Can’t tell you why exactly, but yesterday I finally got tired of procrastinating and went into our basement to dive deep in the archives in search of something I was hoping was not long-lost but was moderately sure was.
That something was a keepsake box of mine full of momentos from my youth, one that I’d last seen more than 17 years ago when I’d first moved in with Susan. It was so long ago that I couldn’t even be sure it made that trip and my mind had starting to play tricks on me and left me thinking the box had been gone as far back as 2001 when I moved from Encino to Sherman Oaks.
Several previous basement excursions to find it were unsuccessful and fueled my doubt it was down there. This in part because the basement (better described as a half-basement that I’m pretty sure was built along with the house back in 1906, strictly to contain what was then a state-of-the-art furnace system) is not a place in which one is prone to hang out. Access is through a small set of outer doors the opening of which you have to get down and hunker through to a set of rickety wooden steps. Inside, it’s dank and dusty and narrow, and low. And it’s full of our stuff/junk. And I’m not kidding about low. If you’re Susan’s height, no problem. She could probably skip the width and back without hitting her head. But me being 6’2″ I can seriously count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured down there and emerged without having doinked/glanced/smacked/slammed my noggin off of one of the huge beams that hold up the floor.
But yesterday I meant business, and went down there for a long duration wearing an old bike helmet for cranial protection and bearing a headlamp, and set to heaving and ho’ing boxes with a dedication to finally determine if the keepsake box was down there or not, once and for all.
It was. Bottom box, two rows back and three stacks in, buried upside down under an old garment bag and a whole mess of journalism awards I got from my glory days at the Pierce College student newspaper. Hallelujah.
But that’s not the point of this story.
With the coincidence that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s about what I found in one of the dozens of boxes that I had to move and look through to get to the box described above. Piled loose and in no order whatsoever within was a lot of old magazines and newspapers and film negatives, along with documents related to my stepdad, my mom, and me — the latter everything from birth up to my 12th year. I couldn’t help but deviate from my objective and take a looksee.
Among them was a letter postmarked December 30, 1974, addressed “To the Mother of Master Doug Campbell” at our address on Holly Drive in Hollywood. The letter was from a William B. Campbell at 157 E 57th Street, New York City, and right away I knew what that envelope was holding. I also knew I hadn’t seen it in close to 30 years.
It was a Christmas card to my father, William Lloyd Campbell. It was the first and last time I would ever reach out directly to him. A textbook deadbeat who abandoned my mother and me as a newborn and then failed to pay the ridiculously low court-ordered child support, my mother had been urging the LA County District Attorney’s Office to find him and haul his ass back here to face the music, and the New York City address was the last one she knew of his. For its part the DA’s Office did attempt to serve my father there with a subpoena to appear, but they found William B. Campbell, not William L. Campbell.
Nevertheless, as Christmas approached my mom was certain my dad had been up to some trickery, and when I asked her if I could contact him, she helped me pick out the card, on the back of which, I wrote:
I really miss knowing you. I am 10 years old now. I go to a private school. I have a Big Brother who takes me to movies and ball games. I wish I could go to a movie and a ball game with you some time.
It’s interesting the words I chose to use. Certainly the sadness and loneliness is heaertbreakingly there, but I appreciate how matter of fact I was — I didn’t mess around. And what impresses me is the subtext of how I’m doing OK without him. I mention private school. I tell him I have a Big Brother to do fun things with — and I sign it using my middle name, a defiance against taking his name that would last until those days in the early 1990s at Pierce College where it was just easier to accept my name as it was called during roll.
We mailed the card to 157 E. 57th Street on December 23. The response, dated December 30 from William B. Campbell, included my envelope and card, and the following:
I am returning the enclosed cared with I inadvertently opened. Frequently I receive mail with a mistaken middle initial.
I am sure it will be helpful to know that Wm. L. Campbell does not reside at 157 E 57th St., NYC. When I asked the doorman (Charlie), he told me he remembered a Mr. Campbell, who, with a younger wife and child, living in the building until about three years ago.
For a while after, Mrs. Campbell and I moved in, I received several calls for a “Bill Campbell,” but not from anyone I knew.
Several months ago, I was awakened about 6:40AM by two process servers with a subpoena for child non-support. If by chance this subpoena involved your family, please accept their report as correct — that the Campbell in question does not live at 157 E. 57th Street.
While I am sympathetic to the problems, I am certain that you want to know NO William L. Campbell is or apparently has been at the address for about 3 years. Perhaps an attorney could assist you in locating the proper Mr. Campbell
William B. Campbell
No efforts made by my mother or law enforcement after that ever succeeded. The opinion was he most likely relocated to Canada to continue his life with his wife and child, content to pretend I didn’t exist.
It took me a while longer to gain a similar contentment in my disinterest and disavowal of him. Throughout most of my angry teenage years and even into my early 20s I entertained a “Boy Named Sue” revenge scenario involving me motorcycling across the country until I found him, presenting myself, kicking the shit out of him and collected what he owed me plus interest. But I eventually came to reject the anger I held on to and to accept his complete absence fro what it was: a favor. A low worthless man who couldn’t be bothered to support and acknowledge his son benefited me the best way he could by staying the hell out of my life so completely. Not knowing him was my gain. Him not knowing me, was his loss.
And though it took 12 years after that Christmas of 1974 to get comfortable with that reality, there was something final in that card sent to a father who wasn’t there and never would be by a sad boy grappling with unanswered questions, rejection and desperate wishes to do something as trivial as see a movie with him. I never could be bothered to contact him again. It’s the only lesson he taught me and I learned it too well.