I grew up absolutely crazy about my father. When I went away to college, I didn’t talk about myself. I talked about him – almost incessantly, most certainly compulsively. He was my hero – and his own hero, too.
Dad was a genius. He aced the IQ tests and was enlisted to help perfect them. He owned his own business and had audiences with kings and CIA officials. He once talked with the Shah of Iran one-on-one for half an hour and was given a Saudi flag by another monarch. He also met one-on-one with Muhammad bin Laden, the wealthiest non-royal Saudi, and held the baby Osama, a great honor at the time. This didn’t end well, however. When Dad rejected a business proposal, it took persistence and an entire month just to get out of Saudi Arabia.
Dad wasn’t raised by his parents. He was raised by two of his older sisters, who probably did as well as they could, having no children of their own. I tried to hold him accountable, but he never admitted to any wrongdoing in having extramarital affairs and pulling me into them.
When my muscles cramped due to severe allergies, causing me to come in lame on any cross country course with grass, Dad’s joke was, “It’s all in your head.” No concern. No help.
Dad regularly arm wrestled me. The day I could have beaten him, he was almost crying and never challenged me again. He had bested me for years, but couldn’t face losing. By that time, I could curl 15 pounds more than any other boy my age in my home town. We boys regularly lifted weights and, when I wasn’t doing that, I was shoveling dirt, sand and gravel, pushing a wheelbarrow six feet up narrow planks, and carrying 96-pound sacks of Portland cement or buckets full of sand, gravel, or concrete mortar. I was Dad’s hod carrier and mortar mixer on the weekends when he was home.
I was also the one and only dishwasher in the family from age 10 until I went away to college despite four other children and two adults in the house. This task was performed in front of the TV set while the rest of the family relaxed and enjoyed themselves – each and every night. I hated the dishes. I hated myself. I felt sorry for myself. And I hated myself for that, too. Dad thought it “a character-building experience.”
Dad’s invariant rule between me and my older brother was, “You boys settle your own hash.” Since my brother was two and a half years older, this meant I got beaten up until I landed a lucky punch at age 14.
I remember one incident in particular. I was beach-combing and found a huge airplane battery maybe a mile up the beach from our house. I dragged it all the way back because, though I had no use for it, Mike did. Well, he wanted me to give it to him and I insisted that he trade me something – anything for it. The argument escalated and ended only when he threw a hammer at me and hit me in the temple. I was injured, but not permanently.
Our father once put boxing gloves on us and let Mike beat the stuffing out of me. We got neither training nor suggestions in getting along or boxing even though Dad had been a Golden Gloves boxer.
Dad talked about his successes coaching a mixed baseball team back East, but I didn’t learn how to throw a baseball until taught by the elementary school coach in seventh grade.
I could never fully restrain myself from infuriating my older brother, but somewhere about age 35 or 40, I realized that while Mike got certain privileges, he was often characterized as a member of Mom’s family rather than ours. He looked like and often acted like a Gartz rather than a Dodson. I have come to see this as a compliment, but Dad’s exclusion and indifference affected my older brother so much that he remembers little of his childhood. That’s probably a blessing. I got far more of Dad’s attention than Mike did and, when my older brother did get attention, it wasn’t particularly positive, so he just absented himself.
This part of Dad’s legacy, I’ve been able to undo. Later in life, having worked through my angst and anger, I was amicably employed by Mike for several years and we remain friends.
I did learn how to mix concrete, how to shovel with my legs and not my back, how to wire electrical sockets and how to body surf. After maybe four or six hours working, Dad and I would reward ourselves by jumping into the Pacific Ocean and catching waves. While I was free to abandon work and play with mates, the cost was enduring considerable guilt; valid because he could not easily do his projects alone, though Dad may have exaggerated his bursitis to sink the hook just a bit deeper.
In high school, I was unaware of my IQ. When I received honors or scholarships at all four colleges to which I applied, I was surprised. When my Scholarship Aptitude Scores were in the top 1%, I was astounded. Living without praise had left me confused about who I was and what I could do.
At the conclusion of high school, I had managed to be a California Scholastic Federation Sealbearer with honors in liberal arts (the Bank of America Award – the top English student out of 550 seniors), mathematics (the Junior Achievement Award and being selected for the math team), physics (an offer of honors at entrance at UCBerkeley), political science (full scholarship to a 6-week seminar at Berkeley between junior and senior years and election to the student council), music (member of the elite singing group of our school and a full scholarship to a 2-week music summer program between sophomore and junior years) and sports (letters in JV cross country and varsity football).
My father’s response to all this was: “It was only what I would have expected from you.” That was it. Nothing more – unless you count a used manual typewriter with a broken space bar as a present for both my 18th birthday and graduation. I never knew what he meant except that he didn’t want any discussion on the topic of my successes.
I suppose it is the dream of most boys to gain the admiration and respect of their fathers. While mothers are considered biased and we count on their love; dads are the yardsticks by which boys measure themselves and I continued to fall short despite enormous effort and determination.
My self-esteem was up, down, and all over the place. And Dad continued to influence me in ways I couldn’t seem to counteract.
I ended up a shy sophomore at Swarthmore College, 3,000 miles from home, with almost no sexual experience, dating a gorgeous, sexy and liberated junior girl. When football season ended, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. And I didn’t have the confidence to go steady with one of the prettiest girls in the school. Even though I was already an officer in my fraternity, I just couldn’t keep it together. While I looked OK on the outside, inside, my head was a mess. I left school.
This lack of self-esteem has been a recurring theme in my life. Had I had just a bit more confidence, things might have gone much differently.
Still, I wouldn’t be who I am if it had been different. I’m nobody’s idea of a rousing success – certainly not my own – partly because I keep struggling between grandiosity, humiliation, and humility.
I was holding his hand when Dad passed away on April 23, 2009, a month short of his 98th birthday. In his will, he left everything to one son, the man beside me in the room, my much younger half brother. This included a two- or three-million-dollar house on the ocean front, slightly mortgaged; most of the memorabilia from his parents, including lantern slides and other relics of Africa in the late 1800s, and the entire estates of his parents, his late wife, her mother and both of the two older sisters that raised him. And it included all his and his father’s writings, which I was explicitly excluded from seeing or copying.
Nobody else received anything at all except the widow of an adopted nephew who received his writings.
What’s odd about all this is that I was offered this much earlier. What’s even odder is that I failed to notice the obligations and difficulties, but refused on the grounds that it was unfair to my siblings who would be frozen out, angry and resentful. Yet this, too, was a repeat of the previous generation where my father, the youngest of eight, maintained his parents in their declining years and inherited everything from them.
I visited Scot, this youngest sibling, last week, now 55 and still struggling to maintain the family legacy he had inherited. This last will and testament drove a permanent wedge between him and three of his four siblings, especially including a middle brother who had already had his turn at financially assisting his parents but was then used up. So Scot struggles to pay the taxes and get out from under the mortgage and, of course, fights the massive damage that salt and moisture from the ocean cause to his property.
What is bizarre is that the “winner” in this lottery of “riches” is also the loser. Scot’s full brother owns an income apartment as well as his own home in California (which he acquired while assisting his parents financially) and is doing well. The older three siblings all received equal inheritances from our own mother whom Dad divorced in order to marry his secretary, the mother of the younger two. I am most likely the poorest and consider myself well off and financially secure in my retirement.
Scot’s first and only wife was permanently injured with pesticides while employed as an international stewardess and so required a breathing assist and pesticide-free environment for many years until heart surgery to repair some of the damage to her internal organs. The beach environment suits her perfectly.
All four of Scot’s siblings, on the other hand, have had divorces. Two were divorced once and remain single. I was divorced twice and remain single. And my older brother was divorced four times and finally remains married.
I see the situation as balanced but unfair to all. Scot soldiers on in a home with his cats and his wife and doesn’t waste time or breath brooding about it. But the other three are cursed with a dark and smoldering bitterness that they can’t or won’t extinguish. They make up stories about what happened and the greed and unfairness of others and, of course, ignore the bigger picture.
Fate always seems to provide odd twists and turns. Neither of my stepmother’s boys has an heir and, as each day passes, this small branch of the family tree seems destined for extinction. They do have genetic cousins, grandchildren of their maternal grandfather’s five siblings, whom I have met and gotten to know. I count them a part of my family and am glad that I chose compassion and understanding rather than resentment.
©David N. Dodson, March 2016