Originally published September 1978
Reynolds is fond of citing the old Southern saying that no man is a man until his father tells him he is. “Mine didn’t tell me until I was 49,” he says. When he was growing up in Palm Beach, Florida, jokes were Reynolds’ only safe way out of a curious bind: He idolized his father, the upright local chief of police, yet he resented his old man’s lack of demonstrated love for him. He says, “Some people, like me, spend their whole lives trying to find an adult they respect, a surrogate father, to tell them, ‘You don’t have to drive 125.’ ‘You’ve got a black belt in sarcasm, what are you fighting for?’
“I had a relationship with my father not unlike a lot of men my age. He came from pioneer stock — men who didn’t believe in hugging and weren’t very good at ‘I love you.’ Today, when I say, ‘I love you, Dad,’ he goes, ‘Mmmrrwwrrrfff.’ He’s 90 and it’s a bit late to change.
“He never mistreated me, and he was the most honest man I ever knew. But to say he was strict would be very much an understatement.”
Reynolds tells two stories about his father’s approach to life. “I was nine, and he’s just been made chief. His salary was $5,000 a year. The previous chief had been on the take for the local numbers racket. This guy came in and handed my father a bag with $15,000 in it, saying, ‘You know what this is for.’ My dad dragged him onto the steps of his office, where I happened to be, and made this guy eat the money. He kept throwing up dollars, but he finally consumed most of it. Now, there’s something heroic in that kind of honesty.”
The other story about Reynolds senior shows the dark side of such rigidity. “I sassed my mother once when my father was there. I think I said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ I was 16. I went right through the closet door. I landed among all the clothes. ‘Oh, my God, Burt. I think you killed him!’ my mother said. Dad said, ‘No, he’s just asleep.’”
—“More Than Macho” by Betty White, September 1978
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