Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dauntless

By Doug Vehle
The Daily Bosco

But do we REALLY have role models when we're growing up? Did I grow up hyperactive because I liked how quick that perpetual motion machine Laker Jerry West was, or did I like Jerry West because, as I, he was a perpetual motion machine?

 “People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.” -Nassim Taleb Author of 'The Black Swan,' 'Antifragile,' etc.

Maybe, but that's NO FUN! When I was growing up, I knew I didn't want to be like Peter Revson, the spoiled Revlon heir racing driver who would show up expecting his car to be ready and complained when it usually wasn't. I wanted to be like Mark Donohue, who raised the art of testing and development of the cars in the offseason to a new level and won better than one out of three starts for his trouble. I think the results show; as Revson was known for his meanness and backstabbing, Donohue was nicknamed 'Captain Nice.' It's easy to be happy when you're succeeding. They were teammates for a year, with Revson calling the cars "Junk" in a winless season of the TransAm series, as Donohue won 3 times with the same cars. While I went to the trouble of realizing I didn't want to be a Peter Revson, I'd rather find and focus on the Mark Donohue's of the world. This is the kind of guy who may wind up in a Warren Zevon song with a line like 'She picked me up and throwed me down,' but he'll do more than say 'Please don't hurt me mamma.'

But is either really a role model? Don't we already know what we want, then model THEM to the role? That question takes me back to the day I was born, the day my Father named me --- Dauntless!

I was the first, and last, of the family to be named by Dad. Mom had named the 7 before me after her relatives, which would continue with the brother and sister that followed me. For whatever reason, I was named for Dad's best friend at the time. While I'm sure I saw a bit of him when I was small, the man's job was transferred and he moved away. Same thing happened to both my Godparents. That's actually more of a theme in my life than I care to remember.

Dad did give every one of us a nickname, though he only called us that while we were small. Sister Lorraine was 'Rainbow,' scrawny brother Kenneth was 'Skinny Ben.' I was 'Dauntless.' The play on Douglas is easy to see, but as with calling my brother 'Skinny' was he already making an observation about me?

Though I found what I thought was the mispronunciation of my name to be embarrassing, an older sister was teaching me to read before kindergarten. I figured out what dauntless meant, even read of the Dauntless Divebombers saving the day at the Battle of Midway. So it got a bit easier to hear Dad's southern drawl as he said "Daaawwwwwnntless." Though I guess I didn't get used to it.

But did I get it from hearing him say that? Here I became this kid who jumped from higher and higher places until I was able to just jump down from the roof. I mean you never know when I might need to save the world by, er, jumping down from the roof.

Before they moved away, my Godmothers' son was this older boy that ran the neighborhood, getting all us kids together for such activities as lining up and launching all of our waterrockets, those plastic pumped full of air missiles that are actually a good thing for kids to play with, SIMULTANEOUSLY. This inspired me to take over when he was gone and get everyone building the coffee can cannons, where you squirt some lighter fluid in before you put the lid on and light the hole in the back, so we could have 21 gun salutes. It's my job to organize these things, right? Afterall, I'm DAUNTLESS.

He never called me fearless, so I went right ahead and got real scared doing things like the BMX jumps, but I went ahead and did them. Indeed some of the other kids said I was chicken, but I was the one winning the races. Those a bit too gutsy fell down and lost. Being Dauntless instead of fearless meant you kept going.

I remember that idiot Doctor Renner at the Don Bosco Technical Institute, insisting "I'm not signing your admission form until you promise me you're going to do your best." But I was telling him I wasn't going to promise him anything, because I DIDN'T WANT to go to his silly high school. Mom yelled, Dad sat silently. Meanwhile Dr. Renner lied. Had he been good to his word I'd have been spared the nightmare of almost three years in that hellhole, as well as being spared the loss of my high school education.

Dad would later tell me that moment had become one of his major regrets with his family; that he'd been thinking of interrupting and telling Dr. Renner no thanks, this school obviously wasn't right for us. But we'd left the school that Friday afternoon and wound up in Northern California at the home of his sisters' family. Monday we were back even though she'd tried to talk him into staying a bit longer. That morning he was checking into City of Hope Hospital for cancer surgery that he hadn't even told his sister about, let alone his kids. Somehow at that moment he hadn't felt ready to confront his mentally ill wife over one of her delusions.

When he came home the dryer wasn't working right, so he had me pull it out where he would watch me work on it and tell me what to do next. I could remember his friend being around to help him before, now he just had to settle for the wrong Doug.

Shortly before Easter of my junior year I'd at last won a well earned expulsion from the school that cared only about getting their hand in Dad's pocket and not about my education. No teacher with a college degree, let alone a teaching credential. A freshman English teacher who spoke little English, the same with all three of my math teachers. I spent that Easter vacation trying to catch up on my Algebra II, now that I had an English speaking math teacher. My average soared as high as 78% or a little more but I just couldn't get a B for the first time since gradeschool, even if I did go back and do a month's worth of homework from before I reached Fullerton High School.

So my senior year brought me a 3.6 grade point average, about double that of my time at Bosco Tech. (I'd been one of the better students at Don Bosco.) It brought my Mothers' rage that I was recovering from what she'd done to me; as she too did not care about my education, in fact there was something darker in her sending me to Bosco Tech inspite of the visible problems with the school. It also brought a journalism award, as well as crowds ditching class to come hear me speak as they'd heard of my past performances in the Learning Community reenactments. Some people find public speaking easy, but I find them to be offering "Me me me." For all my struggles I'd simply gone to work to learn the subject matter and would come with something bigger than them: the REAL STORY.

But the real story was that I was doing this in the shadow of my Fathers' secret. I was the only of his kids he told that he was then terminally ill. He knew I was the one that would be taking care of him so I needed to know right away, I just had to not tell Mom that I knew. That too she would rage about.

So Dad would not live to see me overcome having been deprived of any proper preparation for college and become the first of his children to graduate in 4 years, only the second at all. He who took his Physics PhD work at UCLA would not get to see me later attend that same school. He would not see me be the first and last to match his honor society gold key. Nor would he have to see much of the evil his wife would do because of her anger at it.

It would be some years after my Fathers' death that I'd be at the gym talking to others as I was working out. Warren Zevon, best known for 'Werewolves of London' and 'Gorilla you're a Desperado' was on the radio with my favorite, the more obscure 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me.' This was about the time of his own death. I was telling my thoughts of running off to Mt. San Antonio Community College to study some Physics, punctuated with me singing along with 'Laid my head on the railroad track, waiting for the double e.' My work in television had become sporatic, I was getting worried it might stay that way. 'But the railroad train don't run no more, poor poor pitiful me.' If I wanted to take Physics, first I had to take math.

I had so hated math by the time I graduated from high school that I slipped through college on the strength of an electricity class that took care of the general education requirement. I'd then gone ahead and taken the placement test again and qualified for a college level math class, but took Beginning Algebra anyway, I'd learned so little of it before then. My 89.4% average hadn't swayed a teacher that knew that was less than 90%, I had my first 'B' in math since grade school, but not my first 'A.'

And just about ten years ago I was telling them in the gym I was at last going to take all this college math, which had been my planned major prior to attending Bosco Tech. In fact I would refer to my new years resolution of 2004 as that I was getting a life. But really, I was planning to find things to keep me busy no matter what, such as maybe building my own plane. That's what the Physics was for. And there was no question I needed to know what to do if my career pointing a camera really was dying.

It took 8 1/2 years to get my first math class at Mt. SAC. Budget cuts and unemployment set enrollment soaring and class offerings dwindling at the same time, since I wasn't taking other classes I never build up unit priority and was always a new student. Even when I took plastics classes at Cerritos College I couldn't get an early enough registration time to catch a math class open. Until finally a Mt. SAC math teacher simply added the entire waiting list, which I was on.

It's largely been a nightmare. A rough start in Geometry to battle back to 89.1%, once again not quite 90% so I got a 'B.' A bad stint in Intermediate Algebra, a baffling teacher in Trigonometry leading to my repeating it this summer and STILL not getting an 'A.' Even if I did grow up with the 99 percentile on all my math aptitude tests, I just have to wonder if I'm cut out for this, somehow. After another bad test came back, then another tough day in the math lab trying to sort it out, I found myself throwing my books in the car and going to the bookstore to buy all the remaining math books I would need to complete the calculus track, as though committing to ride the storm out. None were in stock. Is there a message in this? This was getting to be nearly ten years after I'd been singing along with Warren Zevon: 'Put me through some changes loard, just like a waring blender.' I no longer feel like I have a gold key from the honor society.

I just keep trying to remember Warren Zevon on David Letterman as he was telling the world he was dying, this album would be his last. "That's why you gotta enjoy EVERY SANDWICH." When he got to work on that album.

So with my Mother screeching because I hadn't BOTHERED applying to any major schools with my 1480 SAT score and my 2.29 GPA she'd saddled me with, (Big affront to her for the world to see what SHE had caused) I went off to Fullerton College. Good thing it was cheap, Dad's health insurance only paid so much of his therapy and his other children were always begging money. Not only was I paying my own way through college but I had older brothers and sisters and their kids to support.

I remember the time he pulled some money out of his pocket and insisted he was at least buying me a shirt right then. . . . This is the guy who saw his pay cut in half when Rockwell was laying off so much staff after military cuts, while he was offered a low paying temporary job running the retirement of the Minuteman missile. What possessed him to try to come up with new uses for that missile, besides desperation? Before the Minuteman could be put out of commission, the government suddenly was ordering more. Dad's job would continue.

But it was rough going to be going to school AND working AND taking care of all the nieces and nephews living at the house with us AND taking care of my Father, whose worst problems came in the middle of the night. I also had to drive him if he was to go anywhere after work, the later in the day it was the more likely he would have spasms, not a good time to be behind the wheel.

Mostly it was good, I went with him to such things as the Long Beach MG club meetings, full of car nuts as well as his fellow engineers and upper management. Or even just someone working the assembly line, these were people who got things done. Less than a year before he died, just a few months before he'd no longer walk on his own, the meeting was about formative events in the early life of the club. As a past president, Dad was called to the podium to speak. It was a great night, they even had a surprise for him.

On the way home, my unfamiliarity with his car and his problems with keeping track in his condition came to haunt us. The fuel gauge didn't work right, we ran out of gas and were stopped on the 605, not a great part of town. Dad's engineering thinking told him he'd seen lights several miles back, I should walk that way. I'm more the sort to think about what I don't see when the tip of the iceberg is present: It was a cold night, his spasms were going to start once the car cooled off. I could see the overpass in front of me and if there was no ramp I could climb to the street. It would have to take a long time finding a gas station going that way to take as long as going back would take. Dad wasn't like Mom, there'd be no fit when he didn't get his way. I don't know why he bothered telling me there was no need to run. He knew I'd run the whole way.

It was bad enough watching him have the spasms at home. Usually he needed to get up and walk it off, but couldn't to it alone. Or even with help, really. But he was determined. I just worried each would be the time to trigger a heart attack, or ruptured blood vessels, or whatever. Thinking of how he was likely to have them in the car, alone, no way to get up. Of course he knew I'd run.

And at last I realized I wasn't going to be going off to school. I'd hoped for a short stint in a good school at the last just to finish. But either Dad would live and I'd have to be there, or he'd be gone, and I'd have to be there. And who would the others expect money from once Dad was gone? That night, running to the gas station, I realized fate was dealing another hit to my education. Cal State it would have to be.

Such an eventful night. While no one at the club knew of Dad's illness, the broken foot he'd suffered just before he found out he was terminally ill didn't fully explain his problems walking and other pains. Some of them were suspecting something was up. As was his old friend, whom he was still in contact with. As it was Dad's turn to speak at the club meeting, his old friend, important enough to cause Dad to defy Mom's naming convention to name me Douglas instead of perhaps William or Leonard, walked from the crowd to the podium. I would at last see the man, now that I was old enough to actually consider who he was. Dad had called him "The smartest man I've ever known." Certainly they were talking about solving so many problems facing the club in the early days and their involvement in auto racing and oh, such things if you're into it. The gravity of the situation really hit home with Dad in tears, as he was lately seeing relatives that were visiting that he knew would be the last time he saw them.

But for me the best part was what he was saying about working out these problems with his friend, another engineer. "He was so DAAWWWWWWNNNTLESS!" Wow. Sometimes you never know where you're real role model is hiding. What if I hadn't been there?

You just have to figure, your parents can't really want you to be like themselves, they don't have that image in their head to work with. But they can want you to be like someone they know.

When I got back to the car later Dad was claiming he'd been fine, but I had other ideas looking at him. It would only take a few minutes to warm the car up again once we were going, things might not get worse. Even if they did, Dad was the type to tell me to just get home. He didn't seem much concerned, instead he was immediately talking about his friend, whom I guess neither of us had ever got to see enough of. Dad was the stern type, rarely so jovial was he was right then. And you remember people not for being dead, but for when they were alive, as he very much was in the car that night even as he was near death.

I don't remember exactly what night this was, but there'd probably be just one or two more meetings for him before he was no longer up to going. I say he didn't live to see me finish college, but I suppose he really saw me as finishing college long before I ever did. He probably saw me with that gold key from the honor society, just like his. He probably saw a lot of things, I'm sure he had at least a little ability to see what's below the tip of the iceberg.

I know it sounds so bad to go through that long, slow period when you know the parent is going to die, but as someone who's been through it can tell you, it's not all bad. You really do find yourself enjoying every sandwich as Warren Zevon said, which you're not doing leading up to losing them without warning. If you go to youtube you can search for sdOVONtnsj0 and hear Zevon's last take on 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me' and read just a bit on his final days.

So I needed a 98 on the final for my Trig class this summer to get an 'A.' I was feeling good about it when I turned it in, but as I walked away it suddenly occurred to me that when I'd needed to plug in the half angle identity of Cosine I'd used the half angle identity of Tangent. My 98 and my chance for my first 'A' in math since grade school flew right out the window. Maybe I can do it in the fall.

Yeah, math has picked me up and throwed me down, 'Oh, woe is me.' Dad used to by books of math arguments (The only math PROBLEMS are what you're HAVING) that would make people faint and he'd sit and work them like crossword puzzles. If he was here maybe he'd see why I have so much trouble with something as simple as identities. But I lost him when I was barely 20. Looks like math will have picked me up and throwed me down a good many times before this is over. 'Poor poor pitiful me.'

I guess he got me ready for all of that. Not only did he name me Douglas, he named me DAWWWWWWNNTLESS!

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