Sunday, February 15, 2015
In late October 1970 my father died, age 83, in the Comanche County Hospital near Lawton, Oklahoma. Carol and I were in Kyoto, Japan, where I was codirecting a six-month program for students from the University of Washington. Our sons Burke (age 9) and Reg (age 3) were with us. I had said goodbye to my father earlier in the year, before leaving the States. When the news arrived of his death, Carol stayed in in Kyoto with Reg, and Burke and I flew to Lawton for the funeral. Today I received the typed eulogy I gave standing next to the casket, from a friend of my parents. I had lost track of what I said, so reading what I wrote brought tears to my eyes. I loved him very much.
(In Memory of Robert Oscar Webb, by Glenn Taylor Webb)
He talked a lot – too much, I thought, until I understood a basic fact that he had driven home for me: words are magic costumes of seemingly endless colors and designs, for ideas. Like real costumes they reflect the reality behind the disguise; but more so, since the reality of an idea is indiscernible apart from its disguise of words.
Ideas. He loved them and collected them even after the age when most people close the mind-door and say, “No more ideas for me, these are enough!” He knew that one human being could never get enough of the ideas human beings have had. (“Son, I figured out that it would have taken me 969 years just to take all the courses offered in my field at the University of Oklahoma back in 1928!”)
Of course, he didn’t approve of every idea, in terms of its truth and usefulness, but I don’t think he ever discarded any idea as insignificant, either. Even the most repulsive idea was important to him as an idea, the most immediate indicator of the human condition. For a man who believed earnestly in the truth of the ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and who belonged to a group of dear people (the Church of Christ) who also believe in that truth but tend to fear other ideas (or even the same ideas in unfamiliar word disguises), my father’s respect for ideas seems especially remarkable. It made him appear strangely tolerant and understanding among his friends.
That’s not to say he looked around with a patronizing smile and didn’t criticize. He had a sharp tongue, and it stung. But anyone who felt that sting and still thinks of him as a tyrant has missed the point. He was smiling, and his love for you was not in danger of being withheld just because he didn’t like what you did or said. (To the words “tolerant” and “understanding” the word “compassionate” can be added to the disguise of this idea.)
I am pretty sure that nothing irritated him more than a display of ego. He himself was virtually without one. He was not particularly introspective and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he thought of himself as little as possible. Again, it was ideas that interested him. I think he found it awkward to put bodies on ideas. (“Thou shalt not kill,” as part of a beautiful idea, was one thing; it was quite another to apply it to the circumstances of living in a military town where the most devout Christians – and the few Jews, in whose heritage the idea originated – were finding justifications for killing.) His solution was simple: keep the ideas and circumstances separate – even the ideas of patriotism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, etc., that lay behind the circumstances that justified killing. In a word, my father was polite.
It amazes me that he could hold such strong beliefs (i.e., be deeply attracted to certain ideas over others) and not force those beliefs on others (which most people do by denying their love to a dissenter, saying, in effect, “You do not exist because you have strange ideas.”) His path was argument-without-the-slightest-loss-of-honor-to-my-opponent. Since for him ideas were longer-lived and thus above the men who happened to play with them, I doubt if he ever thought of himself as having honor, much less of losing any.
Equally amazing was my father’s ability to maintain a relationship with a friend who professed the same beliefs he did but behaved, as it were, contrarily. The idea, for example, of “Seek ye not the things of this world …,” of being actively un-attracted to material wealth, was a real favorite of his and of most of his friends. He honestly didn’t put “undue” store in things. But friends who did can never say he criticized them for it; if anything, when they expressed feelings of guilt for their love of money he tried to give them encouragement, to find a way for them to be comfortable in both their belief and their desire. His beloved repertory of ideas made him a magician of reconciliatory powers.
Such powers no doubt enabled him to have confidence in people in spite of everything. R. O. Webb seemed to be as sure of any person as he was of himself. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Rock he built his life on was the Christ, to be sure. It is therefore no wonder that the human condition – seen through ideas as words – was his passion. But as an epitaph my father probably would prefer an un-dramatic “you can’t get along in this world without friends,” or better yet, “I meant no harm.”
P.S. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but in the LA Times today, Feb. 15, 2015, my sign (Sagittarius) reads as follows: “Your father. That’s where the day focuses. The things your dad did to influence you will be apparent, for better and for worse.” What are the odds of this prediction coming on the very day when I decided to share and post this remembrance on Facebook and my blog? - GTW