May 19, 2014 at 7:31 AM ET
In "Good Talk, Dad," TODAY anchor Willie Geist and father Bill Geist catch-up on the conventional heart-to-heart discussions most fathers and sons are expected to have. In the warmest realization of the axiom "better late than never," the Geists' love for laughter shines right through. Here's an excerpt.
I was baptized at the age of nineteen. A group of us awaiting the Holy Sacrament lined up in front of the altar at Westside Presbyterian Church that Sunday morning, looking out at the congregation. Well, I was lined up. The rest of them were sleeping like little angels in their mothers’ arms. I lurked there, all six feet four inches and two hundred pounds of me, a college goon among the babes. How young and innocent they were. How old and hung over I was. The people in the pews would have been well within their rights to assume I was the oddly brooding father of one of the kids, or perhaps an area photographer hired to capture the moment. Nope, I was there to be baptized alongside them.
It wasn’t as if I had just found faith as an adult. We’d been attending church for some time— I’d even sung in the choir as a boy. It’s just that my parents panicked one day when they realized I’d been in the church all those years without ever having been officially initiated. Better late than never, they thought— but they weren’t the ones towering over the pastor as he came by with the holy water. Couldn’t we have done this in a private ceremony before the service, as they do with the technical awards at the Oscars? In a ceremony earlier today, nineteen-year-old Willie Geist was given the sacrament of baptism.
The pastor blessed the babies and dabbed holy water on their heads, welcoming them into the church. When he got to me at the end of the line, he asked that I bend down so he could reach me. I recall a smirk crossing his face. There was a smattering of laughter in the chapel. The real blessing that day was that the Presbyterian Church doesn’t require full aquatic submersion. Can you imagine that scene? Would they have rolled out an above ground pool for me? Or why not just make it a dunk tank and let my friends take turns to complete the public humiliation? At least my parents were happy that day. They got clear Christian consciences as I got grown-ass-man baptized.
That’s kind of how we Geists do things. We perform life’s rites of passage a little differently, and we get around to them in our own time. It works for us, and usually makes for good family comedy. As a young boy, for example, every time I threw a penny into the fountain at Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey, I wished for a trip to Disney World. My parents knew full well about my life’s dream to meet Mickey, Goofy, and the gang in Orlando. After years of some nonsense about how dreams couldn’t be bought, my dad finally caved and made mine come true. Unfortunately that day came when I was thirteen and in the seventh grade. I had long ago accepted the harsh truth that the fountain next to Foot Locker was where children’s dreams went to die.
By the time we finally became royal guests inside the Magic Kingdom, my Disney years were well behind me, but we went anyway because that’s what families do, right? They go to Disney. My sister, Libby, was eight, so the trip could be justified as making her dreams come true. Just to be clear, mine drowned in a mall fountain in New Jersey.
Ask my dad today about the “Character Breakfast”on that Disney vacation and he will laugh with perverse delight. For the “Character Breakfast” you board a steamboat to nowhere (an homage to Mickey’s work in Steamboat Willie , one assumes) for a morning of all-you-can-eat buffet and more-than-you-can-take Disney all-stars. Children shrieked gleefully as a parade of Disney characters danced one by one up to our table, posing for Polaroids and generally spreading the magic. All I could think about was the poor bastards in those hot costumes, having to get hyped up for another “Character Breakfast.” My Dad looked at tall, lanky, thirteen-year-old me in that sea of Disney— about the same size as Goofy by then— and started laughing. I joined right in. Not quite how I’d dreamed it all those years ago.
A dad is supposed to take his kid to Disney World. He’s supposed to get his kid baptized. Mine did . . . eventually. A dad is supposed to send his kid to camp, to teach him how to fish, to grill, and to drive stick. Mine did . . . kind of. A dad is supposed to talk to his son about “the birds and the bees,” the value of a dollar, and responsible drinking. My dad and I had most of those talks. Well, some of them. OK, we didn’t have a single one of those father-son talks.
My dad grew up in the middle of the stoic Midwest in a time and place where you didn’t sit down and talk about your feelings a whole lot. I’m guessing 1950s Champaign, Illinois, wasn’t a lucrative place to be a shrink. I never heard the fatherly phrase, “Sit down, Willie. Your mother and I would like to talk to you . . .” My relationship with my dad always has been based on laughter. We tend to avoid the other stuff. Even when it’s big stuff. But that’s what this book is for. We’re going back to cover our father-son bases retroactively. Better late than never, right? Kind of like baptizing your kid when he’s nineteen years old.
Excerpted from the book GOOD TALK, DAD by Bill Geist and Willie Geist. © 2014 by Bill Geist and Willie Geist. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.