Wiley Rutledge

Wiley Rutledge dances with an employee at a McDonald’s in Gray, Tenn., circa 2005. “It was impossible for my dad to be in the presence of other people and not entertain them,” according to his son, Mark Rutledge.

I read about a father who disappeared after coming around for a few brief visits during the earliest years of his son’s life. Told by the son, the story was about how for three decades he waited and wondered and applied what few things he knew about his dad toward assembling his own identity.

My father’s life was shaped in a similar way having lost his father as a small child. That trauma was compounded a few years later by the death of the only other strong male figure in his life — an older brother killed in a military plane crash.

It left Dad both the youngest of six and the only man in his family.

Knowing how much I still lean on my father’s influence for navigating my own life, it’s nothing short of amazing what he accomplished without that kind of support.

I don’t have a son, but I recall one of my friends who does telling me once how his teenager was “pulling away.” My friend knew from experience that it was not really a conscious effort on his son’s part. “It’s what sons have to do,” he said.

I certainly pulled away from my dad. There were four wheels to speed the process after I turned 16. That was when summer vacations became something that I did with friends.

My mother shared with me a few years ago how badly it bothered my father when I lost interest in the family road trips. His bowing to my independent wanderlust had looked easy from my perspective. But he was steering without any teenage-son experience to guide him.

Even while I was pulling away from him, I knew that my dad was cooler than most. He was a preacher who let church out early when The Beatles were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” When I was 13, he took me on the ultimate road trip — a motorcycle ride from Johnson City, Tennessee, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

There were people back then who said a preacher should not ride motorcycles. He was too busy charting his own path to let those people define his ministry.

Dad took his job seriously, but he was never stiff or pious about it. He often introduced me to strangers by saying, “This is my son Mark, with whom I am sometimes pleased.”

Had he not been a preacher, I’m positive he would have been an actor or comedian. In fact he was a comedian, with standup routines that were in high demand on the regional after-dinner circuit.

A lot of people can walk into a crowded room and be entertaining. It was impossible for my dad to be in the presence of other people and not entertain them. For my siblings and me, it went from mortifying to eye-rolling, and then, “You’ll never guess what Dad did in McDonald’s this morning?”

He could have accomplished anything he wanted, but he was destined to be a minister. Dad was good at helping the hurting because he knew their pain inside and out. Smart and talented people like my father often are quite sad behind the eyes.

My dad experienced severe bouts of depression right up until the last months of his life. One of the few good things about the Alzheimer’s disease that took him nearly 13 years ago was that it allowed him finally to forget his sorrow — and die without it.

My dad gave his kids a lifetime of fatherly love and support that was mostly absent from his own life. There’s some kind of miracle behind that.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com.