Canyon Road, 1960: Dreams and troubles

My father and I are standing in what we used to call Percy’s Field, a weedy, undeveloped couple of acres that ran from Canyon Road down to the Santa Fe River.Scan 40 The day was bright and hopeful. It was about 1960.

It’s hard for me to realize, looking at the photo, that I would be a problem drinker only six or seven years later, barely graduating from high school. Thirty-four years later, I would nod to a nurse to unplug my father, Bob Robertson, from life support as he lay in coma in a hospital bed, dying from cirrhosis.

I idolized my father. He was big and athletic and smart and charming. I imitated his every move, and all too much what I thought was the sporting elegance of his drinking and smoking. He was 66 when he died. I was 35 when I quit drinking, 65 when diagnosed with lung cancer.

I don’t blame him, really. I am angry at him only for cutting short his own life, and at myself for not correcting mine sooner.

Dad, at the time of the picture, was on the run from a marriage he knew wouldn’t work and in pursuit of a novel he wanted to write and a woman he wanted to love. He had taken a six-months job at the The New Mexican in Santa Fe to cover something to do with schools. I was living with on Garcia or Abeyta street with with my mother and two brothers and attending, half-mindedly, either Acequia Madre Elementary or Harrington Junior High. Dad, between a copy desk gig at the New York Times and a subsequent reporting hitch at the San Francisco Chronicle, left the city editor job at the Grand Junction Sentinel to come down to Santa Fe, and rented a place at the side of Percy’s Field, because — I hope — he missed his three sons.

I ached badly from the day from my father left home a year or so earlier. When my mother, several years later, met a big, handsome cowboy, Carl Harper, who would become her second husband, my brothers and I faced hard decisions. My brothers went to Montana with my mother. I stayed with my father. We batched it for a while in a cheap apartment on Bridgeway in Sausalito while he worked across the bridge at the San Francisco Chronicle and I started at Tamalpais High School. We had good years together from then on — all I ever wanted to do was be with him — until his alcoholism, down the road, became too bad to witness. I could not change him, and he knew he was dying long before it happened.

The fun bachelor time on Bridgeway lasted until the night of the Alaskan earthquake in 1964, when he was working the night desk at the Chronicle and I, home alone, decided to go out on patrol with a bicycle and a flashlight to monitor the quake’s tidal surge on the Sausalito side of San Francisco Bay, excitedly using a pay phone to report a couple of details to my father at 7th and Mission in the city. I can’t remember if they made the paper, but I got busted that night by the Sausalito cops for curfew violation and Dad, summoned from the city to the Barney Fife police station on Bridgeway, where I was being held, was threatened with a charge of child neglect.

Dad’s sad end years later belied his talent and many good deeds. I remember him picking up a woman who fainted in line outside the opening of the first “True Grit” and carrying her to her car — and this was before we had seen the movie. It seems like the first tour in any new city always was a slum, so we would see how others lived. I probably never would have taken a jungle bus trip through Mexico, or stayed in remote, off-the-grid villages, if it weren’t for him. His reporting for the Chronicle on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, I always thought, was the best work of his newspaper career. Worked up over the civil rights movement and his opposition to the Vietnam War, and wanting to get me and my brothers, who had since rejoined us, away from the Marin County drug scene, he signed up as an English-teaching Peace Corps administrator and moved us to Turkey in 1966. He led us on wilderness and river trips, introduced us to tennis, swimming and sailing. He included us in many of his weekend outings with the colorful Chronicle “gang” of the 1960s. He left New Mexico in the early 1980s to stultifying central Ohio to look out for his aging parents and two disabled sisters. He, with help from my amazingly patient stepmother, Pat, tried to put our odd family back together again as best he could.

He came out West for a backpacking trip with me for his 64th birthday. He never told me he’d already gotten the news from his doctors about cirrhosis. I will never know all that went through his complicated mind. When my youngest brother, long troubled by drugs and alcohol and emotional problems, died in a single-vehicle crash in California in 1992, Dad insisted on going alone to take care of the aftermath. He brought back Rob’s ashes and a few belongings for my other brother and I to keep.

He was a high-school and college football, basketball and baseball star. He was a Marine, a teacher, a newspaperman, a Peace Corps administrator, a writer. He introduced me to New Mexico when he took a badly paying job as an assistant professor of English at Highlands University in Las Vegas in the early 1950s.

And I don’t know why the novel writing never worked out. It was one of the great frustrations of his life. He certainly had worked at it. With a wife and three young sons, working as a bartender at night, and the family living in grungy, post-World War II married-student housing in Iowa City, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop with a collection of short stories. By the third grade, I remember him banging out a novel in the basement morning and night, cleanly typing his own manuscript and carbon on a Smith-Corona portable that seemed too small for his big hands. He wrote a couple of others. None sold.

The photo above was taken by Mike James, brother of Claude James, owner of Claude’s Bar, a few doors east of Percy’s Field, on the other side of Canyon Road. And on the morning of the photo, I think, my father took up me up to the painter Hal West’s studio at the corner of Canyon Road and Escondido to be served a bowl of beans from the pot on Hal’s wood-burning stove. I think it was a Sunday.

I’m not sure why all this came flooding back to me, although it might have been triggered by a funny line on an old M*A*S*H. A broken-hearted Radar recites to Hawkeye something he has written: “I lost in the World Series of love.” Hawkeye — probably channeling a line from the great script writer Larry Gelbart — responds, “Radar, just suffer. Don’t try to write.”‘

But, heh, it’s my blog.

One thought

  1. John, thank you for sharing about your dad and about your growing up; I found it unbelievably interesting. At our Bishop gathering you spoke of some of this but not nearly in so much detail. The love and admiration that pours out of you about your dad reminds me of my feelings for my dad now eight years gone. The bond between a father and son can be so powerful. What also comes to mind is how similar your growing up and your relationship with your father is to Houghton’s. I don’t know if you ever spoke to Patrick about that, but it would have been a remarkable dialogue! I’ll leave you with this thought, John : You’re a special person and the more I learn, the more I’m impressed. See you in August and/or September.

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