“Whether I shall be the hero of my life, or whether that station shall be held by someone else. These pages will tell.” - David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
During the summers while he was in college at Utah State University, my father worked as a forest ranger. Hi loved the outdoors and all he really wanted to be was a forest ranger or a marine biologist. Born in 1934, on the heels of the great Depression, he was a child of World War II. Raised during the time of war rations and a rising military industrial complex, he learned well the lessons of his father: that the dollar had meaning. That work was important, and that following your dreams was second to making a secure living. So this man who lived for the out doors and the freedom it afforded him, who spent winters as a ski instructor, traveling the world training with the best; taking mountaineering courses in Chamonix, France; skydiving in the spring and summer, setting records and defining the sport… This man went to school, and got a degree in chemical and mechanical engineering. He spent the next forty years as a nuclear engineer, and he regretted every day of it.
My parents divorced when I was three. My earliest memory is of dim shadows and heat in out small apartment in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I know it was at that apartment on St. Clair street, and although I don’t remember any specifics, I know I was hiding, and that my parents were fighting. I feel the heat in the air and the tension. I know there has been yelling.
Another early memory, certainly within a year of that one, is of spending the night with my dad at his apartment after he had moved out. I have no way of knowing whether they had yet divorced, but I have a dim remembrance of that apartment. It was a small one-bedroom place on Lomax, near downtown. I had no consciousness of these things at the time but I suspect it was what might be termed an “efficiency.” By that I mean it was sparse. I seem to remember two rooms. A living room/kitchenette… even as a child it seemed tiny and cluttered. And a bedroom, either with sink and toilet in the room itself, or adjoining. I remember chaos. Messiness. And specifically I remember my father trying to feed me breakfast. Asking me what I liked. Buying me cereal. In his blue truck we went to the store and bought Cocoa Puffs and milk. I remember he had nearly nothing in the place in the way of food. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do. And I have recalled that dim memory every time I see that cereal on the shelf.
I can only guess that this was shortly after the divorce, and that this was the first time I had ever gone to stay with my dad. I don’t remember why my sister, three years older than myself, was not there, but I know she wasn’t. In the family we referred to that apartment (and still do) as “The Hovel.” When I am in Idaho Falls now, which is rare, I drive by that building and try to remember what it was like inside. It’s white, two-story building. One, or maybe two tiny apartments over a shop of some sort. Maybe a camera shop or a printer. A parking lot shared with another business that can hold maybe five cars. Dim and dreary. And I have to guess one of my father’s lowest points.
I think occasionally what that must have been like. My father was not a nurturing man. He was not taught to nurture. My parents were in their thirties when they married. Both independent, successful in their way. This was the late sixties. My mother was a stewardess. This was before they were called “Flight Attendants.” And she was every bit of a “Stewardess.” Beautiful in her eight by ten photo. Her midnight blue Delta Airlines uniform. Short, dark hair pinned neatly up and with the stewardess cap [find the name for those hats]. She was very good at what she did. Entertaining passengers. Making them feel at home. As I think back, that must have been something of a pioneering profession for a single girl from Hermiston, Oregon. Seeing the world. Traveling. She came from the farm. The fifth (?) of seven siblings. She was really the first one to break out. And she met a dashing, exciting man from Utah, who liked to ski, and hike and camp and told great stories and had scores of friends. They dated and she became a part of that circle. With Woody, and “Shitty Smitty” and the rest of the gang. Most of these people I never met, but I’ve heard the names repeated over and over. The played hard. They cut the first runs at Kelley Canyon outside of Idaho Falls themselves. When they weren’t jumping or skiing, they were either having shovel races down the face of Kelley Canyon, or celebrating the winner at Heise Hot Springs or the Glass Lantern. To this day, when I meet someone in Eastern Idaho who finds out that I’m Kirby Dawson’s son, I invariably get one of two responses. The first is, “Your dad taught me to ski thirty years ago!” Or, some version of “I saw your dad streak through The Tiki Room in 1971!” He was a legend in his circle. She was an exotic beauty for that time and place, and they cut quite a figure.
But, as I said, he was not a nurturer. His father was distant. His mother was strong and independent. My Granny Dawson started the Wasatch Mountain Club in Salt Lake City. She golfed her whole life, including after her stroke into her eighties, when she lost the use of her left arm temporarily and, golfing one-handed, still beat the pants off all the local challengers. Grandpa Dawson moved out to Utah with his family when he was a baby. There are photos of them on the wagon, rolling into Bountiful in the late 1800’s. He had a hard life, and he worked for what he got. They raised two girls and a boy, and instilled in them a sense of hard work and value. But there was not a lot of nurturing. And as a result, when my father’s son was born, he was off on a skydiving trip.
My dad was not an emotional man. He could get the whole bar singing with him, or silence the room with a recitation of the Pinto Buffalo, but he was not a man who intuitively understood his emotions, not to mention those of the people around him. My mother once told me a story that illustrates my father’s emotional range, and mine by association:
One of my dad’s favorite outdoor activities was to go huckleberry picking. He LOVES huckleberries. And there are few things he enjoys more than driving up into the hills East of Idaho Falls, parking the truck for an afternoon in the woods, and filling four or five large buckets full to the brim with perfect plump purple huckleberries. Then, he’ll can them, or have them in a pie. They are his singular favorite.
One year, after a successfully picking season, my dad brought them home, washed them, and put them in mason jars in the bottom of the refrigerator to await my mother preparing them in some fashion. When they got married, my mom gave up her job and gladly set about making a home for this dashing character with the mustache and the dark wavy hair. I know she would have gotten the drift right away that the huckleberries were important, and that they were now her responsibility. One night, late, probably around midnight, my mother heard a loud crashing sound in the kitchen. I think my sister was a baby, and I not yet born. As my mom entered the kitchen, she watched my father, slowly, calmly and with no outward show of emotion, take a quart jar of huckleberries out of the refrigerator. They had been in there too long. They were surely spoiled by now. He gripped the full jar in his right hand, and then with all his might heaved it at the kitchen wall. It exploded in a purple stain. Glass shards, bloody huckleberries, the bent and mangled lids… one at a time, slowly and calmly, he shattered them all. Then, he turned to face her, and quietly said, “You ruined my huckleberries.” He walked past her to the bedroom, and went to sleep. As far as I know, they never spoke of it again.
This is my emotional heritage. My legacy. Don’t say he never left me anything.
I can’t be too hard, because he was an intensely caring man. He was simply never given the tools to demonstrate it. Years later when he realized that I was growing up distant from him and that he was about to watch his relationship with his father repeated, he began to change. He sent me letters and reached out to me. We eventually kindled what remains a somewhat muted, but nonetheless close, relationship. But this was before then. For most of my formative years, he was a man who I knew more by the stories about his past than I did by his presence. As the years went on, we increasingly spent weekends or parts of the summer with my dad and the woman who became his second wife (consummating the affair that ruined his marriage).
The two of them joined a fledgling Christian house church when I was about 8, and their lives were changed. The soon got married, and over the next two decades (and counting) devoted themselves to their religion above all else. My father went from the life of the party to a quiet, emotional, and regretful man. I mourn the fact that by the time I was old enough to share my father’s laughter, it was largely gone. He is still a charismatic figure, and is still well liked. He can still spin a yarn with them best when the time is right, but I think he was haunted by the failure of his first marriage, and he resolved to sustain his second at all costs, especially once he became a Christian. Whether that second marriage has actually been healthy for him, that’s another story.