Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making Peace with Uncle Neil

Many years after the death of my uncle, I learned that he had been a grave-robber. Neil Mallon was one of the members of Skull and Bones, from the Yale class of 1917, who broke into Geronimo’s tomb and stole his skull. There’s some question about whether or not that crime really happened, but I’m inclined to believe it did. Who would make up such a story, or forge the letters that document the event?
As any writer might respond, I rubbed my hands together. Aha. More evidence against my Uncle Neil: that at the age of twenty-two he and his gang of over-privileged, Ivy-League rascals pulled off a racist, elitist, disrespectful, despicable, not to mention illegal act of symbolic violence.
It took little time for the idea to sprout. What a novel! A chance to expose those Yalie aristocrats, those future captains of industry and finance, those future politicians and spies, for the scoundrels they were. (One of whom, by the way, was Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of the future Presidents Bush.)
I began my outline.

I had already written and published several stories about Uncle Neil. Most of them were inspired by anger. They could just as easily have been inspired by love, admiration, and gratitude. Uncle Neil gave me a home to grow up in—a fine home, a country estate. He paid for my first-class education, even though I chose not to go to Yale. When I was a small child, he entertained me with magic tricks, and after I graduated from college he gave me a monthly allowance of three hundred dollars for three years, to get me started in life. That was a lot of dough in those days.
But the sixties were rough on my relationship with him. He was a right-wing Republican, a hawk during the Vietnam War. I was a left-wing Democrat, a war protester. He made infuriating statements about the glory of the industrial revolution; he defended planned obsolescence; he scorned environmentalism; he voted for Nixon, Goldwater, and Nixon; and he was a champion of competition in all walks of life. I was a smarty-pants know-it-all, which was in vogue for folks in their twenties during the 1960s.
As a result, over the years following his death in 1983, my stories featuring this uncle (whom I called Uncle Arthur or Uncle Fergus) portrayed him as a charming but enigmatic tycoon, and a cold and calculating manipulator.

Along comes the Geronimo story, by which time I’m a writer with some credits. So I began the novel, with an agenda. But before long the novel, Geronimo’s Skull, began to write itself. That often happens. I found that I was telling the story of a young man I very much admired; and I admired him more and more as I got to know him. As the novel begins, a nine-year-old boy at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, entranced with energy, electricity, machines, and science, meets the Apache Geronimo and learns lessons that will guarantee his rise to the top. Geronimo offers him a kingdom—for a price.
Yes, and this boy, Fergus Powers, grows up to become a Yale man, a member of Skull and Bones; and yes, he and his comrades do rob the Apache warrior’s grave in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. For that crime, Fergus is haunted by Geronimo’s ghost for the rest of his life, until he makes good on a certain promise.
How did it happen that Uncle Neil, known in the novel Geronimo’s Skull as Fergus Powers, became a man of integrity, even if he also became a tycoon in the oil business, and even if he robbed a grave to do that?
I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book.
But I will say I now have made my peace with my Uncle Neil. I whole-heartedly thank him for all he gave to me, some of which may have come indirectly from Geronimo the Terrible. I think of him with love, admiration, and gratitude, and I have presumed to forgive him for having been what I still consider wrong about certain things. I have a feeling Uncle Neil has forgiven me, too.
Why do I think that? Geronimo told me so.
Want to learn more about Geronimo’s Skull? Click:'s_skull.html

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