New Orleans Telling my mother the news about my brother, Dale, waited for my return to the city, so now every day, she and I reestablish the facts of the matter, reconfirming his passing. Somehow this seems so metaphorically appropriate for Dale, he is both there, and not there, both known, and unknown, both voluble, witty, courtly, and knowing, and totally inscrutable, contradictory, and an enigma to the end and beyond.
I loved him as you can only love an only, younger brother or, until I had children, “my closest living relative,” as he would describe himself. I also knew a mountain of details about him, as only a brother might know and someone who worked with him, almost daily, for 36 years.
He skipped 2nd grade. He ran up to me with a young girl in the cafeteria in elementary school to tell me they had just kissed 26 times. He broke his tooth in a bicycle accident in 5th grade riding home from school. We trekked through countless gulleys and ravines in the West with a BB gun for years, summer after summer. We shared a bed during an earthquake when visiting my grandmother in California. We drank Doctor Peppers and ate divinity fudge on the back porch of my grandmother’s house in Mississippi.
He made money in college playing bridge in New York City where he accumulated enough points to be a Master. He wrote me notes from Yale in Sanskrit that were impenetrable of course, but he also read Latin, Greek, and was fluent in French. He turned over a mail truck on a rainy curb leading to his being fired by the postal service during one summer job. He worked as a cook offshore on an Avondale shipyard contract another summer, and later became a gourmet cook with a French culinary bias. My parents were instructed not to tell any friend calling where he was when he was offshore. Later, he told me one of his roommates had “investigated,” and determined that the family was wealthy, and he thought that was a fine fiction to maintain, no matter how far from the truth. With a Phd in English literature from Princeton, he had no interest in teaching, but moved to New York City to look for some kind of job, making ends meet by collecting cash while he paid with a credit card and floated the payments.
He was an Eagle Scout. He was valedictorian at Benjamin Franklin High School. He was born in a Chevron oil camp outside of Rangely, Colorado on the western slope about 20 miles from Utah. His SAT’s in 1967 were 796 verbal and 800 math, but so high on the math part that he was literally in the top handful that took the test that year. He had an English accent for a bit and though he was not political he demonstrated with others at Yale around the Bobby Seale matter. He named his West Highland terrier after Kingman Brewster. He stayed in Little Rock with me for a month, sleeping all day, and staying awake all night, trying to figure out his future. I stayed up twice just to talk to him. He taught in an almost all black central city school in New Orleans for a year, waiting for his low draft number to clear so he could go to Princeton. He wrote thank you notes and expected written invitations even to family Thanksgiving dinners. He cut his own hair. He never said so, but he in fact was always the “smartest person in the room.”
In 1978, I convinced him to stay in New Orleans during the Carter depression and take one of the CETA slots we had for unemployed workers and help us build out the office on Baronne where we were moving ACORN’s national headquarters and beginning to organize workers as well. With a power saw he worked late into the nights to build all the desks and dividers single-handed. I asked him to stay through 1980 during our 20/80 campaign to make sure none of us went to jail, and he ended up handling our finances for almost 30 years and then smaller corporations another 6 years after that for me, as we mop up the pieces now. At different times, he was more our lawyer than our lawyers, more our accountant than our accountants, more our architect than our architects, and at all times both invaluable and irreplaceable no matter how infuriating or insightful.
He loved opera. He kept every program of every play he ever attended. He worked endlessly on all manner of brain numbing details. He took computer programming courses so he could learn the languages and use them. He could quote pages of poetry. He mastered accounting and was invaluable in managing the audits to the degree even when his misappropriation became known more than fifteen years ago, the auditors wanted him to stay on regardless. The Stoics and Spartans were our family guideposts. He didn’t believe we were meant to be happy and would explain without hesitation the classic dispute on the issue involving St. Thomas of Aquinas and others, as best I can recall. He believed we were meant for pain, discipline, and sacrifice. He had no bank accounts and only used cash. He would lecture us all on every lost receipt or missing invoice without ever a hint of irony. He was generous with gifts and doted on his niece and nephew, who worshiped him in turn. He was patient and long-suffering with people while teaching them tasks, but was brittle and intolerant of people who “knew better.” When our father died, he came back that night to my mother’s home, and never left again, watching after her in decline, even as he descended steadily and painfully himself. One of my uncles would call him regularly for answers to Jeopardy questions while on the air, according to my son.
And, for all of that and an endless list of other things I could name, I didn’t know him at all, and never will. He was a master of constant mystery and reinvention for reasons unknown and unspoken. His demons were his own and unshared. His friends and enemies alike were legion and equally loyal and devoted to their views.
A friend and comrade of long standing reminded me over the last year of a conversation more than a decade ago when Dale suddenly seemed to have different color hair. He vividly recalls asking me what was behind the change, and side that I told him then, “If I ever get to know him better, I’ll let you know.” Talking to my daughter on Skype from France, I told her we were going through his computer, and she said how much she wished we would find a manuscript from her Uncle Dale that would tell the story of his life. I told her at this point I wasn’t sure that I would want to read it, our memories and the miracles of life with him were enough and more might be more than I would be able to handle. We were on a “need to know” basis with my brother, Dale, and that’s always been a fair deal in my book, because my love and respect for him was absolute.
And, for all of his foibles and failings, his strengths and contributions were also mammoth, and my debt to him, and ACORN’s, was also just as expansive. When one friend noted that we were “losing too many comrades now,” and another noted that he was “always good to me,” we embrace the contradictions, paradoxes, and the essential enigma of Dale that make all life and work so cherished and special.
He was never a weight. I was never his keeper. I’ll miss him like no other, because he was in every way my brother.