Fear and guilt were the two fists on the flagpole. His mother, who showed her love by worrying over him instead of touching him, told him that if he did wrong he would go directly to hell and she might die of a heart attack. The thought haunted him. Any moment he might be totally abandoned.
He concealed his feelings with impudence. He hid in the attic of his school and haunted his class with frightening noises. He lassoed passers-by and held a water pistol to them, extorting nickels. Referees ejected him from school games for fighting; a priest ejected him from the altar for laughing.
He refused the turkey and fruit the welfare workers handed out on holidays. He packed nutmeg, vanilla and cotton in his aching tooth rather than take his welfare papers to the dentist. He would show you his laughter and his rage, but never his helplessness. "I can still feel the hurt," he winces, clutching his jaw.
He was a natural athlete, the best in his school. He used bundled mittens as balls and shot them over a pipe in the apartment hallway. When the landlady yelled at his mother that her son was scuffing the linoleum, he screamed at the landlady and scuffed it some more. "I can still feel the hurt when she yelled at my mother," he says. "I can feel it." He nursed all his hurts, did not hurry them to heal. The anger they created inside him compelled him to act, and by acting he didn't feel quite so helpless.
Two men filled part of the void left by his father: Rueben Hammond, the director of the local recreation program, and Monsignor John Hogan, the principal at his school. But he needed more. Didn't anyone understand what he was longing for? "I'd be kneeling in church, watching them all coming back from Communion, their rosaries draped over their hands and their Communion hosts stuck on the roofs of their mouths. And I would think, 'That's funny. Such good Christians, and nobody would ever take me out to play ball or take me to the Father and Son Banquet.' I can still feel it now. The hypocrites."
One day in the middle of his senior year in high school he was summoned from a classroom. A nervous, kindly looking man was waiting in the hall. "Dale," he said, "I'm your father."
"Oh, is that right?" the teenager snapped. "I'm my own grandpa." Dale turned and stalked away. A self-made man could not have a father.
Brown would not see his father again until he was 26, as a soldier at Fort Riley, Kans., when something lifted him from his bunk one sleepy weekend and sent him to the address that had branded itself on his memory since the day he had seen it on the envelope of a letter delivered to his mother: Charles A. Brown, 302 East Ash, Enid, Okla. He called ahead from a nearby drugstore, and when he stepped out of the car with an Army buddy, his father asked, "Which one of you is my son?"
"I am," said Brown. They walked off for a moment alone.
"There's one thing I don't understand," he said. "During all those years did you ever think of calling me or writing me or seeing me? I need to know. How could you do that?"