Requiem for a dad

Franklin Chandler Davidson died today surrounded by his cats and his wife.

He didn’t pass, go onto his reward, reunite with his maker, set his burden down, or expire peacefully. He just fucking died. As Leadbelly sang in Poor Howard, “Old Howard’s dead and gone, left me here to sing this song.”

Dad’s dead and gone, and I’m the only son left to sing his song. It will be out of tune, scratchy, an original score, and have too many stanzas, but it will be sung from my heart, all true except for the parts that aren’t.

He just missed the 85-year mark, drifting off into death after complications that arose after getting his second covid vaccination. He was hospitalized for a short time with meningitis, which was beaten back with antibiotics that left him too feeble to ever recover.

It was a good run, dad. In your life you were hospitalized exactly once.

The dad who died was a shell of the dad who lived. Years of dementia had left him in a terribly degraded state, the very thing he feared most. I remember him once telling me, when death was more theory than practice, that he wanted “to be pushed to the curb and left to die” if he ever became senile.

Brave but unfulfilled words, like one of his favorite pieces of advice, “Die young and make a good-looking corpse.” He hung onto life tenaciously long after his mental faculties were gone.

And what mental faculties they were! Phi Beta Kappa as a philosophy major at UT Austin, journalist for the Daily Texan, journalist for the Texas Observer, Fulbright Scholar in Poitiers, writer for Harper’s, admitted to Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and Princeton for graduate school (he chose Princeton), full professor at Rice University, only faculty member ever to hold dual endowed chairs in political science and sociology, department chairman, expert witness in countless voting rights cases, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bolden v. City of Mobile, oral historian of Texas politics, author of numerous books, countless papers, winner of university-wide teaching awards, lover of poetry and literature, and damned handy with a manual post-hole digger.

Dad could write eulogies, too, and for a period of years, as parents and older relatives died off, he was much in demand at funerals. Dad got to the essence of the good in a person’s life. He made you cry, but he made you grateful that someone with such a gift for words had spoken beautifully and thoughtfully about the dead.

Dad was good with kids a lot of the time, too. One time our friends were over, including Jimmy Superville, who seemed destined for prison and an early grave.

“Okay, boys,” dad said. “We’re gonna have a shit picking contest to see who can clean up the most dogshit in the yard the fastest!”

You never saw a bunch of kids go after anything so hard, and in ten minutes we had picked up six months’ worth of dried turds. The winner? Jimmy Superville.

“Jimmy!” dad said, “I declare you the all-time champion shit-picker!”

It was likely the only thing he had ever won, and not only was he proud, but we were envious.

Of course dad was also a bonafide sonofabitch. Arrogant, overweening, skeptical of the intellect of others, in love with titles and academic pedigrees, misogynistic to mom and abusive to his sons, stingy beyond reason, overly fond of booze, and possessed of a violent temper that he vented on defenseless kids … dad was complicated, contradictory, lovable, hateable, human.

Why? Because dad was born on a West Texas ranch into a mean-ass cattle ranching family whose saving grace was his mother Sarah. If dad’s ideas of discipline were odious, his father’s were barbaric. Sarah was the first person on either side of the family to attend college, and his dad Frank was an ill-tempered, murderous Border Patrol agent who 4-F’d out of the Marines due to flat feet.

If dad got the mean streak from Frank, he got the gentleness and bookishness from Sarah. That love he passed on with incredible passion to Ian and me. We could read by age four, and he used us at ages five and six to review the proofs of his first book, Biracial Politics, which on publication got a glowing review from C. Vann Woodward in the New York Review of Books.

“That review got me on tenure track at Rice,” he later told me.

He read us stories at night, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Hobbit, and so many more. And he read with such excitement! On a penurious salary at Rice with a young family he insisted on buying the Book House series, a World Book and later Britannica encyclopedias.

In my violent and crazy home, words were honored. Writing was beauty. Writers were nobility.

And TV? We never had one. “TV is for idiots,” he would say, which only made us lust even more for Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke.

Dad’s trajectory was scattered. He sold real estate, Fuller brushes, worked in the oilfields, and served in the navy on the USS Thomaston between Korea and Vietnam. His name is engraved on the plaque of hometown veterans in Fort Davis, Texas.

He left El Paso, where he graduated at the top of Ysleta High School, destined to become a Baptist preacher, only to lose his religion one day swabbing the decks of the Thomaston. He enlisted to earn enough money to finish college, but his religion began unraveling before that.

“There was a guy in my co-op, Abe, a Jew. I was always trying to convert him. Then one day he said, ‘Well, Chandler, what if a person doesn’t believe the New Testament?’ I was flabbergasted,” dad said. “It had never occurred to me that people might not believe those words. That they might not be true.”

He’d been raised among the bible beaters but quickly left them behind.

When the scales fell from his eyes he realized that he was surrounded by the social injustice of segregation. Austin’s movie theaters didn’t allow blacks, so dad joined a group that fought against and that successfully desegregated the theaters. A great YouTube story about it is here.

Dad’s social conscience led him to switch Ph.D. programs from philosophy to sociology at Princeton, after which he flunked his comprehensive exams and faced dismissal from the program. His professors gave him one more chance, and six months later he passed. Dad’s thinning hair thinned a bunch during those years, I’m sure.

He had married mom, had two unplanned kids, and was battling the demons of academic survival at Princeton. That toxic recipe, along with dad’s misogyny and mom’s profound unhappiness, began the process that put paid to their marriage after nineteen years. And unhappy though they might have been, in good times dad lavished love on his sons.

He bought us bikes and taught us how to ride them, then took us on bike rides.

He converted our wagon into a plywood airplane and dragged it endlessly around the block, replete with airplane engine sounds.

He taught us to play baseball and started a thousand sandlot games at our neighborhood park in Galveston.

He took us camping and floating down the Rio Frio.

He taught me how to birdwatch.

He took us to see The Fugs.

He took us to the memorial service for Mance Lipscomb.

He took us to war protests.

He taught us to love Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

He took us backpacking in the Rockies.

He taught us to swim in pools, lakes, and oceans.

He took us sailing, taught us to fish, and how to appreciate the majesty of a sunrise.

He taught us to hate racism and discrimination in all its forms, and we were allowed to hate Republicans if we so desired.

He thought the Second Amendment was dumb but taught us gun safety and how to shoot a .22.

He taught us how to sharpen a knife.

He taught us that long hair on boys was okay, and that you shouldn’t judge people by the clothes they wear.

He taught us how to barbecue a brisket and how to safely shoot off fireworks.

He taught us to save money, not to owe money to credit card companies, and to fear debt.

And he showed us how to love animals, whether dogs, cats, or guinea pigs. As a boy his dad had made a big deal out of dad’s first deer hunt. Frank had rifles and pistols galore, a physically little man yearning to be big. “I shot the deer,” dad told me, “and ran over to it. It was such a beautiful animal.”

To Frank’s chagrin, he cried, and worse, never hunted again. He was eight.

But even as dad devoted his life to social justice, he never fully understood racism. He had few if any black friends when I was growing up, and his circle consisted mostly of white guys. He never saw that you can be part of the solution, but also part of the problem. When mom entered medical school, dad insisted we live on the black side of town, at 1512 Rosenberg. We were the first white kids to attend Booker T. Washington Elementary, since demolished.

We protested mightily, but dad said, “Only way you’ll ever get along with other people is through integration.” However much he failed personally in that regard, he was right and he succeeded with me and Ian.

Dad had a cadre of students from the 60’s who loved him, guys like Bill Ross, who earned dad’s respect at a party by jumping up and down on our car, ruining the hood.

“What the hell are you doing?” dad had yelled.

“I’m fucking up your car for the lousy C you gave me!” Bill shot back. Boom. Lifelong friends.

Dad was at the forefront of the LGBT movement at Rice. A young woman who would later become the first lesbian mayor of Houston came into his office one day in 1980. Dad had a big poster that said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

“Will you be the faculty sponsor for our club?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know. What is it?”

“The gay and lesbian student association.”

“Why don’t you get one of the gay or lesbian faculty members to sponsor you?”

“They all refused.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I’d be honored,” he said.

When mom dumped dad he fell into a depression, but pulled himself out of it by fucking his way through the dating scene like a scythe through silk panties. Dad was a dick but eligible: full professor, mid-40’s, looked a bit like Sean Connery, a happy drunk who loved a good time.

Dad’s family consisted of his second wife, his brother Tony, sister-in-law Robin, their kids Josh and Chelsea (and Chelsea’s family), niece Hilary and nephew Evan, me, daughter-in-law Yasuko, granddaughter Cassady, her husband Torazo and their three boys Ringoro, Kohaku, and Suzunami, grandson Hans and his wife Julia, and grandson Woodrow. Dad’s cousin Eddie, the only person he ever forgave for being a Republican, and with whom he grew up on the ranch, is alive and kicking in Ft. Worth.

Time and his second marriage marriage beat dad down in a good way, especially with respect to his grandkids. He took them to the ocean, to chess tournaments, far afield to Dauphin Island, to Disneyworld, and a thousand times to the neighborhood swimming pool. He never yelled at, and certainly never struck them.

When I married in Japan in 1987, dad was the only member of my family who came to the wedding. He loved Japan and his daughter-in-law, and doted on our kids.

But after my brother shot himself, dad was never the same. He never saw his role in the tragedy, could never see the connection between his and mom’s abuse and the sad outcome 49 years later. Like many fathers, dad feared his sons. We were never good or smart enough, even though Ian went to Penn on a full doctoral program scholarship. That insecurity, arrogance, and fear of failure he passed on to us.

I recognized dad’s mental decline several years ago, when I convinced him to join me on a trip to Germany to visit my eldest son. He was disoriented, fearful, and utterly incapacitated in such a foreign environment. When I told his wife upon our return, she denied it. Sometimes we only see what we want to see.

For years his good friend Barbara, whose own mother died of dementia, took him to lunch and kept his spirits up in the face of the obvious. But inevitable means something.

Last November I rode my bike to Texas to say goodbye. I knew I’d never see him again. We sat there and talked, him doing everything he could to pull it together, just for a little while. And he did.

We got to talking about poetry, and I told him I was memorizing the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

“Oh my gosh,” he said. “Let’s hear some of it!”

I obliged. His face lit up, old synapses firing might and main. “That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed.

No one had ever asked to hear it before. Of course dad would.

Love you, dad.

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