Of Fathers and Dragons

by James Scott Bell

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.


28 thoughts on “Of Fathers and Dragons

  1. What a touching tribute. I was blessed with a fantastic father. He died in 2013 and there’s not a day that I don’t miss him. As much as I have been blessed with an awesome father, I’ve known people who were not so fortunate, which breaks my heart. And because of that, I tend to re-visit fatherhood often in my fiction. And because of that the matter of loyalty comes up a lot–loyalty of father to children and vice versa.

  2. Nice tribute, Jim. Real men do cry, though maybe not as often as they should. I also like your point about the role of stories. Relates to yesterday’s column by Joe and some of the responses. We need stories about dragon-slayers.

    I do think there’s a place for tragedy though. Tragedies carry their own take on justice. I haven’t seen _Chinatown_, so I don’t know if it would count as a tragedy. I also think happy endings need to be justified, and not just tacked on for marketing purposes.

    • You’re right about the role of tragedy, Eric. It, too, carries a moral message (in the classic sense).

      You’re also right about “happy” endings needing to be justified. I see two aspects of this: 1) the Lead must truly earn the outcome; and 2) in earning it is wounded in some way.

  3. A moving tribute to your father, Jim. He was truly a great man.

    My father died in 2015. I grew up bucking the rules and chomping at the bit to move off to college and get out from under his control. But, now I find myself becoming more like him, even moving into the house where I grew up, and taking over my father’s office, where I do my writing.

    Life sometimes goes full circle.

    Happy Father’s Day!

    • Steve, what you describe is so common–sons seeking their own identity apart from a strong father. Happened with me, too, but I very quickly saw the value in his wisdom. Many a time I stopped myself from doing something stupid by reflecting, “What would Dad think of this?”

  4. That was a lovely tribute to your dad, Jim.
    My dad’s family were Democrats going back to his maternal grandfather who came from Ireland. He never said who he voted for since he worked in Civil Service for the city as a fireman and they weren’t supposed to. I’m pretty sure he’d voted for Kennedy. I was in a TV lecture hall at college when instead of the professor Walter Cronkite was televised announcing the shooting of President John F. Kennedy. I remember he almost cried. John Kennedy was the first president I’d voted for after I turned 21. The college sent us all home. My dad didn’t say a word. He was probably stunned. That weekend I watched Oswald get shot and President Kennedy’s funeral. —- Suzanne Joshi

    • I remember Cronkite’s voice. My dad watched his broadcast every evening. NBC had Huntley-Brinkley, which had a distinct vibe. “Good night, Chet. Good night, David.”

  5. My dad — he’ll always be Daddy to me — was sweet and unassuming. He flew for TWA, twenty-nine years as a captain. This was in an age when the pilot flew the plane, not a computer. Back then, being a pilot was a fairly big deal, yet you never would have known that’s how Daddy made his living. To him it was simply a job. And with any job, you do your best every day. On the line he was known as Straight Arrow. He didn’t believe in bull, and he didn’t lie. If you wanted to know what he thought about something, you had to ask because he rarely volunteered his opinion on anything. Daddy lived to be ninety-three. During the last eight years of his life, he suffered from dementia. I took care of him every day. It was him and me and the damn disease — a situation where the parent truly becomes the child. As awful as those last eight years were, I’m glad we spent them together. He was such a nice man. He passed away in 2006. I will miss always.

    • That’s the kind of man they made back in the day, Laurie. You do your job and you don’t bellyache about it. You perform your duties. You don’t make an ass of yourself, which seems to be the increasingly preferred method for getting attention in these days.

  6. Beautiful tribute to your dad, Jim. I also had a wonderful father. My memories are fading, though, because he died way too young (Mom did too).

    I just read a fantastic book that might interest you. Hunting Charles Manson by Lis Wiehl. In it, she delves beyond the media hype and details Manson’s years before, during, and after the murders, including the psychological tactics he used to gain total control of his “Family.” Highly recommend.

  7. What a wonderful legacy you inherited. My father was a strong man, too, but I was a girl. So I guess I also inherited some recurring themes: being underestimated or being falsely accused. My struggle to persevere and finally publish a full-blown novel is my way of slaying the dragon. And as long as that takes, I will have my pen in hand, my sword at the ready.

  8. PS: Just heard a great quote from GK Chesterton yesterday. He was asked to write an op-ed about what is wrong with the world. His pieces is short enough to quote:

    “I am.”

    G. K. Chesterton.

  9. Beautiful,Jim. You really made me blink fast this morning.

    PS: Finished Romeo’s Hammer. Loved it. Can’t wait to see what’s next for Mike and Ira!

  10. My dad and I were never close. He’s gone now. But I still think of him, especially today.

  11. Beautiful tribute, Jim. I had a wonderful father as many of the commenters have said. I came along late in life for both of my parents, so he wasn’t with me long. We were a house of Democrats too. Although I was only 4 when JFK was assassinated, I remember it well and the sadness felt by the entire country. I remember Walter Cronkite’s broadcast and the salute of Kennedy’s son. I don’t remember if my father cried but my mother did. The only time I remember my father crying was when he found out my mother died. I was only 12 and I was in shock at the news and it didn’t really seem real until my I saw my father sobbing. He was inconsolable. He only lived 10 months after her. He was very driven by honor, respect, and love for family, friends, and country. He has been gone a long time but I still feel the void his passing left. I do have wonderful memories and I think of him often and hope he watching over me.

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