Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thoughts About My Dad

My dad and me, 1952
If my father, Cal Jack Robison, were still with us in this temporal reality, he would be 90 years old today. I last saw him alive twenty years ago, the day he turned 70.

In December 2015, I took advantage of a few days in an Authentic Writing workshop to explore some thoughts about him. Here are some of those exercises. The headings are the writing prompts we were given. I hope you'll read to the end.


The snow began drifting down not long after we started walking. The sky was low, the color of old porcelain, above the many shades of gray-brown and muted green of the rocky, brushy slopes, where stands of pines filled the ravines. Duane had moved on ahead of us and disappeared, his rifle slung over his shoulder. “That long-legged son of a gun,” my dad said. “We’ll have to meet back at the cabin later.” They knew from many hunts together that my dad’s short legs could never keep up—his pace was better matched to mine, the kid, ten years old. I’d be taller than him in just a couple of years, and I already told him frequently how to spell words, but now, out here, there was no sense beyond this: he was a man, I was a child.

I walked behind him, staying quiet, no sound but the crunch of our boots on stones and leaves, and the snow continued to fall, heavier, thicker. I often wondered: why is there so much walking when we go deer hunting? Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay still? Aren’t we scaring them away just by moving, just by entering their silent home with all our loud rustles and creaks and snapping twigs?

We hiked higher and higher, where the view of the surrounding wilderness should have widened, but by now the wind had picked up and snow swirled around us so thickly I could see nothing but my dad’s back, his rifle over his shoulder, his boots making one track after another. The ground was no longer visible under the deepening snow. Pines would appear as looming shadows in the white-out, then pass away behind us. Flakes caught on my eyelashes and I knew my hat and earflaps and shoulders were covered in white. A gust blasted my face. We kept walking. Should I be worried? I stayed silent. With him, this was my way.

Out of the swirling whiteness appeared a huge fallen tree, it’s tangle of roots jutting up as tall as my dad. He walked around it, where the other side was against a huge boulder. He stopped and turned to me.

“In there,” he said. “Quick.” Under the roots of the fallen tree, walled in by the boulder, was a little dry space, no bigger than a bathtub, all earthy dark brown, perfectly sheltered from the blizzard.

We crouched in the tiny cave together and suddenly I knew that he was scared. But he tried not to show it. “Hell of a storm, I’ll tell you what,” he said. Together we found a few sticks and dry leaves and started a miniature fire. We warmed our hands. I didn’t know if my dad and I were going to freeze to death, buried under a mountain of snow—whether I would ever see my mom or my little sisters and baby brother again. But somehow, I didn’t care. There was some sort of fierce joy in me—with my father, facing the elements in a battle for survival. I was being taken care of by him, but at the same time, and more importantly, I was somehow his equal. Two men, strong, smart, brave, surviving together. The rest of the world didn’t matter.

I don’t know how long we sat there in our little shelter. Maybe it was only an hour until the blizzard died down and we climbed out, resumed or ended our hunt, met up with Duane again, drove down out of the Uintah Mountains to our little cowboy town. Back to school, church, then my dad’s different jobs that took him away more and more, then moving to another town and another like vagrants… the routine that continued until, gradually, before I reached the end of high school, he was entirely gone from our lives, off with a new woman and a child on the way.

And I was expected to be the man of the family, a job that no hour under a tree in a blizzard could prepare me for.


In 1993 I lived in downtown Jersey City but had explored the streets of Manhattan well enough to give good directions to out-of-towners. No other members of my family had ever been there. It was Christmas time and I was 41, newly in love. I decided to take my New York born and raised girlfriend to Utah for her first time, to meet my family—my mother and her husband, my father and his wife, my teenage son and daughter. In Salt Lake City we picked up my kids from my ex, piled into a rental car, and headed south. First up, my mother’s house in Orem, next door to Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, the dark heart of Mormon country and my mother’s lifelong home. Surely my mother had no idea what to make of this tall young woman in her beret, black leather jacket, long scarf and slim black jeans, but I had long-since ceased to care and we enjoyed a surfacey chit-chat amongst the family photos and Jesus tchotchkes. Then on the road again.

I hadn’t seen my father in many years—possibly only once since my younger brother’s funeral in 1982. It might have been ‘88—I had driven down to Washington, DC, to meet my dad and his third wife for a tourist afternoon. His only trip to the East Coast, made for the sake of visiting his wife’s daughter in Virginia, but driving a half-day north to New Jersey to visit me was more than he could do.

Now he lived in a ranch house development in the small desert city of Saint George, in the southwest corner of Utah, retired from the oil field, working part-time in a country club shop and playing golf in all his spare hours. Maybe I’d been opened up to hope by the dizzy state of new love—I had the notion that he and I would do a lot of warm and honest talking. We’d reconnect.

But it was only an hour into our conversation in his living room, barely enough time for introductions and shallow catch up, that I saw an exchange of glances between him and his wife. Then his expression changed to one I’d seen before: the guilty, apologetic little boy. He seemed to squirm as he said something about having made a reservation for us in a motel nearby. At first I couldn’t take it in, as if he were speaking a different language. Then I understood. They had been expecting us for days and had never told me that we weren’t welcome to stay in their home. There was room for all of us; that wasn’t the issue. It was only later that I realized: his wife had never liked me. She thought I was a bad son, and my sisters were bad daughters, for not somehow spending more time with the father who abandoned us and never made an effort to reconnect himself. And through adult eyes I now saw the man I’d only glimpsed before: an overgrown child who followed his own convenience and the wishes of whomever was closest to him at the moment, never living by any principle or deeper thought.

But I was also the hurt boy, the artsy introvert, whose loud, unconscious dad had never understood him. I stood up to my neck in the motel pool under the red sandstone cliffs and raged in a whisper to my new love, my wife-to-be, about this man who was the father of my body but never of my soul.

Tentative Love

There is a photo of my dad standing in a doorway—young, grinning, cocky—his torso from neck to waist and his entire left leg encased in a white plaster cast. Under one arm, a crutch, and in the other: me, a baby under two. He had fallen asleep at the wheel, driving alone at night. A broken back and leg did not cure him of that narcoleptic habit; it was forever a source of tension on family trips.

Maybe it was to keep him awake that I was sent with him on an overnight trip away from home to another small Utah town some hours away. I was a pre-teen, maybe younger, and remember nothing about the purpose of the journey and nothing about our conversation, if it occurred at all. I remember only the rugged scenery out the car window and, most vividly, our night in a dingy roadside motel. I had never seen a Gideon Bible before. I felt awkward about sleeping in the same bed with my dad and I lay still and awake in the darkness, listening to an amazing parade of noises—rustle, shift, creak, sigh, cough, burp, shift, rustle, sigh again. He probably farted but I must have blanked it from my memory since my mother never allowed such things. Eventually he snored and I slept too. But it made me wonder: is this what it’s like to be an adult, a man? To have a big noisy body that can’t relax, that fills a dark room with its presence?

Maybe it was the next morning, or maybe it was some other morning on some other trip, just him and me, that we drove a drab main street of a little Utah town in the slanting light of dawn. A ragged, drunken Indian man staggered across the street in front of us. We went into a divey coffee shop, all shadowy with glints of chrome, and sat at the counter with a few other silent men. No children, no women. Men. I had never done this before. My dad actually ordered coffee, something no Mormon is supposed to drink. Of course I said nothing. I was just the student, learning. I suspect he ate eggs over-easy with plenty of pepper, and maybe I did too—although I preferred scrambled—to copy him, to try out being a man. My memories are as if I was not physically present at all, but was only a pair of eyes, always watching him. Looking up.

There is another photo from over thirty years later, 1997. I stand with my dad, my two sisters, and my half-sister from his second marriage. We are in front of his house in Saint George, Utah. I am the tallest in the image. He barely stands to my chin. It’s been many years since I had to look up to see him. We’re all smiling in our summer clothes in the sunshine, although it’s only the end of March, there in the southern Utah desert. The only indication in the photo that anything might be wrong is that his head is bald. No sign of the thick, curly, dark hair that had begun going silver. We are gathered from several states, with our children, his grandchildren, to celebrate his 70th birthday. To celebrate while he’s in a good period, feeling healthy for now, during his battle with leukemia—the leukemia caused by a doctor’s prescription of two contraindicated medications while he recovered from heart surgery. The doctor who retired before any justice could be served. Not that my father or his wife wanted to sue for malpractice—too much stress, you know, and that’s not how you should treat doctors anyway. Better just to die. 

Three months later in the sun-blasted heat of June, I was back in Saint George to speak at his funeral.

The Right Way

"The right way to live is according to the revealed word of God as delivered to his chosen servants: the Prophet, his two Counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Any other way of living will lead only to unhappiness in this life, and to an eternity of disappointment in the next."

My grandfather the Mormon bishop made sure this message was taught to all his children, but I suspect that by the time his sixth child and youngest son, my father, arrived, his teaching energy was fading. Cal Jack had a bit of a wild streak. He knew the right way—all Mormon kids do—but it hadn’t imprinted in his cells deeply enough to guide his behavior. He was too full of fun to walk the straight and narrow path.

For that I am grateful. When I imagine who I would be if my father hadn’t had a spark of rebellion in him, the vision is too horrible to contemplate.

Let’s say he had denied his urge to roam, to hunt and fish on Sundays, to drive cool cars he couldn’t afford, to wear kangaroo-skin boots and polished agate belt buckles, to flirt, to drink, to whistle while he worked, to tell crude jokes and laugh loudly. Let’s say he had settled into a bank job, stuffed himself into a suit, stayed twenty years in one suburban ranch house with his wife and kids, instead of following the oil wells across all of the far-flung deserts and mountains of the west, dragging family along, or spending months alone in his little geologist trailer at the end of a hundred-mile dirt road, communing with wolves and moose. And let’s say he had bowed his head and stayed a Mormon, never missed a church meeting, done his duty in pious silence. Let’s say he did that—then who would I be?

I’d be dead. The spark that makes me live would have been snuffed out before it had a chance to grow. For all the ways he failed to live the right way, I thank him.