A new book navigates the complex path between a son and his father. It tells the story of Frank Perry who spent a 20 year career in the army before retiring to St. Albans, West Virginia. His son, Mathew, always thought of him as the Master Sergeant.
In the new memoir, titled “You Are So Far Behind, You Think You Are In Front” Matthew Perry tells the story of getting to know his father in the last 14 years of his life.
Perry spoke with Eric Douglas by Zoom to discuss the book.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: The book is essentially a memoir of you and your father’s relationship. Tell me a little bit about the master sergeant.
Perry: Dad grew up in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and when he was old enough, directly after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. Immediately after combat engineering school, he shipped off to the Pacific Theater. He was selected for engineering school because in his teenage years, he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and had traveled around and built a few state parks in that area of Kentucky.
He went through World War II in the Pacific Theater. He stayed in the military after the war, and fought in the Korean War. He and my mother got married after a long letter writing campaign. And then they moved to St. Albans, West Virginia. When mom died in 2006, dad moved in with us. He was a big part of our lives for the last 14 years, until he passed last year.
Douglas: Effectively, you really got to know your father, in his last 14 years, much better than you knew him before.
Perry: That’s very true. It was difficult at times, because dad was always in charge of everything that he was involved in. And, at times, it was challenging, and he was uncompromising in his beliefs, and not only his beliefs, just his way of doing things.
Douglas: Is there a favorite story in there if you read for somebody. I’d like for you to read a story about your dad.
Perry: This chapter is about a science fair project when I was in seventh or eighth grade at Cross Lanes Christian School. My dad, uncharacteristically, got involved in the science fair project and his idea was that we should build a moonshine still. The chapter closes with this section, which really kind of epitomizes mine and my father’s relationship.
“As an adult drank a little, but I’m really more of a social drinker. One information security conference that I attended, I was introduced to apple pie moonshine. It was one of those dangerously smooth drinks that hit you before you know it. After getting a taste for it, I decided to make a batch. But being some 40 years since my science fair project, I did not have a still anymore, so I made it the city folk way using Everclear grain alcohol instead of actual moonshine. As I was finishing up, Dad came into my kitchen. He was sitting in his rollator walker pushing himself along backwards.
“What are you making, Jack?”
“Apple pie moonshine.”
“You ain’t got no still.”
“I know. I cheated and made it with grain.”
“Apple pie, huh?”
“Yeah, Dad, do you want a shot?”
So, I poured us both about a triple shot in a couple of glasses. I cautioned him to go slow.
“This is pretty strong.”
Dad took a sip and then looked at me. And then put down the rest in one gulp.
“You need some tar for your socks, boy.”
“How’s that dad?”
“Tar on your socks to keep the ants off your candy ass.”
Douglas: A lot of people our age are going through similar situations where they’re now caretakers for aging parents. That actually struck me a lot. You tell a pretty unvarnished story at the end of the book of his last months, weeks and days; caring for him when he was unable to care for himself, even the very basics. I imagine that was a difficult period for you. And I’m sure it was difficult to write about, too.
Perry: It was hard to go through and it was hard to write about.
Douglas: So why did you choose to write about it?
Perry: Of course, my opinion is very biased, but he was just a remarkable person. How I would describe him in very short, simple terms is dad was an American. And I think that people in the newer generations need some more understanding of what the greatest generation did, what the country meant to them and what they sacrificed to keep the country going. I thought it was just an important story to tell.
The book’s title “You Are So Far Behind, You Think You Are In Front” comes from one of his Mathew Perry’s father’s sayings. This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.
You can find out more about the book on the author’s website.