In this Father’s Day episode, we’ll hear a 9-year-old conducting an interview with his dad, a father and son remembering the giant of a man who came before them, and a dad recalling how he fell into his role in an unexpected way.
StoryCorps 431: Sounds Like a Dad to Me
Michael Garofalo (MG): We’ve recorded a lot of interviews over the years here at StoryCorps, and one thing that has proven true again and again is this: If you ask a person what they’re proudest of in their life, 99 percent of the time, they’ll say their kids. It doesn’t matter what walk of life they come from. Becoming a parent consistently ranks as one of the most important event of someone’s life. And, in honor of Father’s Day, we’re going to hear about dads in this episode. What it means to become one.
Albert Sykes: I remember when the doctor pulled you out. The first thing I thought was that he was being too rough with you. And he actually held you like a little Sprite bottle. And he was like, here’s your baby.
MG: What impressions they leave on their kids.
Thompson Williams (TW): He could swear with the best of them. It sounded like music.
MG: And how being a dad is so much more than just biology.
Ollie Cantos: One day the store clerk, she said, is that your son? And you know, before I could answer you put your arm around me and you said, yeah, that’s my dad.
MG: From NPR, this is the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo, we’ll be back after this short break. Stay with us.
MG: Welcome back. My co-host for this Father’s Day episode is one of our producers is Von Diaz.
Von Diaz (VD): Hey, Michael.
MG: So, this first story you’re going to play us is something that you produced, and the other two are some of your favorites about dads that you dug up from the archive.
VD: That’s right. First we’re going to hear from Albert Sykes, which is a story we recorded on the mobile tour in Jackson, Mississippi, and we’re also going to hear from Albert’s nine year old son, Aiden. Aiden is the oldest of Albert’s three kids. He’s in the fourth grade, and he had some questions for his dad.
AIDEN SYKES: Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
ALBERT SYKES: I remember when the doctor pulled you out. The first thing I thought was that he was being too rough with you. And he actually held you like a little Sprite bottle. And he was like, here’s your baby. That was the most proud moment of my life. Don’t tell your brothers ’cause there’s three of you all. But it was like looking at a blank canvas and just imagining what you want their painting to look like at the end but also knowing you can’t control the paint strokes. You know, the fear was just I got to bring up a black boy in Mississippi, which is a tough place to bring up kids, period. But there are statistics that say black boys born after the year 2002 have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison. And all three of my sons were born after the year 2002.
AIDEN: So Dad, why do you take me to protests so much?
ALBERT: (Laughter) I think I take you for a bunch of reasons. One is that I want you to see what it looks like when people come together – but also that you understand that it’s not just about people that are familiar to you, but it’s about everybody. Did you know the work that Martin Luther King was doing was for everybody, and it wasn’t just for black people?
AIDEN: Yes, I understand that.
ALBERT: Yeah. So that’s how you’ve got to think. If you decide that you want to be a cab driver, then you’ve got to be the most impactful cab driver that you can possibly be.
AIDEN: Are you proud of me?
ALBERT: Of course. You’re my man. I just love everything about you, period.
AIDEN: The thing I love about you, you never give up on me. That’s one of the things I will always remember about my dad.
ALBERT: Well, you say that like I’m on the way out of here or like I’m already gone.
AIDEN: So Dad, what are your dreams for me?
ALBERT: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolded.
VD: That was nine year old Aiden Sykes and his dad, Albert, in Jackson, Mississippi.
MG: So can you tell us a little bit more about Albert?
VD: Sure, so Albert is in his early 30s. He was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, he tells people often that he grew up on the same street where Medgar Evers was famously murdered in the ’60s, and growing up a lot of his mentors were part of the Civil Rights Movement, and something you hear in this interview that I really love is that Albert doesn’t shy away from having hard conversation with his son.
MG: Totally, and you can tell there are moments when he feels a little bit uncomfortable. You can tell from the nervous laugh, or you can actually hear the smile in his voice when he’s challenged with kind of a tough question.
MG: And I love hearing conversations where parents get a kick out of their kids like that.
VD: Absolutely. And who wouldn’t get a kick out of Aiden? “So Dad?”
MG: So another thing that strikes me about this story is the proverb at the end—which I had never heard before. One thing we talk about at StoryCorps is we’re building an archive of people’s wisdom about lives well lived, and I think this is a great example of that.
MG: So who’s next?
VD: Next, we’re going to hear from Kiamichi-tet Williams and his dad, Thompson Williams. They live in Denver, Colorado, and Kiamichi-tet wanted to ask his dad questions about his grandfather Melford, who was a World War Two vet, raised eight kids in the 50s and 60s, and was a Native American tribal leader with the Caddo Nation.
Kiamichi-tet Williams (KW): I actually never met your dad, my grandfather. What was he like?
Thompson Williams (TW): He wasn’t the biggest guy but people reacted to him like he was a giant. He could swear with the best of them–it sounded like music–but he never used it to be angry with somebody. I remember my mom would tell me, ”Your dad tried to spank you once and he cried instead.” He had a kind heart.
And I remember in grade school there was a little kid, he was mentally retarded. One day, um, there was a bunch of us and we started throwing bottle caps at him. I picked one up and threw it–it smacked him in the head. I turned around and my dad was standing there. And I thought, Oops I’m really in trouble now. But he looked at me, tears in his eyes, and he said, “Maybe I didn’t teach you how to look after others. That’s my fault.”
You know, he could’ve stabbed me in the heart and it wouldn’t have hurt as much. I don’t know, maybe that’s why I became a special ed teacher. He had a lot of lessons that I hold onto to this day.
When I was young, I came home one day and I said, ”Dad, I was told men don’t cry.” He looked at me and he said, “Son, that’s a lie. If you don’t cry, you don’t get rid of that poison that’s in your body, that hurt, that pain. That’s the only way you can truly be strong.”
That was one of the most powerful things that I’ve learned from him. And that’s how I’ll always remember him, the way I’d want to be remembered–as a good man.
VD: That was Thompson Williams with his son Kiamichi-tet in Denver, Colorado. And Thompson mentioned that he is a special education teacher—he’s also now the coordinator for Indian Education for Jefferson County, which is the largest school district in Colorado.
MG: I especially loved how his father felt that it was his responsibility to teach his son how to take care of others. Did you ever receive any advice or wisdom like that from your folks?
VD: Yeah, as I was listening to these stories again, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. When I was about five or six years old, I was forgetting things a lot. I would forget to put my books in my room or I would forget to take my book bag out of the kitchen, and my dad gave me a small notebook and told me that I should keep it in my pocket all the time so I could stop forgetting things. And, now I’m a reporter and I keep a notebook in my pocket all the time. So yeah, clearly it stuck.
MG: So this next and last story is about becoming a dad but not in the usual way.
VD: Yeah. So this is a very different kind of story. In it, we’re going to hear from three brothers in Arlington, Virginia. Their names are Leo, Nick, and Steven, and they’re fourteen year old triplets. They’ve all been blind since birth, and growing up, their single mom had a hard time caring for them, and she rarely allowed them outside of the house. But, when they were ten years old, Ollie Cantos, who is also blind and lived nearby, found out about them and went and knocked on their door. Ollie begins the conversation.
OLLIE CANTOS: I had a lot of trouble growing up because I didn’t have any friends, really. I was made fun of a lot. There’d be people who would put their hands in front of my face and say, how many fingers am I holding up?
NICK: Same thing.
CANTOS: Same thing with you guys, right?
CANTOS: So what were things like growing up?
LEO: Well, every day was like: Wake up, go to school, come back home, and you stay there for the rest of the day. There were certain things that I wish I could do, like go out and play in the snow like everyone else. ’Cause I heard kids through the window, we could hear that they were having fun. The only thing I remember, when I was seven, we went to McDonald’s and we went to the park. We rarely went outside.
NICK: It was getting so bad that I wanted to die. But it was one of the decisions that I’m glad I did not make because then I would have missed out on everything.
CANTOS: Do you remember that night when I first arrived?
NICK: Oh, yeah. I do. ’Cause I certainly didn’t know that there were other blind people except me and my brothers.
CANTOS: You didn’t believe me that I’m really blind so I’m like, well, yeah, here’s my cane. And then you left and came back with a book, and you put my hand on it and it was the Bible. You couldn’t believe that I actually read Braille.
NICK: It just made me feel like I had a person that I could trust – because I didn’t trust anyone.
CANTOS: I took you guys individually to learn how to use your canes better, and we’d just go to the corner store. And I remember Leo, one day the store clerk, she said, is that your son? And you know, before I could answer you put your arm around me and you said, yeah, that’s my dad. And I said, do you know that that means?
You said, well, you take us places, you protect us, you help us with our homework. Sounds like a dad to me. Whenever I hear you call me dad, it’s the highest compliment to me. You three used to be in the same situation that I was, and to see you come out of that and to be the way you guys are now, it’s impossible to describe how grateful I am that I get to be your dad.
VD: That’s Ollie Cantos with fourteen year old triplets, Leo, Nick, and Steven in Arlington, Virginia. And Ollie is now in the process of formally adopting the brothers.
MG: You know, what I really love about that piece is that a dad doesn’t have to be the dad that you were born with. Your dad could be your neighbor. Your dad could be your best friend. You know, your dad could be anyone that takes on the role.
VD: Yeah, and in all three stories the meaning of being a dad here is not necessarily about biology.
MG: Well Von, thanks so much for choosing these stories and sharing them with us on the podcast.
VD: Thanks, Michael, it was fun.
MG: And a quick nod to the other producers whose work was featured on this podcast—that’s Jud Esty-Kendall and Jasmyn Belcher Morris. You can hear more of these stories on StoryCorps.org and you can find out how to download our new app, which is on google play and the iTunes store to record an interview with your own dad this Father’s Day. For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.