my young father - Dr. TR McElhenney of Austin, Texas

The Marlboro Man: My Father’s Legendary Struggles

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My father was successful. He was the first allergist in a city known for its allergies. His father was also a doctor, one of the first pediatricians in Austin. Their relationship was troubled. Maybe that’s the way it is with fathers and sons.

My Dad’s Dad

I only remember my grandfather from our epic ongoing fishing contest. If I was still at Grand-mana and Grand-dear’s as dusk was approaching, my dad’s dad would grab two fishing poles and some bait and we’d have a contest to see who could catch the most perch out under the lights on the dock at the front of their property. Turns out, my grandfather was a teetotaler.  His wife, my dad’s mom was a sweet and gentle drunk unless she got irritated at something you were doing.

Grand-dear would bet me a “dime” that he could catch the most fish before bed. Amazingly, he never won. I always got the fish and the praise when we came back into the house. Rarely it would be a sleepover. Mostly, Grand-mana would put me in the guest bed and sing me lullabies until I fell asleep. My mom and dad would swing by on their way home from a “night out” and pick me up. I woke up in my bed the next day and it always seemed like magic. I had teleported back from the lake house to my bed.

Eventually, my dad made his mark in his father’s medical practice. My dad became the pediatric allergist to my granddad’s children’s family doctor. My granddad is legend for trading his less-affluent patients for his care. He took eggs, chickens, and promissory notes. My grandfather was the good ol’ country doctor, known for his soft voice, his kindness, and his willingness to barter for your kid’s medical care.

My Dad Plays His Ace

The legend is that my father was approached by a scout from Hollywood to fly out to LA for a screen test. My dad desperately wanted to go. His father forbade his foolishness. This was as my dad was a senior in high school and getting prepped to go to Penn State for pre-med. “You’re going to be a doctor.” It was all the encouragement his father ever gave him. My dad was an extraordinary athlete. He did well in school and with the ladies. That summer, he was in transition from being a sharp-dressed boy into a college man. My dad wanted the quick route to fame and fortune, once it was offered. Seemed like an easier path. Eight years of school and two years of residency? I see how my father’s heart was broken when his father’s law was enforced.

During the same summer, as the legend goes, my father finished the restoration of a Ford coupe. Like Milner in American Graffiti.

My dad loved working with his hands. He took the entire car apart to learn how to put it back together. (Again, legends. My mom is now gone as well, so confirmation has proven difficult.) The summer before college my father completed his hot rod. And the first morning, after he’d had a night out on the town, his father got a call from a concerned parent. My dad, according to this woman, had been drag racing.

My dad’s dad took the keys and forced his son to sell his prized possession. One day! That’s all my father got before the hammer came down. So, to imagine that my dad was angry at his dad would be an understatement. He went off to Penn State, the Air Force (for his residency), and Corpus Christi, Texas for his “specialty.”

A Prodigal Son

After the long haul of becoming a doctor specializing in pediatric allergies, my father returned to Austin and joined his father’s burgeoning family practice. Allergies were just being studied and treated. My dad even has a patent for the plastic grid they used to perform the “stick test.” Back in the dark ages they used to poke you with a needle about 30 – 40 times. Each poke contained a known allergen (dust, cedar pollen, cat dander, mold, all the yuck-stuff that people can be allergic to) and the Grid was a way to keep track of which poke was which irritant. My dad’s grid became the repeatable process for testing kids with allergies.

The money flowed.

As my dad began rising in power at the practice, he also began building a lake house just down the lake from his mom and dad’s house. But this one was going to outdo his father’s house. My dad also became a member of the board of directors steering his dad’s medical practice. I have a photo of my father and his father standing in the excavation of the lake-side mansion my father was working on.

Everything was going so well for everyone if you didn’t know the rest of the story. My dad and his mom loved to drink together. Grand-mana was a classic, she wanted everyone who came into her house to have a cocktail. Drinkers wanted everyone to be drinking with them. My grandfather did not approve or support his wife’s excessive drinking, but he was a good family man, so everyone soldiered on. And in the smoldering heart of my father, a bitter pill was poisoning him.

Coupe d Papa

At the full height of my dad’s powers, he exacted his revenge.

My dad voted his own dad out of the medical practice and into retirement.

My dad had his “coupe” moment. I can’t imagine his elation. I can imagine his father’s horror at being sidelined as a “retired physician.” As summer approached, my grandfather took a planned vacation, anniversary, and retirement reward to exotic Cuba. The legend says he was taking Grand-mana there, to try and convince her to quit drinking so they could actually travel around the world in their sunset years.

At some point, my grandfather overdosed on warfarin. It was an epic and political struggle to get his body flown back to Austin for a burial.

A Turning Away

My dad had won the Oedipal challenge. He killed his father. He got his mother back as a full-time supporter of his drinking. And he began to think of himself as a king. He was a bit more like the dark prince, Machiavelli.

The wealth continued to flow as did the Cutty Sark. The lake house was a grand success, and so large that mom and dad couldn’t hear any of their four kids’ shenanigans from their master bedroom overlooking a peaceful bend of the river, Lake Austin. My dad began taking the boat to work. He would captain his boat to the country club across the lake from his parent’s house. I can imagine his pride in being so successful and motoring past his mom’s house on his way to becoming a rich man.

He then drove his fancy car from the country club to his office and his bevy of nurses and assistants that catered to him all day long. He might have been bi-polar, but there was no such thing back in the 50s and 60s. As he fired up his energy and joy with bottomless coffee brought to him at regular intervals during the day, my father was a movie star in his mind and the mind of his staff and the hundreds of patients he saw each week.


Before getting back in his fancy car he would venture over to his dear friend Charlie’s office for a little liquid celebration. He needed something to pull him back down from the caffeine and idol worship of his entire day, and back to his mundane life as a dad, husband, and owner of one of the most celebrated houses in 1975. I was three.

The Alcoholic Cliche is Very Sad

Angry alcoholic dad systematically destroys his own empire. Turns out, he would often stop at his mom’s house (that famous fishing peer) for a toddy before returning to planet father.

In the end, my father developed brain cancer. He had a year of remission where we attempted to reestablish our relationship as father and son. In one of my visits out to the resort where he lived when he was out of the hospital, he hugged me at the door as I was leaving to go back to Austin. “We need to do more of this,” he said.

** the story continues …

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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