San Diego Reader Article – ‘Dad Was a Bum’ – Just before Fathers Day

Now that Fathers Day has passed, I guess we can get back to the hard business of trying to get people’s actions to live up to their words.  On Fathers Day, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio are all about honoring Dad, and of course that’s as it should be.

On Fathers Day we learn how great a guy Dad is or was and how, whatever success a particular person has had, he/she owes so much of it to their father.  That’s good.  It’s a good thing to remember everything your father did for you and what a valuable presence he is/was in your life.  That’s what the day is for, after all.

But with all the hosannas raining down, you’d think it would carry over to the days following Fathers Day.  You’d think that we’d be doing everything in our power to make sure kids and dads don’t get tossed out of each other’s lives, when divorce comes along, like so much dirty dishwater.  You’d think that we’d buckle down to the task of reforming family courts to reflect what so many already know to be necessary – keeping fathers and children together as much as possible.

But if previous years have been any indicator, it’ll be the same old grind.  Fathers’ rights advocates will still face the same old machine that churns out falsities and distortions about men, fathers, children, divorce, custody and abuse like rank sausage.  Come to think of it, they didn’t wait for Fathers Day to be over; in fact, the machine never missed a beat.

As but one case in point, there’s this article (San Diego Reader, 6/15/11).  It’s friendly title is “Dad Was a Bum,” just in case anyone might get the wrong idea.

It’s all about Mike, who’s now 53, if my arithmetic is correct.  Mike and his siblings were brought up in New Jersey by their mother.  Times were tough and the budget was tight.  That’s because Dad left early and never came back, never called, never wrote.  He left when Mike was 13.

And the anger and hatred Mike feels for his father almost ooze off the page.  Indeed, Mike says that he and his brothers made a pact as teenagers – that if their father ever showed up, they’d beat the stuffing out of him.

So it’s odd that, when Mike found himself in Florida at age 40, he decided to find his father.  It seems an aunt had let slip years before the information that his father lived somewhere in the Sunshine State.  So Mike, in Florida on business and with a little free time, decided to locate his father.

As luck would have it, he was in the very county that showed a man with his father’s name on the tax roles, so Mike went to the address and there he was – his father.  When Mike told him who he was, the man, now in his 70s, broke down and wept.  He did so again at the restaurant they ate at.  He cried again when they returned to his house.

Why?  The article never says.  That was 13 years ago and Mike never saw his father, who is now dead, again.  His anger at his father seems undiminished by the meeting.

In what’s become a familiar ritual, the article came out shortly before Fathers Day.  Amid all the accolades for dads, there’s always a stubborn few that seize on Fathers Day to pour out vitriol against the men we’re supposed to be honoring.

The hatred of fathers that some harbor has always struck me as odd.  Oh, I don’t begrudge people like Mike their anger.  Children need both their parents and he didn’t have his father.  As far as he can tell, it was because of the ill will or irresponsibility of his father that he didn’t have a dad when he was growing up.  If all the facts were known, he might be right.  Maybe his dad was a bum.

But it’s the fact that certain publications just can’t seem to take a deep breath, swallow their hatred and simply give fathers their due on Fathers Day that I just can’t seem to grasp.  Would it be so difficult to acknowledge what is so widely known – that children need fathers and most fathers want to be good ones?

Sure there are bad fathers just as there are bad mothers, but I’ll bet the ranch that the San Diego Reader didn’t do an article entitled “Mother Was a Bum” just ahead of mothers day.  It’s not that they couldn’t have, because there are millions of stories of bad, abusive, criminal mothers.  But no, on Mothers Day, we honor mothers, and rightly so.  But for some, Fathers Day is different.

That brings us back to Mike.  In the author’s fervent desire to depict his father as uncaring and irresponsible, she misses some obvious cues.  It’s the way it always goes when the story is told as black and white, corruption versus innocence.  When the writer of a story allows her villain no redeeming qualities, when the question “why?” is never asked, there’s not much room for subtlety or nuance.

And sure enough, the Reader article offers none, which is a shame.  Interest usually lies in ambiguity.  For adults, a story gets interesting when we start to see why the villain acts as he does.  It thwarts the narrative of Good and Evil and replaces it with one of human beings doing the sometimes flawed things humans do.

And there are indeed some tempting clues about Mike’s dad.  There were his paternal grandmother and aunt who raved about his dad.  There was the time when he was 13 when his dad invited him and a couple of his siblings to come with him to his girlfriend’s house in the country for Thanksgiving.  They went and Mike’s description is of an idyllic time away from the city.  He had a good time.

A couple of weeks later, his father called again and asked if the kids could come back for Christmas. This time, his mother said no.

“She blew up about it. She figured, ‘You took three of my kids for Thanksgiving, and now you want to take them for Christmas, too? You haven”t been around forever.” I just remember she had a huge fight with him over the phone. The next thing I knew, he dropped off some gifts for us, and that was the day he disappeared.’

Then there’s the man who couldn’t stop crying when his son came calling 27 years later.  There’s the man who willed everything to Mike, his siblings and their mother when he died.

Who knows what the reality of Mike’s situation was.  Why did his parents split up?  Why was his father such a non-presence in his life?  What were those overtures about on Thanksgiving and Christmas?  And why didn’t he ever call, write or send gifts?

We’ll never know because Mike was content to let appearances stand in for reality.  He visited his father but he never asked “why?”  Now Mike will never know because his father is dead.

And maybe in his case, the appearance was reality.  Maybe the man who wept was callous, cold and uncaring.  Anything is possible, and I’d never presume to tell another man what his experience was.

But what if Mike had treated his father like a person instead of like pure Evil.  What if he’d asked “why?”  “Why, dad, did you leave us and never return?”  I put even odds on the answer being something neither Mike nor the article’s writer wants to think about – that the man who cried was neither callous nor uncaring.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the man cared deeply for his children, but was shoved out of their lives by a mother who refused to share them.  And when that happened, the only way he could deal with it was totally – a complete break.  After all, his second wife urged him to get in touch, but he never did.

Of course I could be wrong, but I’ve seen enough of these cases to have my suspicions about how it actually came to pass that Mike’s father left.

But to learn that we’d have to treat the man as a man instead of a pariah.  We’d have to try to know him, to understand him and why he did what he did.  And that’s not what the article is interested in.  It’s interested in a tale of wrong and right, of black hats and white.  Above all it’s interested in denigrating dads.  Hey, it’s Fathers Day.

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