I tend to wonder if this kind of post is a good idea. Self-disclosure can be a powerful teaching aid when applied judiciously, and I’ve used it with my kids and with employees from time to time. But I find that it gets a little creepy when splattered about on Facebook and other social media, and I end up learning way too much about some people. Many of us often feel like we’re the only one experiencing a situation, and we are surprised to learn that others have gone through the same thing (or something very similar). So at the risk of appearing self-absorbed and narcissistic I share experiences (and hopefully lessons learned) from my life, with the hope that it may help someone else who may be struggling with their own issues. My adult son says: I often ask myself what dad would do, and then I do the opposite. See, he listened and learned.
From the time I was a young kid I always wanted to be a superhero. My first childhood idols were television cowboys, frontiersman and comic book bigger-than-life heroes: Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Davey Crockett, Batman and of course Superman.
Growing up many young boys idolize their fathers, I respected my father, but I never idolized him. My father wasn’t like other fathers, he was a dwarf. A psychoanalyst might speculate that my wanting to be a superhero was trying to compensate for my father’s lack of stature. Who knows? The mind is a complicated place.
As I got older I gained an appreciation for my father’s abilities, and they were prodigious: he had a keen mind, a soaring intellect, an insatiable curiosity and a rigid, steadfast set of principles that governed his life. He was also crazy (and not in a good way). Despite his size limitation, and the social stigma attached to it, he married a beautiful woman of normal stature, fathered three sons (the youngest also a dwarf), was a building designer (architect) of considerable talent, a pilot, an artist, a photographer, and could play a fair game of tennis, golf and bowling.
I don’t remember love in our family. It might have been there, but I have no recollection of it. My father valued achievement and intellect above all things. Physical accomplishment always ran a distant second to intellectual accomplishment. I was always more physical than intellectual, I enjoyed the outdoors and the solitude that it afforded me. I was tall, lanky and active. And though my father appeared to be proud of these physical attributes, there was always an underlying current of resentment and anger. I think in many ways it angered him that I was normal and he wasn’t.
What I did inherit from my father was his romanticism, idealism, curiosity and sense of justice. Like Superman, he was big on: truth, justice and the American way. He was often ridiculed, behind his back, for his staunch adherence to these noble principles. An example of his ethical code was his habit of always double-checking the bill when we ate out as a family. He would often find errors that would run in his favor, but he always brought the mistake to the restaurant’s attention. When questioned why he would do that, and not just pocket the windfall, he simply replied that it would be dishonest to do otherwise. To this day I do the very same thing.
When I decided in High School that I wanted to join the military my father was disappointed. I didn’t join for God, country, mother or apple pie; I joined for the prospect of achieving glory, recognition and respect. I still wanted to be a superhero. My father couldn’t command physical respect, but I thought that maybe I could. Going to war seemed an appropriate way to prove my manhood, so I enlisted at the age of seventeen in the United States Marine Corps. I was a tall, skinny, sensitive and introverted kid who was terrified of appearing weak. I excelled. I wasn’t the best at anything in boot camp, but I was in the top five or ten percent of almost everything we were asked to do.
Our platoon started with over eighty recruits, but at the end of fourteen weeks that number had dropped to about sixty-five. I graduated number two, right behind our platoon’s Honor Man, and missed that distinction by just a few points. I received my first meritorious promotion, and then moved on to infantry training. Completing four weeks of infantry training, I then advanced to my primary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) training. Within a year and a half I was in Vietnam. Nineteen years old and a Sergeant, rapid advancement even in those chaotic days. Fear of failure and cowardice, in front of my fellow Marines, helped me to keep up the charade of strength and manliness. For in fact I was not a superhero at all, I was simply a scared kid in a situation way over his head.
I returned home thirteen months later, decorated, old beyond my twenty years and emotionally destroyed. It takes a heavy toll to pretend that you’re something you’re not. I wasn’t tough, I wasn’t brave and I certainly wasn’t a hero. I was just a scared young man trying to convince the world otherwise. My father wasn’t impressed with my service, and was in point of fact rather embarrassed by it. The people back home weren’t impressed by my service either, if they weren’t openly hostile they at least thought I was pretty stupid. And I was, because there is no such thing as a superhero. At the core of every hero is just a little kid who is afraid of the dark. I wish that my father had been proud of me, he might be now if he were still alive, but his craziness finally killed him.
I wore this artificial mantle, this suit of armor, my entire life. I was the White Knight, the good guy. I was the corporate whistleblower, the dragon slayer, champion of the downtrodden, protector of the weak. I was Superman with his truth, justice and the American way. But Superman is a fantasy hero, and his rallying motto falls flat. The reality of my existence was that I was Cervantes’ errant knight Don Quixote, charging at windmills, fighting the good fight that never existed, living a life of delusion. For so long I wanted to be a real somebody, a man worthy of respect (and yes maybe even envy), but alas I am now a nobody. Again, the psychoanalysts would probably say that I tried to overcompensate, that I tried to gain a level of respect that my father never had.
My life today is at least more authentic if not heroic. No more wars to win, no more battles to fight. After fighting real wars, corporate wars, gender wars and social wars, I am more at peace. No more need to bluster my way through life, no more need to be the tough guy. Let someone else fight the good fight. Don Quixote has retreated from the field of battle to ride off into the sunset of advancing age. It’s taken sixty-eight years, but finally I am starting to feel comfortable in my own skin. Am I still a romantic and an idealist? I’m afraid that I am. Do I still act out on it, and try to play the hero? Not so much anymore. They’re just feelings, I let them come and I let them go, I try not to hold onto them. This interior journey, to discover one’s true self, is not for the faint of heart. You may find answers you never expected (or wanted). To finally admit that you’ve been a fraud most of your life is humbling. But maybe real bravery comes from facing up to it.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler