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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Movie shadows writer’s complicated father-son experience

I often interview young people at the stage of their life when they are deciding what path to take as a career. Likewise, in her admissions and advising work for Southwestern Community College, Deb has such contacts on a daily basis.

We were both glad to see the movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” come to the Strand Theatre last week, because the rock group Queen was becoming globally popular as we were in our teenage into college years. The music of that stage of your life stays with you.

Besides the many familiar songs being performed in the movie, the plot was very powerful to me, personally, for reasons I’ll attempt to explain. In the movie, lead singer Freddie Mercury, who at the story’s beginning was actually Farrokh Bulsara, was an Indian-British college student in London working baggage at Heathrow Airport. He legally changed his name to his stage name.

As a young boy, his father had sent him off to boarding school in hopes of him becoming a scholar and a champion boxer. But that wasn’t in “Freddie’s” DNA.

Instead, he was gifted in creating and performing music, and an opening for a lead singer in a band he followed proved to be the opportunity he needed. They became Queen.

I can relate to this kind of relationship, and eventual understanding, between father and son. In Freddie’s case it got more complicated he was also dealing with his own inner turmoil in questioning his sexuality.

As the sole male child of a prominent Webster County farmer, Wayne Peterson, I was destined to a life on the farm. Those around me who didn’t understand my inner drive felt I had it made. He had a large farm operation near the Wright County line, nestled between Fort Dodge and Eagle Grove, on some of the richest soil that exists on the planet. It’s so flat you can see for miles.

He made a terrific living. By the time he retired he was traveling the country in a nice motor home with his wife, and had a winter place in Mesa, Arizona. How his kid could reject all of that and choose a paltry living in newspaper work — ($190 a week in my first job in Atlantic) — was baffling.

I was destined to be a farmer, but that was not what I was born to do. That’s my message to young people. Follow your passion.

I admire those who follow their parents into a particular professional field, because it’s not only difficult work, but they are willing to step into the shadow of their father or mother who has an established reputation. It’s not Easy Street like some would think.

I knew early it wasn’t for me. When dad or his hired worker, a French immigrant, was tinkering on a broken-down tractor or preparing some equipment for that day’s work as I waited to help empty a grain bin or walk a bean field, I would find myself throwing rocks toward a target on the shed wall in a pitching motion, or hitting rocks with a stick as far as I could in trying to emulate my hero, Willie Mays.

Sports was my passion. Then when a high school composition teacher told me I should think about pursuing writing as a career, I figured out a way to combine the two into a career. (That was after I realized I would not become the St. Louis Cardinals’ next third baseman, of course.)

Our family moved from the farm to Fort Dodge when I was in third grade, to ease the burden on mom trying to get kids to school activities. A few years later I overheard my dad tell a friend that “moving to town ruined him” when he was asked why I didn’t accompany him more often on the 15-mile commute to the farm.

That stung. From that moment I vowed I would forever work my butt off to prove him wrong, which is why working Thanksgiving night or Christmas night on the next day’s paper, or virtually every Sunday night for 35 years, didn’t bother me. It was just part of the process.

My childhood was simple. Play football, baseball or basketball with the neighborhood gang all day. Later at night inside the house, I’d listen to the local radio station that carried St. Louis Cardinal games, and keep a hand-made scorebook of the game on my school notebook. That’s how I learned to keep score. After the game, I’d listen closely to how players like Bob Gibson or Lou Brock were interviewed.

Those days of my youth formed my training ground for what became my career. It just wasn’t the one my father envisioned.

On a father-son trip to Florida when I was 20, someone in a Jacksonville restaurant/bar asked him what it was like being a farmer in Iowa.

“When I’m alone out there in the moonlight in the combine, harvesting what we’ve planted and looked after all summer, there’s nothing like it in the world,” he beamed, showing his passion.

I knew then why he’d been so successful. He cared. He took pride in the work.

I think I finally realized he was OK with my path in life when I sent him one of those form letters you get after winning an Iowa Newspaper Award. Gov. Terry Branstad issued a message of congratulations — like he did to all of the winners — but to dad it must have been a source of pride, because I later learned he was pulling it out and showing it to all of his buddies at the Vincent cafe.

I realized then it was OK with him to have strayed from the Peterson tradition on that farm.

“How do you do that?” he once asked me, looking over a front page article I had written in the News Advertiser on some board of supervisors matter. Trying to create something from nothing on paper, just from listening to people, seemed like an impossible task to him.

“I just sit down and it comes out,” I said, knowing of no other way to explain it.

Just like him sitting in that combine in the moonlight. It was meant to be.

Do what you were born to do, kids. If you’re lucky like me and Wayne Peterson, you’ll feel like you never worked a day in your life.


Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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