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Prodigal Father by Doug Hawley


Duke Hilliard discovers he has a son, Walter, who has two children of his own – but even though the newfound families get on, Walter’s mother Janine wants nothing to do with it; by Doug Hawley.

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Duke’s Story Part One

I was drinking Black Butte Porter at my favorite bar after a miserable day at work. I’m the actuary at an insurance company that is losing money and possibly having its rating lowered. I tried to tell the president that we need to raise rates, but the marketing head was fighting me all the way. The bad news at work led down a dark hallway into everything else I hated about my life. Here I was in my fifties with few friends, little family left, and not much to show for all the years. Wife Sally was about my only joy. The more I drank, the more I started to slide towards depression.

I had had my head down concentrating on my beer and was surprised to see a guy looking at me. Even stranger, he looked a lot like my late father had when he was in his thirties. Dad had done weightlifting in his youth and was totally studly before becoming obese. Except for eye color and his prematurely graying wavy hair, he could have been my father fifty years ago.

I left when I got to the staggering stage. I saw the guy from the bar following me and I worried about him being a mugger. In my state, I couldn’t put up much of a fight. I was surprised that he just gave me a note: “Duke, this is your son Walter. Please don’t contact me. Janine.”

My knees buckled and I hit the pavement.

Walter’s Story Part One

I was raised in Bothell (rhymes with brothel) Washington, northeast of Seattle, the oldest of three children. My upbringing was extremely conventional and settled. Same elementary school, same high school. My family was extremely close and stable. Not a whole lot of drama to report.

My father Dash is a civil engineer who works on all kinds of public projects – buildings, roads, schools. He plans to retire soon and travel. His hobby is wood working and building furniture and building miniature cities. My mother Janine never held a regular job, but spent a lot of time volunteering at our school and is an excellent painter who has exhibited in several of Seattle’s better galleries.

Susan is the next oldest. She is a chef and married without children, so far. Chet, the youngest, is traveling around the world while trying to find himself.

If there is anything unusual about the family, we are all socialists and animal rights people bordering on nature worship.

I went to the University of Washington and majored in computer science. My main project since graduating is a web site that connects writers from all over the country. I get revenue from advertisers and subscribers. I’m not getting rich, but I’m getting by. I’m looking for a new project now in my spare time. I picked up working on old cars, woodworking and fishing from my father. My family is in a good place, we’re all happy. Is this revelation going to change that?

I got married to Wendy shortly after college. I’ve got a boy Rick, and girl Sheila. They are both into the post-toilet training pre-acne phase, so that is good so far.

About a week ago my mother dropped the bombshell. She said, “Look this man up in Portland, he’s your father. At least check out his medical history.” I had never had a hint. He must look somewhat like Dash, because I never noticed looking anything different from the rest of the family. My hair is a little wavy and everyone else has straight hair. Otherwise, same coloring, same race, a little shorter than the other men in the family. No one had ever said anything about my biological father. After I was told, I tumbled onto why my parents’ wedding anniversaries were never celebrated. Apparently, shortly after I was conceived, Janine dumped my biological father and married my adoptive father.

My first meeting with Duke was not auspicious. He was drunk, and disheveled. Anyway, we exchanged coordinates.

Sally’s Story Part One

Wow. Just wow. Duke came home and told me he was a father. I had known a little about his former girlfriends, but this was a major shock to both of us. For various reasons, we didn’t have children, and a long time ago he had a vasectomy. Our rationale for no children was political – zero population growth – but I’m sure we had other, perhaps unacknowledged reasons.

At this point I’m processing. What am I, a step-mother and maybe a step grandmother? Wow. Just wow. Is this good or bad? I don’t know.

I don’t know how this will affect Duke’s mental balance. He suffers mood swings and has recently been on a downward cycle. He drinks and worries too much. Will the surprise thirty-something son mess him up or cheer him up?

Duke’s Story Part Two

Janine and I. Crazy story, I don’t remember a lot, it’s been many years since I’ve seen or talked to her. I can’t give any sort of coherent chronology or meaning to what happened to us, I probably couldn’t have even then. Some fragments.

I met her when she was working in a hamburger joint close to college. Beautiful and friendly, so I took a chance and asked her out. I later found out that I was taking classes from her father.

Our relationship was never smooth.

One time while asleep in the cheap dungeon basement where I was staying, a guy came in and asked where his wife was, referring to Janine. Was she really married then? I don’t know.

While helping her up onto some bleachers, she commented on my strength. I felt great.

While driving somewhere she leaned over me to adjust something. I copped a feel and she gave me hell. Asked how I would like it if she grabbed my dick. I didn’t tell her I’d love it.

I was going to drive her to her parents’ house when she insisted I let her out on the streets of Portland. Later, a cop visited me while I was working a summer job out of town to ask me about her rape. Jumping Jesus. I never got any details. Later, she drove down to meet me at my job on the coast, but she never mentioned it and I was afraid to ask.

She once asked me about my idea of a wholesome girl. I foolishly said the first thing that came to mind – blue eyed blonde. She told me off because her adopted sister was American Indian.

After I went away to graduate school, I called her when I was back in town. She totally dumped me. She didn’t tell me why, and then we had no kind of contact for thirty years.

She asked me to bed one time and I suggested that we wait. Idiot.

She invited me to a Ukrainian folk dance and I turned her down. I was bereft of curiosity about other cultures and rather churlish.

The time I got crab lice, I couldn’t think of another source. She was extremely insulted when I suggested that they came from her.

During the time that we were sort of together, she stayed at different places and certainly had been gone from me for long enough to have had a child; I was always bareback and I don’t know if she used any birth control.

As I said, I have no coherent story of our relationship. From my side, I was so pleased to have a relationship with a beautiful exciting girl, that I lived with the instability of our relationship. I felt so lucky that she would be my girlfriend – if indeed she was. I was something of a dateless wonder – not attractive, not interesting. After Janine, my other relationships were unsatisfactory, but not as weird, until I met Sally, a beautiful blonde.

By the time Sally and I met, we were fairly settled in life, and after a very short, completely drama-free time, we got married, and lived a somewhat happy, occasionally grumpy life thereafter.

As for not having children, I have several rationalizations. We never settled down too long until we moved to Marin when I was almost 40. Both of our families had somewhat checkered experiences with families. At some point I decided my family consisted of four strangers who lived in the same house. I think it is fair to say that Sally’s mother was difficult. Our siblings had troubled family life. My sister had two biological children and one adopted, then got divorced and remarried. Sally’s sister is married without children. One brother never grew up. Another had what used to be called a shotgun wedding while in high school, and after two children got divorced. To put it another way, we were not looking at a bunch of good role models for happy parenthood and I think that all of my immediate family showed signs of depression. I still have the feeling that Sally would be a great mother and grandmother.

More than all that, I felt that I had nothing to give children. Unlike my father, I didn’t have any activities like fishing and hunting that I loved. There was no wisdom to pass on and no religion to push. I had a deep-seated fear my children would end up like me.

Hold it. Could this be some sort of fraud? Do I need a paternity test? He looks and sounds OK and hasn’t asked for anything, but could this be a version of the grandson scam?

Wendy’s Story Part One

New grandparents for Rick and Sheila? This calls for some exploration. Walter is dubious, but I say give it a chance. I see several plusses to this. It may sound silly, but I like the idea of people to visit and a place to stay in Portland.

My parents live on the East coast and don’t like to travel much. Dash and Janine are great, but another fairly local set could be a plus. But what will Rick and Sheila think?

Walter’s Story Part Two

After breaking the news to Rick and Sheila, we took a drive down to Portland a month after our first meeting. It went a lot better than expected. Duke was sober and friendly, and Sally is a delight. Since I had told the children’s ages to Duke, they had apparently done some research to find age and gender appropriate gifts for the kids, his and hers video games. I hope they don’t immediately jump into the spoiling grandchildren game. Sally, who is a real babe for her age, took Wendy and the kids for a walk. They have a good location in the ‘burbs, close to restaurants with plenty of parks and safe walks the kids can take when they visit.

Duke and I got into it a little bit on politics. He leans libertarian, which is 150 degrees from my political positions. We did agree on pot and anti-discrimination. It turns out that he and Sally have multi-racial, queer and transgender relatives; as a result of that background they are socially liberal. I supported single payer health insurance, and he claimed, based on his insurance experience, that the number one problem with health care was cost, not mode of distribution. Mostly we disagreed, but with good graces. Despite my antipathy towards capitalists, I found that these two were very generous with their time and money for the causes that they support.

We exchanged notes on hobbies. He claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that my hobbies were his father’s hobbies and that they skipped a generation. His father, like me, also fished, fooled with cars and had his own shop. His dad was a hobby gunsmith and then it turned into a profession after his last machinist job petered out. Unlike me, he also hunted. Duke does none of those things, since he was about twelve, except to fish with a friend. He claims never to have caught a thing.

He and his wife hike and snowshoe. She is a sharp amateur musician with the local award-winning band. He has been banned from singing in 40 states or so he claims, but does have an 110,000 song collection on iTunes. Before I leave, he makes me a mix disc of favorite songs.

Got to say, I was very pleasantly surprised. One negative is that Duke, like his father, has high blood pressure, but it isn’t too bad. It is something I’ll have to watch.

Wendy’s Story Part Two

So, we finally visit. Walter hangs out with Duke, while the kids and I go off with Sally. This is a very nice neighborhood. Sally tells me about the local shopping and the easy access to downtown Portland. They don’t go into Portland too often, but are members of the Oregon Zoo, Portland Art Museum and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I can see Duke and Sally taking the kids on tours when they visit Portland. I almost said their grandkids. This is going to take some getting used to.

We wander through the neighborhood and take the Iron Mountain Trail to downtown Lake Oswego, such as it is. Sally tells me that there are a lot of parks to visit, but we don’t have time for everything.

I’m pleased to learn that Sally has a lot of experience with kids even though she’s never had any of her own. She says that she believes in Zero Population Growth and gets her share of kid time with her nature guiding, and previously as a school teacher.

After the walk, we have wine on their back deck under their Doug firs and cedars, and then go to their local Italian restaurant. Good times. Duke is on good behavior and only has one drink.

Duke tells some really bad jokes, clean but stupid. Sally excuses herself until he runs out. Apparently she’s heard them all at least ten times. Every once in a while, he extemporizes well. To him we are now collectively the double-double-yous.

For dinner, we go to Casa Pollo, a Costa Rica burrito place down the street. Not much ambience except crocodile photos and an old movie poster about a faux Costa Rica movie.

Rick and Sheila are pretty bored with old people talk, and go off to play their new games. After some debate, they decide to call the Hilliards D-grand and S-grand, Hilliard being their last name. Duke and Sally call Rick and Sheila the great-kids. The four adults use first names. Son and Dad just don’t work, at least not yet.

We only have a little time in Portland, so they don’t have the time to show us around much, but we invite them to visit us in Bothell for a week.

Sally’s Story Part Two

I’m repeating myself, but more wows. The whole Jefferson family is wonderful. They may have been on their best behavior in this trying situation, but I can’t find anything wrong. It really speaks for what a great job their parents did. I have to say, I doubt that we would have done as well.

The kids are well behaved and bright. They are all well-traveled and sophisticated. They even know that there are different kinds of red wine. They talked about of lot of things that I didn’t know about – different artists, restaurants around the world, on and on. When we got to music we are more on equal ground. Wendy is knowledgeable about a wide range of music, but I could speak as a musician, so I was OK on that topic.

Probably the best thing about our new family is the effect on Duke. Since he found out about them, he has cleaned up his act a lot. Less drinking, better behavior, fewer signs of depression.

Duke’s Story Part Three

Even before the Jeffersons visited, I knew I had to change my ways. I should have done it for Sally, but I had just drifted into being a bad guy. Probably because I could get away with it, because I thought Sally would put up with it. The changing circumstances made me stop and think.

I cut down the drinking and became kinder and gentler. It may be my imagination, but my changes seem to radiate in benign waves. The people at the office returned my grouchiness in kind, but now they seem to reciprocate my beneficence. OK, I’m going overboard, I’m the slightly improved Duke. No miracles here.

Another possibility is that I’m just on the upside of my mood cycle.

Sally is loving it. Even though she has no blood ties to the Jeffersons, she immediately started treating them like family. We were always behind our friends who could do children and grandchildren bragging, but now we are catching up. One of us will look at the other and ask “What are you smiling about?” It is usually about our newfound family.

Both Rick and Sheila have been taking Spanish immersion classes and want to teach us. Que sorpreso. We are learning a few words and phrases.

Walter’s Story Part Three

Before the Hilliards visit, mother reemphasizes the no contact rule for Duke, and by connection, Sally. I don’t know what that is about, but she won’t explain and she won’t budge. Must have been some bad stuff went down. I can’t think of an explanation, because my mother and Duke both seem to be reasonable people.

Duke and Sally have spent some time in the Seattle area and have friends in Bellingham that they will see on the same trip. They are also thinking about a trip around the Olympic Peninsula.

So, we go to the Paul Allen EMP museum because Duke is a big-time rocker. He doesn’t seem too impressed there, but when we go to the San Juan Island tour on various ferries, everyone is impressed. Oregon definitely wins at beaches, but Washington has the islands. Duke and Sally seemed to have a good time with Rick and Sheila. It was good to get them away from their video games for a while. Sally had brought a Frisbee and everybody got into it. Sometimes it ended up in the water, but nobody minded getting a little wet.

I show Duke my shop and he seems impressed. He has expressed his awe of what his father could do with his downstairs machine shop. We discuss possible woodworking lessons for him and maybe some fishing.

Wendy’s Story Part Three

We get the Hilliards on our home court. Based on what we had heard, I was a little worried about Duke’s drinking, but he was on good behavior again, limiting himself to one glass of white wine or a Black Butte Porter at a time. Considering that they have no children, they have done particularly well with the kids. Probably helps that Sally is a nature guide and used to dealing with children of all ages. She has lots of stories about the birds and the plants that we see. She has a good knowledge of what she calls ethnobotany – how various groups used plant life. The number of uses natives had for cedar is amazing. She suggests we visit Ridgefield to see the longhouse replica made by traditional methods.

Duke’s Story Part Four

Good news, no drunkenness, no vomiting. More good news, I was scared that part of the visit might involve Janine and Dash despite the no contact order – that would have been maximum awkwardness, but was not on the program.

I enjoyed the Jeffersons, but didn’t care too much for the tour. The EMP museum seems like an overwrought billionaire’s toy rather than a serious rock and roll celebration. We had already seen the best parts of Seattle since we used to have friends that live there, and I hate the traffic. I hid my disinterest as best I could.

I never really got into the shop thing when I was young despite my father’s interest. I didn’t really like fishing with my father much either. On the plus side I never drowned on any of our trips on the Columbia. When I went fishing with our friend and enthusiast Sam, I never caught anything. Maybe since these are my son’s interests, I can get involved.

Sally’s Story Part Four

It has been a month since we visited the Jeffersons. They call from time to time. I answer the phone, but Duke has no interest. In fact, he’s drinking more again, and seems depressed. I loved my new relatives and I thought he did too, but now he is mostly silent and seems to have little interest in anything.

Duke and Sally Talk Part One

Sally – What’s the matter, I thought that you were really happy to know about Walter and his family.

Duke – I was very happy, but you know me and my moods. After the initial glow, it occurred to me that I had missed thirty some years of my son’s life. I didn’t see my grandchildren when they were toddlers. No vacations with the family, catching him drinking and smoking, no pregnancy scares. There’s no way that I can ever make up for the time that I lost with my son.

I can’t talk to Janine or Dash. I have no idea how she went from being pregnant with my boy to marrying Dash. Maybe I don’t want to know, but the questions are driving me crazy.

Sally – You may be right, but there may be a partial solution. What if Walter walked you through his past, would that help?

Duke – We could try. I’ll see if we can set it up.


Walter’s Story Part Four

Duke calls me and tells me that he’d like to know as much about my past as I have time for. Since he is my father, even though he didn’t raise me, I still want to help.

I was a bit of a nerd in school. I thought that it came from my bright parents, little knowing that who I thought of as my father had adopted me. As the older brother, I tutored Susan and Chet regularly. Both of them grew up to be bright, so I can take some credit. Despite being a nerd, I wasn’t a weakling or an outsider. It helped that I was something of a class clown. It may be hereditary, because Duke says that he was too. Since I’m still in touch with a lot of my old friends, I took Duke around to meet some of them. Some of them were shocked like I was when I found out that Dash wasn’t my biological father.

For a lot of years while I was in school, I went to summer tech camp, where I learned a lot about programming. I got my introduction to website construction and data mining there, so I was really prepared when I went off to college. I also learned that some of the women at these camps were there to meet guys. Worked for me, since I am one. Since the camp is still in operation, I took Duke for a visit. He was quite impressed. He tells me the one camp he went to, he got in trouble for peeing on the toilet seat. He didn’t like bunking with a bunch of guys either.

I told him about my girlfriends. There was nothing serious until met Wendy. There were some regrets, but no serious heartbreak. I’ve been lucky that way. I told him about losing my virginity on my parents’ couch one night while they were out of town. Fortunately, my parents had told me about condoms, so I didn’t have any pregnancy scares. Most of my old girlfriends are now married too. Wendy and I even socialize with some of the couples.

We went to my old schools. I showed him the few old burger joints that were still in business where we had hung out. It reminded Duke of his old hangouts, including the place where he met my mother. I showed him the old ball fields where we played in the summer. I played the usual sports – soccer, baseball and football. I was a little too short for basketball – I can probably blame Duke for that. I was good enough to play second base in baseball and receiver in football. Mostly, I relied on good reflexes and foot speed. Fortunately, I did not have to depend on sports to get scholarships to see me through college. My test scores were enough.

I showed him around the University of Washington where I got my degree. Because I lived in suburban Seattle, I could commute from home to school. Wendy was in a sorority. We met in a math class. She is an amazing woman, good at so many things, and a great mother.

Duke seemed to be favorably impressed. I tried to answer all of his questions about growing up and my family. We talked about lots of things, such as religion, the chance of world peace, the best ways towards sustainability. He seems quite knowledgeable in a number of fields.

We agree that in future visits I will help him set up to do some simple woodworking, and he will show me the best hiking on the Oregon side.

Duke and Sally Talk Part Two

Duke – Everything is great with Walter and me, I just wish I could talk to Janine. My curiosity has replaced my fear of what she might tell me.

Sally – Duke, you are just going to have to shape up or ship out. I’ve done what I can to help you, but that ship has sunk. Give it up and move on.

Duke’s Story Part Five

I neither shaped up nor shipped out. Well, I’ve been a little better about whining out loud, and in fact I am a little happier, but one does not change one’s essential nature easily.

We now take AMTRACK to Seattle about once a month and they come down to Portland about once a month. The whole ‘family’ is into hiking, snowshoeing, woodworking and fishing now. I’m too old to learn anything about autos. I come from the generation when spark plugs were easy to replace and cars had carburetors and distributors.

Turned out that our Seattle family turned out great despite, or because of, my absence.


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