Like Father Like Son
The Poetry and the Prose
By David Arthur Walters
“Like father like son" is not the favorite cliché of sons who "have a conflict with authority." In fact they do not like to hear about their “conflict with authority” because it is a painful reminder of their "need for discipline."
I was like every other rebel who thought he was being singled out by his father for unjust discipline and who therefore took up Liberty for his cause. In my case, since my father loved fine literature, free speech was my preferred form of liberty. Since then I was hell bent on saying any damned thing that might please me at the spur of the moment. The more shocking the effect, the better I was pleased. I recall how thrilled I was when I overheard someone complain to my boss about my first business letter:
"How dare he say these things to me! Why, I've never had anyone write to me like this!"
Little did I know in my naiveté that my father had also been rebellious and romantic from time to time - that was a carefully guarded secret. There was nothing like being poor in the Great Depression and being a World War II veteran to discipline the savage beast in a man. It was a mystery to me how such a tough man like my dad, who was once an Army boxing champion and who went on long marches over bad terrain with ninety pounds on his back, could shed tears over some silly little poem, and even dress up in my stepmother’s clothes from time to time, posing as an effeminate lord of old, or as the lord’s guest, the knight-poet or romantic troubadour enamored of the distressed damsel of the castle whom he could not have but might be one with if only he suffered enough.
Indeed, my father loved poetry. His mother liked to dress him up as a girl, and then his bartender father would come home and whip him for wearing dresses. No wonder he was confused and determined at an early age to construct verses to explain and constrain life’s perplexities.
He met my mother, his beloved wife Charlotte, while on leave during the Second World War. They married and moved to Phoenix. He lost her to polio soon thereafter, and, confronted with dire exigencies, he put aside his dreams of becoming a journalist if not a lawyer, and became an electrician instead.
Charlotte had a child by her former husband, who was killed during a dam construction project; my half-sister, Oveta. It was Oveta who had leaned over during a movie to grab my father’s shiny brass buttons, thus they became acquainted, and here I am. But Oveta was left behind in Oregon with her grandmother when they moved to his home in Phoenix, because, said my father, tearfully, travel was difficult in those days, and the train south did not stop in Salem, where Oveta was staying during the war. And then Charlotte caught what they thought was a terrible cold; he took her to the Phoenix hospital; there was a polio epidemic, and were no respirators to be had. She smothered in his arms while he pled with the nurses. Charlotte was gone forever, and ever since then he has been writing her poems, like Orpheus, trying to recover her from Hades. And it was her name that he adopted as his middle name when posing as a woman, becoming Ruth Charlotte instead of Bruce Campbell.
Bruce Campbell Walters was a proud electrician indeed. He often took me on tours of completed job sites to show me the excellence of his craft. One time he took me to a missile base, slid back the massive door over the hole and showed me the missile sitting on its steaming haunches in the pit. Of course he had a security clearance. He was discreet about his perversion from the fundamental norm: I knew nothing of his cross-dressing, and neither did the discreet FBI director who liked to wear pink panties.
He sang the praises of the art of pipe-bending, wire-cutting and -pulling and -splicing and hundreds of other things. He was a union man, and 'Union Made' and 'Made in the USA' were noble emblems of the highest degree of honor. He had not really abandoned poetry: hapless romantic that he was, he was living it. For him his work was poetry in motion. In that poetry he had his rhetoric: he had his rhythm, his rhyme, and his meter according to the broader scheme of things, a scheme that great poets have associated with divinity no matter how mundane the details. All the elements of discipline were there to mold the temper of a softhearted, hotheaded Scot – our family line is replete with kings and traitors. Still, at home, in a drawer, he kept his poems handy, and kept trying to perfect them. And in those wee hours that were his alone he would also read the grandest of literature to refresh his spirits.
As for me, there was no way I was going to be like my father. Poetry was not for me, nor was electricity or electronics. That all went in one ear and out the other, like wire through the wall. Poetry and transistors were equally obscure to me, all too mechanical as far as I was concerned. I was determined to serve the cause of Liberty, and far be it from me to define exactly what the effect of that cause might be. I ran away from home for good, at age thirteen, with what I was wearing; my shoes, my jeans, and T-shirt. I also had Liberty to myself, or so I thought, in my free speech, which I turned into crude prose from time to time.
As the years passed, I learned to regulate my prose somewhat. Although it is unsuitable for publication in mainstream magazines, newspapers, and books, I take some pride in my progress. A professional writer very recently gave me permission to be a professional writer someday. Just imagine that! Be that as it may, the irony of not wanting to be like my father has dawned upon me as of late. It seems that, in my opposition to my father, he took hold of me and wrestled me to the ground, leaving me lame with his mark, the curse of being a writer.
“They do not understand,” he said recently, speaking of our families. “We are alike, you and me. We are scribblers, we love literature. They think we are crazy.”
Maybe they are right about our love of literature. For example, I carried two footlockers of books with me on the train from New York to San Francisco, along with a little bag of clothes. Lugging those lockers around town and up the steps of a fleabag hotel over a strip joint was a real drag. Since then, there have been several occasions when I have not moved away from bad situations for years because I had too many books, could not afford to ship them anywhere nor bear departing without them.
I confess that there is nothing I like better than to curl up with a book in bed, and I even sleep with a few books. And I just love libraries. Libraries are my churches. Reading is my religion. Writing is my prayer. Do I write to get published? Are you kidding? Who do you think I am? It is as if I want to make up for all that literate time my father lost when he was on the job for twelve hours a day bending pipes and pulling wire instead of reading and writing.
Now here I am, a rebel left alone with his conflict with authority, who would be an author or authority in his own right, having lived with my father for only a few years, but very much like him after many more years intervening between then and now. There are differences in several respects, one difference being that I am not inclined to dress up in women’s clothes, another being that I do not write poetry. After all, a camel does not have to pass through the eye of a needle to get to an oasis. Nor does an inspired author need to be funneled through a sonnet to reach Plato's heavenly vault.
I love to read a little poetry now and then, especially the verses of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I loathe reading the sort of poetry one must learn to like as if acquiring a taste for Scotch whisky. I have been reading some of my father's poetry lately. I am captivated by it. He loves plain language, and his work seems free of formal discipline, yet it is somehow disciplined – it is said that technique is best left unseen. He has invested many years in a few lines. The Muse speaks with his help. His prose has the same inner coherence as his verse, an understated integrity. Maybe life is prose, with a classical sort of beauty that can be divided into a poem. How would I know? I am no poet!
Now I have received a letter from my father. What is this? He is giving me a lesson on the sonnet form. Oh, no! What is to become of me now?