I hope you’ve been able to join me at The Atlantic’s Daily newsletter, where I’m doing a short spell as the author. The Daily is focused mostly on current news, and so I thought I’d step back here at Peacefield and write about something more personal this week. This is a somewhat longer letter than usual, but since I’ll be off next week, I hope you’ll forgive the length.
We reminisce on Father’s Day about the men who raised us. But this year, I’ve been thinking about two men who were like fathers to me. They never had children of their own, and yet helped shape me as much as my own father did. One was my uncle; the other was a teacher.
These men were important to me because I grew up in an unstable family where there were a lot of opportunities for me to go wrong. (And often, I did go wrong.) My parents loved each other, but their relationship began as an ugly 1950s factory-town story, in which my father was a middle-aged, divorced cad who became smitten with a much younger woman. He was working in a bar when they met and it was immediately a hot mess of a thing.
They got married and I was born five months later. Both my parents worked, but my mother drank and my father raged and felt trapped. (He once admitted that he only planned to stick around long enough to “give me a name”—that was still a thing 60 years ago.) There’s a happy ending: She overcame the bottle, he realized he couldn’t live without her, and they stayed married for 40 years, until her death. My father and I, in the end, were always close.
But it was a rough ride, and I spent a lot of unsupervised time doing a lot of dangerously stupid things. I was often in trouble as a young teen, even earning a suspension as early as seventh grade. By the time I was 15, I was hanging out with people a lot older than me, sometimes at a notorious spot in my hometown where bikers were dealing heroin and other drugs around a campfire. (My much older half-brother was a cop. Getting busted by him would have been a special experience all its own. Fortunately, that never happened.)
I had some things going for me. We were not poor. My father had a good job and we made the transition in the late 1960s from edge-of-poor working class to lower-middle class, so petty economic crime wasn’t that attractive to me. I had a strong faith in the Greek Orthodox Church and a priest who was a father figure to all the kids in his parish. I had a high native intelligence that opened the world of books to me; I plowed through Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov as my escape more often than I spent nights drinking down on the riverbank or getting high at the drive-in with my buddies.
I was growing up with innate talents and a vague sense of possibility, but without direction, without a foundation of what it meant to be a man. My parents were locked in their own war, and my father, who loved me, was nonetheless wrapped up in his own anger (and haunted by his own secrets). I was both a very good kid and a very bad kid, and one of them was going to win the contest for my future.
That’s when George Kennedy and Steve George stepped in, without even knowing it, and taught me things I needed to know, mostly by their example.
Steve George was the second son—my father was the first—of a honey-blond Greek woman nicknamed Goldie. She was emotionally troubled, and promiscuous; when she got pregnant in 1917, her village in southern Greece shipped her off in shame to Boston, where she gave birth to my father. He was taken from her and given to a Greek family in Massachusetts and she was married off to a local man.
Goldie had Steve, and then skipped town for the Midwest, where she got married yet again—but without actually bothering to get a divorce along the way. Married or single, she ran around with other men either way, and Steve as a young boy had to sit outside while Goldie entertained her callers. Soon, he’d had enough, and at 15, he bolted from the Midwest for New York City on his own.
He convinced a Greek immigrant family that he was an orphan, and they took him in. He then lied about his age and joined the Marines, a time he recalled fondly. He had order, a community, a purpose, and a place to live away from his unstable mother.
During the war, my father had been given deferments by his company. He was an only son, working in a defense plant, and he didn’t want the deferments, but they came anyway. One day near the end of the war, he ripped them up and just enlisted. But sometime before that, he saw this young Marine cross his lawn, and he figured he was being drafted. Instead, the Marine took off his hat.
“Are you Nick Nichols?”
My father nodded.
“I think I’m your brother.”
My father was thunderstruck. He had thought of trying to find Goldie and Steve, but she was hard to pin down. And now, here he was.
Nick and Steve could not have been more different. My father was quick to anger and often loud and overbearing; Steve was quiet and deliberate and talked in a low rumble. (His wife, Virginia, a Portuguese American woman from the North Shore, was the vocal and fiery one you didn’t cross.) Steve and Virginia met after the war, they fell in love, he adopted her daughter from a previous marriage, and that was that. They settled in Salem, Massachusetts. Steve for a time ran a taxi business and worked on the side as a bookie, and then they opened and ran a popular diner.
I loved my father, but I wanted to be like Steve. This gruff, chain-smoking sphinx was my hero. He was beloved to all of us in our family for his heart, his kindness, his devotion to family, and especially his love for Virginia. When I was a young adult going to college in nearby Boston, I would go up to the diner, and we would just sit and smoke. We didn’t feel the need to talk much.
One day, however, in the quiet of his kitchen (he and Virginia lived above the diner), he started to talk. And he didn’t stop all afternoon. He wanted me to know the family history, about his life with Goldie, the stories “that even your father doesn’t know.” He was passing everything along to me for the sake of memory and safekeeping. That was the day I finally knew that he was my other father, and I was his son.
Soon after, he had a stroke, and he never spoke again.
I learned a lot from Steve. His service as a Marine, the family that he adopted as his own, the hours that he worked, and finally, the realization of how much he had endured in his life, all of it taught me about duty and stoicism and getting things done. He also taught me that biology was not destiny. We all knew about Goldie’s instability, and yet he, my father, and I were very different men. This was something I thought about years later when I became an adoptive father: Family is what you create, not what you inherit. Steve died in 2009, but not before he got a chance to meet my daughter, adopted in Moscow. Through signing and signals, he told me he was overjoyed that the gift of adoption continued in our family.
George Kennedy was my high school chemistry teacher. He was a devout Catholic and a lifelong bachelor who served in the Army, went to college on the GI Bill, and then came home to look after his aging mother.
The first time I met him, he terrified me.
My hometown school system wasn’t great at dealing with very smart kids, especially the ones with a lot of attitude. But as my family started to heal from its traumas, I started to think that college (which I thought would never happen for a kid like me) could be an actual path out of my city. I developed a fascination with chemistry, and I was allowed to sign up for it as a freshman in high school.
I was Kennedy’s only freshman, so when he had to come in on freshman-orientation day, he was irritated. He was a big guy, over six feet, and when he glared at me through his horn-rimmed glasses and clenched his pipe in his teeth, my 14-year-old blood froze.
There was a long silence.
Then I said: “Do you think they made a mistake letting me do this?” Kennedy frowned at the lack of confidence. “No,” he said matter-of-factly. “You can do this. Pay attention and do the work. You’ll be fine.”
And so I did. Soon, Kennedy treated me not as a prodigy or as a problem, but as a young colleague. In our spare time in the lab, we’d banter about his life—he actually had a Ph.D., which was unusual for public-school teachers in those days—and “Doc” would roll his eyes at my generation’s silliness while teaching us all things like how to salute properly or the right way to pack a pipe.
Yes, Kennedy taught me how to smoke a pipe. (Better than cigarettes or joints, I think he reasoned.) My parents weren’t sure what to make of this, but they were grateful for this man’s otherwise good influence on me. And I genuinely enjoyed it. The proof is that I did it while alone instead of for effect or show, often while taking long drives to sort out my jumbled teenage thoughts. I found it a calming habit during a lousy adolescence.
Kennedy was one of a handful of teachers at my school who realized that the most dangerous thing for a smart and clever kid is to be bored, and so he made me his lab assistant. If I had free time, Kennedy had me washing flasks or labeling jars or inventorying the chemical stocks. The man took no guff; when I would get too bold, he’d slap me down, sometimes by pointing to his shoe and asking me if I wanted to see the Florsheim Reaction. (For you youngsters, Florsheim was a brand of shoe, and he was saying that he was going to plant his foot in my keister.)
Two years into high school, my relationship with my parents was cratering again. They had their own problems, and fighting among the three of us was pretty much a normal day in our home. I decided that schoolwork no longer mattered, and I was getting an A in some courses and flunking others. It was a bad time, and once again there were several paths open to me, few of them leading anywhere good.
To make matters worse, some of the other teachers in the building decided that I was nothing more than a rebellious smart-ass, and that I had to learn my lesson. They took to doing things like dressing me down in the halls for skipping class or not turning in assignments. (The vice principal called my parents and accused me of lying about my terrible grades, which managed, for once, to offend my parents and put them on my side.)
I guess in the 1950s, that kind of Mr. Strickland, “you’re a slacker, McFly” stuff still worked, but by 1978, all it did was piss me off even more, especially because (as we later learned) I was suffering from undiagnosed depression.
I was falling and failing, fast.
Kennedy didn’t intervene. Instead, he allowed me a small study space in his office (which was at the intersection of the two lab rooms) where I would arrive early in the morning and we would listen to Morning Pro Musica on NPR—he insisted on classical as one of the conditions of allowing me to use his office—and drink coffee. He would quietly ask me how classes were going. He would listen to me gripe about my parents, and he would tell me to remember that they loved me, that I wasn’t always right, and to give them a chance.
He would then cut my whining short and tell me that there were jars of unlabeled reagents that needed my attention and that we both had work to do. This was a daily ritual in which I found advice and clear expectations from a man I respected, and then I was sent off to go do the things that needed to be done.
One day, I was skipping class, sitting at a spare desk in Kennedy’s office and puttering around with an assignment while he graded some exams. The school phone blurped an unpleasant tone from the wall. Kennedy picked it up. He listened for a moment. He was looking right at me. “No,” he said. “I haven’t seen him.” He hung up the phone. “Where are you supposed to be?” he asked. I told him. He nodded and went back to his grading, and we said nothing more.
Years later, I visited him and asked him why he did that. “They were after you,” he said flatly. “You needed a place to go.” That was it. There was no need for more conversation.
In 1979, I graduated and headed to Boston University as a chemistry major. In my yearbook, he wrote: “Today you are a son, my man,” an inversion of the usual Kipling quote. He said: “You’ll understand one day.” Years later, I did. On graduation day, I was a family’s son, but Kennedy knew I’d learned a few things by that point about responsibility, about respectfulness, about getting things done when you don’t feel like it because it’s your job. He’d helped teach me about becoming a man.
I visited him regularly until his retirement. I was in my 40s when I learned that he had died. I cried for two days.
My father, Uncle Steve, and George Kennedy are gone. I miss them all. But I know that I am fortunate that when the chips were down, I had three fathers. It might not take a village to raise a young man, but in my case, maybe it took just a small committee: a flawed father who gave me life and provided for me, an uncle whose quiet dignity inspired me, and a tough intellectual taskmaster who looked out for me when I was alone and needed a place to go.