HOMAGE TO H. M. Y.
Robert M. Young
Whenever I feel disappointed, I think of my father. He was a disappointed man. These lines came to me last night when I heard a warm-up singer's ballad about a father being made redundant and his son asking why.
I had a terrible relationship with my father, but hearing that song made me tearful, and I found myself, very unusually, feeling close to him. Since then, all sorts of memories and images have come into my mind. They extend from being sent into the back yard to bring a switch for him to use on my legs to standing in the receiving line at his funeral, managing to contain my grief until his secretary, Louise Bascombe, came into sight. I had minimised contact with him for fifteen years but had an intuition that he would die soon, so I went to see him to try to make my peace with him and to see if I could find it in myself to pay my respects. I am glad I did, but he was the same. Dogmatic, a bigot, pathetic in some ways. But there was something else. He had stayed with my mother, and I've decided that they knew something about love and loyalty and stoicism that I don't know. She had been an invalid throughout my childhood, attempted suicide several times - overdoses when I was six or seven, when I was thirteen, when I was at college, when I was in my thirties and once more after he died - the family carving knife plunged into her liver. He had a stroke in his early seventies; she outlived all her friends and died peacefully of cancer a few days before her eightieth birthday.
He was born in Alabama, in small town called Vernon, which we visited when I was ten and my sister fifteen - the only family holiday we ever had. The war had just ended, and we drove to Alabama and on to St. Louis to visit my Uncle Jack and Aunt Dot. Our car skidded on ice and turned over, so my sister Peggy and I had Christmas with them, while mother and Dad were in hospital - she in shock and he with a dislocated collarbone. It was alarming, but also an adventure. I was allowed to drive a bulldozer at a relative's brick kiln. I met a cousin who was deaf but lovely, and my father didn't seem so distant and lonely and embittered, though he insisted that the accident was caused by a filling station attendant putting too much air in the tires.
His father had died when he was nine. His mother re-married, and the children hated their stepfather. She died when my father was thirteen. They changed her gravestone, removing the new husband's name. I don't know much about what happened during the next few years, but my impression is that my father held the family together in some sense, even though they were dispersed to several relatives. He had an older brother, Carey, an older sister, Lucille, a younger sister, Gertrude, and the baby, Jack. My father seems to have been the steadfast one, though. He got Gertrude educated. Jack went into the Merchant Marine. Carey and Lucille are shadowy figures. When I met them, she seemed disapproving. He and his wife had a boy who died. I think I am named after him, and I was given some of his clothes - creepy. Gertrude drank. I went to visit her after I left high school. I liked her, but it was upsetting, seeing her such a mess, falling about with her nightgown half-off. Jack got on without much education - in warehousing - but died young of a heart attack. His wife Dot was my favourite relative.
My father found his way to Washington, D. C. and worked his way through school and college. He got involved with the Department of Agriculture and did experiments on hybrid corn with Henry Wallace, who went on to be Secretary of Agriculture and a left-wing candidate for President. I've seen an offprint of a paper they wrote together. Dad went to George Washington University, where he was a Big Man on Campus - president of his class, president of his fraternity, captain of the tennis team, manager of the track team, honour society, and more. He drove a Stutz Bearcat sports car, had a racoon coat and won the most beautiful belle in the place, Suzanne Jamison, daughter of a wealthy Texas landowner and Presidential Adviser, only she turned out to be frigid and depressed for life.
Hers is another story, but some things about her help to see why she was so troubled and my father so disappointed. Her mother had been an orphan and trained as a medical missionary. She worked in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion but got malaria and was invalided out. She wasn't expected to live. A note was tied to her body when she was put on the boat for home, with instructions for disposal of her remains. But she did live and chose to marry the biggest sinner she could find. He was the scion of a Dallas merchant, owned lots of land and was making a mess of his life as a local playboy. When it was discovered that her malaria was recurrent and that my mother had it, too, they decided to seek better air. They bought a ranch on a plateau in La Vita, Colorado - the 'Bar yy' (brand '-yy'). It was designed to be a model of up-to-date agricultural practices. In fact, it always ran at a loss, and he poured money into it to keep up appearances and provide a basis for his real preoccupation: political influence. My grandfather went into politics by organising farmers - the National Farm Bureau Federation, which became an important pressure group or lobby. He and my grandmother were often away, and when my mother was still a young teenager they left her in charge of her younger brother, Bill, who was the youngest child and their only son. He got a stomach-ache, she rang the doctor, who prescribed castor oil. The boy had appendicitis, which burst. He died, and she always felt that they blamed her.
The ranch was isolated. The children did not go to school until my mother was in the ninth grade, because the weather was usually inclement, and my grandmother thought she could do a better job of teaching them. When my son visited the ranch recently, he met some old timers who said that they weren't allowed to speak to my mother - too fancy. When the family moved to Washington, my mother had not had much experience of social life and was very shy. In some ways the ranch was a lovely place, but, in addition to the tragedy of Bill's death, my grandmother would not willingly make love with her husband. He used a six gun to persuade her, and she sometimes managed to wrench it away from him and threaten to shoot herself. My mother says that she and her sisters sometimes had to take turns sleeping on top of Grandmother's arm to prevent her from harming herself. (I learned much of this from a sheaf of hand-written reminiscences about life on the ranch which my mother penned in her last years and which I was only recently able to bring myself to read.)
The family moved from this isolated and troubled existence to glitter in the Capital, where they were regularly invited to the White House, balls, the President's yacht, his box at the Redskins' games and high society. My grandfather was a back room adviser and go-fer for Herbert Hoover. The remainder of his inheritance got eaten up by his grand way of life.
Mother met my father at a track meet - asked him for a glass of water. They were the dream couple of the campus. But my grandparents would not attend the wedding, because my father was not thought good enough for her, and Granddad could not bear for his daughters to leave his authority. She had to walk down the aisle and stand alone instead of having her father give her away at the altar. This was particularly poignant for my orphan father. Also, when she was terminally ill, my grandmother came to live with us, taking my sister's bedroom. When she died, my grandfather was desolate and came to live with/off us for decades, until he died at ninety-nine. He shared my bedroom for a time, an arrangement I hated.
Not long after the wedding, my mother's sister Patty phoned and asked if she could come to stay for a few days. My mother said no, because they had been putting up various members of Mother's family since their wedding day, and they needed some privacy. That night Patty's lover shot and killed her with the family six gun, which Patty had somehow ended up having. He was what they called in those days 'shell-shocked' - mentally ill as a result of life in the trenches in the First World War. These events are reason enough for my mother's sense of guilt and depression and her distaste for lovemaking. Her other sister, Mary, became an alcoholic and drank herself to death.
My father did well at college and got a good job with the Department of Commerce. His first posting was to Chicago, but he was soon sent to Dallas, where my mother's family were local aristocrats. Their sexual unhappiness was in sharp contrast with their public lifestyle. They went to all the balls and played bridge and golf at the country club. My mother never reconciled herself to her reduced circumstances. She continued to order groceries by phone throughout her life and never entered a supermarket.
He was on all sorts of civic committees, for example, the Little Theater. During my childhood he was out practically every night. He was President of the Dad's Club, The Camp Fire Girls, and all sorts of activities to do with the city government and Chamber of Commerce. It only recently struck me that he was a big shot in all sorts of organisations concerned with parent-child relations, while his attendance at all their meetings occurred at the expense of having decent time for his own children.
I never knew him. I can only recall four occasions when he did something with me. Once he took me to a film, because an advert with it showed me on the high board at the swimming pool. Once he took me with him to play golf on a Sunday morning, and we had a dip in a water trap and dredged up some balls. Once he took me, along with my grandfather and his brother, Uncle Paul, to the last bit of land still owned by my mother's family, and we shot at pecans with a .22 rifle. Then, just before I was to go from junior high to high school, my father took me duck hunting with his friend, Hubert Groves. My only memory of that outing was asking where to have a crap, being told to do it in the bushes and to wipe myself with leaves. I did and got poison ivy so badly that I was late starting to high school because my testicles were so swollen.
He would come home and tend the garden - watering with a hose, pruning, mowing. We would then have a tense, often silent, family meal, for which my mother sometimes got out of bed for the only time in the day. It was prepared by the maid, of whom more anon. My grandfather sat glaring disapprovingly at me across the table. He kept one eye permanently closed, because a doctor had once told him that was the only way to cure his double vision. The other one pierced me. My father disapproved of him, because he was usually 'in his cups' from scotch. Grandfather disapproved of me, because I was disrespectful and wouldn't eat the prepared meal. I was often not speaking to my father, and the meal frequently ended up with my being spanked or switched with a branch from a hedge or with his belt. Aside from my general attitude of disrespect, I routinely refused to eat 'what was put before' me, especially liver, squash, okra, eggplant, and would sit and affect to gag over each successive bite.
He would then go out to a meeting. The activity that galled me most was called Big Brothers. Prominent businessmen befriended and acted as a 'good influences' on orphan boys. So my father would go out and do things with his 'little brother' that he never did with his own son.
I felt orphaned. Indeed, he said to me when I was nine that he had to learn his own living from that age, so I should. I got an afternoon paper route. This soon changed to a morning one, then two. So I spent my teens getting up at four in the morning to make money to keep up with my wealthy friends and neighbours.
We were in a confusing and contradictory situation economically and socially as well as emotionally. Were lived in an exclusive suburb. I was always told that it had the highest per capita income of anywhere on earth. It is one of two small towns surrounded by Dallas - Highland Park, which features in the 'Dallas' television series. There were certainly a lot of hugely rich people around, and I played with and eventually dated their children and went to their house parties, swimming pools, and so on. I was, after some importuning on my mother's part, included in the Junior Assemblies which constitute the junior aristocracy - the girls who would eventually make debuts and the boys who would become their squires. I had a couple of dinner jackets for winter, a couple of white ones for summer and tails - all financed by my paper routes.
We were poor by local standards. At first, my father was on a government salary. Then he got fired. He was, I think, good at his job, but civil servants had no job security in those days, and Roosevelt got rid of all the Republicans he could in the late 1930s. He was offered various junior vice-presidencies by banks, but he chose a job with a company which made cotton gins, sold industrial supplies and owned various other companies, e.g., one which made gears in Boston. The reason is that they were in foreign trade, his speciality, and they offered the highest initial salary and the prospect of becoming a company officer quite soon.
This mattered more than it might have done, because by this time my mother was an invalid. The diagnoses varied - I can recall a hysterectomy, anaemia, amoebic dysentery, sprue, myasthenia gravis, prolapsed colon - but at the centre was her depression. She gave up on life. She took to her bed and only got up for special occasions. Everyone greeted my father at church, where he was a Deacon (but never an Elder) with a solicitous, 'Hello, Harold. How is Sue?' 'Coming along,' was his standard evasive reply. But the truth was that she was the same and that he was always in debt to doctors, the drug store (we were told when we could or couldn't 'charge' things) and hospitals. I cannot recall a time when he was not worried about money and afraid that he couldn't pay the mortgage.
I couldn't understand it. I sensed that her illness was a kind of Oblomovism, but I didn't know why. She was forever telling me that I was the only reason she stayed alive and stayed with him. I thought him stingy and far too strict. He never bought nice presents for my sister or me. I cannot recall any clothes which were not 'hand-me-downs' until I started buying my own. I resented this. It wasn't true of any of my friends, and there was a famous occasion when all the boys were instructed to show up at Jock Ashby's birthday party with a shirt that had a certain sort of zipper. My father refused to buy one, and my mother stood her ground until he did. It is perfectly clear in my mind's eye. It was gold coloured, with bits of leather at either end of the breast pocket. To this day I continue to buy many more shirts than I need. Christmas presents were paltry - socks or underwear. I recall a record turntable one year and a radio another, but by comparison with playmates, my sister and I were ashamed and felt no sympathy or understanding for my father's plight. His bitterness and resentment at home, while he was all smiles and gregariousness in his many public roles, left us angry and mystified.
He and my sister seemed to get on when we were little. She and I didn't. I was nasty to her. I later learned that he made her miserable, too. The turning point was adolescence, when she (belatedly) started dating. She went out with a boy who lived at the other end of our block who had two fatal flaws. His sister was a simpleton ('madness in the family'), and he was a Catholic. In order to separate them Peggy was sent off to Alabama to college and then to Austin to the University of Texas. She was only allowed home to finish her studies and married a plain but devoted man who had also had a terrible relationship with his father. He was also a Catholic, and my sister became a devout convert. She and my father were never reconciled. All they had in common was moaning about my mother. She and my mother continued to get along badly to the end, while my mother favoured and idealised me. Needless to say, it was my sister who continued to live locally and looked after Mother, while I got away at the earliest opportunity - first to Yale and Rochester and then to England, where I have lived for over three decades.
You could describe my father as eminent and successful, but it didn't add up. The important position at the company never materialised. He ended up running a small department, but his main role was to look after the President, who had inherited his position, drank, philandered, gambled and took drugs. My father had to clean up after him, including having to go to Cuba and rescue him from gamblers on one occasion. My father was 'Assistant to the President and General Manager of the Industrial Supply Department', but he was really not valued and hated it. The staff admired him and thought him ill-used, but he never became an officer. He had a sign on his desk which read,
THERE IS NO LIMIT TO THE
AMOUNT OF GOOD YOU CAN
DO IN THE WORLD
AS LONG AS YOU DON'T CARE
WHO GETS THE CREDIT
The company got taken over when he was in his sixties; everyone was fired, and they got no pensions (a golden handshake had been customary, but there was no written entitlement). The Murray Company, had once been the world's largest manufacturers of cotton gins and cotton processing equipment, with factories in Egypt and Brazil. It was an empty site when I last went back. Gone. The buyers had been interested in another company owned by the corporation and let the Dallas operation wither. He had to get a job - any job - in government service and pay up the missing years of his old pension. The job he got was in public relations, but it was lowly and humiliating - editing a newsletter for an agency which monitored military contracts for the government. He felt awful about his reduced status at the end of his working life.
He was an Honorary Consul, along with his boss at the Murray Company, but they represented Brazil under one dictatorship and Bolivia under another. He rose to be the longest-serving consul and therefore Dean of the Consular Corps, with diplomatic licence plates and a siren on the car, a lovely black 1942 Packard, handed down to him by the company president, but it was fatally flawed - not even last year's model. He longed for a new car. I thought of him when I heard Bruce Springsteen's song, 'Used Car': 'Now Mister, the day my number comes in, I ain't never gonna ride in no used car again'. In that society the vintage of one's car mattered a lot, and his were out of date. He had aspects of status without substance. His den walls were covered with framed certificates which made him a Member of the Admirals' Club (by an airline with which the company did lots of business), an Admiral in the Texas Tidelands Guard (ersatz Confederate states' rights award) and various other accolades of this kind.
There were compensations which came from his civic and consular work. I was allowed to stay up and listen to the conversations of the adults as long as I wasn't silly., This meant that from the time I was six, and the War began, until I was old enough to be out at night on my own, I heard world events and business discussed by serious people. Although I can recall nothing, I am sure that I imbibed a public-spiritedness and a way with words that have stood me in good stead. I certainly learned to hold my own among people senior to me and had the benefit of the local version of sophistication. They were worldly but not intellectuals. Before I went East to university I never heard of Marx, Freud, Darwin or a mention of the novels of any writer. (My mother read incessantly but soporifically.) I only glimpsed the word 'philosophy' (on a book by Will Durant) during my last year in high school.
I have come to feel that my father had the values of someone from the middle American novels of Sinclair Lewis - Babbit or Main Street. They were conventional, conservative in the worst sense and utterly provincial, I never heard the word 'union' uttered in a civil tone until I made friends with the son of the Unitarian minister and came to appreciate the Almanac Singers' album, 'Talking Union', featuring Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. After he left Washington, my father was too impecunious to travel anywhere interesting. We never had vacations, as I've said, and people in our financial situation didn't make it to Europe. I got a sense of his ongoing small town view of himself when I saw a curriculum vitae in which he'd put a category 'foreign travel', which listed everywhere the plane refuelled on the one junket he ever had to the Continent.
He was eventually made a member of a club which seemed silly but wasn't. It was called The Bonehead Club. While its meetings were clownish, e.g., they wore silly hats, and when you began your acceptance speech, everyone got up and left, being asked meant that you really were admired as a 'city father'. The Chamber of Commerce, of which he had been President, also had its Exhausted Roosters Club - another serious honour played for laughs. I was taken to a meeting of the Bonehead Club when I made my trip in the spirit of filial piety just before he died. I was introduced as a Cambridge Professor (I was a don) and married to a duchess (my partner's father, a civil servant in a system which honours its long-serving worthies, had been knighted). I was also introduced to a man who seemed nice but not special, who asked, 'You ever been to Brent Cross Shopping Centre?' I said I had. 'That's mine,' he drawled. He had inaugurated the modern shopping mall and had several round the country and the world, including, it turned out, one on a plot my grandfather had owned. Great-grandfather had bought it for eleven cents an acre and the ne'er do well son had sold it for $1.21 per acre, believing himself to have done well for once. The family who owned the plot across the highway, the Caruths, held on to their land and are now in possession of property worth hundreds of millions. My parents are buried in a cemetery on land once owned by our family, but we could not afford a fancy plot. Their heads rest just outside the boundary, where a wrought iron fence separates the remains of the wealthy from those who were not. (It is said that on the morning of Pearl Harbor, the Caruths thought hard about cornering some market or other. They hit upon nails and made huge profits from the defence construction that soon burgeoned.)
My father also taught Latin American Economics at the local university, at first at the night school and later at the main campus of Southern Methodist University. This was admirable, but he did it wrong. He taught it, quite deliberately, as an easy course, 'a gut', so that the football team would take it, knowing he would pass them all, and he could get to know them. This is the simple truth. I was pleased to meet them every year when he invited them to our home, but I was embarrassed by his sycophancy, which was excessive, even by the local standards of football mania, where you can safely greet any stranger with 'How 'bout them Mustangs?'. The university - a church-sponsored one - has recently been suspended for paying athletes in contravention of amateur rules.
He and my sister were family tree buffs. I found this excruciating. An old family friend, Margaret Scruggs Caruth, worked out ancestries and did a coat of arms for a fee. I sneered at this, until I learned that an ancestor was Davy Crockett (or was it Daniel Boone?), that another emigrated from England in 1609 - a Lord Pace from Cambridge. (I had gone the other way in 1960). My sister joined the Daughters of the American Revolution and got her son into the Sons of the American Revolution. When my Aunt Kathleen died, my mother and nephew had a blazing row at the funeral about whether or not my nephew's honour society was as important as the one I'm in. When my nephew (a deputy sheriff) was on the point of losing, he played his ace: 'If Bob tries to get his son Nicholas into the Sons of the American Revolution, I'll tell them that he's a bastard!' (Nicholas' mother and I lived together for nearly two decades and had two children, but we never married.) I knew that I grew up in the exact locale of television's 'Dallas' but thought I'd given 'Dynasty' a miss.
Throughout my adolescence my main feeling about my father was that he embarrassed me. I felt this in ways that, in retrospect, do me no credit. I suppose the real basis of my contempt was that he was not rich and successful. But I knew then, as I do even more now, that wealth means little as compared with character. But he thought he was a failure, too, and that gave me my cue. His clothes were gauche, especially his neckties. He was loud, backslapping, garrulous. His racism was no worse than the neighbours', but I hated it even then, especially where it affected Lucy Wilkerson, our maid, and my only safe ally in the household. He couldn't decide whether to make her sit in the front or the back of the car when we occasionally drove her home after a late evening when the busses were no longer running. If she was in the back, he felt he was chauffeuring her, but if she was in the front, she was too close and might be misperceived as an equal. When he lost his job, his first act was to give her notice, even though she had been with us through thick and thin for decades. But my mother soon had her back.
I couldn't stand the way he greeted everyone, as a pal, without side or any aloofness. In fact, I was wrong. People genuinely liked and admired him. The dignitaries of the city turned out in droves to his funeral. So did Lucy's widower, Willie Wilkerson, and my mother and sister sought to leave him to sit with the general congregation, until I invited him to come to the family enclosure.
My father had been Number Two on all sorts of civic committees. Number One was always a banker or equivalent, who was often too busy to come to the meetings, so Dad did the committee work and - true to his slogan - saw the rich man get the credit. He was on a committee for the big airport, another to improve roads, and so on. He was an honorary Deputy Sheriff (I have his badge pinned up next to my bed).
That connection was the key to the only moment of close solidarity I can recall. I was out one night collecting money from my paper route customers. In the next street some of the bullies (one memorably named Paris Rutherford, scion of their local Scoutmaster) were putting firecrackers in people's mailboxes and blowing them up. In American law, mailboxes are Government Property, and to destroy them is a felony. I was arrested and taken to the local jail and put into a cell, in spite of my pleas of innocence, since I wouldn't say who the true perpetrators were. My father was at a dinner somewhere, but they got hold of him. He came, flashed his badge, walked into the cell and said, ''Did you do it?' I said no. He left immediately, and I was out of there in minutes. He never asked more about it.
On the other side, I was once deeply ashamed before him. Boys of my class went to whores. Wealthy boys did it a lot. I did it about four times, always regretting it. On the last occasion, when I was nineteen or twenty, I got gonorrhoea, I was scared, but it was easily cured with a shot of antibiotic. I confided in my sister, who saw her chance and argued strongly that I should tell our father. I cannot think why I gave in, except that I wanted to confess my guilt, so I did. He said, 'You are a low down disappointment to me'. Since then, I have always felt that it was so, no matter how much I learned of his praise of my accomplishments to others. On that occasion (I can recall exactly where in the street he said it), he told me that he had never slept with anyone but my mother and not with her for a very long time. He said he had nocturnal emissions when he was a guest in her home before they were married and did not know what they were. Grandmother had apologised to him after the wedding, when Mother's frigidity became apparent, saying that her sexual inhibitions were Grandmother's fault, because of what Mother had witnessed as a child. It was a moment of stark revelation, and I respected him utterly, though I believed then that I could not emulate him. In fact, life has given me a chance to do so in some ways, and I was surprised how much I was influenced by his morality.
He slept on a single bed in the corner of their bedroom, while Mother occupied the marital bed. Every morning he got up early, fixed coffee for her and brought it to her in bed. I don't think I ever saw her wait on him, but I am told that she nursed him lovingly after his stroke and during his terminal illness - as if she had been resting up for decades for this final gesture. After his stroke, when he was sixty-nine, he became openly lecherous. He had always flirted and commented on buxom women, but benignly. After the stroke, he filled the den with Playboy, Penthouse and the like, and my mother said she tried to meet his requests, but it was too late. He was deeply bitter about this, as he was about her failure to help his career by being a good a hostess. He made no bones about this and grumbled a lot, 'That's right. Kick the poor dog when he's down. I'm always in the dog house.' (The father of a classmate of mine, Honey Wilson, had put his head into the dog house and shot himself in the head.) But he stuck by her, and I'm sure he loved her deeply in his own grumpy way..
His bigotry was hard to bear. Aside from conventional attitudes toward Blacks, he was an anti-Semite (I married one), anti-Catholic (my sister Peggy married and became one), anti- Latino (but represented two South American governments). During my last visit I wanted to find some Mexican jewellery and was having no success. I mentioned this to him a couple of days before I left. He bragged that he was a good friend of the Director of the World Trade Center, a huge export-import building. Needless to say, it was not a shopping mall. He could not be deterred from ringing this man. When I protested that it was Sunday, he replied, 'Don't worry; he's only a Mexican'. Some of his best friends were, just as the saying goes, Jews, Catholics, Latinos. (though never blacks), but his bigotry was undimmed. His ordinary conversation was littered with 'kikes', 'spiks', 'Papists' and so on. He was never impolite to any of them, including his son-in-law (a devoted husband and father whom he did not admire as a person) or his daughter-in-law (whom he found beautiful) but he spoke that way, nonetheless.
During that last visit he shared his dreadful opinions with me, e.g, did I know that all priests are homosexuals, all nuns are lesbians and that there are tunnels between the monasteries and the nunneries? I pointed out that he could not, with consistently, hold all three of those views, and he got angry. 'Oh, yeah, you went to college. I can't tell you a thing.' I told my sister about this exchange, and she burst into tears and said that the awful thing is that he did believe all three, however illogically.
My insolence hurt him deeply. It was a vicious cycle. When I was insufficiently respectful, e.g., omitting to say 'sir' when I addressed him, I was punished with his hand, belt or a switch (never a slap on the face or with a closed fist). I became even more stubborn, and we'd go around again - for years, until I was old enough to say that I would hit him if he ever did that again. After that, we settled to verbal battling, which never ceased. I kept in touch at ceremonial times of the year, wrote to my mother infrequently and stayed away, except for a few visits. I went there in 1964, when I was moving my chattels to England. I arrived in the country the next time a few years later on the day Nixon was elected and phoned home. My father's greeting was: 'Isn't it wonderful! Not a single Nigger, Kike or Catholic voted for him, so he doesn't owe them a thing.'
It also hurt him that I gave all the friendship and admiration due to a father to his good friend and neighbour, Mack Lingo (who had terrible relations with his own father and son). Mack counselled me, treated me like a man, helped me get into Yale, offered me a job and to make me his heir, if I'd come to work for him. He was in the lumber business and had to truncate his academic interests when his father died suddenly. I did not think very hard before declining in order to become an academic, but I had to smile when I returned in 1979 and learned that Mack had set up his own bank and was worth over $800 million. His son was still a ne'er do well, the daughter I was tipped to marry was divorced, and Mack had endowed a teaching position at the local private school so as to provide a job for the husband of his other daughter. Mack's brother had died young (of drink, I think), and one of the brother's daughters had died of a brain disease, while their sister's family was in various marital messes. Mack had left his utterly snobbish and difficult wife ('If you want more children, have them with the dogs' - black French Poodles named Blanche and Josef.) The children were never allowed into her presence before midday, and a Scottish battle-axe, Miss Addie, was their governess. He married his secretary, who was lovely, and they lived an unsociable life. Mack drank and became progressively deaf. My sister, a speech therapist, tried to help him, but I suspect that he liked being cut off. His new wife was voluptuous and loving in all the ways his first one, Betty, had been mean and nasty to him, but I gather that her family became hangers-on, and this made him mad.
I admired him greatly, but I think he was less than I needed him to be. He gave me my first job for wages when I was thirteen - as a carpenter's helper on a new house that was being built for him, and he criticised my work strongly, until I mended my ways. He talked to me about ideas, which my father never did. He let me live in his house one summer, while I worked on the swing shift tending a body hoist at a Ford auto plant. I solemnly presented my intended wife to him for approval. I then lost touch until he and his new wife came to Cambridge when my wife and I had separated, and someone who had been hired as a minder for my son had temporarily become my lover. Mack disapproved. He thought (mistakenly in my view) that I was exploiting her and said so. We were out of touch again for many years after that but seemed to have mutual affection when I returned in 1979. But when my father died a few months later, Mack didn't come to the funeral. He had already made plans to go to Palm Beach to play golf. I wrote him a wounded letter, and he replied dismissively. I sent a William Blake postcard in reply - 'The Soul of a Flea' - and chided him for being so crusty and a bad friend. He didn't come to my mother's funeral, either. Maybe he was just a deaf recluse by the time they died. When I was an adolescent, though, his friendship was essential to my welfare, and he was forever saying that my father was deserving of my respect, which I stubbornly continued to withhold .
My father did write me some letters while I was at university which made me think that maybe he wasn't all bad. I grudgingly acknowledged this, but he once made me get them out in front of friends and insisted that I read some aloud, and I felt bad again. He quoted the adage from Shaw or Wilde or someone that he'd thought his father an awful fool at one time, but realised some years later that his father had learned a remarkable lot in the meantime.
I've always said I hated him, and I did. I loved him, too, and have come to admire his making the best of a bad lot. I heard a song recently which included, 'You've gotta play the hand you're dealt. That's what my old man said'. That's what he did. He wasn't stoical or dignified. I can't say I respected him or admired him socially, culturally, politically or intellectually, though I have come to see why others thought well of him and thought him a good man. But I have some traits of endurance and some reactions against his ways that I'm glad to have. He was in his own locally flawed way a moral man, though basically a disappointed one.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM