My View

Robert Wallace: The secret of the universe

July 16, 2013 

Robert Wallace


Let’s start with the personal. Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed. But it is that kind of writing that I am personally drawn to. I write what I know not because I like being vulnerable but because it might be something someone else finds meaningful.

When I was a boy, my father liked to sit at the kitchen table, smoke Camel cigarettes, and listen to the radio. He loved to listen to baseball games from places in the country he knew he would never visit. He also liked to find stations that had radio personalities who told stories. It didn’t matter what kind of story. Any story would do.

I had problems sitting still as a boy, but I could sit and listen to the radio with my father. He liked to sit with his legs crossed at the knee, a cigarette in one hand, and he would sit hunched over because often the sound coming from the radio was scratchy. I couldn’t talk when I sat with my father at these moments, and, if I did say something, he would sharply go “shh,” and hold his forefinger to his lips. I loved it when my father would laugh. He had cacophonous chuckle that didn’t seem to fit him right; it was high pitched for a tall man.

My father liked to tape record his voice and he loved to tell his own stories.

In the summer he liked to take his children to the lake. He used to stand in the water at his shins, like a giraffe, all legs and neck, the thin torso that held the two together. He loved to put his children on his shoulders.

“Stand up,” he’d yell.

“No,” I said once.

He reached over his head and stretched his arms toward my arms. I’m all hunched over; my legs shaking.

“When I let go, stand straight up,” my father said. “I’ll hold you by your legs.”

By the time I’m vertical my head was about ten feet above the water. I felt the heat of the sun upon my back. I could reach and touch the sky.

“One,” my father said, and he began to go up and down in the water.

“Two. Get ready.”

As he dipped down for the last time, I began to lose my balance and started to bend my knees.


My father rose out of the water and launched me and for a second I felt like I was flying, but I forgot to extend my legs. I splashed into the water and came up grinning.

“That wasn’t much of a dive, Bobby,” my father said. “You can’t meet the world all balled up. Stretch yourself out next time.”

Life was serious to my father.

My father had big, calloused, thick-fingered hands with clear, clean nails that were bitten off at the end. Once he took me to an orchard – the rural part of Michigan was full of orchards – and I watched him take out a pocket knife and begin cutting away at one of his calluses, digging under the rough, hard skin. He had a habit of doing this while I stood beside him, quiet.

In that orchard, 46 years ago now, he pulled an apple from a tree, and rubbed the apple on his shirt sleeve and the chest part of his shirt. He smelled the apple, cut it open with his pocket knife, trimmed away the skin into one long peel. He cut away the core and licked the naked apple. I watched his pink tongue go over the flesh; its thousands tiny taste receptors removing the surface juices.

Only months earlier my father had lost his wife of 10 years.

“Do you suppose she’s out here?” he asked.


“Your mother.”

I laughed. “Yes, she’s in the trees,” I said.

“Let’s look,” he said.


I watched my father run off like some kind of galloping horse, searching behind the trees, as if he was seriously looking for her.

My father once told me: “Your family is the most important investment you will ever make.”

From him I learned to throw a baseball. To comb my hair. To tell time on an analog watch. When my father cooked, he made eggs and spaghetti, just as I do now. From him I learned to be quiet, and to listen. To tie my shoes. From my father I learned to tell stories.

“Telling stories increases one’s love of the universe,” he said.

And so it does.

Robert Wallace, author of "Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand,” published by Press 53, can be reached at

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