Albert Arnold Gore

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Albert Arnold Gore Sr.

Al loses his first race in 1930. The election is for county superintendent of schools, and he loses by a margin so wide that the shame and anger send him back to the farm in Possum Hollow. The farm has fallen into disrepair since he last saw it. His father tells him he put all the money in different banks—a kind of insurance, he says. He didn’t expect all the banks to fail. Now the family is getting by on warm eggs and fresh milk. They are ill clothed and ill. Al’s father asks him to stay, and of course, he says yes.

He stays for a year, until the telegram comes. His opponent in the county race has died, recommending on his deathbed that Al replace him. This is his chance to get out of Possum Hollow and maybe, someday, to get out of Tennessee. Whether or not he’s earned it, he doesn’t care. He’s ready to go, and he goes.

Al leaves without his father’s blessing. In fact, his father curses so loudly, the words fill Al’s ears the whole train ride to Carthage. When he gets his first paycheck, he sends ten dollars to his father. He sends ten dollars every month for fourteen years, but he never hears the sound of his father’s voice again.

Of all the lessons he has learned from his father, whose name is also Al, this is the one Al learned best: people who cannot get along should just stay the hell away from one another. It’s a lesson he applied often in his time as senator. It’s why he voted against integration in ’59, ’62, and ’64. It’s why he took the floor of the Senate in ’51 to suggest they raise a nuclear wall to split Korea in two. It’s why he quit the Senate for a year in ’44 and flew across an ocean to get the Germans out of Poland.

And it’s why he stays awake long after his children have fallen asleep, whispering words of affection under their doors. When they’re old enough to know what they want, they may not want him anymore. He needs to make sure the words they remember him saying are the ones he truly means.

Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

When Al’s father tells Al he has to go to war to save his Senate seat, it’s difficult for Al not to feel just a little bit like Jesus Christ. There is something solemn about the request, which comes on the day of Al’s graduation from Harvard. He is wearing a tie underneath his crimson gown. “Pomp and Circumstance” rings in his ears.

“I’m in trouble, Al,” his father says. “The kind of trouble only a son in uniform can fix.”

Al knows it’s for the greater good. He knows that his father wants to end the war, but that he can’t end it from the outside. He has to be in the room, and it’s Al’s job to put him in the room. All sons know that there are things you do for your father because he needs them. This is one of those things.

Al does his basic training at Fort Dix, where for eight weeks all he thinks about is Tipper. On leave in Tennessee before his deployment, he proposes. He does it like a gentleman, down on one knee, red velvet box in hand. He addresses her as “Mary Elizabeth.”

It’s especially dramatic because he thinks he’s on his way to Vietnam, where boys go with fresh haircuts and bright eyes and come back with missing pieces. Some of them don’t come back at all. But he isn’t called to Vietnam. The Republicans worry it will lend his father sympathy votes, so instead, they send Al to Fort Rucker, in Alabama.

In November, Al’s father, whose name is also Al, loses his Senate seat. Al watches the election results on television like everyone else. A week later, he is sent to Bien Hoa to retread tanks and catch bullets with his body.

On the long plane ride over, Al looks around at other people’s sons. What is it they think they’re sacrificing for? For Al, it was so clear, so immediate, and so perfect. But now the good is gone, and if he dies in the jungle, he will know it is for nothing.

Albert Arnold Gore III

In 1991, when Al is nine years old, his father takes him outside to teach him how to fight. Al has not asked to be taught to fight, doesn’t like fighting, doesn’t want to feel his knuckles against his father’s skin, but his father tells him it’s important, so he goes.

The braces have only just come off his legs from when the car hit him a year ago. It knocked him so hard he flew for thirty feet and woke up a week later in the ICU. Now his father wants to know if the kids in his class are making fun of the way he walks, teasing him about his missing teeth.

Little Al shakes his head. No. Nothing like that. The only one who seems to have anything mean to say at all is his father who, at this moment, is clearing a space in the cluttered backyard. He kicks a half-deflated soccer ball into the overgrown vegetable garden and wheels one of Al’s sisters’ bikes to the side of the house. “Come here,” he says. Al takes a few steps forward.

“You know this nation is at war,” he says.

Al nods. He has seen the images on the evening news: planes flying over the desert, purple skies, white sand, explosions ripping through the night sky like fireworks.

“You know I voted in for this war.”

Al nods again. He has heard his father say, I wish I had a son to give.

“When it was my war,” he says, “I fought.”

This, too, Al knows. But it’s not his fault he isn’t going into battle. He’s too young, too small. It’s also not his fault that the car hit him. And he doesn’t think it’s his fault that his father isn’t running for president, no matter how many times he hears him say, It’s because of Al. He’s still recovering. He needs me right now.

In fact, Al doesn’t believe he needs his father at all. He’s been getting on just fine without him, in the little house in Tennessee, while his father’s been in Washington working to help other peo- ple’s sons. If the accident was anyone’s fault, it was his father’s fault for taking him to the baseball game in the first place, for never being around for the regular stuff, for making Al feel like he needed to prove to his father that he wasn’t afraid.

Why his father wants to help him now, Al doesn’t understand. He asks, “Why are we doing this?” His tongue slides around the gaps in his teeth like a worm on a hook.

His father says, “Because when the right fight comes along, I want you to be able to stand your ground.” He pulls Al into the center of the yard, puts his little fists on either side of his chin, and circles him, slowly, knees bent, eyebrows down.

It is perfectly clear to Al in this moment that his father has no intention of teaching him how to fight. He is here on the damp lawn under blue sky and the guise of male bonding because his father, whose name is also Al, needs to hit him. And Al decides that he will let him, just this once.

Since Al has already been hit by a thousand-pound monster of glass and hot metal, he’s not afraid of his father’s thin skin and pulpy knuckles. But he will think about this moment often. He’ll think about it when they move into the Admiral’s House in Washington and when he doesn’t make weight for ROTC. When the next war comes, and he still doesn’t go. Every time he rolls a joint. Every time the flashing lights appear in his rearview mirror. And at the sound of the bell, when he steps into the ring with taped hands.

All of these times and more, he will think of the moment when his father’s skin touched his and the yard in front of him lit up, the grass got close, and he felt pain. His legs are fine now. His teeth are fine. But that pain never goes away.

 

 

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