Only twice in my life did I see my dad cry.
The first time was fifty years ago as we watched the funeral train of Robert Kennedy on TV. I was just becoming politically aware then, and Bobby Kennedy was the first politician I ever responded to. I was too young to vote, but was caught up in the aura and optimism of this man running for president.
When he was cut down at the Ambassador Hotel it was such a seismic shock, especially in view of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination just weeks before.
My dad, who grew up in the Depression and fought in WWII, was a Roosevelt Democrat. We were thus a Kennedy family when JFK was elected. I was just a kid, but (like most people alive then) I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot. I was on the playground at Serrania Avenue Elementary school, sitting on bench awaiting my turn at kickball,. A boy ran up and started spouting the news. I didn’t believe him.
So I ran back to our classroom and looked in the window and saw my teacher, Mrs. Raymond, at her desk, her head in her hands, shoulders shaking. And I thought, “Wow. It’s true.”
Cut to June, 1968. I was sitting on the floor in our living room, my dad was in his favorite chair, and Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train was on TV. All of a sudden Dad burst into tears. Not little ones. Heaving sobs. My mom heard him from the kitchen and ran in and threw her arms around him and held him. I sat there in stunned silence, looking at my big, strong rock of a father as I’d never seen him before.
Life started to get a little more complex for me then. And life, as we all know, does not let up. The next year, 1969, was the year of the Manson murders. The evil of that was hard to comprehend, especially living in L.A. where it all went down. Manson and his “family” holed up in a canyon just ten miles from where I lived and where I rode my bike and stayed outside all day during the summers.
Now Manson’s face was in the papers and on the local news. This crazy-eyed monster had manipulated several people into committing such heinous acts. When the trial began we saw the defendants, stuporous and smiling about the whole thing. Female “family members” who kept vigil outside the courtroom carved Xs into their foreheads and warned whoever walked by, “You better watch your children because Judgment Day is coming.”
How the hell (literally) could this happen? If you want to know, read Helter Skelter, Vince Bugliosi’s riveting account of the Manson murders and trial (Bugliosi was the prosecutor). But beware—you may have a nightmare or two, as I did.
The second time I saw my dad with a tear in his eye was when he was giving a speech to a ballroom full of criminal lawyers. Dad was by this time the leading expert on California search and seizure law, and he was describing an infamous event where the LAPD used a battering ram to crush a house in a black neighborhood. He saw the pictures, which included a scared little boy on the street watching all this as he held his ice cream cone. The words caught in Dad’s throat. He was silent for a moment, took a breath, and moved on.
I was a law student at the time and had inherited my dad’s view of the majesty of the law. But that moment, short as it was, showed me how deeply he felt about his calling.
And about the incalculable value he placed on our 4th Amendment. I can still hear Dad’s voice when someone would question him about this basic right. Dad would go into oratorical mode and recite, word for word, William Pitt’s famous utterance to the House of Commons in 1763: “The poorest man may, in his cottage, bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown! It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter. But the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”
Dad also helped set up a federal indigent defense panel in Los Angeles, giving the poor legal representation before Gideon v. Wainwright made it mandatory. I was proud to be his son. Still am.
That’s why justice is the theme I’m always writing about, consciously or not. Because in our books we have the chance to bring about what is often absent in “real life.” That’s one reason people read thrillers, isn’t it? We long for justice, hope for it, and within the pages of a good book we can find it.
I’m not into nihilism. I’m not into the ending of Chinatown. I’m into good prevailing over evil. I’m into fighting the good fight even—no, especially—in a world that can produce a Manson and assassins of good people.
The other day my son told me the story most requested by his own son, not yet four years old, is “St. George and the Dragon.” It put me in mind of that great quote from G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Put me down as a fan of the dragon slayers.
I dedicate this post to the memory of them—my father, Arthur Scott Bell, Jr.