My Old Man—Fathers, Sons and 'Simul' in Hemingway

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“Well Butler got his, all right.” The other guys said, “I don’t give a goddam if he did, the crook. He had it coming to him for all the stuff he pulled.”

“I’ll say he had,” said the other guy, and tore the bunch of tickets in two.

And George Gardner looked at me to see if I’d heard and I had all right and he said, “Don’t you listen to what those bums said, Joe. Your old man was one swell guy.”

“But I don’t know. Seems like when they get started they don’t leave a guy nothing.”

So ends one of Hemingway’s best short stories, or at least one of my favorites. “My Old Man” was one of the first he ever published and it indicated all the greatness that would give this man his literary moniker, Papa. A grossly flawed character I can’t help but love for all his warts.

“My Old Man” is the story of a single father, a grossly flawed character, told through the eyes of his son who can’t help but love him. The father is a jockey in post-WWI Europe. The story starts at the Galleria in Milan and ends in France. There is a tense conversation going on at a café there in the Galleria and in the end the father sells his equipment and takes the boy to France. It isn’t said why, but the indication is that the father is really just too heavy to be a jockey anymore. Either that, or because of that he’s rigged a couple too many races and needs to get out of town.

A good portion of the book dwells on one such rigged race where if his father isn’t responsible for the rigging he certainly benefits in a big way. They are in France, at one of the bigger races. The favorite is a big yellow horse named Kzar, who has all the promise of Seabiscuit. The horse looks like “nothing but run.” Everyone bets on him. But Kzar’s jockey, George Gardner, tells the dad, Butler, to bet on a different horse, the horse that wins. He bet all he had, and won a fortune. But the sins of the father are first revealed to Joe, his son. George is praised as being a great jockey not because he can win a race, but because he can throw a race even while riding atop such a magnificent and competitive beast of a horse like Kzar who doesn’t lose easily.

The halo is tarnished. At first it looks as if the fortunes have changed for the hard luck single father, but the story will end in tragedy as his iniquities are inevitably visited on the son. There just isn’t anyway that the father feels his just deserts without the son being adversely affected. It stands as a warning for all fathers who have to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible for more than themselves. It isn’t merely a “Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon” situation with fathers and sons, though there is that. But the children feel it too, right down to the second and third generations who can’t help but to suffer for the poor decision of a father that brings ruin to his family. And nothing could punish the father more than seeing his children suffer for his own sins and failures.

Butler buys a horse of his own, and begins to race in steeple chases where it seems that perhaps a slightly overweight jockey with his best days behind him might have half a chance to make a living for him and his son. But it is his downfall. The son watches as the horse he invested everything in falls on top of his father, killing him and breaking his own leg. The boy is left with nothing, and now the imprudent men, jockeys tearing up their own worthless tickets, are not even ashamed to speak ill of the dead in front of the son for crimes the torn tickets implicate them in too. In this story, everyone behaves badly, there isn’t a one of them good, no not one. They are all flawed characters. Joe knows that. He knows that they are probably right in everything they are saying about his father. And the only one left to defend his father’s reputation is a partner in crime.

It perfectly sums up the dilemma for the flawed characters who make up the population of fathers and sons in this messed up world where even the saints are sinners in need of forgiveness. The fourth commandment weighs heavy on a son’s soul. Honor your father and your mother that it may go well with you. What does that mean? No, really. Not in the abstract answer of a catechism, but in a world where fathers can’t help but be sinners, and their sons no less so.

Joe’s example is tame. He had a father who made his living in one big gamble after another. So what if he all but rigged the Kentucky Derby and threw the Triple Crown, and in the process fleeced the rich flocking to the show? They got their show, everything they came for and more. It’s the paradox of the ponies, no one ever wins big betting for the favorite. The odds against him winning aren’t high enough for anyone to win big. But the odds are the odds, and it’s a fool’s game to bet against them. Still, it’s fun to watch them run, and between races there are always the funny hat fillies to entertain at the bar. Yet such justification is hollow. Isn’t it? In the end it doesn’t leave a guy nothing but an empty black hole in the pit of his stomach, and an aching soul.

'Seabiscuit on workout with George Wolf' by Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons | License - Public Domain
'Seabiscuit on workout with George Wolf' by Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons | License - Public Domain

There is something odd about it all, trying to justify one’s father with such moralizing, the kind that often takes up way too much time at what passes for funerals these days. Any attempt to do so is in effect an admission of guilt on behalf of your father. Go ahead, play George Gardner if you like. There just isn’t any amount of justifying him that is going to speak louder than the wages of sin that is death. The hole just gets deeper. It opens up into the dark abyss.

Of course, this is also at the heart of the problem with theodicy—the act of justifying God. Not only does it reflect the conundrum at the center of every father-son relationship—save that between the Father and Jesus—but it too often reflects the problem we as children have with our Father in heaven. We hear people speak ill of Him all the time. God gets blamed for tragedy after tragedy in this world—not the least being the untimely death of fathers or, heaven forbid, the untimely death of children. And then it doesn’t really matter if we have a George Gardner in our corner. When they get going they don’t leave a guy nothing—not even a God to trust in, a Father to cry to.

We can’t afford to justify Him. To do so says we think He is guilty in the first place. It’s hollow. It leads to an even emptier place than that black pit in your gut that tries to consume your soul. When we justify Him, we leave no room for Him to justify us.

We leave no room for Him to justify us, the whirlwind speaking to Job. To justify us. It is the heart of the heavenly Father reflected in every earthly father who would defend, protect and justify his children no matter how flawed in character they might be. They too often know where that character flaw comes from. No, a father might find occasion to discipline a child. So, God will discipline to the third and fourth generations. But a father never loses love for his wayward children. They sit there on the porch looking east for the return of the prodigal, holding out mercy, waiting to be gracious beyond measure. This is our Father who justifies us in the death of His only begotten Son. It was upon Him that He poured out His wrath on the cross, that in Christ He might show mercy to those whom He chooses to show mercy, to be gracious to you when He hears the voice of his Son cry, “Forgive them Father they know not what they do!”

So here we find the answer of what it means to honor our father and our mother. We honor them not by justifying them before others and glossing over their flaws, but in thanking God for them, thanking God for the forgiveness of sins with which He makes sinners into saints and lets the simul rule in their lives and ours. The simul—that is, short for Luther’s teaching that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners. It’s the reality of our lives. We aren’t saints for having done anything that might make a father proud, or a father’s son for that matter. None of that would count for anything but sin if it wasn’t for Jesus Christ. Yes, even our best works would be counted as sin if it wasn’t for the childish obedience of Jesus Christ that led Him to the cross for our sins. He’s the one who fulfills the fourth commandment so that it may go well with us. He’s the one upon Whom the Father visited iniquity to the third and fourth generation, that He might show love to a thousand generations of those who love Him. And there is no justifying Him. There is only believing on Him, and trusting him. Because it is in the death of His Son Jesus Christ that we are justified, our fathers are justified, and our sons are justified and we all together become children of the Father, coheirs of the kingdom.

When He gets going He leaves a guy everything, because He can’t help but love us flawed characters despite our warts. We are His children.