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Old Men Still Dream

Steve Russell
1/31/14

Age brings introspection.

 

When you retire, when you withdraw from the daily hurly-burly to live on your pension (if you are lucky enough to have a pension), it dawns on you that whatever you will contribute to moving things along has pretty well been contributed. You measure your legacy.  

 

It my case, the measurement often comes up short. But, on good days, not so much.

 

Even on a down day, I can assert with some confidence that at least I did no harm to the values I hold dear.

 

On an up day, I think about my students, because there is no political value I hold dearer than keeping the doors of opportunity that took me out of rural poverty propped open.

 

I think a lot about my kids and grandkids, a conversation with myself that is sparked anew with three little ones in my home again.

 

Men who are abandoned by their fathers, it is commonly believed, have trouble learning to be effective adults. My years on a criminal court bench taught me the truth of it, that lots of my customers lacked a male role model of the most intimate kind.

 

Yes, there are a whole set of anti-social behaviors in boys that are commonly associated with no father or father figure being in the picture.

 

Still, there’s another kind of personality that develops from the same experience. It’s one that, yes, is still covering up wounds, but in a more pro-social way.

 

Having never had a hero in the intimate sense, we seek to be one. We would never walk away from our own children like our fathers walked away from us. We may not have learned how to parent, but we have a clue how not to parent, so our mistakes are hands-on mistakes rather than mailed in mistakes.

 

Since dad never stroked our young developing egos, we want to be heroes. We seek love and admiration in our actions and that seeking often leads to public service. Yes, we intend to serve the public but, by doing so, we serve our own needs as well.

 

Can a man deserted by his father become both a good father and a competent citizen? I think so. I think that drive to be the hero who was never there for you can work out really well.  

 

Anecdotes prove little, but there’s a pretty good illustrative anecdote residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as we speak. You don’t have to drink all of Mr. Obama’s political Kool-Aid to understand that he’s a good man. He’s a good father to his daughters and he’s always pursued political ends that, whether you agree with them or not, are not merely self-interest dressed up in public policy rags.  

 

This is why I sometimes get distressed by the personal nature of the attacks on this POTUS. The venom is so obviously misdirected.

 

I identify with Mr. Obama because we were both born with our prospects circumscribed by ethnicity.  He was an adult before, on the mainland, he met the black experience full on. I was an adult before I understood the patronizing misguidance I experienced from the adults in the school system of Oklahoma, and before I understood the impact on my life of shedding my Cherokee name.

 

Having no fathers, we picked our own heroes. For him, Nelson Mandela. For me, Will Rogers. I’m not qualified to say how important it was that Mandela was black and Rogers was Cherokee.

 

Both of my daughters have now unexpectedly become single moms of boys. Girls as well, but my knowledge of what the absent father means to girls is not as intimate.

 

My life experience tells me that the absent father creates a void that can be filled in anti-social ways or pro-social ways. The boy can imitate the faithlessness of his father by becoming faithless or he can set out to become the man his father failed to be.

 

Everybody reading these words knows children faced with that crossroad. It’s a set of choices so common in our times that it’s become invisible. Some people think fathers are vestigial organs of a nuclear family that ever existed only in our collective mythos.

 

My life experience tells me that’s not the case. The answer to the ubiquity of faithless fathers is that it takes an extended family to raise a child in these times. I think of the strings Obama’s grandfather pulled to get him into a prep school. I think of the man who co-signed for my first automobile, MSGT Davis D. Trevino, USAF.

 

Twice retired now, I think of the absent hero I always wanted to be and how I’ve fallen short. Then I look at my grandkids and my students and I know that even if I failed to make over the world, I’ve passed on the values and the tools to the people who will.

 

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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