From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Cash Rewards

Writing is like religion. Every man who feels the call must work out his own salvation.

George Horace Lorimer

The student intern hovered around my desk. Deep into the process of sending out résumés and developing a portfolio, Lisa wanted to see my clippings. She was determined to find the perfect presentation and most effective samples to get her a high-powered public-relations job with big cash rewards.

As I flipped through the pages of ads, annual reports and news releases, a yellowed news clipping slipped out of the lining of my portfolio. The weathered paper was a relic from my own student intern days, over a quarter century ago. I had kept it as a reminder to myself that no matter how important the cash rewards seemed, there were other, more important benefits to a writing life. In this case, it was the ability of my writing to draw me closer to someone I loved.

That summer of 1971, most of my assignments were the routine stuff a rookie in the newsroom would expect to be doing: proofreading endless columns of type, pounding out obituaries of local businessmen or matrons, and crafting cookie-cutter “bridals.” Those were the days when we announced weddings with a good twenty inches of type: The bride carried stephanotis and baby’s breath. The bridesmaids wore empire-style gowns of lavender voile, the sleeves trimmed with broomstick lace.

One of the choicest assignments was reviewing shows at the nearby Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with a free pair of tickets going to the reviewer. Seniority determined who got their pick of the tickets, but since the only other person in the newsroom under thirty was the police reporter, he and I divvied up the coolest groups. He took Chuck Mangione and Joe Cocker; I got Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins. The older staff snapped up the crooners, big bands and symphony orchestras.

Now one pair of tickets was making the rounds of the newsroom without any takers—The Johnny Cash Show. The managing editor was getting nervous. The unspoken agreement with the arts center was they provided a season’s worth of tickets, and we delivered a season’s worth of reviews. How could we miss one of the opening acts?

I knew my father would love to go. The Johnny Cash Show was his new favorite television program, edging out The Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw for his loyalty. Still, I hesitated to ask for the tickets. I was only a summer intern, after all, and I did have Arlo and Judy already tucked under my desk blotter and a date for both shows.

I had other reasons to drag my feet. I was twenty-one, cool, a college junior—not the type who fancied herself at a cowboy concert, even for dear ol’ Dad.

Then there was my dad himself to consider. In his younger days he was eager to trip the light fantastic to the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, but of late he’d taken to finding his entertainment in quietly hoeing his garden or welding parts for the army surplus Jeeps he loved to restore. He had become a bit of a homebody. A man who’d left school after the sixth grade to support his immigrant parents, he was now struggling to put his child through journalism school. A proud veteran of World War II, he was troubled by my generation’s opposition to the war in Vietnam. I sensed that the father who wanted me to get a good education and fulfill my dreams was also a weary worker and a loyal American who couldn’t help but wonder sometimes if it was all worth it.

I mulled over these things as Father’s Day approached. Then, since I had no budget for a gift, I got those tickets and slipped them into a homemade card with a silly handwritten verse.

As we headed to the concert, I began to have my doubts again. Would my tie-dye and jeans fit in with the cowboy-shirt-and-boots crowd? Would my VW Beetle look out of place among the pickup trucks in the parking lot? Would I be the only person under fifty there? I was surprised to see as many young hippies as I did older country-western types in the audience. I learned Cash’s views on the Vietnam War had earned him a young following I hadn’t known about.

Then Johnny Cash came roaring onto the stage with all the force of a locomotive engine. I surprised myself again by being caught up in the energy and power of his performance. That locomotive image would become my lead for a powerful and positive review.

My dad and I had a great time that night and left knowing we would both remember the concert for years. He bought me a souvenir music book, and I regaled him with my versions of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”

But the biggest thrill of all—and my surprise “Cash” reward—came the next day when the newspaper hit our doorstep. My review, pulsing with the energy I felt in Johnny Cash’s performance and painting a colorful word picture of the crowd and performers, struck a note with my dad. At that moment, I think he finally understood me. He now knew why I just had to be a writer. Dad had shared in the experience that created the piece, and it made the concert live again for him.

He smiled. “Very nice, Doll,” was all he said, then he solemnly cut out the review and folded it to fit into his lunchbox and took it to the rug mill to share with his friends.

I’ve published a lot of writing since then, getting paid for most and honored for some. But no paycheck or award I ever get can make me feel better than my father’s simple show of pride in my story.

I still have my copy of the Johnny Cash review, but I don’t still have my dad. Yet the memory of his love for me and of his pride in my work carries me away—like a roaring locomotive—every time I reread it.

Michele Bazan Reed

More stories from our partners