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  • My dad's father lived with us with his wife from when I was seven until I left for college. After a bout of small strokes, he keeled over in his bedroom one evening the following summer, falling onto his bed after shuffling over to it. He would have been 78 a day later. At least he had just brushed his teeth.

    Charles Judson Dutton was an intellectual who had read more books than the rest of his family combined. My late father, his only and often neglected son, Charles Odard Dutton, was keenly intelligent and also liked to explore ideas, but was more of an easy-going people person. He was a better father to me than his father had been to him, and for that I am terribly grateful.

    Regardless of his lack of paternal instinct, C J Dutton was an unusual character who pursued a quorum of careers, none of which worked out to his liking. By turns, he was a:

    • Lawyer
    • Unitarian Minister
    • Writer of murder mysteries (17) and biographies (4)
    • Assistant State Historian for Pennsylvania
    • Parole Officer somewhere
    • War Department Inspector
    • Political Columnist
    • Our Household Curmudgeon

    CJ took satisfaction from some of these endeavors, and gained a certain notoriety. After a lawyering didn't seem right, he reinvented himself as a clergyman and managed to shepherd and inspire his flocks in several churches. And all along he was publishing novels describing lost souls committing diabolical murders that a clever detective solves when the police are clueless. Potboilers to be sure, but potboilers written by a clergyman.

    I never found out why he left the ministry around 1940, and no one is around who can speak to that. But from then on he worked for government agencies for half a decade, and that seemed to encourage a general antipathy towards government that he gratuitously expressed throughout his golden years.

    My politically liberal father was vexed by his dad's increasingly reactionary politics. CJ had been a flaming liberal and a full-throated supporter of FDR, but by sixty he had morphed into a Joe McCarthy supporter and proto-John-Bircher, seeing communist conspiracies everywhere. My personality was warped for decades to come by the venomous arguments between father and son that flared at the dinner table, often ending with CJ slapping down his napkin and stomping upstairs to his quarters. These ugly incidents were generally precipitated by CJ summarizing some right-wing op-ed he had read that day that my dad would then diss.

    CJ fancied himself a cold warrior and was tough on crime. Proud of having worked in law enforcement and a big fan of J Edger Hoover, he published anti-communist diatribes in right-wing political journals warning on the Red threat from without and within. Gravely, he instructed me that if I lived in the USSR, my teachers would make me report to them what my parents said during dinner. Taking his words to heart, I was tempted to report what my grandfather said at dinner to my eighth-grade math teacher, an old-left radical who sometimes digressed from teaching roots and powers to extol the virtues of the Soviet Union's constitution, but thought better of it.

    CJ's political views notwithstanding, even in his dotage he had a compelling presence and liked to project it. He also had an impressive, book-lined study upstairs, and loved to lure visitors up there to regale them with accounts of his exploits, while my mother drummed her fingers on the dining room table as dinner got cold. Grandfather took no heed, just prisoners.

    Despite his narcissism and my distaste of it, I never had any altercations with CJ. Not only was I afraid to challenge him, he always accepted me for who I was, when he noticed me at all. Mostly he just spoke at me. He had a recurring urge to dispense wisdom to rapt listeners that must have developed when he was a preacher, and I was an impressionable receptacle for it, at least until I had heard all his stories several times over.

    In his will, CJ left me his library of several thousand musty books that he had amassed for over half a century. As a college student I had no use or place for them. Eventually, when my parents downsized to a smaller house, I had to decide what to do with all those volumes of history, biography, poetry, fiction and even eighteenth-century French pornography. I sold most of them to a local bookshop, keeping about 40 for myself including 20 that CJ had written.

    Besides his crime novels and biographies, CJ left behind an unfinished autobiography about growing up in Kittery Maine and Westerly Rhode Island, where is father served as a Congregational pastor. I came across the typescript among some family photos earlier this year and have been transcribing it. You can read a bit of it in the cowbird story The Devil's Beer. If you are interested in accounts of life in small seacoast New England towns at the turn of the twentieth century, you can find the first half of CJ's memoir here. It explains something I heard him say a lot: "The old days was better." Here is a taste of what he was talking about:

    Naturally we had no radio; they were unknown. Save for the news that tells us what sort of worried world we live in, I doubt if we missed much, save some excellent music. There were no movies, no ballyhoo about so-called stars, most of whom father would never have allowed in his home. No cars. But we never felt the need to rush about to one place to find another just like the one we had left. No dishwashers, though dishes got washed, and no protests from mother about "dishpan hands." No beauty parlors, whose constant ballyhoo keeps our radio silent much of the time. No love story magazines. No appeals for aid or advice as to how to cope with juvenile delinquency. The average home took care of that. No news of teachers on a strike, nor loud appeals to hate someone or something. Why we must have been barely civilized.

    @image: Mashup of Senator Joseph McCarthy at a press conference, early 1950s.
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