March 17th, 2007

A Birthday Commemoration

Today is the birthday of the most important and influential man in my life, my stepfather. If he were still alive he’d be 84. He died on November 1, 2003, and I miss him.

His name was George Douglas Dickinson, but if you asked what his middle name was, he’d say, “It’s Omar, but you can just call me by my initials.” He was the funniest, kindest, and wisest man I’ve ever known; he was and is my role model, and I’ve spent my life trying to be more like him.

George came into our lives in the summer of 1969, when I was ten years old. My mom had just managed to get my two younger brothers and me out of our father’s household, though we didn’t know yet that we wouldn’t ever have to go back. My father was what I now know to be a classic psychopath – a man without a conscience. He was a hulking man, brilliant, brutal, and the scariest person I’ve known. He’d had my brothers and me for three years after he and my mom divorced, and he’d damn near killed us. I weighed 50 pounds (my just-turned-six grandson weighs 70, and he’s big but he isn’t overweight), was ghostly pale and bony, and terrified of my own shadow. Mom had just started the long process of nursing us back to health when she and George met and started dating. In spite of the fact that I was scared of everyone, men in particular, and big men in even more particular, I felt safe with big old George.

He was 6’4” and gangly, one of those raw-boned loose-jointed types who look clumsy but aren’t. He had what my wife Jan has called the most expressive face in the world, long and wrinkled and droopy, with thinning hair and eyebrows that jumped all over the place and big ears worthy of LBJ, and when something tickled him he got a big grin that somehow made him look about seven years old. George had a Louisiana accent - he’d grown up here in Albuquerque, but his folks were from Monroe, LA, and he got that from them – and a deep, deep voice. A friend of mine called and George answered; when he handed me the phone, the first thing my friend said was, “You didn’t tell me you had a bear at your house!” Along with the accent, he had absorbed a whole bagful of colorful ways of saying things. He’d observe some egregious example of a stupid human trick, shake his head, and say, “If ignorance is bliss, that fellah’s a blister,” or “If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose.”

George and my mother met in an A.A. club, so they had a strong spiritual common ground. He was one of those who have to really struggle to get sober. He had gone through residential rehab six times before he managed to make it stick; but once he got sober, he never drank again, and when he died he had more than 35 years of sobriety. He came along when we needed him most, and I’ve often thought that taking on the task of helping Mom bring us back into the human race may be the bravest and most generous thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. Yeah, there was the little matter of being in love with my mom, but several of his friends tried to warn him away because of us.

From then until he died, a bit more than 34 years, he was one of my best friends. As a teenager, I counted myself very lucky because I could talk with my mom and stepdad about anything, unlike most of my friends who spent a lot of energy playing mind games and hiding things from their parents. When I was 16 I wanted to go to a Society For Creative Anachronism tournament several hundred miles away in Colorado Springs; none of my friends even asked their parents, knowing they’d say no. He and Mom just smiled, said “Have fun!”, and gave me a little extra money for the trip. I appreciated that trust and tried hard to never let them down.

He was wise, as I said. He had grown up in a household saturated with casual bigotry – his first dog’s name was Nigger – but like another of my heroes, Harry Truman, he looked at that as an adult, decided it was wrong, and practiced and taught tolerance and acceptance of all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever. That was something he had in common with my mother, so we grew up in an atmosphere where acceptance was such a norm that when I ran into racism in the military it shocked and baffled me.

Periodically he would poke one forefinger at the sky and tell us to listen closely, as he was about to give us a Pearl of Wisdom; we should feel free to take notes. Some of them that I remember:
• If you’re waiting for justice or appreciation, sit down and get comfortable; you’ll be a while.
• You can’t please a person who has made up their mind not to be pleased.
• There’s always some dumb son-of-a-bitch that doesn’t get the word… and every once in a while it’s you.
• Never pass up an opportunity to take a leak.

His philosophy of life was that as long as you weren’t neglecting your family’s needs or hurting anyone, you should have as much fun as you could. And I liked his priorities about family needs – one summer he and my mom were sitting at the kitchen table, going over the budget and trying to figure out a way to get our leaky roof fixed and still take a vacation we’d planned at a lake in Colorado. Soon they could see it was one or the other. George looked at the ceiling for a moment, then said to Mom, “You know, somehow I just can’t imagine these boys looking back many years from now and saying, “That sure was a great roof we had that summer.” So we went to Colorado, and when we got back it had rained and the house was flooded. They just laughed and got everybody started cleaning up. No regrets. In one of my favorite pictures of him, he was looking stern, wearing a green plastic St. Patty’s Day party hat, eating a piece of green birthday cake with one hand and using the other to give the finger to whoever was taking the picture.

George was 14 years older than Mom. He’d served in the Navy in World War II. He was the gunnery officer on a sub chaser, a tiny ship whose job was what its name indicated. He would roll his eyes and describe how the submarines were bigger than their ship, faster on the surface, and had a bigger deck gun (all true). He made it sound comical rather than dangerous. He served in both oceans, escorting convoys from a base in Brazil, then going to the Philippines during the fighting there. He would readily tell stories about his time in the Navy, usually comical ones at his own expense. It wasn’t until I was an adult and found a book about the sub chasers that I realized how stark and dangerous a job that had been.

Just once, though, when I was going into the Marine Corps, I asked him to sum up in a sentence or two what World War II meant to him. He didn’t say anything for a minute, then told me that of the 20 plus men who had been in his NROTC class, fewer than half had survived the war. He said he often thought about his own life since the war and that of the friends with whom he’d stayed in touch, all the things they’d done and seen, the kids they’d had; and he would wonder what his dead friends’ lives would have been like – thinking about how bright and gifted some of them were, what they would have contributed, what joys they would have had. And that was why he tried to talk me out of enlisting. He knew things I didn’t, and he knew he couldn’t explain them to me because I lacked the frame of reference to understand.

He came back from the war and his time as his ship’s gunnery officer with a loathing of guns. He wouldn’t own one and didn’t like to be around them. He was a very peaceful man. Once when he and Mom were arguing about something and she got overheated and started saying some pretty nasty things, he looked sad, stood up, and walked out of the room. She yelled, “Where do you think you’re going?” George turned around for a moment and said, “I’m not accustomed to this kind of violence,” and kept going. She laughed at him then, but thought about and later told him he was right, and she didn’t do that in arguments anymore.

He was a realist, though, and he knew that sometimes one has to fight, for oneself or someone else or for what’s right. One day he stopped by the A.A. club for a cup of coffee, as he and Mom often did. He sat down to chat with some friends, including an old guy named Clint – Clint was at least 70, a skinny old guy with a perpetual case of the galloping shakes. He worked as a security guard, which was the source of constant jokes about it being a good thing they didn’t give him a gun, lest he shoot himself in the foot every morning. Another guy came in – call him Joe - and everyone instantly smelled trouble. This man was in the early stages, trying to get sober but not there yet, and on this day he was high as the moon on some kind of speed. “Joe” was the biggest person in the room – as tall as George, ten years younger and a lot more powerfully built. He started making teasing comments to various people, then settled in to picking on Clint. Clint got agitated and got up to leave – “Joe” shoved him and knocked him down, then stood over him. George looked around the room – later he said, “I could see that no one else was going to do anything. They were too scared. I had to do something.” So George, far from the youngest or strongest person present, stood up and told “Joe” to leave Clint alone. “Joe” spun and came at George with a switchblade. George ended up taking him down and left him unconscious on the floor, but he got cut on both sides of his face doing it. He came home shaking and went to bed for the rest of the day.

He was like that, always there for other people. When he was managing some low-rent houses – rundown places on the edge of town occupied by people who couldn’t afford anything else, often people just getting sober – he hauled us out there many times to help him fix people’s plumbing or wiring. Every Christmas, he gave each of the tenants a turkey.

As a teenager George had worked as a lifeguard at Tingley Beach (yes, Albuquerque has a beach – it’s a spot where part of the Rio Grande is diverted into a separate channel with artificial beaches. Today there’s no swimming there, though people go there to fish, picnic, feed the ducks, and sail radio-controlled model boats; back then it was wider and deeper and they needed lifeguards.) Decades later, in his fifties, he got a letter out of the blue from a woman whose name he didn’t recognize. She wrote that when she’d been a little girl she’d almost drowned and he’d pulled her out of the water. She told him about her life, her career and marriage and family, and said she just wanted to thank him for making all that possible. I think that produced the biggest smile I ever saw on him.

George worked in real estate in a specialized niche. He didn’t sell property. He only did appraisals, and only for contested cases, situations where the government was using eminent domain to take someone’s property and they felt they weren’t getting a fair price. He would do his own appraisal, and if his valuation was sufficiently higher than what the city, county, state, or feds were offering, they’d go to court. He’d spend days on the stand sometimes, getting so stressed out he’d have an outbreak of shingles on his legs. But he was incredibly thorough and he never lost. In one case, the state was taking the farm of a disabled Korean War vet, and when George looked into it he realized they’d omitted several possible uses that raised the value. The court ended up giving the man more than ten times what the state had offered. It made the papers, and George kept the clipping on the wall in his office. He said it made him feel like some kind of a raggedy-ass Robin Hood.

Some time after the fight at the club, when “Joe” was getting his act together, he came to George to make amends, and George was understanding and gracious. They ended up as friends.

George had grown up with a controlling mother who tried to determine the directions of his life, and he was determined not to be like that – he was scrupulous about respecting our right to make our own choices. When one of us would ask him what he thought we should do in some choice about education or a job, he’d shake his head and say, “I can’t make that decision for you – it’s your life.” When I went into the military he did think it was a mistake and told me so – I was dropping out of college and giving up a scholarship to enlist. But when it was clear that was what I wanted, he signed the papers along with Mom to let me do it, and I never heard any more about it being a mistake. Mom confided in me later that for many years he had continued to feel I could have a much better life elsewhere. At my retirement ceremony he walked up to me, shook my hand, and drawled, “Well, maybe this didn’t work out so badly after all.”

George had a wide-ranging and restless mind, interested in many things. He was always reading. I think I got my love of history from him. He was a student and collector of art by New Mexico painters and of Navajo rugs; he could look at a painting and tell you which member of the Taos School had probably produced it. On the other hand, when it came to music he confessed to being totally tone-deaf. Once I was doing laundry and had left open the door to the garage, where the washer and dryer were; during the spin cycle, George came up the hall yelling, “Turn that damn music down!”

He was endlessly fascinated by people – although as a young man he’d been so shy that in a desperation job selling something or other door to door he’d had to throw his keys up in front of the door at each house to make himself go up and ring the bell, when I knew him he was comfortable with anyone. Once when we were on the way to the DMV to get my driver’s license, we were talking about my own problem with shyness, and he said, “I’m going to show you something. I’ll make friends with whoever is in line in front of us.” And he did – it was a middle-aged lady, very reserved looking, and by the time we reached the counter they were laughing and chatting away like old friends. On the way home, he said, “Now, did you see how I did that?” I had to admit I didn’t. He said, “You just have to be truly, sincerely interested – and everyone is interesting, so that’s easy.” I finally learned the trick, and although I’m still an introvert and tend to keep to myself in crowds and at parties, I can do his trick. I used it yesterday – I was at the VA getting some lab work done, and the woman drawing my blood looked as if she was in a foul mood – as George would have put it, “sour as owl shit.” I started looking around her cubicle, looking at the way she was dressed and groomed, her jewelry, and picked up on something she said to a coworker to realize that her allergies were making her miserable. I asked her about that and expressed some commiseration – easy enough, as my hay fever was pretty bad too- and by the time she finished vampirizing my arm we were laughing and she looked a lot less sour. And they say laughter boosts the immune system, so maybe that was a good thing for both of us.

As I said, all my life I have tried to be like George. At one point a few years ago he told me that he felt he and I were so much alike that when I was a kid, he could always understand me even when Mom was baffled – my thoughts and emotions just made sense to him. That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten. When things went hard for me, I turned to him and Mom for moral support and comfort. He honored me sometimes in the last few years by turning to me the same way at times like my mother’s death three years before his own.

Mom died on September 25, 2000, after an illness that had lasted for over a decade. They’d been together more than 30 years, and it broke him. He lived another three years, but he was on the decline the whole time, and toward the end he was bedridden, in a lot of pain, and in and out of the hospital with repeated episodes of pneumonia. The last time, his doctor discovered that he had lung cancer. When he broke the news, George, scowled, shook his head, and said, “Well, sheeeitt. That’s not good news, is it?” The doctor estimated that he had between six months and a year to live. He died six days later; he had hung on until one of my brothers who lives in Puerto Rico was able to get here to see him. Dave got here and came straight to the house and they spent a few hours together, along with our brother Bill, my wife Jan, and other family. Then David left to check into his hotel and most of the rest scattered to take care of various other things, and while it was down to Bill, Jan and me, George just slipped away.

Happy birthday, George, wherever you are! Eat a piece of green cake for me. I love you.

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Posted in General, Miscellaneous, Gonzo's Grab Bag

4 Comment(s)

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  1. Liberal Army Wife Says :

    how lucky you were to have him in your life.  I wish I had met him!  happy birthday George.


  2. Jet Netwal Says :

    What an awesome footprint to have on your path.

  3. Jan Israela Loeb Says :

    You know, even though I only knew George three years, he became one of my best friends too. My only regret: that I did not meet him many years earlier. He is still available to us in some way. For that, I am grateful. Love that man.

    One of my favorite stories: Bill (Liberal Jarhead’s brother) got sh_t faced drunk one night (this guy is not a drinker). The next day when Bill woke up and staggered into the kitchen, George could see that Bill was  suffering from a hang-over, already gagging from the smell of cooking bacon. George said “Good morning Bill, could I fix you a bowl of cold gravy with a hair in it?”.

    Oh yeah,

    Jim is like George. I’d just as soon be single and would live happily that way, except I met this wonderful guy Jim (Liberal Jarhead). I love it.



  4. L. Long Says :

    Thanks for sharing

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