Dad's Big Surprise
Home Up Abyss

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
CHAPTER FOURTEEN:
DAD'S BIG SURPRISE

Written by Rick Archer
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 62
- FOOT IN THE DOOR

 

Behind the scenes of my St. John's crime spree was my ongoing dilemma of how I would ever pay for college.

Little Mexico was driving me out of my mind. I had to get out of this house or go mad.  My dreams of escape were the only thing keeping me going.   College meant peace and quiet.  College meant happiness. College meant the chance to start dating.   College meant everything.

Ordinarily, an SJS senior with my grades and my beleaguered financial position could expect a college scholarship.  But I had a very real concern.  Due to David's lunchtime warning, I was terrified that my father's financial status would prove to be a real impediment in getting a scholarship. 

My father was currently paying full tuition to send two children to two different Houston private schools.  One look at my father's finances would raise serious questions as to why he couldn't provide for me too.  That spelled trouble.  I had no idea how to explain my father's status in my life to anyone unfamiliar with my situation.

On the other hand, if my father came through with his Sixth Grade Pledge of college tuition, I was good to go. However, that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach said it all... I was certain his promise was complete bullshit. 

In case my father jilted me, I came up with a backup plan. 


I called it my Foot in the Door strategy. 

My Foot in the Door strategy was modeled on the circumstances of how I received my scholarships at St. John's.

After attending SJS for three years paying full tuition, St. John's decided to offer a half-scholarship following the 6th grade when my father bowed out.  Headmaster Mr. Chidsey didn't know much about me, but saw that I had made the Honor Roll twelve straight times.  He decided I was a valuable student and went out of his way to keep me.  When I took his Bible History class two years later, he had been impressed.  This time, he offered a full scholarship.

So my plan was to make an equally good impression at Georgetown University and then throw myself on their mercy.

What if I could pay for my first year of college out of my own pocket?   Once I was there, surely I could show Georgetown my value during that first semester.  Perhaps I could persuade Georgetown administrators to help me in the second semester or the following year.

It was one thing for Georgetown to be indifferent to some anonymous kid from Texas with a strange story.  However, if I could walk into their office with an impressive first semester Georgetown GPA, surely they would listen.  I would no longer be anonymous.  If they could see my good grades and how earnest I was, my personal request to receive financial aid would be much stronger.

But first I had to find enough money to get my foot in the door.

My father and his Sixth Grade Pledge was one source of potential money. 

My remaining hopes were pinned on winning a special grant known as the Jesse H. Jones Scholarship.   This scholarship was given to one graduating senior per year from each high school in the Houston area.  Back in those days, the Jones Scholarship paid a $4,000 total spread out over four years.  In other words, $1,000 per year.

The scholarship was awarded based on both need and performance.  I really liked my chances of winning this award.  In fact, I considered myself the top candidate.  No, change that.  I assumed I was the ONLY CANDIDATE.  I couldn't even imagine who else they would give it to.  There were no other poor kids in my class that I knew of. 

When it came to 'need', I was the poorest kid in the entire school.  What more did it take?

When it came to 'performance', I was in the Top Five of my class.  

It seemed to me that my level of need and the quality of my performance formed an unbeatable combination.  But I dared not count on the scholarship until it was in my hands.  I worried about getting that scholarship day and night. 

Although $1,000 per year wasn't nearly enough to solve my money problems, it was a good start.

I had an imaginative secondary use for the Jones Scholarship.  I assumed winning this grant would make it easier to persuade a Georgetown financial aid officer that I was a needy student no matter how much money my father made.  Winning this scholarship would go a long way towards overcoming my "Deadbeat Dad" handicap because it implied that my own school had nominated me for this award due to my financial problems.  If St. John's believed in me, wouldn't that make it easier for Georgetown to believe in me?

The Jones Scholarship was the absolute cornerstone of my plan.  I had to have it.

So where did I stand with my Foot in the Door plan?  

Studying the college brochures sent to me, college tuition plus room and board would cost $6,000 a year. I had already saved $1,000 in grocery store money.  I figured I could add another $1,000 working throughout the rest of my Senior year and this coming summer before college started.  The $1,000 Jones Scholarship would boost me to $3,000.  Halfway there.

Unfortunately, I was well aware that my plan was still $3,000 short for my first year of college.  Where would the remaining money come from?  

I vaguely understood that loans were a possibility, but I was certain one parent would have to be involved.  My father was out of the question and my mother was out of the question.  That didn't leave much, did it? 

When I left for college, I was planning on a clean break from both parents.   If loans meant staying beholden to either of them, then forget it.  I intended to be on my own.  Did they give loans to 18 year old kids?  I doubted it.  Loans were not the answer. 

I decided to see if Dad would come through on his Sixth Grade Pledge.  If he fulfilled his promise, then I was set. 

My mind drifted back to the details of my father's infamous Sixth Grade Pledge.

 


SUBCHAPTER 63
- The SIXTH GRADE PLEDGE

   

It was 1959.  I was nine years old and struggling in public school.  I was bored.  I was also deeply unhappy thanks to my parent's nightly arguments.  I had average grades and the worst behavior of any student.  The principal was threatening action if I didn't shape up. 

A psychiatrist's recommendation had my mother convinced that St. John's was the only place that might give me the structure and discipline I needed.  My father disagreed.  After my lackluster performance in public school, he said that competing head to head with the best and the brightest would be too much for me.  I would get discouraged and quit.  Leave the boy in public school.

Obviously my father didn't believe in me.  Or, as my mother later put it, it was less expensive to say he didn't believe in me.  Fortunately, at the time I didn't know about my father's reluctance.

My mother got her way.  To her delight, it turned out that Dr. Mendel's advice was right on the money.  Just as the psychiatrist had predicted, I did extremely well.  Entering in the 4th Grade, to everyone's surprise (mine included), I made the Honor Roll in the first quarter.  Then I did it again.  And again.  I would never miss the Honor Roll once in nine years. 

Dr. Mendel seemed to understand the academic challenge was exactly what I needed.  I had gone from a zero in public school to an ace in private school despite incredible competition. 

Yes, I had to study my tail off to keep up, but I thrived on the challenge of proving that I could hang with these smart kids.  This school brought out the very best in me.  From an underachieving child in public school, I finally started to reach my potential.  I showed everyone I belonged.

If ever there was money well spent, this school was it. 

My mother beamed at the remarkable difference in my attitude.

As far as she was concerned, St. John's had worked a miracle.

What a shame it was that my father didn't agree. 

Most parents would have been thrilled at my impressive turnabout.  Not Dad.  My father could not have cared less.  Although I was thriving at St. John's, the moment he was no longer legally obligated to do so, Dad refused to pay my tuition past the completion of the 6th Grade. 

I was deeply upset. I argued and begged, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.

What hurt me was that my father had come from a childhood just as poor as mine.  I was certain Dad knew first-hand how valuable an education was.  After all, he had used education as his ticket out.  Furthermore, he knew how much St. John's meant to me.  But my father snubbed me anyway. 

I was astonished when my father had the nerve to jeopardize my chance to remain at St. John's by refusing to continue to pay my tuition after the 6th grade. That was the final straw.  This school was the one single source of stability in my entire life.  My father knew that, but he didn't care.

As my mother humorlessly said at the time, "I see Jim is finally showing you his true colors."

Mom knew how much I had once admired him. I was badly hurt when he turned his back on St. John's.  To me, it was like discovering my hero was a complete jerk whenever no one was looking. 

I didn't want to stop believing in my father. Maybe I was wrong.  So I decided to plead my case one last time.  Let's give my father one more chance to prove he was a stand-up guy.   So the next time I saw him, I demanded an explanation. 

Over lunch, Dad began to explain the reason why he wasn't going to send me to St. John's any more.  I remember his words like it was yesterday.

"Dick, back when I was a boy, I went to public school.  I got a good education.  My problem came with college.  My father died when I was six and my mother was dirt poor.  There was not a penny in the house for college.  Thank goodness my service in World War II enabled me to go college or I don't know what I would have done.

College is very expensive.  I am serious.  College is where the real problem lies.  I think St. John's has been good for you, but don't worry, the public system here in Houston is excellent.  I have done research and have been very impressed.  Given a choice, I think the smart thing to do is to put the St. John's tuition aside for your college tuition. 

I don't know what your mother has told you, but I am convinced it is better to let you go to public school so I can save all that wasted St. John's money for the future when it will really count.

This money will be waiting for you when the time for college comes around."

Back in the 6th grade, that explanation sounded like complete bullshit to me.  However I chose to keep that opinion to myself.  A cynical part of me thought it was a clever move on his part to justify not paying any more. 

At the time, all my remaining illusions as to my father's decency were about to expire.  With this "Pledge", Dad had conveniently bought himself six more years of my good will at no cost to him.  Dad said he was doing the right thing by starting now to save for college.

How noble of him.

At the time, I seethed.  I was 12 years old and St. John's was my whole world.  St. John's was the only thing keeping me going following the divorce.  I vowed that when the time came, I would hold my father to his words.  This unhappy 1962 moment became emblazoned in my memory as the "Sixth Grade Pledge". 

Promises, promises, promises.

It was now February 1968.  Six years had passed since my father's promise.  Soon I would learn the truth.  Would my father come through for me?  

I was pessimistic.  In the past six years, my father had never said another word about his pledge.  Because I had so little faith in him, I harbored a dark fear that my father had not saved a single penny.  I did not believe I could count on him. 

On the other hand, I told myself maybe I was wrong.  For nine years, my father had paid my child support without hesitation.  Based on his impressive performance in this arena, I knew the man had a sense of honor.  Or was it a fear of the law?   My guess was the latter.

What is it about the heart?  I still clung to my memory of the good times with my father like a spurned lover who believes that someday their idol will return.  Maybe my father would come through me.  After all, he promised. 

Back in the Sixties, SJS tuition was $800-$1,000 per year.  Six years times $1,000= $6,000. 

I frowned.  I estimated without financial help that Georgetown would cost $24,000 for four years.  Dad had been right about one thing... the cost of college was astronomical.  Maybe he had been right all along.  Whatever he had saved was critical at this point.

If Dad was good for his word and had banked six years of St. John's tuition, he would have saved anywhere from $4,000-$6,000 over a six year period.  Hmm.  $6,000.  Back in those days, that was a lot of money. 

Even in my wildest dreams I didn't expect him to show me that kind of money.  But $3,000 would be great.  That would get my foot in the door!

$3,000 would assure I had enough money for my first year at Georgetown.  If Dad could come up with that kind of money, I would promise him this would be the end of it.  After that, once I left for Georgetown, it would be our understanding that I would be on my own.  I would never ask him for another cent.  Just get me to Georgetown, Dad, get me to Georgetown.

The clock was ticking.  Any day now I would get word on college acceptance.  For that matter, any day now they would announce the winner of the Jones Scholarship.  That additional $4,000 would be a godsend.  With my father's help and winning that scholarship, I figured a half-scholarship to Georgetown would be all I would need.  Surely winning the Jones Scholarship would be enough to help me convince a Georgetown financial officer of both my value and my need. 

Throughout January 1968, I bit off every fingernail I had.  I would have bitten off my toenails too if I could reach them.  I didn't worry much about the Jones Scholarship because I was a shoo-in.  It was my father I was worried about.  Dad could solve all my problems if he came through with his Sixth Grade Pledge.  However, I didn't hear a word from him.  My anxiety intensified daily.

Finally in mid-February, the SJS receptionist called out to me as I walked past her desk.  She said my father had left a message for me.  He said to meet him for lunch tomorrow at the usual coffee shop.  

My heart immediately began to pound.  I was sure this was it.  Tomorrow the secret of the Sixth Grade Pledge would finally be revealed.  What would my father say? 

Did I dare tell him I had been caught recently cheating on the German test?   Probably not.  I still walked the halls of my school with my head down in shame.  Then I frowned.  If ever there was a bad omen, that would be the German test.  I could not get the bizarre coincidence of that boy's sudden appearance out of my mind.  Considering how fragile my mental state was, I was feeling superstitious in a very pessimistic way.  Some sort of supernatural being had guided that boy to find me, I was sure of it. 

What other surprises lie in wait for me?  Tomorrow I would find out.

I did not sleep that night.  As I lay there unable to rest, all sorts of memories about my father raced through my mind. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 64
- ON THE EVE OF THE SHOWDOWN

 

Shortly after the August 1959 divorce, Dad began to disappear from my life.  I saw my father every other weekend without fail for the first four months.  Then something awkward happened that first Christmas.  

I was 10 years old.  Here we were in his apartment full of Christmas cheer, just Dad and me and the Christmas Tree.  Under the tree was an enormous gift-wrapped box. 

I ripped open the paper to discover my father had bought me a gigantic erector set complete with some kind of fancy electrical motor.  This was a very expensive set.  It came in a heavy metal box so large I could barely lift it.  Dad was extremely proud of his gift.  I have a hunch this was the kind of gift he coveted when he was my age, but of course never received because his mother was very poor. 

Dad beamed at his lavish present.  Being an electrical engineer, this erector set was right up his alley.  As for me, I gulped.  I had never tried this sort of thing before and wasn't sure how I would I do.  But I kept my worries to myself. 

I hugged my father and said thank you.  Dad looked at me with a huge smile.  He said that building something neat with his son would make this his best Christmas ever!   

Well, sure, of course, Dad, let's build something!  At this comment, I was beside with myself with happiness.  I had missed my father so much lately.

Dad took out the list of projects and looked it over.  He immediately suggested we build a drawbridge so we could take advantage of that fancy motor.  I wasn't so sure.  That idea seemed a little ambitious. I was thinking the stuff on the first page was more my speed.  However, if Dad said I could do it, I would try. 

The drawbridge had elaborate instructions.  He said all we had to do was follow the instructions.  What could be easier?  Dad handed me the tools and worked with me for a while.  I was game, but I didn't do very well.  The instructions made no sense. 

As I had feared, this project was way over my head. 

When he realized how totally overwhelmed I was, Dad got the strangest look in his face.  He stared at me in disbelief. 

Now I gulped again.  I was almost certain I knew what he was thinking.  I believe when my father was my age, he had the talent to build stuff like this without anyone's help. 

So why couldn't his son do it? 

Dad's frown deepened.  He couldn't believe how inept I was, especially when compared to his own immense natural ability at mechanics.

At that moment, something terrible snapped in the man.  I could see it in his angry expression.  He had just discovered his son had no mechanical ability.  There would be no following in his genius footsteps, now would there? 

Dad studied me in disbelief.  His face was crestfallen.  What a disappointment I was to him.  How could I possibly be his kid? 

Impatient, he snatched the tools out of my hands and began to build the bridge himself.   Dad told me to watch carefully and he would show me how to do it.  Then I could do it again by myself tomorrow after he took me back to Mom's apartment.  Sure, Dad. 

With the sparkling Christmas tree as our backdrop, Dad got down to business on the living room carpet.  The moment he stuck his tongue out on the side of his mouth, I knew he was in his zone.  Sticking his tongue out was Dad's trademark signal whenever he locked in.  I noticed he didn't even need the instructions.  One look at the picture was enough.  I was incredulous... not even another glance!

Dad was in another world.  The entire time I did not exist.  Despite my own sadness, I smiled at seeing how happy Dad was.  I had never seen him look happier.  Dad was probably reliving some of his own boyhood Christmas memories.   I marveled at my father's immense talent.  I was reminded of the good old days when he had built that gigantic electric train complex in the attic with me at his side watching in awe.  It is a good thing I paid such close attention.  Little did I know this would be the last time I would ever see him in action. 

Three hours later, Dad finished.  If it took my father three hours, that in itself should explain how complicated this project was.

The completed drawbridge was a magnificent structure.  It was huge.  Hit a switch and the drawbridge went up and down.  Dad was so proud of himself.  This is what he was capable of.  He looked at the bridge and beamed.  Then he looked at me and frowned. 

I got the message.  I had failed him.  I wasn't good enough.

After Christmas, Dad stopped seeing me.  He skipped our next weekend visit.  Then he skipped the one after that.  An entire month had gone by without hearing from him.  At the time I was sick in my stomach. 

Things were really bad in my new home.  Mom was struggling with the divorce and had brought this awful man named Tom Cook to live with us.  Among other things, Tom Cook stole my silver dollar collection for alcohol and beat my mother whenever he was drunk.  He even tried to get me started on smoking.  What a pal.  Now I was badly rattled and needed my father.  Where was he?

I assumed Dad's absence had something to do with how badly I had done with the erector set.  What else was I supposed to think?   He didn't call.  I missed him a lot.  My mother was still too angry about the divorce to get in touch with him, so I stayed in the dark assuming it was all my fault.  I went around criticizing myself for being so stupid.  Probably other sons my age could have built that drawbridge with no trouble.

Half a year went by without seeing or hearing from him.  Then one day out of the blue Dad called and said he was coming over to pick me up for our scheduled Saturday.  I was thrilled!  I got my father back!  He must have forgiven me for being so stupid.  I was going to be the best kid possible. 

Now get this.  I went to my closet and got out the erector set which had sat there untouched for six months.  I tried building the beginner models every day for the next few days leading up to our visit.  I wasn't very good, but I finally figured out how to build a simple house frame.  Mind you, it had no moving parts like the drawbridge, but it was a good start.  The point is I tried as hard as I could to do something to make my father proud of me again. 

When Dad came to the door, I had my giant erector set kit in my hand.  I was going to bring it with me and show Dad what I had taught myself to do.  I was going to build that house for him without any help.  Dad took one look and frowned.  He said, "You won't need that, Dick.  Leave it here."

When I got to his apartment, there was a surprise waiting for me.  Dad introduced me to his new girlfriend.  She had lunch waiting for us.

After lunch, he suggested I turn on the TV.  Dad spent the rest of the day hanging out with that lady in the kitchen where I could barely see them.  I watched nervously out of the corner of my eye as the two of them played court and spark in the background.  I wasn't quite sure why he was ignoring me.  I guess she was better with erector sets than I was.

Then he drove me home.  What a great father-son Saturday. 

It took me a few years to figure it out, but the real reason Dad had skipped his weekends with me was to pursue his new flame.  It had nothing to do with my lack of mechanical ability.  Too bad I didn't know that at the time.  I spent half a year feeling worthless for nothing.

I did not like his girlfriend at all.  Due to my eternal contempt, I won't give her a name, not even a fake one.  We will call her "Stepmother".  The best words to describe the woman were "frosty" and "phony".  Where I was concerned, she merely went through the motions until she could seal the deal.  And seal the deal she did.  Dad married that woman not too long afterwards.  I wasn't invited to the wedding.  No surprise there.

Stepmother did not like me at all.  Mind you, Stepmother never came out and admitted I disgusted her.  But actions do have a way of sending the message.  Stepmother allowed me into her home once a year at Christmas time.  It was the Christian thing to do, no doubt.

After the wedding, Stepmother's next step was to get rid of me.  She was wildly successful.  Dad almost completely disappeared from my life.  During the nine year period from the 1959 divorce to high school graduation, I saw my father four times a year.  

My father was a creature of habit.  Dad played a game called "Four Seasons."  Christmas marked my yearly visit to his home.  Since I was not welcome in my stepmother's home at any other time, Dad switched to picking me up at school for lunch.  No problem.  Lunch was a convenient option.  Once on my birthday in October.  Once in early Spring.  Once before the Summer break.

I am not sure why I didn't see my father more often.  After all, my father worked just down the street from St. John's. 

I estimate by car, St. John's was a four minute drive from his office.  Maybe less.

Dad's office was at the corner of Weslayan and Westheimer.  This spot was a half mile from my school on Westheimer and Buffalo Speedway. 

3,000 feet to be exact, but a million miles away in my father's mind. 

For a busy man, much too far to take the time to see the forgotten son.

In my opinion, my father had no excuse not to see me more often.  Seeing me was so easy it was ridiculous.  Permission slips were unnecessary at St. John's.  Back in the Sixties, security was nowhere as tight as things are today.  Since the SJS receptionist knew who my father was, any time my father wanted to see me, he would just phone and leave a message at SJS.  The lady would hand it to me when I passed through the Reception area.  The following day Dad would pick me up for lunch for our quarterly visit. 

In the final two years when I got my car, things got even easier than that.  Now I would go to the front desk, sign out and drive to meet him.  It was always a very simple arrangement.

Dad would periodically hint in some roundabout way that Stepmother was responsible for his absence. 

That set me to thinking about the sincerity of his statement.  If Dad wanted to see me more often, I would have gladly ridden my bike to his office.  It didn't have to be lunch; why not after school?   I could have visited him at his office behind Stepmother's back.  The suspicious wife would never have to know her husband was seeing the forbidden child. 

Here is my point.  If my father wanted to see me, it was effortless.  He could have seen me every day of the week if he chose to.  I would have been overjoyed to see my father more often had he permitted it.  One lunch a week would have been wonderful.  The truth is that I have always had a soft spot for the guy even though a part of me despised him for how he neglected me.  I have never really quite understood my mixed feelings.  No matter how much my father disgusted me, I was shocked to realize how much I looked forward to seeing him again.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that I rarely saw my father.  He obviously preferred his Four Seasons approach.  Maybe he liked the symmetry of it.  The rest of the time, Dad made it clear how busy he was and that my phone calls to his office were a nuisance.  The message was clear... I needed to know my place.  He was a busy man.  Don't call him; he'll call me. 

Now that I wasn't allowed to bother him, like a desperate mistress, I began to wait anxiously for his call.  For the first year or so (4th grade), I developed a pathetic habit of walking past the receptionist twice a day just in case he had called.  Once I hit the 5th grade I didn't bother any more.  Now sometimes the receptionist had to hunt me down if he called.  This kind woman always looked at me with the most profound sympathy.  I think she understood how sensitive this issue was for me.

Perhaps if my father had ever been openly mean to me, I might have gotten the guy out of my system.  Such was not the case.  Whenever we met for lunch, Dad was invariably nice to me.  In person, Dad was warm to me, always friendly, always affable.  I cannot recall a single harsh word between us.  

I still remember that big smile Dad would greet me with.  I guess when you spend four hours a year with your kid, you can smile with the best of them.  Must have been his sales training.

Seriously, Dad put up a great front.  I swear a casual observer would never guess the utter mediocrity of his parenting skills where I was concerned. 

Stepmother had two children by Dad, a boy and a girl.  The boy, Charles, was eleven years younger than me and the girl, Joy, was thirteen years younger.  No effort was ever made to include me in his second family.  I saw them each Christmas, but that was it.  Certainly not enough time for my bad seed ways to rub off on them. 

Considering they were five and seven the last time I saw them, I didn't get to know Joy and Charles very well.  However, thanks to our quarterly lunch visits, I knew a lot about their stories. 

One of the most painful aspects of our relationship was my knowledge that Dad treated his other two children very well.  And how did I know this?  He told me!  Dad had the strangest habit of spending most of our time together telling me all about his two children. 

After Joy was born when I was 13, Dad ceased talking to me like a father to a son.  He developed a friendly, superficial rapport with me.   There was no heart to heart communication whatsoever, just cordial stuff. 

While he spoke, I was mesmerized by how incredibly oblivious Dad was to my pain.  I think he preferred to avoid that subject.  Instead Dad behaved more like a distant uncle who calls for a friendly visit whenever he is town.  I was no longer his son in these conversations, but rather his buddy and confidant.  Nothing serious was ever discussed between us.  Just happy talk.  Now that I was his pal, Dad spent most of our time talking about his children or his job.

From what Dad told me over the years, it was apparent he loved his second and third children.  The girl was very talented, but the boy was somewhat mentally handicapped due to a problem during the birth process.  Based on the stories he told me, I came to the conclusion that Dad was a pretty good father to these two children. 

In particular, Dad exhibited a patience and caring for his struggling son that I admired.  Dad went to great lengths to help that boy overcome his handicaps.  His concern for my struggling half-brother indicated he was actively helping this boy any way he could. 

"Dick, I spend a couple hours every night helping Charles and Joy with their homework.  I am so proud of them, but especially Charles.  School comes easy to Joy, she's so smart, but school is an uphill battle for my son.  Charles gets very frustrated, but after I calm him down and give him some encouragement, that boy works as hard as he is capable of."

I could see the pride written all over my father's face.  It gave him pleasure to talk about what a good father he was!!

It doesn't get much more ironic than this.  Here I was, the world's most miserable kid in desperate need of attention, but instead of receiving encouragement for my own problems, my job was to politely listen to Dad brag about how well he was raising his other children.

To me, his behavior reminded me of a man who makes a starving dog watch while he feeds his favorite dog.  To deal with the pain, I simply observed him in action with an odd detachment.  I must have been a good actor because I don't think he ever had a clue the contempt I felt for him while he told me these stories. 

Okay, I was glad that Dad had the ability to be a decent father.  Good for you, Dad.  But what about me?  Why are you always giving me the short end of the stick?  And why would you make it so apparent that you care more for them than me?

This became the great mystery of my life.  Why would a decent man stop caring for a child he once loved?

His disdain really hurt.  I wanted to believe I was a good kid and that I was worthy of his love, but it sure didn't seem that way.  When I was alone, I would rehearse what I wanted to say to him the next time we met.

"Dad, I don't mind listening to your problems, but sometimes I could really use some of your attention as well.  You never ask me any questions, so I am just going to tell you what my life is like.

In case you didn't know, I am the most miserable, lonely, screwed-up kid in the world.  I get so bitter sometimes, but I don't give up.  I refuse to quit.  Even though I have a lot of problems, I work hard, really hard. 

I make very good grades and I do it through sheer effort.  I believe I work as hard or harder than anyone at my school.

I know I don't have the same talent you do, but if you would look a little closer, you would see I am not as stupid as you think I am.  Did you know I have made the Honor Roll at St. John's 36 quarters in a row?  These are not inflated grades against soft competition.  I am going up against some really smart kids.   Some say these are the smartest set of students in Houston.

In addition, I have a job after school.  I am responsible and do my work without being told.  I get compliments on my good manners all the time.  I try to be a son you can be proud of. 

I am not getting along with my mother at all.  I feel so isolated.  I really wish I could see you more often.  

Do you still remember those days when I worshipped the ground you walk on?  Do you have any idea how much I miss those days?   And yet you don't pay a bit of attention to me.  Why is that?  What did I do wrong?  What can I do to make it up to you?"


Did I ever tell him that?  No, of course not.  I didn't have the guts to say a word.  I was an introverted cripple when it came to talking about my feelings.  Instead I just sat there impassively listening to his tales. 

The entire time, I was stunned by the irony of hearing him discuss his love for Joy and Charles while I was dying for the most simple word of praise the whole time. 

Why would my father play favorites?  Or, more to the point, why would my father play favorites and discuss it openly with the unwanted child?  Sure I was moody and introverted, but I never gave my father a bit of trouble.  Okay, so I was withdrawn and insecure.  Is that any reason to give up on me?  I was at a complete loss to understand how he could care for these two children, but not me, his first child.  This was the mystery.

How could Dad be such a good father to them and yet a worthless father to me?  And when I say "worthless", I really mean it.  It made no sense that he could be a good father to those children and yet totally fail me at the exact same time. 

Where had my father gone to?  I was certain that he had loved me when I was a little boy.  Now it was like he had a blind spot for me.  I could not imagine what I had done to lose his love. 

I tried so hard to please him, but it didn't seem to make any difference. 

Dad lost interest, that was apparent.  I will never know the real reason. 

Of course I laid much of the responsibility for this pathos on the doorstep of Stepmother.  I was ten years old when the brush-off began. I don't know why she disliked me so much, but from the start I could sense she really did not want me around my father.  I resented her deeply for the wedge she drove between us. 

In my opinion, Stepmother was the coldest woman I have ever met.  What sort of threat could I have possibly been to her or to her children?  I was a little boy, for crying out loud.  Nor was I any brat.  I was a quiet, withdrawn, sensitive kid who missed his father.

I have written about the kindness of several teachers who willingly gave me extra attention when it wasn't their job to do so.  I have spoken of a Headmaster who twice gave me scholarships after my father turned his back on me.  I have talked about an uncle with four children of his own who paid my way to St. John's for two years when my own perfectly capable father refused to do so.  I have pointed out how my first grocery store manager hired me even though he knew I had once stolen candy from his store.  Whenever I faltered, men like these stepped forward to catch me and guide me back to the light.  

Stepmother went in exactly the opposite direction.  She not only refused to lift a finger to help me, she deliberately deprived me of my father.  Children depend on their parents.  Who was I supposed to depend on? 

What the hell was wrong with that woman?  And what the hell was wrong with my father for his inability to defy her?

My early life had been idyllic.  I once had a happy home and my father adored me.  It was mutual; I worshipped Dad.  I followed him everywhere like a puppy dog.  Dad was my best friend in the world.  Why he abandoned me after the divorce made no sense.  I will always despise Stepmother.  I blame her.  

Once in a while, I wonder about the strange nature of good luck and bad luck.  Yes, Stepmother was incredibly bad luck.  She cost me my father.  Yet at the same time, Stepmother was indirectly responsible for my St. John's education... not that she deserved any credit of course.  

From what Mom told me, Stepmother had been Dad's secretary at his office.  Mom suspected an office affair that pre-dated the divorce.  Mom had no proof and no witnesses; she just felt it in her bones.  Call it woman's intuition.

When my father refused to send me to St. John's as the psychiatrist recommended, Mom told my father she knew all about his affair.  She would use the knowledge to take him to the cleaners in the divorce... unless he paid for St. John's.  Mom was taking a shot in the dark, but she nailed it.  Dad folded.

I traded my father for the best education in Houston. 

Good luck or bad luck? 

In hindsight, I suppose I got the better end of the deal, but the heartache was very difficult to handle.

I missed Dad terribly.  It was a devil's bargain to be sure.

 


SUBCHAPTER 65
- DAD's BIG SURPRISE

 

It was now February 1968.   I had waited six years for this showdown. 

As I drove to the coffee shop to meet him for lunch, I was intensely curious.  Six years ago Dad had promised to help me pay for college.  Today was the day I would find out.   I actually had no idea what would happen.  I was skeptical and hopeful at the same time.

This was my father's chance to finally come through for me.  I needed his help in the worst way imaginable.  Was my father good for his word?

As I walked through the doors at the coffee shop, my heart was thumping.  I was praying that Dad had really put that money into a savings account like he said he would.  If so, the nightmare of how to pay my college tuition would be over.  

The phrase "hoping against hope" was coined for a situation like this.  Would the father I had always hoped for show up today or would the father he had turned into appear instead? 

My father was waiting for me in a reception area at the coffee shop.  He stood up and greeted me with the biggest smile on his face.  He shook my hand and gave me a big hug.  Dad was so glad to see me!  

My spirits lifted.  This was a good sign.  Maybe there was hope after all.

A waitress escorted us to a booth.  We sat down across from one another and our eyes locked.  I could barely breathe.  Six years of waiting since the Sixth Grade Pledge and four years of High School Hell had brought us to this moment.  The tension I felt was unbearable.

At this point, Dad reached in his coat pocket and placed $400 in cash on the table. 

I stared at the four $100 bills laying on the table.  I frowned. Did this mean what I thought it meant?

"Dad, what is this for?"

Dad beamed with pride. 

"Look, son, it's Four Hundred Dollars! 

Dick, this is the money I have been saving for your college tuition!  I promised you long ago I would help. 

 I told you I would help you pay for college and I meant what I said!  This money will help you go to college! "

I stared in disbelief.  The very first thing that crossed my mind was the number 24,000

The tuition at Georgetown was $20,000 for four years.  And what about room and board?  I estimated another $4,000 ($1,000 for four years).  Compared to $24,000, this $400 was a drop in the bucket, maybe 1% of what I would need. 

Instantly the phrase everyone but me starting playing in my brain again.  Every student in my class would be going to college next year but me.  I was sure of it.

For a moment I was also bewildered.  Dad was sitting across the table, smiling and exulting with triumph.  Dad was so pumped he looked like he was ready to put on a Indian war bonnet and dance around a campfire. 

What in the hell is my father so damn happy about?  At that moment, I wondered if Dad was playing a joke on me.  I began to peer at him for clues.  I couldn't tell.  But I soon surrendered all hope.  This was it.  No more money would be placed on the table. 

What could this man be thinking?  I knew he was a born salesman, but even Dad had to know he was stretching it.

Or maybe not.  Oh my god, look at him!  The man was as proud of himself as he could possibly be thanks to this amazing contribution he had just made.  I could not believe my father was doing a goddamn victory dance over $400!

The way he was grinning from ear to ear, you would think Dad had just won the f...ing Father of the Year contest.   

I was sick.  I was beyond sick.  I was disgusted.  I had planned on getting nasty with him if he disappointed me, but here in crunch time I had just discovered I was far too introverted to confront him.  I didn't say a word.  I just stared at the money dumbfounded.  I wouldn't even touch it.  The money laid there on the table like a Betrayed Kingdom daring me to pick it up.  The money seemed to spit at me with contempt.

This moment would become the defining image of my father for the rest of my life.  Any time I thought of my father, the image of that $400 would automatically pop into my mind before anything else. 

I should have just slapped him in the face and left.  But I didn't.  Although I was 18 and built like a football linebacker, psychologically I was a dwarf around my father.  I didn't have the guts to confront him.  I hated myself.  For six years, I had vowed I would confront this man if he stiffed me.  It was all false bravado.  Now that it was crunch time, I reverted back to being a feeble child. 

However, to my surprise, I rallied a little.  It took all the courage I had just to mumble a question, but I had to know the answer. 

Stuttering with fear, I whispered, "B-b-but D-d-dad, you said you were saving my St. John's tuition for college.  S-s-shouldn't there be more money?"

Dad's face lit up with the brilliance of July 4th fireworks.  In an instant, I knew he had anticipated my question.  He was just waiting for me to ask.  Dad smiled with warmth and understanding. 

"Well, yes, you're right, Dick.  There was more money."

My ears perked up. "W-w-well, what happened to it?"

"I'm sorry, Dick, but I had to take that money out of your college savings to pay for your skin operations.  It was $2,000 if I remember."

I stared at my father in dumbfounded disbelief.  I could not even say a word.  That comment drove a stake through my heart.

After all I had suffered due to my fractured face... a pariah at my school, unwelcome at parties, no chance of dating, giving up basketball to work a job after school, forced to hide in the shadows for four long years... that comment about college money spent on the skin operations was without a doubt the cruelest thing my father had ever said to me.  

It made me violently sick to discover that my acne operations had dried up my college funds.  Hadn't I suffered enough?  This acne problem truly was the curse that kept on cursing.  I was reminded of the Myth of Sisyphus where some poor jerk could never get ahead no matter how hard he tried.  Just like Sisyphus, surely there must be some similar Curse over me.  There had to be.

While I sat there in complete shock, Dad used my silence as an opening to remind me how tough things were for him financially.  He said when my skin problems hit a couple years ago out of the blue, there was no place he could have turned to for cash that quickly. 

As he talked, all I could think about was how expensive it had to be sending my half-brother to Briarwood School and my half-sister to costly Kinkaid.  Gee, with those kind of obligations, no wonder it was so hard for him!  Plus that home in the prestigious Memorial area of town must cost a pretty penny as well.  All those taxes and civic fees.  Plus that fancy car to make the neighbors envious.  Living with the best can't be cheap, no doubt about that. 

As my father rambled on and on about all his problems, I focused on that promise he had made to help me with college back in the 6th grade.  In six years since that promise, Dad had amassed the princely sum of four hundred dollars.  What's that, six bucks a month?  A command performance!  Heck, even Mom could have done better than that and she was dead broke.

Dad had more to say.  Just in case there was any flicker of hope left in me, Dad made sure it was lights out.  He had time for one final shove on that stake stuck in my heart.

Dad said that unless he got a raise and things dramatically improved in his finances, this $400
was going to be his one and only contribution towards my college education.

Now if that didn't take the cake.  This man might actually be the most pathetic father of them all.   The disgust I felt in this moment was overpowering.  I was incredulous.  How was it possible for me to have the lowest possible expectation for this man and still be disappointed beyond my wildest imagination?

The life drained out of me.  What good would it do to tell him what I thought of him?  I stood up.  Then I reached over and picked up the $400.  It made me sick just to touch it, but I needed whatever I could get. 

I said, "Thanks, Dad.  Sorry, but I have to leave early today.  I have a paper at school I have to finish."

That was that.  I knew it was rude to leave, but I had no appetite for a meal or further bullshit excuses.  What's done is done.  If he said one more word about how poor he was, I might scream at him.  What was the point of sticking around and losing my temper? 

I got up and left my father sitting there.  I cannot imagine what he was thinking.  He was probably happy I left.  He didn't want to be here any more than I did.

As I drove away in my beat-up VW Bug, I seethed.  I was angry growing angrier, incensed and insulted.  Then out of the blue, my anger vanished.  Something shifted.  I realized that I was more hurt than anything else.  To be brutally honest, I half-expected something like this would happen all along.  What 'hurt' was that I was right. 

I had hoped against hope my assessment of the man was too harsh.  Now it really hurt to see I had my father pegged all along.  And with that, all remaining illusions as to my father's concern for me died.  After six years of waiting, I finally knew who my father was to the core. 

I looked at the $400 again.  The four bills were laying on the passenger's seat where I had thrown them in disgust.  This money had just become the everlasting symbol of my father's ultimate snub.

There was something about that $400 that bugged me, so I did some quick math.  Dad had stopped paying child support after October.  That left November, December, January, and now February.  Four months times $100 equals $400.

A dark possibility crossed my mind.  Maybe Dad didn't want Stepmother to know he had given the forbidden child any money at all.  So he had just pretended to keep paying my $100 child support for the past four months and converted the money to four one-hundred dollar bills.  Stepmother probably had no idea when my child support ended or maybe she had forgotten when my birthday was. 

Clever.  I told you my father was smart.

And then it hit.  In all those years, my father had never saved a dime.  There was never any savings account.  That was all a bunch of bullshit.  Dad simply collected that $400 over the past four months and pretended it was my "college pledge money".  How pathetic.  I could not believe the ease with which this man could lie to me with a straight face.

Now my defiance drained out of me.  I felt my world collapsing.  What in the hell was wrong with me?  What did I ever do to my father to deserve to be treated this way?

I bet every father at my school would be ecstatic to have a child pull down the kind of grades I made.  I bet every father at my school would thrilled to see his son or daughter go out and get a job on his own after school. 

Not my father.  My father treated me like I was worthless.  Okay, so maybe I didn't have any mechanical ability, but it wasn't like I was useless.  I had other talents.  I had drive, I had ambition.  Didn't that count for something?  Did he have any idea how hard I tried, how hard I studied?  Did he even begin to understand what I had to overcome on a daily basis?

What did I have to do to get my father to show some pride in me? 

His indifferent attitude made no sense at all.  Why did my father think so little of me?

To me, after the promise he had made years ago about helping me with college, giving me this $400 was the worst insult of my life.  My father had no earthly idea of the struggle I was going through right now to pay for college.  Nor did he care.

That was it, wasn't it?  My father didn't care.

Now I began to cry.  It is a good thing I was still able to cry because it was the only thing that kept me from turning into a monster. 

The money problem was depressing enough, but most of all I wondered why my own father didn't love me. 

 


CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE ABYSS

 

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