I don’t know why it should be that late last night, while I was riding with T.E. Lawrence into the fires of Damascus, and only shortly after he had discovered the horrors of “The Turkish Hospital,” that I would have occasion to reminisce about dining with my father. It might have been his devotion to all things Lawrence, and memories of a rainy afternoon in San Francisco where we sat together in a dilapidated, smelly, theater watching Peter O’Toole flog his camel into the redoubts of Aqaba. More precisely, it was the dinner afterward, at a poorly lit, under-attended, and handsomely formal Italian restaurant where he assured me that everyone, up to and including the waiter, was a La Cosa Nostra hit man. To an impressionable mind, his storytelling was inclusive and engaging, and as I poured into a chicken alfredo, my head stuffed with images of Michael Corleone gunning down Captain McCluskey and that worm Solozzo, I was convinced that at any minute we might be interrupted by gunfire, overturned tables, and spilled spaghetti. What fun.
It is important to track this back, to build the narrative on precise points. It isn’t just dinner with Steve that I am trying to deconstruct, after all, but something of myself, unraveling the entire sweater by pulling on this one thread. It’s an impossible feat, I realize, but by taking something apart we often learn more about how it was built. So. Imagine a sweltering summer day in Burbank, California, heat wave mirages rising from the asphalt, and a Bob’s Big Boy, circa 1977. I might have been six, so the precise human complexities that triggered this event are mysterious, but I do recall with crystal clarity my father announcing: “Alright, kids, are you ready to have some fun?” After ushering us out of the booth, which happened to be just under the fabulous and gigantic smiling Big Boy outside, Steve, with aplomb, poured all three of our very big milkshakes out over the table. Not entirely satisfied with the mess, he dribbled some fries over the top. Stepping back to admire that work, but still not entirely pleased, he squirted some ketchup into the mix and then dumped the remainder of our trays on top of the soup. Wasn’t that great? he asked loudly, looking around with a slightly mischievous wink and decidedly NOT seeking general approval, then took us by the hands and led us out of the restaurant, past the Big Boy, and into the steaming world. I have held that image in my mind for nearly forty years: giant milkshakes slopping over the edge of the table like molten, malted, sludge. I was much too young then to understand, or appreciate, that Dinner With Steve was going to become a lifelong adventure.
When my parents divorced–the marriage itself lasting approximately eight minutes–Steve became, and remained almost until his death, a dedicated bachelor. Because he was also a professional pilot, and not least because he sincerely despised any domestic chore whatsoever, the mere thought of which turned him into a wiggling bowl of jello, Steve dined out for almost every meal in his adult life, and thereby became the terror of restaurants, good and bad, across North America, and very likely in Europe, South America, and Asia. Once, in Korea, my colleagues and I were refused service at a series of restaurants in the industrial dump of Pohang by virtue of being U.S. Marines–the managers bracing themselves in the threshold while women with cleavers shrieked in the background. My colleagues were naturally insulted and upset, but I was quite resigned to the terror I noted in the proprieters’ eyes–sympathetic even, by virtue of having already had this experience while trying to dine in America with my dad.
Steve, who was capable of enormous and overwhelming passions, also thought of himself as a kind of civilianized Great Santini. At the very least, he had a Santiniesque approach to life, uncompromising, unapologetic, full-throttle, and thrill seeking. He was incapable of playing cribbage with his devoted parents, but he could perform a Split S or an Immelman Turn in a Pitts Special, par-excellence. He could not mow his lawn, but he could skydive, scuba dive, earn a type-rating in an L-39 , or ride his Harley to Sturgis. He could pilot a garden-ketch in a Beaufort 9, or land a Boeing 777 in raging crosswinds at night, but he could not wash dishes. In descending order, he loved his kids, he loved to fly, and he loved to dine. It was the uncompromising, unapologetic, full-throttle, part of him that could turn a simple crab salad at a restaurant in Pago Pago, Samoa, into a perfectly projected, center-stage, dissertation on the unacceptable nature of “This plate full of assholes and eyeballs staring at me.” And there was a cafe in Boulogne, France, where he denounced the pate as a “very poor Gallic interpretation of a duck turd.” These gems, always delivered, like Whitman, as a barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world, have stayed with me.
It wasn’t merely the ever-present, nerve damaging potential for an embarrassing display from Steve, but often the guest list itself that turned a simple meal into an event. At table there might be, at any one time, and sometimes together, a Vegas show dancer, a daytime television actor, an actual Reno mafioso, a World War 2 German U-boat engineer, a strange multimillionaire who lived in a series of flood-damaged cars and dated only “Sees Candy Women,” a movie stuntman, a disgraced diplomat, a celebrity hairdresser, or a Navy SEAL commander. And pilots. Always pilots. Test pilots, airline pilots, Korean War combat aces, anyone who had ever touched the throttle in a B-17, glider pilots, hot air balloon pilots, and even radio-control pilots. Assemblies of this nature soon commandeer the full attention of a restaurant, particularly at happy hour, and an objective observer would locate Steve in the center of it all, holding court, simultaneously laughing, yelling well-timed profanities, flirting with waitresses, and objecting to the temperature of his enchilada. But even without an audience of friends and acquaintances, Steve found ways to become the center of every patron’s dining event. If the table wobbled it became an Olympic steeplechase contest to find an acceptable arrangement. If someone was smoking a cigarette, four blocks away, he would proclaim to the entire dining room that there was, in fact, a crematorium next door to the restaurant, and the smoke they were smelling was actually ash from Aunt Gertrude’s sad reduction in the oven. And so it went. Always.
Dining was also a convenient substitute for religious inculcation. When we lived in Texas, Steve, ever-mindful of his standing as a single father in the community, would haul my sister and I away on Sunday mornings, a staged event, timed to coincide with the neighbors leaving dutifully for church. But our church was a Chinese restaurant in Arlington, where we discussed Steve’s particularly spacious and accommodating beliefs over Mongolian Beef and Sweet and Sour Pork. Thanksgiving was often a Mexican restaurant, Christmas the Tick Tock in North Hollywood, with sticky rolls to go. Once, after a rude service at the landmark Liberty Belle Saloon in Reno, and the requisite, and always high-profile “storming out,” Steve called in a holiday reservation for a party of 30. He followed up by calling repeatedly to inform the staff that the party was running late, until nobody showed at all. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Steve. Of course, this behavior was not limited to restaurants and eateries. He related to me once his fondness for issuing “stack calls,” wherein he would journey deep into the hallowed stacks of a library, find a niche, and begin to deliver a series of very loud, very disturbing, ape-like soundings from the bowels of scholarship. When we saw the movie Full Metal Jacket, he jumped out his seat while the credits rolled, ran to the front of the theater and began yelling and gyrating like a deranged veteran, or a simple madman. If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t know it was neither. Today, he would have been arrested. I could go on: there were the M-80’s he dropped in the toilet of a restaurant in Hawaii, returning to our table to wait out the inevitable warooomph in the plumbing, the night he ordered the entire dessert cart at the Savoy in London, so that my sister and I could sample every example of custard ever made, an embarrassing dustup at a Michelin rated restaurant in Boston when he demanded to know how anyone in the free world could afford the menu, his anti-imperial display at Tres Hombres in Reno, when he stood with a margarita (on the rocks, no salt), tapped his glass with a knife, and enjoined the dining room to participate in a heartfelt salute and declaration of loyalty to Pancho Villa.
Some of this, or maybe all of it, was mere showmanship, I think, a certain delight at dominating center stage, no matter how embarrassing the spectacle. I should emphasize that he was not malicious. A showman yes, a thoughtless jerk, sometimes, but he never wanted to hurt anyone. He was enjoying life on his own terms, as he understood it, and as he measured himself against the absurdities he understood perfectly. I think he was largely unaware of the embarrassment his outbursts sometimes caused, and in any case was unaffected by whatever trepidation or humiliation might be assumed by those in his company. Life was too big for a merely emotional response to his flamboyance. That was his defense, and he came by it honestly and naturally. Whether it was his parents, those models of Greatest Generation dignity, his children, the endless parade of girlfriends, or just friends, he was a live and dangerous wire to carry around in public. And I think there was a reason. I’ll tell it even as it hurts, because I know my own culpability, because fathers and sons disagree, and sometimes fight, and precious time is lost while they sandbag their own ridiculous positions, even as the war is already over: I think he was a kind of genius, and I think he was intensely lonely.
What’s critical, as I drill into the past, is to remind myself that there was good natured joy in the things he touched, and the proselytization of his passions. If he took a shine to Ford 9N tractors, which might last for weeks, the world would know about it, and it was easy to earn a dismissal, an impatient wave of the hand, if one failed to enlist in the cause. He wanted loyal partners in his obsessions and, much like Lawrence, he could not suffer fools or mere dilettantes who lacked his passion, his fixations and his visions. There is another word for this, which is megalomania, but I reject its application to Steve as I continue to expunge and harden myself to the trite and altruistic declarations of our decidedly milquetoast culture. As embarrassing and aggravating as he sometimes was, I have learned that we must suffer the eccentricities of genius if we are to know anything about our species, to measure ourselves against the pervasive weaknesses of our time. Where once I suffered, cringing as he carried an undercooked plate of food through the batwing doors into the kitchen, and endured the time-freezing argument that ensued, I now pound my chest and celebrate a life that simply refused to be treated normally. My father was a friend and confidant of Jackie Cochran, and her tycoon husband Floyd Odlum, accomplished Americans both. He was often a guest at their C-O Ranch in Indio, California, and he once bequeathed to me the sum total of knowledge he received from them: Do not settle for less. Ever. And I think we can learn something from that, and maybe, by taking it to heart, we can do something, however small, about improving the mind-numbing and safety-orange conditions that pervade our daily lives. I say this passionately, yet mindful of the potential for excess, and still a bit jealous that it was my sister, and not me, who sat at Eisenhower’s desk on the C-O, while Floyd paddled around the gigantic pool on an inflatable raft, answering an array of deckside telephones.
This deconstruction is as necessary as it is endless. I tug on the merest thread and the sweater just gets bigger, and bigger. But these days, when I think of Dining with Steve, I think less of the embarrassing and outrageous sagas, and more of our last meal together (if only I had known), when he flew my wife and me to Catalina, greasing a perfect approach to the oddly sloping and disconcerting airfield at KAVX, Avalon, on Catalina. We took the shuttle down to Avalon proper, Steve holding forth about the genius of Harry Flashman, his own burgeoning obsession with Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon, and we strolled the harbor, where he waxed about the landmark Catalina Casino, reminiscing about the perfection of the parquet floors of the ballroom, where Glen Miller once played, and his own cracks at perfecting the jitterbug when he once danced the night away in a rented tuxedo. He was in the mind of Jack Nicholson then, as we walked and the waves slapped against the boats on the dock, and hauling up scenes from The Shining as we enjoyed the stroll. And when we were seated at a crabshack for lunch he braced the waiter in a perfect Nicholson impression: Hi Lloyd, he said, A little slow tonight, isn’t it? I think it was that trip, then, and that dining experience, strangely uneventful, where I learned that my father loved to dance. And that, dear friends, I would give anything I have, or ever will have, to have seen. Even once.