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The solution to a dilemma is more often a question of right or left than right or wrong.
So much of life is simply a matter of chance. For me, the luck of the draw landed me in the family of one of the most interesting and often distant parents one could imagine. My name is Jeffrey Slee — and while this story is to some degree about me, it is also a loving reflection on growing up the son of a fascinating, sometimes electrifying and all-to-often, distant father. My earliest remembrances of Burton W. Slee center on a free spirit just beyond my reach. Even as a child, I understood that Dad gnawed at the marrow of life beyond our home while marching to the beat of a drummer I could never know, or even hear.
Now that I have attained the maturity to understand my childhood from an adult perspective, I reflect on the business of life with wisdom and understanding beyond the command of that inner child who follows us through life. Today, after raising my own family with the love of my life, my wife Liliane, I can better understand my father from an adult viewpoint that eluded me for so long.
Yet even today, I know that the disappointments of my youth reveal a reality my father never fully understood: I needed him and wanted him more fully in my life. While wisdom makes it possible for me to understand why making me central in his life was beyond his ability, it does not dull my childhood sense of abandonment. I know I am not alone in any of these issues.
We figure out early in life that our childhood experiences are controlled by others. We could neither select our biological parents, place or time of birth, national origin, race, color nor the myriad of constituents that shape who we would become. Theoretically, at some point, we started making our own decisions and choices; selections ideally well thought out with measured consequences and established accountability.
And for me, in the parlance of the game of Bridge, I was dealt a laydown hand.
I grew up astride the 40′s and 50′s in Catskill, New York, a small town nestled along New York’s Hudson River. Not unlike many rural communities of its time, it was an idyllic all American Mayberry where everyone knew one another; doors were left unlocked, cars double parked on Main Street had the keys left over the visor so they could be moved by those they may have blocked in.
It was an old community built on trust, accountability, shared sacrifice and hard work in the tradition of its Dutch roots. This comfort zone however, implied that we were all under benevolent scrutiny, but scrutiny nevertheless. A misstep would bring umbrage to our families. To my further benefit, my father had the prestige of a successful manufacturing entrepreneur and employer who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. By most standards, this was a fortunate beginning of what would become my journey through life.
My father, Burton Slee, was a complex man. He was born in a wealthy family of self made gentle-people. His life was neither easy, nor ordinary. He was orphaned at the age of 3 during the great 1918 influenza pandemic later raised, with great trepidation, by a 60 year old spinster aunt who was willing but ill-suited to the task.
Dad’s childhood was filled by isolation in a succession of boarding schools and summer camps where he quickly learned the art of survival. Lacking parental nurturing, Dad became a force that would not be ignored. He fought, clawed, and cheated his way to the top until he realized that his innate charm, cunning and guile achieved equally satisfactory results.
Although Dad overcame more than his share of life’s adversities, Burt Slee remained an idealist for most of his life. He looked at the world through the eyes of a child; everything he saw became fodder for his intellectual curiosity.
Far too intoxicated by his freedom, Dad did it all: he raced stock cars and speed boats, flew and crashed planes, opened a myriad of small businesses in which he soon lost interest, partied his way through his sizable inheritance, and set off with impecunious strangers. This was great fun for a child.
In my youth, issues of black or white, yes or no, morphed into endless shades of gray. Sometimes Dad’s bravado had the feel of nudging a sleeping cobra to make sure it was dead. A dashing rogue on his Indian Chief motorcycle, Burt Slee crisscrossed the Unites States reading poetry and philosophy and absorbing the very essence of life. He was a renaissance man who self-effacingly claimed that his knowledge was like the Hudson River: a mile wide and a few feet deep.
“In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate.”
While most of my contemporaries were reared in a rigid, structured format of do’s and don’ts, I was not. The solution to a problem, if it was not a matter of ethics but of choice, would be the consideration of risk vs. reward. The decision would be mine and mine alone; I would either enjoy the fruits of my reward or pay the price of my risk. Proving this process could be both a blessing and a curse as I couldn’t off-load the decision making process by abdicating to a parent’s will.
I didn’t realize it at the time but Dad was equipping me with the tools necessary for the task. Part of his tutelage was teaching me to play chess. We started while I was in grade school and we played about 3 nights a week. He played with no one else. This was simply an exercise in teaching me to think many moves ahead and anticipating the consequences of how my actions would play out. Interestingly, on winter break from my freshman year at college… we played, I won, and we never played again. The lessons were over.
This process of introspection morphed from an exercise to practicality when I became the father of two delightful and loving daughters. The baton had been passed and it was now my turn to motivate them as my father had prepared me to do. It was a daunting task, but as every involved parent knows, the rewards are huge. But, the truth of that will only be known when they write their story.
Dad lived the way he chose, drinking from the cup of life with gusto and happy to share every drop with those whom he found worthy. He wrote me a letter in his 80′s that included the line that may sum up his philosophy: “I spent my money and my life the way I wanted to, as though I would die when I ran out of’ chips.”
I pensively recall the twinkle in his eyes as he regaled me with the impish story of Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, tantalized me with the sensuous rhymes of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, or mesmerized me with the wisdom of Invictus by William Ernest Henley “… I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
In many ways, he inspired me to believe in what could be, not what is. That was my Dad and I loved him; I regret not telling him more often.
My Father moved on to undoubtedly fascinating greener pastures at the age of 87. I find reassurance sensing his nod of approval while I negotiate the game of life he called chess.