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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Fathers, Sons and the Faith of Our Fathers.


The event was memorable because it shouldn't be. I was in sixth grade, and was standing outside (under as much shelter as I could find) with my buddy Jeff after school let out. I was not remotely looking forward to walking the five required blocks to get home, and I didn't have a ride. It was a blustery November day, which in Michigan can be borderline lacerating, especially when it rains.

Partway into my "hope the weather changes" routine, Jeff's aunt pulled up--his ride had arrived. Jeff bounded up to the car, and asked his aunt if she could drop me off at home, too. Sure, I was out of the way, but in my small rural hometown, distance is a very relative term--Alma lines up at around three miles wide at its "longest" point--and that estimate may be very generous. In other words, I was not that far out of the way.

Jeff came back, somewhat bemused, and gave a thumbs up. Hallelujah--spared from the elements! I made sure to thank her profusely after she dropped me off.

I really didn't notice it at the time, as I was distracted by my efforts to present a smaller target for the gusts, but Jeff took rather longer to get approval than would normally be the case. Later, he told me why: she'd reacted with some hostility to my name.

You see, I'm Dale Jr. Jeff's aunt worked for the same employer as my dad, Dale Sr. Not to put to fine a point on it, she (and many others in the same building) despised my dad--basically regarded him as Idi Amin without the culinary insights. And for that, she was willing to let one of her nephew's friends cool his heels in a frigid drizzle rather than give him a ride. Fortunately, Jeff prevailed upon the better angels of her nature and she relented.

Jeff only told me this months after the fact--after his aunt had gotten to know me, and seen maybe that her Idi figure was at least was a father who could raise a well-mannered (well, OK, for the most part) kid. And, after her initial consternation, we got along fine. During the summers, Jeff and I would semi-regularly come by to gaze in awe at the nicely-restored orange Corvette in her driveway.

She even let me sit in it.

Over the years, I learned (second- and third-hand) that her opinion was not isolated. Others at that worksite (and from his previous stint as a grocery store manager) griped about what a grim, uncompromising and unrelenting hardass Dad was on the job. Perhaps very significantly, I didn't hear the same--even as hearsay--from Dad's fellow firemen (Dad was a volunteer firefighter for 32 years, retiring as Chief).

The point of all of this is that I could never reconcile the criticisms I heard with the man I know, love and revere.

The man who poured himself out to support his wife and sons, to the point of needing a quadruple bypass. The man who worked himself out of poverty to retire at 54 at the peak of his professions. The man who made sure he was at every single football game both his sons suited up for--even--especially--when there was zero chance they'd play. The man who waits with his hand on the phone on Saturday afternoons when the Wolverines win, knowing he's going to talk with his boy about Lloyd's Boys. The man who lives for Opening Day, so he can spend the weekend with his flesh and blood. The man who never seems more delighted than when he gets swarmed under by hugs and chants of "Papa! Papa!" when his grandkids visit. The man who was always there for his eccentric eldest son and namesake, who seemed to take forever to get his life in gear. The man who was utterly stricken when he parted from his younger son, going off to war.

Yes, that was a prologue: I don't want to hear my dad's a jerk. Others don't know him. Not even a little. Tarted-up and trotted-out tales of workaday woe will gain no traction with me. At best, they see a--a--public face--and the impression is decidedly limited, distorted and unfair, at that.

All of which, I think, gives a key to unlocking Mel's Passion. It can be found in this phrase:

"Got to let it go, Diane."

Remember it from the Sawyer interview? The nerves, the coffee-gulping manic-ness--all of it--vanished in a crystalline instant. Gibson was speaking about the coverage of his father, Hutton, by the NY Times and other media outlets. In a moment, Gibson's tone became grim, flat, and gunmetal cold.

It was then that Gibson's determination about his film became clear. Yes, it's personal--only his hands appear in the film, driving in the nails. Yes, he fell at the foot of Golgotha in the blackest hour of his despair.

But I think he only knew to fall there because it was the faith he was raised with--the faith of his father. None of this is to remotely defend Hutton Gibson's many idiotic-to-hideous views. Even his son put no small distance between himself and those views in the interview, however cagey and sotto voce the effort.

Unlike us, Mel has seen the non-public face of his father. The man who somehow managed to raise eleven kids on a disability pension and a one-shot Jeopardy jackpot. The man who likely performed other kindnesses for his family and others that we will never hear about, and who handed on some semblance of the Catholic* faith to his loving and fiercely-loyal son.

When the abyssal night closed in, and he was one short step from the window to the concrete, he fell back on the faith he had learned at his father's knees--and clearly, not all of that was lunatic ranting about crematoriums and Jewish conspiracies. I mean, it's pretty clear that Mel didn't step back because he found a copy of Gather Faithfully Together or was invited to the annual Religious Education Conference, complete with its "Jazz Liturgies." As others have noted, if either of those two things had happened, he may have decided to try out pavement spelunking, instead of just contemplating it.

When all was said and done, he reverted to his cradle faith, and was healed by it. I think he regards it as an inheritance, and the film as a profoundly personal expression of it. Which is why he has been so monumentally immovable about changes to it, and hostile about the coverage of his father--the two are linked. Perhaps, by this point, inseparable.

In that, I think he's not alone. How many Catholics have held onto and express their faith in terms of heritage and inheritance? I know more than a few.

TPOTC is far more complex and personal than both supporters and critics of the film have realized.

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* Footnote: I know, I know, I know--sedevacantism is not orthodox Catholicism. Please note the careful use of the qualifier "semblance." Thank you. That is all.

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