When his son Zach, was 24, “Friday Night Lights” author Buzz Bissinger took him on a cross-country road trip. Zach – diagnosed with brain damage at his birth – operates on the level of a 9-year-old boy yet has exceptional recall of maps, routes, and dates. Bissinger’s story of their trip, recounted in his memoir, Father’s Day, is a tribute to fatherhood that is as painfully honest as it is disarmingly sweet. I recently had a chance to talk with Bissinger about the trip and about his book. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Q: You drove coast to coast across the United States with a son who would have preferred to fly. Why?
I wanted to do something different with Zach. I’d done special things with my other sons. I came up with this idea of a cross-country trip. I just thought we would have concentrated time together. He would see some parts of the country that were new. But I also structured so that we went back to all of the places that we had lived. Because he doesn’t care about scenery. He doesn’t care about Yosemite or Monument Valley or the Badlands.
I wanted to really focus on him, which, despite all my love for him, I don’t think I really had before.
Q: Four years have passed since the trip. What remains of it today for you?
Three things. At an amusement park, Six Flags in St. Louis, [we did] a bungee jump. We were dropped 158 feet from a crane. Zach loves these rides. I was scared to death. We had this free fall, and we were clinging to each other and I felt giddy and alive and bonded with my son both physically and spiritually in a way that I never ever had before. It was magnificent.
There was another moment in, of all places, Odessa, Tex., where I wrote “Friday Night Lights” and where they’re still not really so crazy about me. There’s a barbecue that takes place and Zach is there with some people I know [including] Brian Chavez, who is the tight end that I write about in “Friday Night Lights.” And everyone pats [Zach] on the back. He’s at the center of the circle. He’s one of the boys and I just loved seeing that. I thought it was marvelous that it took place in Odessa because Odessans, whatever they are, are the salt of the earth and really weren’t treating him any differently and he just loved it. He just loved, you know, being part of the circle.
The third thing was bizarre because we went to Las Vegas which was frankly a disaster. And he turned to me at one point at dinner. I was asking him personal questions. And he turned to me and said, “Dad, I’m having trouble with these questions because I don’t know how to answer them.” And I was proud of him for saying in his own gentle way, “You know, Dad, you just have to back off a little. I’m not a lab specimen.”
So those are three things that will always, always stay with me.
Q. What remains for Zach?
The great thing about how Zach lives his life is that he just plows on. He talks about the trip. He talks about the bungee jump. But I’m not going to say that he talks about it a lot. Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey Zach, how about that road trip? Do you want to go again?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll think about it. But only if we fly.”
Q: Zach is a very endearing character. Did you learn new things about him on the trip?
I really did. First of all, his ability for empathy stunned me. He really wanted to help me and to calm me down. His abilities of observation also surprised me. He saw things that I didn’t think he saw. I also found that he doesn’t simply have a yearning for independence. He needs independence.
Q. You are brutally honest about yourself and your own struggles in this book. Why did you decide to do that?
My sense is, if you’re going to [write a memoir], you have to be honest. The things that I reveal, they inform me both as a man and as a father. It’s not in there gratuitously. The price of ambition, the need for success: I always loved the kids, but I lived very much inside my own head. And I paid a toll for that, and so did the kids to some degree.
Q. What about Zach? Did you worry about the impact this book might have on him?
I worried all the time. I asked Zach how he would feel if I wrote a book. I knew what he would say. He would say he’d feel pretty good about it. That’s always what he says: “Pretty good.” He didn’t really know what that entailed. I also knew that he was defenseless. He doesn’t really have the capability of saying, “Well I want this in but I really don’t want that in.”
It was a huge responsibility but I am a journalist. I’ve spent all my life asking people to tell the truth and be honest. All I can say is that Zach is pretty much getting an A+ in this thing and I’m getting about a C- so I think he’s fared pretty well.
Q. What would your ideal Father’s Day be?
The ideal Father’s Day is, in a sense, what happened after the book. Zach expressed for the first time that he wanted to go away. He wanted to go overseas. And in fact we all did. Gerry [Zach's twin], Zach, and myself went to South Africa to visit Caleb, my youngest son, who’s in Capetown on an exchange program from Kenyon [College].
Zach did beautifully. As a father it was like the first time, really the first time that it was just the boys and me – my wife wasn’t there – and as a father here were my three precious wonderful beautiful boys and it was boys' week out and we were together, as opposed to, as happened so often, Gerry and Caleb being together and Zach not being there because the feeling always was that either he couldn’t do it or he didn’t want to do it.
And to me that was an eternal Father’s Day.
Q: Anything else about the trip?
The thing I can say about the trip is: Did it change me? No, it didn’t change me. But it made my bond with a son whom I love madly much closer. He is the man that I admire most. I have never seen anyone who gives as much as Zach. He really makes people feel good about themselves. And I knew that and I saw that, but it took me a long time to accept it.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.