The mystique

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He had no parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, or other relatives; he had no friends; he had no relationships— he was just the father in our family. Maybe people who are close to you – such as your own father – aren't supposed to maintain a mystique, but Dad did.

With his long and story-filled past – living and working in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and other cities in the United States, living in England and Italy and traveling Europe, seeing Latin America and being profoundly affected by the poverty, helping begin an intentional community in Georgia that supported the civil rights movement of the 1950s, many relationships – and yet without any physical or human encumbrances from this past, Dad was more like a finally settled James Bond than a person we regular folk would know.

My father, John Melançon, died one year ago today, a fact that the Charles River Medical Group, Metrowest Medical Center, the United States healthcare system, and any relevant higher powers will have to reckon with sooner or later. (There was even mystery about my Dad's name. Melançon, he said, was taken from a family in New Orleans, and a false birthdate as well. His middle name sometimes made an appearance as C., and on at least one document, "Charles.")

A mystique, of course, is less about a past than about a person's presence in the present, and Dad had that.

You don't step on Superman's cape, you don't spit in the wind, you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Dad, either.

Once you have this kind of reputation, in your own family no less, it doesn't take too much to solidify it permanently.

So, on a camping trip out West, when in the spirit of the adventurers we were out there, one of us kids fired a rubber-tipped arrow at Dad– and he caught it with one hand without seeming to look at it... well, that defines him from then on.

(A rubber arrow, true, but it was fired with a straight plastic bow that we could, and did, use to fire real arrows into wood.)

Another thing that set Dad apart was his ability to focus. You could interrupt him with a thought of your own – and four days could go by – and he would still remember exactly what he was saying. His discussion of a topic could always be absolutely thorough if he wanted it to be.

This carried over into how well he did his job and other specific things.

He was never in a car accident in all his years of driving, save a person pulling out into him some time years before me out West and a rear-ending while he was stopped at a red light a half-dozen years ago right on our block.

Finally, while materially separated from his past, intellectually he wasn't. He always said how fortunate he was to have fallen in with people who taught him so much, especially "educated by intelligent women," as he said, many of whom he dated.

He knew history as if he had lived it– and he was always on the side of the In the words of his hero, whose name he gave my younger brother as a middle name, Eugene Debs: "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Another little piece of history, which my Dad could tell you but I'll let Howard Zinn take over for a minute. Debs spoke those words at his sentencing for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I.

The "liberal" Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict, on the ground that Debs's speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. When the war was over, the "liberal" Woodrow Wilson turned down his Attorney General's recommendation that Debs be released, even though he was sixty-five and in poor health. Debs was in prison for thirty-two months. Finally, in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day.

That's why my Dad never identified politically as liberal. He knew too much.

He wasn't socialist either, necessarily; when he referred to his own politics at all it was simply as radical. He recognized and remained ever-aware of the many very bad things – poverty, hunger, unfairness, waste, and squandering of resources and human potential – that come out of fundamental problems with the way we organize ourselves in society, and he was always open-minded about possible solutions. He talked of seeing barefoot, unemployed young men walking past a shuttered shoe factory as one iconic representation of our broken system. He did always feel that the principles of the intentional community, of the consciously collective way of organizing ourselves, had something very valuable to add. That, indeed, the principle "from each according to ability, to each according to need" is a beautiful thing and worthy goal.

His interests and learning were vast, well beyond the political and economic, and he absorbed biographies and documentaries and history in print and on television.

At the same time, as much as he remained his entire life an intellectual giant trying to stride the world and understand it, his family was his life.

He didn't know our ages, or what grade we were in, or some of the other things a father is probably supposed to know, but everything he did, every hour he labored, and every time he took off from work, for my entire life, he did for us. He had two classic parent qualities at least, strong and reliable, that I would hope to emulate.

More importantly, he could see us clearly and still love us.

Dad could, and would, tell me to get my act together without holding back. "If you had half a brain you'd be dangerous," would be the general expression reflecting my lack of competence, but specific criticism too would be spot on and useful. (Always put things in the same place? I know the wallet is in the backpack... somewhere... Don't do dishes in that way that wastes water, right. Get. Ready. Earlier. ... got it.)

Yet Dad was always more impressed than he should be by certain things I did. Like meeting Evo Morales in Bolivia. Dad was always interested in the six degrees of separation concept, and he had met Eleanor Roosevelt which of course put him within four degrees of most anyone you've heard of in the twentieth century. Or when I got anything published. Dad said he used to have reverence for anyone with a college education, having had no formal education at all himself, until he finally got to know enough university-educated people to learn that attending an institution doesn't necessarily mean much about understanding the world, but I think a little of that hung on– and he certainly always regarded journalism as a sacred responsibility, regardless of what too many of its practitioners did to it. And he certainly gave me too much credit for the knowledge of things I picked up from reading too much on the Internet.

He practiced what could be called true compassion through withholding compassion if anyone ever has, and this was hard on Jakob when Dad was rejecting most everything he was doing (or not doing, specifically, earning a stable living). In the hospital, though, Dad talked to people positively about Jakob's work at the time, landscaping, rather than anything Daniel or I were doing (perhaps in part because Dad understood what Jakob was doing). And as Jakob had said, "Dad can't die now. We're finally getting along."

And for Daniel, Dad would criticize his plans, including moving to West Virginia. But Dad went down to West Virginia and helped take care of his grandson, and be there as the family established themselves, with temporary housing in town while work proceeded on the house in the sticks. Dad came away with great respect for Dan's wife Eva, and their relationship.

But more than anything, for me, Dad believed that I will be able to help effect some radical bettering of the world, even when I lacked a plan to get there by my own standards.

Goddamn I miss Dad.

So I'll close with a couple of his common parting words.

To all of you reading this,

"Take it easy," and "Keep on keeping on."