how well me made the beds.  He would flip a coin on our beds to see if the coin bounced to test for how tight we tucked in our bedspreads.  He also checked under the beds and looked at the folded corners of our bedspreads for consistency. Every time I see a bed, I remember these morning visits. And I smile at how much more they were than simply bed-making.

When Dad reached his 50th year, he and mother celebrated their 25th Silver Anniversary. Then he got sick with cancer. In the early Spring of my father’s 52nd year, he passed away. He was a young man, as many people reminded me at my father’s funeral, although he looked a whole lot older at 52 than I do at 70.  When he died there was nothing left in him.  I loved him deeply and would have given my eyeteeth to have been able to pick his brain for advice on how to raise my own son and three daughters.

I don’t often see parts of my father in me, but I now know they’re there. Those precious times that Dad would spend with me, watching me dribble the basketball in our basement, teaching me to catch and throw a baseball, asking me to caddy for him at the golf course, or attending my baseball games and occasionally volunteering to umpire our games  -  I’ve shared those same precious times with my own kids. And so I’ve shared him forward.

I’m pretty sure my father was not satisfied with his life, as he had some big dreams that were never fulfilled. He was not the kind of a guy who would sit me down and have a drawn-out explanation of what I should be and what I should do when I became a man. He never talked about the War and the times he spent in the Philippine Islands, fighting and serving the troops as an Army Sergeant in charge of cooking and feeding our men in battle.  He never talked about his childhood or told stories about his escapades with his brothers and sisters while growing up.

My mother was the practical one who had worked her way up in her career, from being a part time Secretary to becoming an Administrative Assistant at the Chief Dispatcher on the Illinois Central Railroad. She earned a great pension in retirement from working with the railroad. She ended up being the primary breadwinner in our family, and I suspect this may have contributed to a sense of shame or failure felt by my father. There were not really any obvious role models out there for me to follow as a child, other than the cowboys and super heroes I saw on television. It may have been different for my older brother, Denny, since he was old enough to remember more of our Dad. Denny was the first-born, four years older, and spent way more time with Dad than me and my younger brother Tommy. Denny would regale me with tales of how Dad had taught him to drive, park, shift the manual transmission, signal, back-up -- a traditional rite of passage for young men. And it was Denny, not Dad, who taught me how to drive. Or was it?

And I remember notably how Dad had no racial bias, and would not stand for such, and for a kid in Southern Illinois, that was something my brothers and I were very proud of. Carbondale was a small but diverse college town of 18,000 people when we were growing up. But for a time Carbondale had two segregated high schools. Within about 10 years following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, they merged and Attucks High School closed, but some people in the town felt there should be no merger. Denny excitedly shared stories about Dad telling some of the Black athletes on our high school basketball team to pile into our car, when picking us up after practice. Dad would give them a lift home, across town to the “other side of the tracks” where they lived, so they wouldn’t have to walk home in the cold or snow.

As a food wholesale delivery worker, Dad took food orders for all the restaurants in town, which included those that were across the tracks in the area where the most of the black families lived. Cafés and barbeque joint owners on the east side of Carbondale would treat Dad like royalty when he would take us boys out to dinner across those tracks and give mom a rest from cooking. I loved those times because the fondness those restaurant owners showed to my Dad was real, and the food was so much better than anything we could find from other restaurants. I found myself walking and feeling a bit taller at those times.

As a teenager after my father’s death, I often found myself wondering just what it took or what it meant, to be a man. I assumed it meant that I had to know how to run faster, shoot a basketball, hit a baseball, and throw a football.  My brothers and I would compete in swimming, football, basketball, track, baseball, and these activities, in which my father had encouraged and enabled us to participate, became my obsession. I practiced all the skills it took to be successful, as an athlete, most days of the year. I also thought that coming into manhood meant that I should be chasing girls, successfully or not. As I got older, I learned that chasing girls really didn’t have anything to do with being a man. The notions of “possessing” a girl and being good friends with a girl are not the same thing. And as a father of three daughters, seeing how frustrated my girls became when their dates have cruelly broken their hearts, I wondered: Had I done the same thing to girls when I was a boy? Did my Dad teach me about this? Would I have listened if Dad tried to teach me about this? More recently I’ve also begun wondering: did Dad teach me how to learn it?

I also thought that becoming a man would depend on how frequently you could drink alcohol or how much beer you could consume. How high could you get with your friends, or how well you could fight in a scrap!  These activities were common in our generation’s culture and what it took to grow into manhood.  Improper behavior became the frequent thing to do when you were not preoccupied with sports, projects or chores at home. I was watching television shows like Gunsmoke, movies with Sean Connery in 007, and Joe Namath playing football with the Jets. They always got the girls, drank the whiskey, and broke the women’s hearts. Oh to be cool, strong, and become a man!

Sports helped me gain some popularity in high school and college, and without that, and the rules sports required me to abide by, I would never have learned the skills that were required for socializing without going overboard, getting into scraps or getting loaded. There were strict training rules that all the athletes were expected to abide by.  If we wanted to be a part of that sport, we played by the rules.  I still remember being too tired to want to violate a coach’s curfew.  Additionally, because of our financial situation after dad passed, most of the time I went without lunch, and saved the 50 cents my mother gave me to eat at the cafeteria for the weekend when I could take a girl to a pizza place or McDonalds.  For an athlete who burned close to 3,000 calories a day, going without lunch or any food until I found the dinner table at home, after practice, was tough on me physically.  I remember being hungry all the time! My body couldn’t take the training and partying late into the evening at the same time. Later, when our daughters showed a predisposition to be out of control with dating, or sneaking out of the house at night and getting loaded, I remembered myself as an athlete and how busy I was while in high school and college, playing sports and attending hours on hours of practice such that I had no time to get “out of control.”  So, my wife and I made sure our daughters enrolled into so many activities that they had little time or energy to get into any trouble during their high school years. I wish my Dad had taught me that. Or did he? 

In the middle of my athletic career, I had this image of being an alpha male and began to see it as being the least important characteristic of myself.  Inside I was pursuing something more powerful and dominant in my life: an artist in me was emerging. Where was this coming from?  I was a defensive safety for the University of Missouri, where I had earned a full-scholarship.  As a football player, there was nothing more powerful and masculine than running out on a field with 60,000 screaming fans in the stands at the University of Missouri. Running through the smoke with cannons firing and bands playing. We were in the Big 8 Conference then, and I played in some of the most amazing stadiums in America. At the same time, I began reading some sport novels like “Meat on The Hoof” by Charles Shaw, and “Out of Their League” by Dave Megessey, and began to realize that this macho-like existence I was living, while in college, was something that was not sustainable post-graduation. What would happen to me when all the “glory days” would come to an end?  My mother used to call me a “Grid Iron Centurion” since I was playing 100 years after the first American football game was played in college. I felt like a gladiator of my time, for about 20 weekends, in the early 1970’s. I can’t deny the notoriety that those days played upon me, and I took great satisfaction in becoming a successful college athlete in a big-time program.

However, that thing I was going through in becoming creative changed my life, as if it were overnight, when the last game ended.  All this time I’d assumed I was “left-brained” – analytical, methodical, stoic. Yet I now found myself experiencing creative desires and temptations. The notion of becoming a “right brained” creative type probably sprang from my early days at the University School’s elementary grades at Southern Illinois University.  At the University School, we had the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic classes but we also had daily music, daily art and daily physical education.  I literally grew up enjoying a liberal arts elementary curriculum.  I later came to realize, without being diagnosed, that I didn’t have much of an attention span with the reading, writing or arithmetic.  I eventually woke up from a mild level of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and later learned how to focus on listening and learning.  I don’t remember Mom or Dad helping me much with my homework; with three rowdy boys in the family, they left me to figure out on my own how to get it done. All I knew was, there’d be hell to pay if I didn’t get it done. So I figured it out. Back in those days at school, the teachers sat me, with my short attention span, on the back tables of our classroom with a few others that had similar attention spans.  There I could doodle and draw while occasionally listening to the teacher.  That University School had a profound effect on me and I didn’t realize the extent of this until my formal education had ended. I wish my Dad had been more involved in getting me to study and do the work, instead of leaving it to me. Or was he?  

After college I took my first education job, as a high school teacher and coach, and found that much of ideas and culture, of growing into manhood, continued with the boys I was coaching. For me, when I was a boy, the defining thing about being a man or being masculine was to be a success in sports. To be a man, I thought, was to be a college or professional athlete, even though the probability of this happening was almost statistically impossible. To be a man meant that you had to at least be interested in having sexual relationships and be aggressive and violent on and off the field.  Sports seemed to be a venue to all these possibilities! So, on and on it went, but I was realizing that being a traditional American boy, who is absolutely worthy of accolades and responsibility, or a successful athlete did not always carry over into being a man.  On my own I had to learn that you have to be willing to do the hard things outside of what you were engaged in through school, like emulating a sense of responsibility for yourself, make some sacrifices for your family or for your future generations.  My dad’s generation showed us that kind of sacrifice over and over again. Growing into manhood without much guidance from my father forced me to add that definition to my idealistic model, learn how to make money, handle my personal and financial business, and gain a sense of responsibility of being an adult. When I left Mizzou, I assumed that it was up to me to decide what I would do with my life, and how to do it, without any help from my father. I was certain I’d had, and would have, no help from my father.

I seldom sensed a full recognition of what my dad was, who my dad was, or what he had within himself. 

When I returned home to Carbondale for visits or vacations or whatever, I wasn’t able or aware enough to raise these issues with my mother. As I became older, and the opportunities to do so had passed, I started to regret that I had not inquired about the stories and experiences that my dad and mother had gone through while building a life together and raising three boys.  What kind of lessons would I have learned from that kind of a talk with my mother or father? All those important stories and lessons got buried along the way and had expired when Mom, the only remaining person who knew Dad, had passed on. I sometimes think that Harry Pankey was sort of a resentful man, who had a really rough upbringing and had carried all that same baggage along with him when he returned from WWII, got married, bought a house and had three baby boys. Not being able to talk about his misgivings, his anger, pent-up frustrations, while never showing weakness or emotion, he carried on the same old message to his sons. 

When I was in high school, I became very aware of my dad’s weaknesses, even though his outward appearance, as a strong but small statured man, seemed very self-assured and healthy.  I knew he was losing weight and had an illness.  Without knowing what my dad was going through, things began to go wrong in the first years of my high school.  In Dad’s last years of living Tom and I were witness to his steady demise. We both knew that dad was sick, but for some reason, nobody prepared Tommy and me for the reality that my father would die, now or ever. We assumed he would eventually get over this illness, just like he’d gotten over all the others. He didn’t and years later I realized and regretted what I’d failed to preserve by asking. But kids don’t ask, they don’t listen to, the parents. So there must be, surely, other ways to learn what the parents can teach us, to discover what we need to know from them?

I sometimes wonder if my Dad hadn't had a family, maybe he would have been able to go to college and perhaps have a better future or job instead of having to be out on the road and work in sales, as a career.  Dad missed his opportunity for a gratifying career and life for him took over, so when he wasn’t at the Elks Club, he sat there in the living room watching television with his beer and packs of cigarettes night after night after night!  This was his answer to it all. When Dad passed, I felt guilt but also lots of anger.  That was my picture of my father, as a man until I was well over 30 years of age.  I began to sort some of my behavioral things out but had a lot of trouble finding someone to love and have a good relationship with.  Unfortunately, my only son bore the brunt of my behavioral issues and my divorce with my first wife.  My failure in my first marriage was due to a biological time clock that went off with the first woman who paid much attention to me.  I married young without being in love.  Failing in marriage left me battered and embarrassed, but most importantly, I felt sorrow for my son.  Simply having a wife at my side was not the answer to being the man I could be.  Being a son of a father who passed on so early in life caused me great difficulty and I couldn’t find the information on what it took to be a man from my Dad since he had left me when I was a 16 years old kid. After my divorce, I tried over and over again to find love, but those same old behavioral issues kept me from finding the right person.

In the early years that I was with Jill, my wife of 32 years now, I was a bit possessive, overpowering and when we were in public, I was very anxious and occasionally had trouble sorting out my behavior.  And it was the signals I got when I was young, from my parents, that helped me realize my troubles.  As a boy, we lived in a nice home, I had two great brothers, a saintly mother and a dad who had a good heart.  At sixteen years of age, my older brother was drafted into the Army and we all feared he would be shipped off to Viet Nam.  My father would die of a horrible disease, so overnight, my family was torn apart. In my own mind, I learned that a family wasn’t a source of strength.  It isn’t that way with all families, but for me, it seemed like a family was a source that had weakened me. With a broken family I felt I lost out on a lot of possible opportunities. During the time when most boys were at their peak in growth and personal reflection, I felt little emotion, seldom had any money, was abusive to my younger brother and my girlfriends.  When Dad passed away, I felt unsafe, unsure, and wasn’t sure that I would go to college or how to grow into being a man without a father or older brother to give me guidance.  Denny being drafted into the Army, at the peak of the Viet Nam War, scared the hell out of all of us in the Pankey family. This is what I carried with me for a long, long time.

Having a broken family taught me to not depend on family, and thought that if I did, I would somehow lose my edge or be disappointed.  I just learned the need to live without, without love, without the companionship, without the ideal home that I witnessed on television shows like “Leave It to Beaver.”  When I became an adult, well into my 30s, I had a pickup truck with most of my things in tow, I lived in a cabin that I built in College Station, TX and went to Graduate School at Texas A&M, so that I might someday have a shot at a life that I could sustain and help carry me on without family.  I would occasionally live with other companions from one place to the next and feel relatively free. That's the lifestyle I was in, for a long time.  That all changed when I met Jill. She became my rock and mentor, my funny bone, best friend and most importantly, my love. I suspect in similar fashion to the way Mom was Dad’s rock, in her own way.

As my own son and daughters became adults, I’ve realized that my father had indeed taught me things. He was who he was, most likely, because of his father.  Since I didn’t see much of my father when I was young, or communicate with Dad on a personal level, I didn’t know what to make of him. But he had made me. My Dad seemed like a good man with his close friends, Peaches and Nip, and his friends accepted him because my dad showed his personality and fun side when he was with them. On the rare occasions when Dad would try to tell me what to do, or how to act, as opposed to simply showing me, I was too much in my own bubble and was eager for Dad to just leave me alone. Like pretty much every kid. I was too young, arrogant and cocky to find a way to connect to my Dad. At times he seemed like a stranger who suddenly showed up at our house late into the night. I remember my mother getting my younger brother and I out of bed, late one evening, and while holding our hands, showing us to my dad and asking him why he didn’t want to be with his boys. I don’t recall his answer but I’m not sure I fully bought the premise of the question.

There were two things that I began to understand about my dad later in my life. The first was just how memorable was the little time my dad and I spent together.  My dad gave me my first baseball glove. It was a catcher’s mitt.  So, I obsessed with playing the catcher’s position in baseball all through little league and junior high school. Every time I used it I felt I was playing catch with him.

And we would listen to music together.  Dad loved to listen to a few albums that he brought home to play on our little plastic stereo turntable. He would tune up the music and play Nat King Cole’s “Rambling Rose” and “Unforgettable,” and Toney Bennett “I Left My Heart….In San Francisco.” At the time I thought those artists were a bit corny and out of touch compared to what I heard on KXOK with my hand-held radio.  I’m a 10-year-old American boy and my Dad wants me to sit down in the living room and listen to Cole and Bennett.  I kind of don't know what I'm listening to, but as an adult, I look back and realize I became one of the few guys I know that is interested in some of the classic singers of my Dad’s time, like Frank Sinatra!  To this day I still love the singers of the 50s and 60s. The Detroit Wheels with Mitch Rider was my favorite band. Every time I hear music, I think of him.

The thing that happens when we can't find the love we want, from our father or parent, is that we learn to create the man we want to be!  But how do you get to the point where you feel intimacy with someone else?  I was way into my 30s before I even had any idea that my method of operation was to just “guess” at how to be a grown up. I’m in college playing sports, hitting the weights, being violent and angry on the weekends, and at night I’m reading creative and inspirational books and asking myself where is all this coming from? Why was I spending hours playing the guitar, drawing, making art, working out, running laps and lifting heavy weights, with no particular reason whatsoever?  Today, everything that I've cared about and everything I've written about, seems to draw from my stories I’ve learned over the years.

I’m not sure I got to be a man, in the true and proper sense of the word, until Jill came into in my life.  In a gentle way, she taught me some things I really needed schooling on. I'm 32 years into my marriage now and still looking into how to be a better man.  Since I found the artist in me, and realized how self-destructive I could be, I realized that over the years I drove away a lot of folks that I really cared about. Just like Dad. That self-destruction kept me from knowing my true self.  When I met my best friend and wife, I realized that if I wanted to follow this road, I could go ahead, but I might end up on my own again someday.  If I want to invite some people into my life, I had better learn how to do that…… and there is only one way you do that! You've got to open the doors!

My dad sometimes visits me in my dreams. My mother does as well.  I realize that when I awake, the ghostly image of my Dad never really speaks to me.  What would I say if Dad was here now? I’m still not sure. I’d like to tell him I’m not angry with him and that I forgive him for not communicating or realizing that he should have taken better care of himself. As far as communicating with me, I think my dad just didn't have the skills to do that. The lack of being able to communicate may have spilled over onto me and my brothers as well. When I realize how young my Dad was when he passed, his early death kind of makes up for a lot of my perceptions of his shortcomings. That didn’t matter so much to a 16-year-old boy at the time but it is understandable to me as an adult!  It’s taken me a lot of years to understand the shortcomings of my father but until I faced them specifically, I would wind up “wrestling with ghosts.” I would assume that many boys from broken homes all face similar dilemmas. I heard that wrestling with ghosts can be a little tricky though!  If we continually measure ourselves against someone who's not there, we may face a potential that the person you are comparing yourself to may grow in you.  To avoid this, you have to be a “thinking” boy as you grow into being a man.  You have to give into loss along the way and live up to what is right in this life.  In the early years as an adult, I would mistakenly think that I have to live up to what my father would think. I've got to prove this or that to my dad! “I’ll show him when I become successful and lead a full life!” I would tell myself that “Dad made a mistake not hanging around and seeing how good his boys had become.” 

So, many boys in America are trying to prove their worth to someone that doesn’t exist.  It becomes a lifetime journey to some, trying to prove something that isn’t really there anymore. So, we end up dreaming about those people we lost in life, or “wrestling” with ghosts.  I recall a famous singer once saying that “the trick is, you have to turn your ghosts into ancestors.” I realize now that ghosts aren’t here simply to haunt us. I know now they are sometimes here to walk alongside us, and teach us to realize that we learned things despite not knowing it at the time. My father walks alongside me, within me, as my ancestor, and I know he has been there for me for a long time now.


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