V: White Fathers Revisited

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Growing up a popular kid in a small town had its advantages. I didn’t like going home all that much, and there were always friends to drop in on: down the block or across backyards in elementary school, hitching to see junior high buddies who lived down at the beach, or driving that old lima green ’48 Pontiac with Hyrdomatic transmission over to those fancy houses in Mystic once high school hit.

Being an all-but lily white, small New England town, doors were always open, and a brief knock followed by a squeaky hinge and a friendly hello was all I needed to enter my friends’ homes. Nobody worried about outsiders or the omnipresent “them” as a potential threat to our tree-lined serenity. From my blinkered eyes, the town’s expressed notion of “difference” had nothing to do with race or ethnicity or religion (except for my father, who feared Papist threats the way Howard Hughes feared germs) but “townies” vs “Navy brats.” Groton was the home of the nation’s largest submarine base, so new kids showed up in our classes every year or so, some staying for less than two years, others—the lucky ones, I figured—for five or more as their fathers headed into retirement. Being a townie, I didn’t visit them too often, except for the cool ones who, through athletic skill or looks or some remarkable capacity for effortlessly fitting in, got to be as popular as the rest of my crowd.

So I got to go through a lot of swinging doors over the years, catching folks in their natural family state as often as not: eating leftovers for breakfast, someone over the age of thirteen running for cover to put some added clothes on, mild disputes over hair styles or chores that weren’t fair. It all seemed pretty normal to me. Interestingly enough, as I look back on those “Father’s Knows Best”-like years and peer a little more closely into those homes that must have come from the same interior decorator as the Anderson’s, what I remember now is that almost all of the fathers were either rarely around the rest of the family or, when they were, seemed either distant or cold or scary to the rest of us.

There were exceptions. Mel Packer’s dad was just a nice man who liked to tease the two of us on our latest escapades, whether “digging to China” in the back yard at ten or after buying matching red and orange pants at the age of fifteen for the first day of school (never to be worn again). Danny McCarthy’s father, a Navy officer, was a little more stern and looked sad a lot, but he always coached his son’s teams and tried to make the rest of us better at whatever sport we took up, even when (with me) it was a losing cause.

And then there were the rest, a lot of guys between the ages of 38 (Mr. Pride)and 56 (my father) who cast a very different spell when they walked into a room. I really liked Charlie’s dad, and he liked me, but behind his gregariousness was a desperation wrought by two much financial strain and too much booze. My friend Steve’s dad looked a lot like the movie cowboy Randolph Scott and was just as quiet, slipping in and out of rooms like a stealth agent looking for a mission. He always smiled without ever saying a word to any of us in his wife’s warm, large kitchen. A master sailor, when we were in our twenties he slipped away one final time on his sailboat, never to be seen again, even though his boat was found out in the calm Atlantic a day or two later. Gary’s dad yelled at us a lot, and made us feel unwelcome, so we just stayed away. As for Butch’s father, well, Butch’s father was such a nasty bastard that when his son died of an aneurism at 22 he left his friends to handle the funeral and, upon seeing me the day after, began our short conversation with the happy remark “that kid had such good clothes I can wear ‘em the rest of my life and never buy a thing!” And then there was Ricky’s dad who never came home and Donnie’s father who only talked about his work, and Glenn’s older father, so angry as his younger wife’s affair that he grew fat and lonely, almost never leaving his recliner except to eat, sleep, or visit the facilities.

So many white men, so much mystery. All of them had jobs, good jobs, with benefits and pensions. They all owned their homes, a few of them classy affairs. Their kids were healthy, most going to college or a good trade after high school. Except for the one having the affair, their spouses were spot-on when it came to at least equal looks and brains. At the very time that Martin Luther King and thousands of his courageous minions were giving birth to the civil rights movement and while Betty Freidan was writing her feminist critique of patriarchy, these white men—who had so clearly benefited from those twin pillars of privilege, race and gender— cannot be remembered as happy or proud or fulfilled. How could they have benefited from so much (albeit at the time unknowingly) and still been left feeling outside... whether in their kitchen, or their home, or their place in the world? What had happened as they defined their worth that so much ended up seeming to be so little?

As I listen to the distant, rusty echo of all those swinging doors, I wish I could sit down with those men and peel the layers of what lies beneath, for only as we arrive at new and more compete answers of what it means to be a man—and a human being—can that fulfillment be found.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 4, 2008 9:00 AM.

To Dwell or Not to Dwell that is the Question… was the previous entry in this blog.

VI: Neglected White Kids is the next entry in this blog.

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