No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

The second type of conversation usually happened late at night, and usually after my father's sentimental streak had been set loose by alcohol. At their essence, these discussions were about the glory of family and centered on rhapsodic paeans to my grandfather, my mother, and me. Although all his children were given these "Robson talks," I received the lion's share. "Your grandfather--my father--was such a remarkable man," he'd say. "Like all Robsons, he was a scrapper and a fighter, a person who stood up for his family and held it together. He and your grandmother--there isn't anything they wouldn't do for you. And now your mother is part of it too. The best thing I ever did was marry that woman. And you, you and your sisters, you've got some of that same stuff. It's in
your blood."

I wasn't so sure. I usually emerged from these conversations suffused with a sense of pride and foreboding, questioning whether I was worthy of the responsibility of my place in the family and, if so, whether I wanted to accept it. Over time it became increasingly apparent that the answer to one of those questions was no--that I was not going to become the person I thought my father wanted me to be. In retrospect it's probably no coincidence that writing and organized team sports--arenas that were mostly foreign to my dad--became the outlets for my artistic and physical creativity, while I never was able to absorb his gift for working with his hands. Despite the hours we put in together, I remain the person who infamously, as a teenager, tried to refuel the family tractor by pouring gasoline into the radiator. And were it not for a high number in the draft lottery, I would have been more likely to be jailed as a conscientious objector than to enlist in the navy.

I knew all this was disheartening to my father just as surely as I came to know there was nothing I could do to change it. Throughout my childhood and beyond, we executed an unspoken emotional dance: I did my best not to disappoint him and he tried to prod and instill in me his intense fidelity to family without undue pressure. Because the potential for failure was high on both ends, we clung to our roles as the dutiful son and respectful father.

In lieu of the GI Bill, my parents volunteered to bear the cost of sending me to college, and I naturally gravitated toward schools that were hundreds of miles away. In September 1971 my mother and father drove me and my stuff out to Ohio University in Athens. My mother told me later that after he'd dropped me off, my father pulled off the road and cried in her arms.


During my first year away at school, my dad immersed himself in the grand project of coordinating the construction of two duplexes on our property. With the last of their children soon to graduate from high school, my parents had decided to sell the house and barn, subdivide their land, move into half of one of the duplexes, and rent out the other units. Given how much value their craftsmanship had added to the property and the fact that both held well-paying jobs, their economic prospects had never been rosier.

My father began subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and educating himself in the maze of financial management. When I came home for the summer, the relative importance of money became a hot topic of our dinner-table arguments. At 19, already a veteran of anti-war marches and ROTC building takeovers, I was conveniently oblivious to the irony that my father was not only footing the bill for my education, but paying me to help him get the duplexes up. Indeed, it was such an easy way for him to checkmate my self-righteous idealism that he almost never mentioned it.

By Christmas break of my sophomore year, I had determined that I was going to quit school after the spring. When I told my dad, he was bricking in a new stove in the old house in preparation for putting it on the market. Covered in mortar dust, he sat on an upturned bucket in the middle of the floor as I explained that I knew this meant his financial commitment to my education was over and pledged that I would someday earn my degree. For about half a minute he said nothing. Then he said, "Okay, I guess you're old enough to begin making your own decisions," and returned to his task.

For the next four years I was happily adrift, frequently hitchhiking on cross-country jaunts, living in a tent for four months in the Berkshire Mountains, and settling down briefly in Boston, Cincinnati, and Seattle. After a lucrative stint on a General Motors assembly line, I took a couple of stabs at the University of Washington in Seattle in the mid-Seventies but dropped out for good when a woman I had met in Cincinnati came to live with me. After two blissful months together, Anita and I hitchhiked through Canada and down to Ohio. I was heading back to Norfolk, where my younger sister and a good friend of mine from Seattle were getting married in the field between the duplexes and the old house. After a couple of days in Cincinnati, Anita would join me for the wedding.

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