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  • Johnny Carrol Sain

Before he was Dad



“It’s my father…My God! I’d only seen him years later when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He’s got his whole life in front of him and I’m not even a glint in his eye. What do I say to him?” -Ray from Field of Dreams.


That kid with the guitar is my dad.

And in this picture he looks… cool. I don’t remember ever thinking of Dad as “cool” when I was a kid.

He listened to the very uncool Hank Williams Sr. and George Jones. He drove a primered 1964 Chevy truck with four-speed manual transmission that often hung up in first gear. He worked a swing shift at International Paper and, as a result of never having more than two weeks on a consistent sleeping schedule, he was grouchy fairly often. His high school days didn’t include sports, so he couldn’t tell me why you'd run a pick-and-roll only when the other team is in man-to-man defense. He’d rather catfish all night on the river than make cast after cast for bass like I did.


And I don’t think he ever really cared if I thought he was cool.

We had a tumultuous relationship — two people with just enough similarities to clash and too few commonalities to truly understand each other. And then, of course, he left this world just as I reached manhood. I often wonder what our relationship would be like today. I think the years and my maturity, my realizing just how much he had to give in heritage and wisdom, would have led to a something special, a friendship but also something much deeper. During one of our last conversations before he fell ill, he said we should make plans to drink a beer over a campfire. Of course, I was always too busy and he never went beyond the suggestion either, so we never did.

But this picture makes me smile. It also makes me feel a profound sense of loss. I never really had the chance to know Johnny Carrol Sain Sr. as a man and as a person, as anything other than Dad, and I feel robbed. I’m thankful for the candid photos and Uncle Dennis and Dad’s friends who have helped me gain a better understanding of who he really was. But I know it’s just an image formed in my mind from the picture and stories, that the man is gone forever.

Or is he?


I see him in the mirror, in my hands and eyes. I hear him when Maddie Carrol sings and I remember his living room sing-alongs when I watch Mackenzie strum his old guitar. I see his eyebrows on my two granddaughters. And in these glimpses of the good things he left behind, along with the stories and pictures, I think I can grasp a bit of who he was when he was just a boy and then just a man, before he was Dad.

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