THE LAST WORD: "My Father the Penguin" by Susannah McNeely (Schouweiler)
I grew up believing the Munsingwear penguin logo was a baby picture of my dad. I believed it when I was three years old; I took it for granted when I was nine, and probably didnít think of it much at all after that. Whatís worseóit just didnít occur to me to even question the connection between the little penguin and my dad until I was 22. I suppose before then, the Munsingwear-logo-as-Popís-baby picture just snoozed quietly in my subconscious.
Youíve seen the shirts Iím talking about. Munsingwear makes a variety of those thin knit golf shirts with the stiff collars. They used to be popular weekend playclothes for men my dadís age and, apparently, now with the ironically-inclined hipster, thrift-store-shopping set. I Googled the company recently and was inexplicably saddened to see that Munsingwear isnít in evidence much these days at department stores apart from underwear, socks and Cosby sweaters. I guess they must not be doing a roaring trade on the golf shirts anymore.
When I was about 22, I was at the mall with my folks (it must have been winter break from college) and saw a guy walking by, wearing a shirt with the familiar penguin. I immediately called to my dad, ďHeeey. Whatís he doing wearing your baby picture?Ē Then I had a moment of cognitive dissonance as the yearslong fabric of fatherly lies unraveled. I turned to look at him. Heís a quiet man most of the time, soft-spoken and endowed with a dry, eccentric Texan wit and known talent for fabrication. When I looked at him, there was a look of profound satisfaction, of longstanding patience at last rewarded, in the shit-eating grin on his lean face.
Heíd planted valuable little lie seeds, years ago, tended them through the years with just a bit of food and water; and it gave him great pleasure to finally pick and eat that ripe fruit. Of course, I was appalled at my gullibility (in your twenties you like to think you at last have the world figured out); but I was also a bit awed (not for the first time, unfortunately) at my dadís patience and skill. The Munsingwear penguin, of all things. Youíve got to applaud his devotion to the pure science of fatherly fiction. Sure, lots of fathers lie to their children, itís one of the perks of parenthood; but I realized in that moment that my own father is one of the elite, a true master of the craft.
I think he must have first told me the penguin tale in a preverbal stage of my development. I suspect that was crucial. He never forgot the story, never wavered from it, but (and hereís where the genius lives) he didnít beat it into the ground with repetition or pomp either. He was subtle. Thorough. I certainly donít remember a time in my childhood when I wasnít aware of Dadís affiliation with the Munsingwear penguin. The trick of it was so elegantly simple: the penguin was just was one of many things Dad tucked into his bio as I grew upóno different for me than his motherís cedar chest filled with family odds and ends, or his grainy old black and white pictures of nameless ancestors on dusty west Texas cotton farms. It wasnít even particularly noteworthy.
Of course there are obvious questions you might poseóMunsingwear isnít exactly uncommon (or wasnít in the í70s when Dad was wearing them all the time); how did I not notice other men wearing these golf shirts and put two and two together? Perhaps you might point out the key vulnerability in his story, the whole penguin thing. And, how did I not question why one would sew a baby picture onto a golf shirt, penguin or no? Again, I say, if itís entered into the family lore soon enough, before the kid has much analytical skill in place, itís not so unreasonable to think such a story might persist (in my case for years) unchallenged. I was simply a victim of Dadís scientific inquiry, his own personal child psychology experiment.
Hereís another beaut: when I was little he told me that if you walk with a really long, deliberate stride, and if you hop a little bit at just the right time as you do it, you can gradually build momentum (scientifically enhancing those long strides) until leaping buildings and fences doesnít present much of a problem. He claimed it was just a matter of good timing and patient practice. I tried that one outóthat was his critical mistake, giving me something I could test on my own. (You neednít bother with your own experiments. Iíve come to the conclusion itís not such a scientifically sound way to fly, after all.)
Today, I called him to see if there were more of his undiscovered deceptions I might still be holding onto. Heís newly retired from the railroad, so I happened to catch him on the golf course; heíd just finished his last hole. He laughed innocently, and implied that heíd long since reformed and come clean. But I have my doubts. Iíve been thinking all this over, and Iím fairly certain Iíve still got some of those seedlings left to find, more jarring revelations in my future. Try as I might, Popís not letting me see whatís up his sleeve. Heís still waiting to see what bears fruit. And so am I.
Originally published in the January 2005 issue of Ruminator magazine
(Copyright Susannah Schouweiler. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced without written permission of the author.)
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