Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sons are for Fathers the Twice-Told Tale

This week’s SideWise Insight is about fathers and sons.

My father, Odell F. Dobson, died peacefully in his sleep on January 21, 2010. He was 87 years old. His passing was not unexpected, so I had the opportunity to see him one final time over Thanksgiving. Although my father and I had a difficult relationship at best, the occasion of his death has served as an opportunity for contemplation, healing, and closure.

Odell F. Dobson came from hardscrabble beginnings in Virginia, where but for the timely intervention of the Second World War, he might have remained. He served in the Army Air Corps as a waist gunner on a B-24, was shot down over Germany, and spent the remainder of the war as a POW.

His true story has been incorporated into three books: Bruce Lewis’ nonfiction account in Four Men Went to War, and two of my alternate history novels with Doug Niles, Fox on the Rhine and Fox at the Front.

As a memorial, I published a 72-page issue of my occasional private magazine (fanzine), Random Jottings, available as a free PDF download here.

The following is an extension of the eulogy I gave at his memorial service in Decatur, Alabama.

* * *

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

When my son James was born in 1995, I had been estranged from my father for several years, after a disastrous expedition to the Gettysburg battlefield. It was not the first time we’d had issues. Like fish and unwelcome guests, we could be around each other only for about three days at the most before the inevitable explosion. My father had “anger management issues” and could be a vicious verbal opponent, and I am very much my father’s son.

Mark Twain famously said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.”

There’s nothing unusual in a son having trouble with his father. It’s one of the reasons we sons eventually leave home — and in that sense, it’s a good thing, a necessary part of the manhood journey.

Fortunately, the requirement of the commandment is to “honor thy father and thy mother.” Loving, or even liking, is a different matter, but honoring is not optional. By adopting a trait or characteristic as our own, we do it honor. Sometimes that means we honor the wrong things.

To honor my father, I simply have to look inward, at the characteristics of Odell Dobson that I possess. Some make me a better man. Others I struggle against.

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

* * *

My son James, 14 years old at this writing, has in the past year turned himself from a boy into a man. A young man, a junior man, a trainee man — but a man, not a boy any longer.

I only have a limited amount to do with the man he has become, and that’s good. I was never under any illusion I would be a perfect father, and I’ve wanted James to have a wider experience of life than I could ever have provided.

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

* * *

What I didn’t expect is the extent to which my son has raised himself.

James is his own man, a clone of no one. I can see some of myself in him, but he contains multitudes. Among those multitudes, I can see the line of his ancestors.

In my management books, I use a lot of historical stories to illustrate contemporary poets. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain also said, “but it rhymes.” The rhymes of history are where the great lessons hide.

And the rhymes of history helped me to unravel the essential truth of my father, and of myself, and of my son.

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

* * *

I knew my father had grown up in poverty in a mill town in southern Virginia, and that his father — my grandfather — had abandoned his family sometime in the 1930s. I finally met the mysterious Robert Franklin Dobson in the early 1970s.

Here is the entire story of my relationship with my grandfather Dobson.

Rob Dobson had contacted my father out of the blue a few months previous. He was dying of cancer, and he and my father reconciled as much as was possible. I stopped off in Danville, Virginia, on my way somewhere else. At the time, my grandfather was living with his fifth wife in a garret apartment without air conditioning.

He was drunk, and the place was littered with little Miller High Life bottles. He wore only a thin blanket in the summer heat. His surgical scars were showing, and the place smelled of death. He called me over, and when I got close, grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled me close.

“You must be Michael,” he said, and I acknowledged that I was.

“I’m glad to meet you,” he continued. “I want you to know that you’re a Dobson. Don’t ever forget it. And Dobsons…” he paused, “…have big noses.”

After another pause, he added, “I’m the oldest Dobson, and I’ve got the biggest nose,” he said, and it was true.

And then he gave me one more insight. “Don’t you ever believe in God,” he said, “because that SOB never did a damned thing for me.”

He then turned to his half-brother, who had taken me over, and demanded more beer. We left a few minutes after that.

He died two weeks later.

I never saw him again.

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

* * *

In that encounter, I realized something about my father that could only be seen in the context of his father: whatever problems I might have had with my father, he had given better than he got.

He once said to my sister, “You three children have turned out spectacularly well, and I had nothing to do with it. I felt I had to work all the time.” But in that statement alone, he had far outshone his own father.

As I’ve mentioned, my father had a terrible temper, and it was scary to behold. More than once, I’ve seen violence in his eyes, and at least once, I felt like keeping a close eye on the Beretta that was always in his pocket. However, not once have I ever known him to raise his hand against any man, no matter how strong the feelings that raged inside him.

He gave better than he got.

* * *

And what about Rob Dobson — drunk, wife-beater, child-beater? Well, he has a story, too.

There’s a photograph of Rob Dobson’s father in my mother’s kitchen. John Dobson is wearing a derby and holding a cigar in his right hand. John couldn’t abide children, so left his wife when Rob was young. Rob’s mother remarried, and they had a child, Rob’s half-brother.

And then she died.

The widower remarried, and the new couple also had a child. Rob was half-brother to one person in the house, and no kin to anyone else.

He was on his own at a very young age.

Rob Dobson built a successful business in North Carolina. He was making money, and setting up a better life for himself and his family. Then came the Great Depression, and he was lucky to have a job in the mills, though it was beneath him. His resentment found solace in a bottle.

Rob Dobson tried to give better than he got, but life broke him.

* * *

Putting my father’s story and my grandfather’s story in context has been of tremendous benefit to me. Understanding isn’t the same as forgiveness, but it doesn’t need to be. In some ways, understanding is even more important. I came to understand my father, to put his life and his actions in context.

And I knew it was okay that I would not be a perfect parent. My father raised the bar, and it was up to me to raise it again. It will be up to my son in turn to give better than he got.

Sons are for fathers the twice-told tale.

1 comment:

  1. Eloquent and moving, Michael. Your father and mine came from hard backgrounds and did the best they could with what they had. Both were transformed by the Second World War as surely as if they had been plucked from the face of the earth and placed on another planet. My greatest regret is that I actually know so little of my father. We were never on terms where I could ask the hundreds of simple questions about his past and his heart that lie in my heart.

    This past weekend, I put my step-son on the bus for Parris Island and Marine Boot Camp. My son Sam is deep in his sophomore year at St. John's College in Annapolis. They are both alreadey the men they will be. And like you and our fathers, we did the best we could with what we had. The ties between us are so intricate and subtle as to sometimes be invisible. But tied we all are.

    Mel Hughes