A prolific novelist, an editor, and an educator, Chinua Achebe has won countless awards for his vital contributions to African and English literature. His novel Things Fall Apart has sold more than 10 million copies all over the world and is considered by many one of the hundred greatest novels ever written. He is currently a professor of languages and literature at Bard College.
My father was born in the 1880s when English missionaries were first arriving among his Igbo people. He was an early convert and a good student, and by 1904 was deemed to have received enough education to be employed as a teacher and an evangelist in the Anglican Mission.
The missionaries’ rhetoric of change and newness resonated so deeply with my father that he called his first son Frank Okwuofu (New Word). The world had been tough on my father. His mother had died in her second childbirth, and his father, Achebe, a refugee from a bitter civil war in his original hometown, did not long survive his wife. My father therefore was not raised by his parents (neither of whom he remembered) but by his maternal uncle, Udoh. It was this man, as fate would have it, who received in his compound the first party of missionaries in his town. The story is told of how Udoh, a very generous and tolerant man, it seemed, finally asked his visitors to move to a public playground on account of their singing, which he considered too dismal for a living man’s compound. But he did not discourage his young nephew from associating with the singers.
The relationship between my father and his old uncle was instructive to me. There was something deep and mystical about it, judging from the reverence I saw and felt in my father’s voice and demeanor whenever he spoke about his uncle. One day in his last years he told me a strange dream he had recently had. His uncle, like a traveler from afar, had broken a long journey for a brief moment to inquire how things were and to admire his nephew’s “modern” house of whitewashed mud walls and corrugated iron roof.
My father was a man of few words, and I have always regretted that I did not ask him more questions. But I realize also that he took pains to tell me what he thought I needed to know. He told me, for instance, in a rather oblique way of his one tentative attempt long ago to convert his uncle. It must have been in my father’s youthful, heady, proselytizing days! His uncle said no, and pointed to the awesome row of insignia of his three titles. “What shall I do to these?” he asked my father. It was an awesome question. What do I do to who I am? What do I do to history?
An orphan child born into adversity, heir to commotions, barbarities, and rampant upheavals of a continent in disarray—was it at all surprising that my father would eagerly welcome the explanation and remedy proffered by diviners and interpreters of a new word?
And his uncle, a leader in his community, a moral, open-minded man, a prosperous man who had prepared such a great feast when he took the OZO title that his people gave him a praise-name for it—was he to throw all that away because some strangers from afar had said so?
Those two—my father and his uncle—formulated the dialectic that I inherited. Udoh stood fast in what he knew but he also left room for his nephew to seek other answers. The answer my father found in the Christian faith solved many problems, but by no means all.
His great gift to me was his love of education and his recognition that whether we look at one human family or we look at human society in general, growth can come only incrementally, and every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.
From where I stand now, I can see the enormous value of my great-uncle, Udoh Osinyi, and his example of fidelity. I also salute my father, Isaiah Achebe, for the thirty-five years he served as a Christian evangelist and for all the benefits his work, and the work of others like him, brought to our people. I am a prime beneficiary of the education that the missionaries made a major component of their enterprise. My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, and so do I. But I have also learned a little more skepticism about them than my father had any need for. Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, other European Christians, also sailing in ships, delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world? Just a thought. Patch Adams, M.D.
In 1972, Dr. Patch Adams founded the Gesundheit! Institute, an organization based on promoting available and compassionate health care throughout America and the world. A physician, a social activist, a performer, and an author, he was the subject of a feature film starring Robin Williams in 1998.
My father died when I was sixteen as a result of war. He was a professional soldier who fought during World War II and Korea. Before he died of body, he died in his soul and heart to me, his second of two sons. My father met my mom in New York City for a weekend furlough in the fall of 1944, and I was born on May 28, 1945. He first saw me long after I was born. Half of the sixteen years we had together, he was away being a soldier, an officer.
Today, his lost humanity would be foolishly and simplistically called post-traumatic stress syndrome. I don’t hear it being said that maybe the natural, healthy response to the horror of war (even when you fight for “good”) is to crumble inside, like the most potent allergic reaction (of mind) I have experienced. Healthy people cannot help but be traumatized by it. For the doctor in me, it is evidence of mental health to be traumatized by war—especially if you participated. Growing up on army bases, I saw the palpable trauma in the countless officer parties that consisted of heavy drinking and smoking. The only weeping I remember Dad doing came when he was asked about the wars. It is very natural for a son to ask questions about his father’s job. As a kid, at home, when he was in Korea—every day I thought he could be killed. As I went from age six to age nine, I began to imagine what he was doing to others.
I thought he didn’t love me as I grew up. I was a sissy, a nerd; he was the big athlete. As a teenager, I crumbled when he died suddenly. We had just begun to talk (he apologized for not playing with me and told me a lot of war stories). We moved to the South in 1961, gallantly engaged, fighting racism. I was shocked, horrified at the segregation and at how few people spoke up against it. I went to marches and sit-ins. I connected the spirit of hatred I felt in that struggle with what had killed my father—just another form. I did not fit in. When I was seventeen and eighteen, I was hospitalized. I hurt from the stupid horror. I wanted to die, unable to understand the adult world’s choosing violence and injustice over compassion and generosity. These qualities—compassion and generosity—found pure expression in my mom.
In the last hospitalization, on a locked ward, I put my intelligence to understanding all that had happened and reading and interviewing. There were alternatives to the violence and injustice. My attempted suicide had simply joined the style. I think I became a citizen and said to myself that since I am concerned about peace and justice, then I must speak up and provide alternatives. It was a call to be proactive (a call my father answered in 1942). Inherent in the effort is the opportunity to feel fulfilled with meaning. I have found this to be one of life’s enchantments.
I have lived every minute since leaving the mental hospital in 1963 in service to peace, justice, and caring for others. My father was instrumental in that choice, so indirectly my father gave me my life’s work. I decided to be nonviolent, so during the Vietnam War I put great effort into getting a conscientious objector status and succeeded in 1971. I was declared unfit to kill. My children also automatically earn the same status. What a gift Dad gave me to protect myself and children from harm. I am so glad I have not hurt people.
I’m sure the same ethical river, the activism I rode on, led me to create our free model hospital project and zealously stick to it all this time (it’s been heaven). I quickly and clearly saw the relationship between what wars are all about and what prevents the richest country of the world from caring for all of its citizens. In the last twenty-one years, I have also led as many as nine clown trips in one year. We have taken clowns into war zones three times and into many refugee camps. It is the sweetest time of my life. My brother and both of my sons assist me in this work. Combined, they made a total of ten trips in 2004.
Dad showed me the work I must do and was smart enough to court my mom and wed her. She gave me the tools needed to carry out the work with relentless glee and creativity.
Finally, Dad was an intellectual, well read in literature and ideas. When he was home while I was growing up, I saw him, in his chair, drinking and smoking heavily while reading books. Reading has been so important to me that no other pastime has intoxicated me like it has. If his reading got me reading, then I kiss his feet.
As I reflect on all this, more than I have ever done before, I feel a well of gratitude for my life of nonviolence and working for justice for all people. I’m a happy man because I was never involved in a war. I want to thank Dad for the richness of my life in such bountiful quests every day. But I would have traded all these lessons his life gave me for a regular dad, present, playful, and tender. Bertie Ahern, T.D.
Former Dublin mayor Bertie Ahern is the youngest prime minister in the Republic of Ireland’s modern history. He assumed the post at the age of forty-five after twenty years as a member of Parliament. He was born and attended school in Dublin.
My father always said to me, “Be truthful with yourself and always be truthful with others.”
Whatever about the former, you may ask how I have been in public life for more than thirty years considering the latter part of my father’s advice!
My father came from a generation that put so much emphasis on personal qualities such as truth, dignity, and respect for others. He was a wise man, but, like many of his day, he did not wear his wisdom on his sleeve. He was actively involved in the struggle for Irish independence and passionately believed in the rights and freedoms that all people should enjoy. He also knew at times that there was a terrible price to pay for such rights. And I think that is why I have always sought to understand both sides of an argument, that no one is ever totally right or wrong, that respect is due to all protagonists, and that everyone needs to be heard.
He was a quiet man, devoted to my mother and his family, and although his words were sparse, I always knew he wanted me to aspire to the values he held close. They were simple values, the same as any father would instill in his children. I would like to think that they have helped me along my life’s journey.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Dad and Me by Larry King. Copyright © 2006 by Larry King. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.