From October 17, 1932 until July 22, 1947 the columns of Howard Vincent OBrien ran as a daily feature, All Things Considered, appearing in the right-hand column of the venerable newspaper. Only during brief interludes when he was on shipboard, vacationing or ill, was the right-hand column missing. When it was missing for more than two days, the switchboard of the old Daily News was clogged with calls from people worrying that he was ill or dead. I include a column now because there are people who believe that Mike Royko was this citys greatest columnist. Not soalthough Mike was the legendary hard-drinking, hard-playing newspaperman who never went to college and wrote with the cadence of the blue-collars almost every day.
But Howard Vincent OBrien was differentand, in my view, much better. He wrote against great odds. Failing eyesight forced him to get rid of his great hobby, photography. Later it meant he had to write longhand with a heavy black pencil, only a few words to a page because the writing had to be big enough for him to see. Afflicted with cancer, he wrote almost to the very day of his death. Here is a column written on January 8, 1942 the day his son left for the army:
There was no band, no flags, no ceremonial. It wasnt even dramatic. A car honked outside and he said, Well, I guess thats for me. He picked up his little bag and his mother said, You havent forgotten your gloves?
He kissed his mother and held out his hand to me. Well, so long, he said. I took his hand but all I could say was Good luck!
The door slammed and that was thatanother boy gone to war.
I had advised waiting for the draftwaiting at least until he was required to register. I had pointed out that he was not yet of age. He had smiled at that and assured me that his mind was made up. He wanted peace, he said. Without peace, what good was living?
There was finality in the way he said thisa finality atr once grim and gentle. I said no more about waiting.
After the door closed behind him, I went upstairs. I went to what had been his room. It was in worse chaos than usual. His bureau was litteredan incredible collection of things, letters, keys, invitations to parties he would never attend.
Clothing was scattered aboutdancing pumps, a tennis racquet his collection of phonograph records, his trumpet gleaming in its case.
I went then to my room. On the wall was a picture of a little boy, his toothless grin framed in tawny curlsthe same boy who had just taken my hand and said, Well, so long.
Not much time, I thought, between the making of that picture and the slamming of the front door. Not much more than a decade. Suddenly, a queer thing happened. Objects came alive, whispered to me. The house was full of soft voices. They led me up to the atticto a box of toy soldiers, a broken music rack, a football helmet, a homemade guitar, schoolbooks, class pictures, a stamp album, a penny bank with the lid pried off
ancient history, long hidden under dust.
The voices led me to a filing case and a folder stuffed with papersreport cards, letters, among them the wail of an exasperated teacher: Though he looks like an angel
Telegrams, passports, a baptismal certificate, a ribbon won in a track meet, faded photographs (one taken on the memorable first day of long pants), a bit of golden hair.
I sat down and thought how time had flown. Why, it was only yesterday when I had held him in my arms! That, somehow, made me remember all the scoldings I had given him, the preachments, the exhortation of virtue and wisdom I did not myself possess
I thought, too, of that last inarticulate good luck, that last perfunctory handclasp and I wished I had somehow been able to tell him how much I really loved him. Had he perhaps penetrated my brusque reserve? Had he perhaps guessed what was in my heart?
And then I thought, What fools we are with our childrenalways plotting what we shall make of them, always planning for a future that never comes, always intent on what they may be, never accepting what they are!
Well, curly-head, youre a man now, bearing your bright new shield and spear. I hated to see you go out of my house and close the door behind you, but I think I would not have halted you if I could. I salute you sir. I cannot pretend that I am not sad but I am proud, too. So long.
That column was reprinted nation-wide. See how simple it is, how spare the prose? There are more columns from Howard Vincent OBrien about curly-head and Ill be bringing them to you on occasion. For you and yours, happy Fathers Day.