The man in the picture is Charlie Nelson. My step-father, biological father to writer Bobby Jack Nelson.
Charlie harbored a notion for a while that he might make me into a rodeo circuit bull rider, because, he said without a smile, it was a profession a man such as I was likely to become, could ‘fall back on’.
Charlie was a somber, taciturn, unimaginative man who’d left his two pre-school sons, Bobby Jack and Billy, with his aging parents to run around unsupervised all over that small town during the war years while Charlie was off doing the North African Campaign. When he got back those boys didn’t quite understand who he was, and he didn’t show any signs of wanting them to know, so they continued to run loose.
By the time he married my mom, herself a divorced mother of three kids of her own, Bob was 11, or 12, and I was a toddler of 4 who thought Bob hung the moon. A couple of years later, Bob ran away to California and was gone for six months. When the cops brought him back and dropped him off at our house, Charlie was sitting in the front room trying to repair a space heater. He looked up at Bob and said, “Hi,” and Bob said, “Hi Pop..If it’s okay I’d like to come back and live here and try to finish school.”
“Sure. Probably a good idea. I hope you do it.” Charlie went back to working on the space heater.
Bob did, but he never forgave Charlie Nelson, and Charlie was a man who took a lot of forgiving. Bob spent enough pages maligning the character of Charlie in Keepers, A Memoir, a book that made a middling smash during the late ‘90s, so that it doesn’t need a lot more from me, even though Bob did a lot of it with lies, which also weren’t needed. The truth would have been enough, and it would have been a lot more intriguing.
When Charlie died in 1972, nobody knew how to find Bob to tell him about it.
I’d spent a good many years trying to find ways and reasons to forgive Charlie for his shortcomings. He took an impoverished mother of three kids, kept a roof over our heads, food on the table.
I forgave him all the beatings he used to give me because I had to admit, I earned most of them fair and square. I had it all thought out that he was an unenlightened man, that beatings were just how things were done in those days. I’d never thought about whether he was beating the other kids, just assumed he was, that it was part of the operating procedures.
I went a quarter-century without any contact from Bob, but during the mid-80s I saw him on television being interviewed about one of his books. I chased him down and we began having lunch in Austin, occasionally. One day over lunch at a restaurant Bob and I were discussing Charlie, him griping about the complete indifference, and I mentioned the beatings.
Bob stared at me in disbelief. “Charlie never cared enough about anyone to give them a beating.” I was shocked. So shocked, I was, that when I next saw each of my sisters I asked them whether their memories of Charlie included a lot of beatings. “No. I don’t think he ever even gave me a spanking,” was the reply. “I know he was awfully hard on you that way, but I didn’t get into much trouble.”
Suddenly, a decade-and-a-half after his death, all forgiven and forgotten, I found I had a new, burning hatred for Charlie Nelson of the sort that would have had me dancing on his grave if he hadn’t been cremated. I had to begin all over with the forgiving, and this time it took a lot longer. But I eventually managed to get it down to a mild, gut grinding indifference.
But, what I find most enigmatic about it all is that Bob never did. At the age of 62 he was still seething enough to be gazing at his navel, submerged in self-pity for how hard he had it as a kid. Enough so to write an entire book about it.
Makes me feel grateful, writing this, that I got some attention, instead of being neglected.
I wrote this with Bob in mind after I read Keepers, A Memoir. I didn't remember getting to be third to the bath water until Bob reminded me of it with a tone of lingering resentment many decades later.
The Price of Wealth
Hated Saturday nights;
Being third to
After Mom and Dad
But before the older kids
He thought he was.
While down the road
His buddy, Joe Cordova
Didn.t have to feel so poor
Because the family
Didn.t have a tub.
From Poems of the New Old West
Copyright 2002, Jack Purcell
Being grateful can be a tough bull to ride. Forgiveness might be even tougher. But it beats hell out of the alternatives. Things could be a lot worse.