Saturday, June 3, 2017

My Father’s World

My father, David Frelinghuysen Bull, would be 92 this weekend. Yesterday was the anniversary of his birth on June 2, 1925; and if Dad were living, Katie and I would be driving this morning to visit him in Vermont, at the country home he shared with Mom. I would be looking forward to an afternoon of golf with Dad and probably a good long talk, before and after.

My father was a soldier, if not a hero, and war blended with religion in his appreciation of the world. So I treasure a pair of early memories of Dad: weekend visits to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, where he was called to reserve duty, slept in barracks, and marched on parade; and looking up at him every Sunday from a pew, watching his lips proudly voice the hymns, trying to blend my squeaky tenor with his earnest amateur baritone.

When I read more than fifty years later the childhood memories of St. Thérèse of Lisieux attending Mass beside her father, I smiled. “I looked more frequently at Papa than at the preacher,” Therese wrote, “for his handsome face said so much to me.”

In the last year of his life, Dad wrote a memoir with help from his granddaughter. A Protestant all his life, he ended his short book with a reflection on a Catholic practice, one that bridges religion and struggle:

“There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk. I believe strongly in discipline, though not unquestioning obedience to leadership. I believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it as well as you can and work at it. I believe that satisfaction comes from the struggle of trying to do things well.”

It is easy to see Dad as a monk: close-cropped, straight-shooting, self-effacing, and virginal as he was on his wedding day.

Childhood in Minnesota
By calling out my father as a non-hero, let me be clear that I am not ruling out the possibility that he was a saint instead.

Dad was the fourth and youngest child born to Granddad and Grandma Bull, and like many youngest children, he was coddled by his mother. It is hard to imagine stern old Granddad Bull coddling anyone, but with Grandma’s sartorial guidance, Dad was named “Best-Dressed Boy” at the prestigious Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota. To his credit, his senior classmates also voted him “Best Boy,” the equivalent of class president.

What Dad amounted to in his father’s eyes mattered most to him, however. There is a very powerful father-son transmission line built into us Bulls. The picture shows my younger brother, David, with Dad and me.

There may also be in the Bull line a sense of primogeniture, which is why it matters that Dad was his parents’ third son, not their first.

Granddad’s first son, Daniel, died in Grandma’s arms just short of his sixth birthday, after being crushed against a wall by a car that had rolled out of control. The second son, my namesake, Webster, came to fill the hero’s boots when the B-17 “Flying Fortress” he was piloting was shot from under him.

By the time Uncle Web died, Dad was on his way overseas to something less than glory. As a grunt in an Army antitank company that moved east with Patton, he later said he was lucky to be posted twenty clicks south of the Bulge. A Panzer would have rolled right over that antitank gun. After the war, as part of the Allied occupation force, Dad suffered his only service injury when a truck rolled over on him. The accident left him with a cranky back but no medal.

After Dad graduated from Yale, he entered the mandatory business apprenticeship at some other company’s expense before Granddad offered him the desk meant for Web at the family firm, Cream of Wheat, based in the Twin Cities. I think that Dad always felt that he had ground to make up in his father’s eyes. An underdog mentality was part of his makeup. He loved the Mets, hated the Yankees.

When we say that a man’s jaw is “set,” we usually think “with determination,” even “with grim determination.” By contrast, my father’s jaw was set in a kind, accepting smile. This combination of set jaw and radiant good will shows in the formal portrait taken in the early 1960s after Cream of Wheat was sold to Nabisco and our family moved from Minnesota to Connecticut, to follow Dad’s career. I think that Dad believed, almost as a shibboleth, that goodwill—of which he had plenty—could carry him anywhere.

From Minneapolis to New York
Dad viewed the 1961 sale of Cream of Wheat, of which he was the last president, as good for the company and especially good for himself. It meant leaving the milling backwaters of the Midwest to conquer the marketing metropolis of New York. His goal was to run not a $30-million one-product company but a multibillion-dollar multinational, the National Biscuit Company. With his father as sponsor, he had risen to a corner office at Cream of Wheat; with the mentorship of Nabisco president, CEO, and chairman Lee Bickmore, Dad’s career flourished at 425 Park Avenue.

But Granddad died in 1970 and Bickmore retired three years later. Five years later, Dad retired from Nabisco, a fifty-three-year-old senior vice president, disappointed. He had been put out to pasture with staff, not line, responsibilities by a more aggressive cadre of executives, and he hadn’t liked it. Superabounding in goodwill, Dad lacked guile or ruthlessness. Finally he may have been too damn nice to win the New York business wars.

Yet David F. Bull was as lucky in his end as in his beginning. Within three years of his departure, Nabisco had merged with Standard Brands; in 1985, the conglomerate was sold to R. J. Reynolds; and in 1988 the combined RJR Nabisco was the target of the biggest corporate takeover to date. The negotiations and sale to LBO mavens Kohlberg Kravis Roberts were immortalized in the book Barbarians at the Gate. By that time, Dad was a comfortably retired gentleman sculptor and rising grandfather, far from any huns. He might have profited financially if he had hung around the office until 63. Richer, he would not have been as happy.

My father’s was a midlife crisis squared. While Mom went back to school and then to work for the first time in her life, Dad found himself out of a job. He tried starting a financial consulting business named Taurus, which failed quietly. So instead of business, my father took up art. Dad had always shown an eye for the human figure, tossing off line drawings on scrap paper—halfbacks in classic stiff-arm pose, ballerinas on pointe. I imagine that this aptitude stemmed from the maternal, well-dressed side of Dad, who always looked turned-out, even while doing yard work, the way Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper did whether playing city statesmen or country sheriffs.

In the decade of the 1980s Dad became a sculptor, modeling human figures in clay and casting the best in bronze. Today I treasure half a dozen bronzes as permanent mementos of his work: a tennis player, an Indian brave, and a German general from the Bismarck era with spiked helmet, jack boots, and riding crop (pictured). His final work was of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman conferring after the disastrous first day at Shiloh. A man’s man, my father favored manly images.

I came to know my father again and for the first time in the mid-1990s, after his failures in business, successes in sculpture, and first grandchildren. He turned seventy in 1995 and gave himself a legendary birthday party, complete with a DJ and “wigglers.” (Long story: Dad visited a health club and asked the receptionist if she and a friend would don cocktail dresses and wiggle at his party.) From then until the end in 2008, he and I formed a deep bond. He became my best male friend.

I had rebelled against his conservative politics in the late 1960s, heckling him from the anti-war side of the DMZ. I had pursued non-traditional forms of business and religion in ways that must have puzzled, perplexed, and—though he never let on—upset him. But during twenty-five years of neglect—mine of him—my father stood by the front door waiting for my return, like the father of the prodigal son.

Playing golf together
Instead of the front door, I should say rather that Dad stood on the first tee. He had taught me golf at Woodhill Country Club in Wayzata when I was in single digits, but sometime after we moved to Connecticut, I gave up the game. Then in my forties and Dad’s seventies, I took it back up. I did so when my children were just entering grade school and my business of ghostwriting memoirs had developed a stable income stream for our young family.

It felt like a self-indulgence to resume golf when there were so many other demands on my time and our finances were hardly better than month-to-month. Nonetheless, as though possessed by mischief, I began playing nine holes a week and soon augmented that to twenty-seven holes, plus several hours on the driving range and putting green.

In this seemingly pointless detour, you might have missed the most important thing: Golf was my bridge back to Dad. We teed off together countless times in the ten years before his death. The seventy-something gentleman who met me on the tee—always hugging me, still calling me “Boy,” and even sometimes kissing me on the lips, as he had when I was tiny—was not the same man I had left in Connecticut thirty years before. That Dad had measured six feet precisely, the perfect height for a father, I once thought. He had worn his jet-black hair in a perfect wave that he trained at night with a stocking cap. That Dad had a face that was scratchy with black stubble by ten in the morning. That Dad had carried an attaché case and never ever missed the 7:22 from Greenwich to Grand Central.

Now on the tee in the twilight of life, my father’s spine was collapsing toward the sod. He stooped to 5’10” while I towered over him at 6’2”. His full head of hair, still neatly layered, was soft and white. His golf swing, always a thing of beauty, had lost its drive, and before long I was out-hitting him by 20, 40, even 100 yards. It is a sad admission of failure when a male golfer begins using the ladies’ tees, but Dad did that too, before giving up the game entirely in his last two years. Even for him, who had accepted other defeats so gracefully, it was more humiliation than he could bear.

Yet it was in his final years that my father shined as with an aura. He never spoke of his business career, unless sometimes a rueful recollection of Granddad Bull reminded him that there once had been a company named Cream of Wheat. He regularly reviewed his investment portfolio, to assure himself that “if something happened to him,” Mom would be safe and there would be something left over for us kids. But what had amounted to achievement in the first seventy-five years of Dad’s life, including service on the boards of non-profits and quite a bit of sculpting, seemed to fall away from him almost entirely as he approached the end.

By this time, my father had overcome his sense of failure in career and private life. He had successfully navigated the rapids between the first and second halves of life, as described by Richard Rohr in Falling Upward. No longer “stymied in the preoccupations of the first half,” he nevertheless had grown spiritually, as Rohr says, “much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” He had become an elder. “Our elderly are seldom elders,” Rohr writes. “When they are true elders, we all fall in love with them.” And so we all did with Dad—his children, some of whom had bridled at his disciplinarian behavior when we were young; and especially his grandchildren. My older daughter wears one of Dad’s monogrammed cufflinks on a chain around her neck even today, a decade after his death, as a sort of amulet.

Dad did very little to earn our love; he said little and gave less advice, even when we asked for it. He could most often be found in the armchair in the kitchen, looking up quizzically from his New York Times, at which he often scowled; or on the sofa in front of the TV, patting his Abyssinian cat and watching sports or Fox News. Despite his lifelong conservatism, my father surprised everyone by voting for John Kerry in 2004, although Kerry ran against a man with Yale and Greenwich roots, George W. Bush. Such openness to the new—he considered voting for Obama in 2008, but died six weeks too soon—combined with an acceptance of the past and a hopeful openness toward the future.

The perfect wife
In the second half of life, Rohr notes, “Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have—right now.” Dad did this. Although everyone else in the family, including our mother, would agree that my parents’ marriage was rocky at times, my father told me straight out, six months before his death, “You need to know that your mother has been an almost perfect wife to me.” I am convinced that he believed that Anna Cochran “Nan” Ewing was the best choice he had ever made.

In his last months, he lived with a diagnosis of metastasized melanoma, and there were moments when I could see that he was frightened. His vulnerability was palpable. He was not afraid to die, but he was scared of the disease reaching his brain, causing a loss of self-control, memory, and consciousness. The melanoma spared him its worst indignities, and he lived at home in a hospital bed until the eve of his 58th wedding anniversary. Then he was moved to Greenwich Hospital for three days while waiting for a hospice bed to open at Stamford Hospital.

In the hospital I asked Dad if he would like me to write his obituary for him. He said he thought that was a fine idea.

When I read the obituary to him some hours later, he closed his eyes as though falling asleep. No writer likes to bore his audience, so I asked him in mid-read, “Dad? Dad? Are you OK?” “Yeah,” he said. “This isn’t bothering you, is it, Dad?” “No,” he answered with a soft smile, “I kinda like it.”

When I had finished reading, I told him that there was one glaring omission: I had written nothing about his war record. Would he please fill that in? “Oh,” he said, shaking his head, “I don’t think you need to include that. What I did was what all the guys in my generation did. There was nothing special about me.”

In his final months, facing a terminal diagnosis, Dad met with the pastor of his Episcopal church several times. Dad had not been a big fan of this pastor, but in their final conferences, Dad changed his mind about the man. These meetings also made an impression on the pastor. At Dad’s funeral in St. Barnabas Church in Greenwich, he called my father a saint.

That seemed about right.

Why David
My father’s name has been a lifelong mystery to me. Granddad had named his first son Daniel Frank Bull for himself, that much was clear. Uncle Web’s name honored Dr. Webster Merrifield, a Yale man and an early president of the University of North Dakota. Merrifield had married my great-grandmother Elizabeth McBride Bull, when my great-grandfather, George Bull, died too young, in his 40s, when Granddad was only eleven. So he was Granddad’s stepfather.

It is another bit of hallowed family lore that my great-grandfather, George Bull, called his son Dan to his deathbed and told him he was now the man of the family. He charged my grandfather with caring for his mother and his two sisters, Bess and Clara. In years ahead, after studying engineering and building dams, Granddad would take on such greater responsibility, when he was called to Minneapolis to assume the management of the company his father had started in Grand Forks in 1892, Cream of Wheat.

Why then did Granddad not name one of his sons, even the last of them, for his father George? How could he have honored his stepfather, Webster, but ignored the man, his father George, who had started the company he ran so successfully before turning it over to his own son? Instead, when Dad was born twelve years after Daniel, ten after Webster, and four after his lone sister, Rosamond, his parents named him David. You can search the Bull family tree and that of Grandma’s family, the Lelands, and you will find not a single David within three generations of my grandparents.

One hypothesis for the naming of my father has been advanced by family members, and I have a second. Others have suggested that Granddad and Grandma Bull wanted their youngest child to bear the initials of their lost eldest child, Daniel Frank Bull, Jr., in memoriam. David is probably the most common man’s name beginning in D and an obvious substitute for Daniel, even if it wasn’t a Bull or Leland family name. To find a middle name beginning in F, however, my grandparents dug into the history of the Hudson River Valley Bulls, coming up with a long-lost Frelinghuysen.

So then maybe their choice of the name David did have meaning to them. Here’s my hypothesis. My grandparents were observant Methodists, teetotalers who did not allow cards to be played in their house on the Sabbath. They would have heard about the Old Testament David, before and after Goliath, in countless Scripture readings at the Methodist Episcopal Church on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. I suspect that King David is the inspiration for my father’s name.

It fits. The biblical David was his father’s youngest son. When Samuel arrived with a horn of oil at the house of Jesse to anoint the future king of Israel from among Jesse’s sons, Jesse did not even present David to him. Instead, Samuel examined and passed over each of the older seven before asking if Jesse had any other sons. Well, yes, there was David. But he was only a boy, looking after the sheep. Jesse could not imagine that his youngest son might be a leader someday, any more than my grandfather could see his David heading a company.

But Dad, like the great king of 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles, was a soldier and a singer. His favorite hymn was “Onward! Christian Soldiers,” followed closely by “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I fondly remember singing both hymns at his side as he grinned and swayed to the rhythms, fairly dancing before the Lord. This embarrassed me and empowered me at the same time.

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