From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

The Doctor’s Son

I grew up in a small town in northern Vermont. I suppose it’s a typical small town—a few houses, lots of trees and a business district consisting of a dozen stores, two restaurants, three service stations and a doctor’s office. Like most villages in rural Vermont, Enosburg is a community where neighbors greet each other by name. Even now, although I’ve lived elsewhere for nearly twenty years, the residents of Enosburg still welcome me with a smile. “Doctor Eppley’s son is back,” they say.

My parents moved to Vermont when I was still an infant. A soft-spoken man, my father settled quietly into his medical practice. Within a few months the people of Enosburg accepted him as one of their own. Word passes quickly in small Vermont towns. They know good people when they meet them. Around town the neighbors greeted my father as “Doc Eppley.” And I soon learned that as long as I lived in Enosburg I would always be known as “Doctor Eppley’s son.”

On the first day of school, my classmates crowded around me because I was the doctor’s son. “If you’re anything like your father, you’ll be a smart boy,” my first-grade teacher said. I couldn’t stop beaming.

Throughout the first years of my life, I never tired of letting others know that my father was one of the town’s most respected citizens. Somewhere in the midst of my teenage years, however, something changed. I was sixteen years old and the neighbors still called me “Doctor Eppley’s son.” They said that I was growing up to be an honorable and industrious young man, living an honest life just like my father. I groaned whenever I heard their compliments.

I wondered how I would ever fit in with my teenage friends. Having a popular father worked to my advantage when I was younger, but now that I was in high school my father’s good name seemed like an ugly shadow that followed me wherever I went. And so when strangers asked me if I was Doctor Eppley’s son I replied emphatically, “My name is Harold. And I can manage quite well on my own.” As an act of rebellion, I began to call my father by his first name, Sam.

“Why are you acting so stubborn lately?” my father asked me one day in the midst of an argument.

“Well, Sam,” I replied, “I suppose that bothers you.”

“You know it hurts me when you call me Sam,” my father shouted.

“Well, it hurts me when everybody expects me to be just like you. I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be myself.”

I survived my last years of high school until finally I turned eighteen. The next fall I enrolled in college. I chose to attend a school far from Enosburg, a place where nobody called me “Doctor Eppley’s son” because nobody knew my father.

One night at college I sat with a group of students in the dormitory as we shared stories about our lives. We began to talk about the things we hated most about our childhoods. “That’s easy,” I said. “I couldn’t stand growing up in a town where everybody always compared me to my father. Just once, I’d like to be known as someone other than ‘Doctor Eppley’s son.’”

The woman sitting next to me frowned. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I’d be proud to have a father who’s so well respected.” Her eyes filled with tears as she continued, “I’d give anything to be called my father’s child. But I don’t know where he is. He left my mother when I was four years old.”

There was an awkward silence, and then I changed the subject. I wasn’t ready to hear that woman’s words.

I returned home for winter break that year feeling proud of myself. In four months at college, I had made a number of new friends. I had become popular in my own right, without my father’s help. My parents marveled at how much I had changed.

For two weeks I enjoyed being back in Enosburg. The main topic of interest at home was my father’s new car.

“Let me take it out for a drive,” I said.

My father agreed, but not without his usual warning, “Be careful.”

I glared at my father. “Sam, I’m sick of being treated like a child. I’m in college now. Don’t you think I know how to drive a car?”

I could see the hurt in my father’s face, and I remembered how much he hated it whenever I called him “Sam.”

“All right then,” he replied. “The keys are in the kitchen.”

I hopped into the car and headed down the road, savoring the beauty of the Vermont countryside. I drove a few miles and then stopped at a busy intersection in a nearby town. As I stepped on the accelerator my mind was wandering, and I failed to hear the screech of brakes in front of me. I only heard a thud as I reacted too late.

The woman in the car I had struck jumped out of her vehicle unhurt. “You idiot!” she screamed. “Why didn’t you look where you were going?”

I peered through the windshield and surveyed the damage. Both cars had sustained serious dents.

I sat there like a guilty child as the woman continued with her barrage of insults. “It’s your fault,” she shouted. I couldn’t protest. My knees began to shake. I choked back my tears. The woman’s words came so quickly that I didn’t know what to do. “Do you have insurance? Can you pay for this? Who are you?” she kept asking. “Who are you?”

I panicked and without thinking shouted, “I’m Doctor Eppley’s son.”

I sat there stunned. I couldn’t believe what I had just said. Almost immediately, the woman’s frown became a smile of recognition. “I’m sorry,” she replied, “I didn’t realize who you were.”

An hour later, I drove my father’s battered new car back home. With my head down and my knees still shaking, I trudged into the house and handed the keys to my father. I explained what had happened.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No,” I replied solemnly.

“Good,” he answered. Then he turned and headed toward the door. “Harold,” he said as he was leaving, “Hold your head up. There’s no need for you to slouch.”

That night was New Year’s Eve, and my family attended a small party with friends to celebrate the beginning of another year. When midnight arrived people cheered and greeted each other with laughter. Across the room I saw my father. I stepped toward him. My father and I rarely hug. But recalling the day’s events, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. And I spoke his real name for the first time in years. I said, “Thank you, Dad. Happy New Year.”

Harold Eppley with Rochelle Melander

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