The Last Run
All of my father figures are men who ran.
I was reading a book the other day about a young man who lost his father. In it, there’s a scene where the protagonist learns to shave from a friend, keenly aware that this lesson should have come from his father. My life was much the same. So many lives are much the same, sadly.
When my father vanished it was on my 11th birthday. He told me he was going to Charlottesville, VA for the weekend and that he would see me on Monday. Though I wasn’t fooled. This final lie was told to me from the shadows after my mother drove me to a dark parking lot late at night. My father, avoiding physical contact, squatted down between two cars, engulfed in shadows. I remember the headlights from the road slashing across his face. I remember the red ember of my mother’s cigarette. I remember the smell of his breath – bourbon – and I remember his words, his promise, his lie.
The fact is, though, I am very little like the grieving author of that book I read. My father was always a stranger, he was always absent. When we met in that parking lot, he hadn’t been home in months. He’d spent the previous year living in our company store and I rarely saw him. Before that, when everything was “normal” (to use the word loosely), my father was hardly ever home. He left early in the morning, he returned late at night, he worked weekends and holidays. At home, he was a ghost. Terrorized by my mother, hiding in the basement, taking long phone calls where the other person did all the talking and my dad merely grunted in reply.
No, when dad vanished, I hardly missed his physical presence. He had no lessons to teach me in my first 11 years, and I knew then and now that he would have had none to teach me if he had stayed. What I missed was the money. On that Friday, in that dark parking lot as midnight approached, we were very rich. On the following Monday, we were very poor. Dad took everything, from the company payroll and pension account to the $100 in allowance money I had proudly put into the bank.
I decided to write a book about my father and it became a book about my family, because all I found out was that all these men were runners. My dad spent his life running from what appears to have been a harrowing childhood filled with abuse and neglect. He so successfully lived off the grid that professional genealogists and investigators can’t find him for huge swaths of his life. He shows up for a year here, a year there. Maybe there’s a birth, a death, a marriage, military service, a house. But then he vanishes again. Sometimes for short periods of time, sometimes for decades. No credit cards, no rent, no mailing addresses, no bills, no taxes, no income.
Dad wanted to destroy his parents for what they had done to him…whatever that was. He took over their business when they died and he systematically destroyed it. And he had a plan when he did so. It was all orchestrated in conjunction with his lawyer, who then protected him and the family fortune for 15 years. It was also done in conjunction with my mother and, possibly, my maternal grandfather.
My maternal grandfather raised me in dad’s absence, but I was less a little boy and more a chess piece in the great game he played with his daughter, my mother. The two of them fought over possession of me and, I realized, so many years later, that my grandfather was also running. To him, I was the heir to a corporate empire. With me, and with what he believed was the key to rekindling the business, he could start the company over and escape his life.
I’ve never seen a man so intent on escaping his life. He emerged from World War II and took advantage of the GI Bill, earning a masters in chemistry and working for the Navy. He was one of the key workers on the first nuclear submarine, and then, one day, he came home and said “fuck those assholes,” and he quit. He went to work for DuPont, and he was on a career ladder that would have made us all comfortable regardless of what my father would do decades later. But, then, one day, he came home and said “fuck those assholes” and he quit. Then he became a schoolteacher. And, then…rinse and repeat.
Between 1952 and 1970, he never held a job for more than nine months, and he moved the family with him every time. They moved through the Ohio Valley, ranged as far as Newfoundland and Labrador, and finally ended up in the suburbs of Washington, DC where his wife said if he quits his job and moves the family again, she was done. She’d take the kids and he’d die alone.
He settled down, and was consumed by wanderlust, melancholy, and dissatisfaction. He began to pursue wild ideas and cook up get rich quick schemes. He started a TV repair business, turning the family car into his repair van. Every evening, after he got off work, he’d go on call and fix people’s TVs. The business tanked, and he declared bankruptcy. Shortly after, he developed a silver reclamation business where he would clean used scientific instruments for the traces of silver that were then used to conduct various experiments. The silver reclaimed is miniscule, worthless. The process to get it is extraordinarily expensive. So, the business tanked and, again, he declared bankruptcy. He then started a computer business, which he said would rival Texas Instruments. He made to-order computers from scratch. He sold one, the business tanked, he declared bankruptcy.
And all that in the few years before I came around in 1974. With me came my father, and the paternal family fortune. My grandfather saw opportunity and threw his lot in with my father, acting as store manager and general second in command for a decade before dad swindled everyone and everything. My grandfather lost everything again and, strangely, it turned out that he had worked so many long hours for so many years and hadn’t accepted a salary. “My boat will come in when he takes over,” he would say, nodding towards me.
His side projects never stopped. Shortly before he died, aged 89, he developed a training manual for fracking companies. Something used by companies, colleges, and universities today to develop a new team of engineers who can run these fracking plants. The manual was turned into a textbook, and he signed the rights over and refused payment.
I asked him why, on Earth, would he do such a thing. He shrugged and told me, “Once they realize what I can do, the money will flow in.”
This man who spent over eight decades running away from poverty and a broken family didn’t know how to rationally approach money. He didn’t know how to escape, though he was always trying to do so. And this took precedence over his children, and his grandchildren. He died penniless.
I’m a runner. I spent my whole life running from my family, from trigeminal neuralgia, from the world around me. I ran and I ran and I always ended up right back where it all started in DC, walking through this city of ghosts, wondering how I could possibly escape the sad routine that had settled on me with age, pain, and debt. I still want to run every time I hear my name. It’s hard to run from your name, though. It’s hard to run from the sadness and anger that boils and bubbles in your blood and bones.
A friend once told me that, when my grandparents died, I would fall apart. She was yet another in a long line of so called friends who failed to understand me, who were just using me for money or their own nefarious ends. She didn’t get it.
My parents and my grandparents are all dead and, with their death, I have felt as if a great burden has been removed from my shoulders. I feel more alive, aware, and awake than I ever have in my life. I am witness to the day they all stopped running. In some cases, to the day everything caught up with them. I was able to write about running, to finally start to come to terms with my name.
Alive, my family clawed itself apart and tried to tear down the whole world around them. Dead, they are reduced to a lonely stone in a field on the side of a rainy mountain in a small West Virginia town you’ve never heard of and never will.
Beautiful and tragic.