Climbing Lessons, by Tim Bascom

Members of St. Timothy’s Brew, Books and Banter book club had the great opportunity to visit again with author Tim Bascom, this time to discuss his new book, Climbing Lessons, via Zoom.  A couple of years ago we enjoyed his visit to discuss his first book, Chameleon Days, his memoir of growing up in Ethiopia, where his parents were missionaries during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the honor of his presence after his second book, Running to the Fire, about his return to his teenage life in Ethiopia, during the Marxist Revolution that overthrew the emperor.

Climbing Lessons is a collection of moving stories illustrating the bond between fathers and sons, a bond often nurtured through outdoor adventures, and how that changes with generational time. Beginning in small-town Kansas, these tales span three generations. The first part of the book focuses on his life as a son and grandson. Early on, he describes how his over-eager father, while trying to demonstrate how to climb a huge sycamore, ends up dropping 12 feet and landing on his back, unable to move. Stunned, he finally recovers, and gasps, “So that’s how it’s done.” In that moment, he becomes a symbol for all fathers, trying to lead, failing, but getting back up to continue showing the way.  This “climbing lesson” is just one of 40 stories, drawing on the experience of four generations of his Midwestern family.

I was struck by the fact that, during the book, there were so many comparisons between Tim’s and my lives, beginning with the fact that we both grew up in rural Kansas communities, graduated from the University of Kansas, taught in college, and authored books. In the indented sections below, I describe some of those similarities. 

While Tim had two sons, I had two daughters. In one of the stories in this first section Tim talks about spanking – some he got from his father, and those he gave to his sons.  I was reminded that, by contrast, I only got spanked once by my father, who was unhappy that I spilled mercurochrome on my parent’s new blanket. 

The book’s second part depicts stories about his life as a father where he experiences failures also. When Tim takes his own turn at fathering, he realizes that his previously devoted toddlers are turning into unimpressed teenagers. No longer their hero he had hoped to be, he must accept a new, flawed version of himself, not unlike his father before him. 

Tim and his wife Cathleen, an Episcopal priest, parent a couple of boys, the first one nearly dies of “failure to thrive.” After three more years, another son is born, and Tim takes them on hikes and tells them stories. In one chapter, he goes hiking with his youngest son, his brother and nephew. He takes great pleasure in seeing the strong bond between his 16-year-old and the mischievous nephew. Several months later, the family moves through a terrible crisis as their nephew commits suicide. When Tim’s sons go off to college, charting their own courses, they both struggle to deal with the loss of their cousin. 

Tim talks about his sorrow that his first girlfriend left town with her family.  That happened to me too. Also, in Taking a Hit, he describes his initiation to football, where he got smeared, but didn’t quit.  By contrast, in my first game, I received the kickoff and ran down the field until I got smeared. Upon being tackled, my helmet fell off and rolled down the field. Several guys from the other team thought I fumbled the ball and jumped on it.  When I got to the sidelines, I found that our coach also thought I fumbled the ball and was livid, critically yelling at me.  At halftime, we were behind, and our coach went on a rant about how we should be doing better – for him. Not for the team, or the town, but just for HIM. It was such a bad environment, after the game I quit the team. Although I always felt guilty about quitting, but in retrospect, given all the current issues with brain trauma, I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of time on the football field afterwards.

The last section mainly deals with the health problems of his father. After his father shatters a hip, Tim races home to Kansas.  Drawing on his father’s strength and experience to care for his boys, he realizes he must now assume a caretaking role.  When he later receives news that his father has had a massive heart attack, he races back to Kansas again. His father conveys to Tim that it will soon be time to take the role of showing his sons the way. “You’ll get your turn.  Trust me, we all do.”

In the final section, Tim describes his two cats. The kitten is hyperactive, constantly leaping toward any distraction.  The older cat, by contrast, likes to snuggle.  We have two cats with identical tendencies. He also describes his grandfather Doc Bascom, as being extremely smart, productive and admired by all.  It reminded me of my grandfather, Hank Mayse, who was a lawyer, postmaster, editor of the county newspaper, and very much admired by all.

While many can tell family stories, few can tell them with such warm-hearted detail as Tim. He succeeds in creating something both intensely personal and irresistibly universal. Although the book’s primary focus is on the beauties and difficulties of father-son relationships, the stories in Climbing Lessons warm the reader’s heart. Bascom’s skillful prose style immediately draws one into these moving tales.  These brief inter-linked stories show that abiding affection can prevail, bringing fathers and sons closer, even as they tackle the steepest parts of the climb.

Bascom completed his MFA at the University of Iowa, taught at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and now heads up the Kansas Book Festival in Topeka, Kansas, where his wife Cathleen is the Episcopal Bishop of Kansas. 

Ken Johnson

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