Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


My father, Kenneth Gagnon (front center), with his family around 1926

A dear friend once told me that her parents thought I had no ambition.  But that wasn’t quite the case; it is more complicated than that.  The real issue, summed up in my long-lost father’s worn letters to my mom (kept secret until I finally got to read them at 23 years old) written soon after their separation around 1954, was that “I couldn’t imagine making money off other people’s misery.”  My mother (Gaetana Ruth Amelia DiCapua), the product of a social climbing Italian immigrant family, had asked him in a previous letter why he didn’t become a lawyer like her Uncle Arthur instead of wanting to be a farmer.  In my mother’s world my dad had no ambition.  Something had to be wrong with him for sure – he didn’t seem to grasp the essence of the American dream.

My mother married my French-Canadian father (Kenneth Gagnon) who was a chicken and turkey farmer in Maryland and had no electricity.  His first 14 years were spent living in upstate New York near the Canadian border, the family moving to Maryland around 1930 when Western Union offered his father a job in the Washington DC area.  My mother’s sister remembered my dad as a shy person who quietly read books when the family got together.  She called him a genius and a nice person.  He appeared to be a back to nature guy way ahead of his time.  He put electricity into the farm, bought a TV for his new bride, but mom grew bored with the country life and eventually got him to sell his beloved small farm.  He was never the same after that.  They moved to Florida to start a new life. 

When I was about two years old dad came home one day saying he wanted to go to Georgia to pick peaches. Mom threw him out and we really never saw him again.  (My oldest sister remembers him coming by one time but mom called the police and had him chased away.  He wrote on the side of our house with charcoal “I love you kids” and was gone for good.)  In another of his letters, that my mother kept secret all those years, he wrote, “By now you’ve probably taught the kids to hate me.”  He knew my mother well, but underestimated the deep feelings we had developed for him in our short time together.

My cousin Bob Jr. said dad moved in with them for a while after the divorce, and cried a lot. Uncle Bobby was dad’s younger brother, and one day came home to find the keys to dad’s car on the table with a note.  "Bobby you take the car” my dad wrote to his brother; “I’m going away for a while.” A good long while it turned out to be.  Uncle Bobby only heard from his big brother once more, around 1961, when he got a postcard from Paris that said, “I’m traveling around Europe.”

By then mother (with her three young children) had met and married an Air Force enlisted man from Rumford (a town in western Maine’s logging country).  He grew up in that paper mill culture where his father worked.  He was wild and rebellious and the story was that Wesley, who was very bright and talented but also a hard drinker, got in trouble with the law at an early age and was given a choice of either the military or jail.  He picked the military.

In 1961, the Air Force moved us all to Leicester, England, at the same time dad was “traveling around Europe.”  Throughout my younger years I often had the feeling my vanquished father was watching me from the shadows.  Once in the mid-60’s while living in Wiesbaden, Germany I stopped dead while playing basketball on the school’s outdoor court, convinced that I “felt” his presence nearby.

My mother and stepfather used to argue about money all the time.  Wes took in my mom’s first three kids and they had three more together – the large combined family barely getting by on an enlisted man’s pay.  Like a true Mainer, Wes could fix anything and worked many nights repairing people’s cars to bring in extra cash. But even with that extraordinary effort mom still hounded him about money.  I began having horrible nightmares where an evil little man came to me demanding “money, money, money” or else he would kill me.  I woke up crying and would go downstairs and sit between the feuding couple and tell them about my dream.  For the moment they’d stop their money-wars and my peacemaking task would be over for the night.  But their fights continued, and so did my bad dreams.

So I don’t think I ever lacked ambition, I just didn’t have the killer instinct that is often seen as a positive trait in our overly competitive dog-eat-dog American culture.  I didn’t want to “make money off other people’s misery” – or put another way I didn’t “want to be miserable making money”.  I am now convinced that my dad, in those first two years of my life, had a profound spiritual impact on me.

In 1984 while living in Orlando I had a dream one night.  There was a knock on the door and when I opened it a man stood there with a book in his hand.  “Are you Bruce Gagnon,” he asked?  Yes I replied.  “Your father just died,” he told me.  “He wanted you to have this book.”

Two weeks later, in the real world, the phone rang.  When I answered it a woman on the other end asked me a familiar question, “Are you Bruce Gagnon?”  “Yes” I replied.  “Your father died two weeks ago.  I was married to him the last eight years of his life.  You should come to Tucson to pick up his things.”

My two older sisters and I went to Tucson and began to learn about our mystery man father.  He met his wife at a senior citizen dance and was the citywide shuffleboard champion.  She gave me his trophies.  He had lived in Latin America for some time.  He told his wife about his three kids but made excuses for having no contact with them.  She said I looked like dad, walked like him, laughed like him, and more.

When my son Julian was still a baby, during pre-language time, I showed him a brick wall in an alley teeming with bug life.  In that moment I realized that we were communicating on a level beyond language.  He understood everything I was saying to him.  I figure that my father and I had experienced the same kind of connection – a spiritual bond.

I obviously rejected the traditional route with my life.  After being treated like an expendable number, and feeling like a prisoner while serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, I was looking for meaning beyond dollar signs and other such status symbols like cars, expensive houses, and fancy job titles. 

All my life I’ve been striving for something that seemed more real to me.  I remember that one of my sisters once said to me, “I hope you find what you are looking for.”  Upon reflection I have to say that I have.  It’s a peace of mind.  I found a life where I am a free agent – free to think for myself, and most importantly free to speak and act, as I feel compelled by my conscience.  No amount of money could every replace that kind of freedom. 

In many ways I have to thank my dad for that gift.


Blogger Sophia Scholar said...

Beautiful story, Bruce. Thanks for sharing it.

9/18/13, 1:18 AM  
Blogger by said...

It takes courage to write and live as you do, Bruce. Thanks for the inspiration.

9/18/13, 4:14 AM  
Blogger Corazon Fabros said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story Bruce. And thank you for the spending time in the Philippines where many of us felt inspired by your sincerity, courage and commitment.

9/18/13, 5:05 AM  

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