The Man: Bernard James Gilbert


“Bernard James “Jim” Gilbert, Olive Trail in Marshall County, IN, about 1969

Having come to a point of diminishing returns (which is how I describe a wall) in investigating the origins of my line of Gilberts, I think it’s time to focus on the individuals. So much is lost about the people, themselves, when generations of friends and relatives move on to join our eternal ancestors, I find it a nearly urgent matter to preserve what we know about each of them for posterity. While there are no lack of anecdotes and facts I could write about my father, Bernard James “Jim” Gilbert, it is a bit difficult to just write a biographical blurb.

Of course, anyone who knew him also knew he had been a soldier, was a long-time volunteer in the Civil Defense, mostly worked as a cowboy hat wearing trucker, loved fishing, was a master archer and marksman, possessed movie star good looks, was a CB radio hobbyist, and could fix any car with a coat hanger and a hammer. Beyond those bare facts, I knew him to be a hard-working family man who was quietly dedicated to his children. Again, these seem mere facts to a boy trying to understand his father. There was something else about him, something a bit intangible and mysterious, that I could never quite grasp when I was younger. For example, I once saw him outdraw an angry man who already had his gun out – and the thing ended in a cordial conversation. On another occasion, a man who I knew to have been harassing dad at work ended up drinking coffee and laughing with him at our kitchen table one day. At dad’s funeral, the same man tearfully said “He was like a father to me.” Well, he was like a father to me, too!

I suppose I never really started understanding what my dad was like until I understood what it was to actually be him. While becoming a father myself helped this process, it wasn’t until catching a glimpse of my own shadow on a nighttime march during Army basic training that I was suddenly teleported into his skin. In an instant, I viscerally knew that he must have felt exactly as I did at that moment – once upon a time during his basic training. So, I wrote a story some time later that I think sums up what I knew my dad to be:

            I was six, and my dad had just purchased a beautiful, near-new station wagon.  I was too young to notice the make or model, but my mom was impressed enough, so that sufficed for me.  Growing up poor, I never really had much in the way of material things to be proud of.  This car, though, seemed to make my dad walk a little taller, and my mom seemed to dress a little prettier.  It was strange how such a simple thing as a car could make our family seem a little warmer- a little closer.  I remember that it was blue, with wooden trim, and was a lot shinier than anything I ever remembered us having before.  It seemed solid, like the strength in Dad’s arms, and as graceful as Mom’s hair.  I felt good about it because it made them feel good.

            We were into the second week of our newfound pride when Dad decided to take ‘the boys’ fishing.  I never really liked fishing, but it seemed to be how my dad bonded with my older brother.  I was always outside of that particular arrangement, but it didn’t bother me much.  I always occupied myself with excursions along the riverbank and into the woods nearby the Tippecanoe.  I had a fishing pole, but Dad or Brian usually took over the task of fishing with it as I became distracted by a snake or an interesting bug.  They were happy to have an extra line in the water, and I was happy to finally be free of the monotonous waiting.  It was kind of a little unspoken ritual that satisfied everyone in the expedition.  To this day, I cannot see the excitement found in staring at a bobber for hours on end.

            The fishing trip of this afternoon was to be, mercifully, a short one.  Mom needed us home for some reason or another, and dad was always loath to break-down the poles and return earlier than, say, eleven at night.  As it was, though, he was more loath to disappoint Mom.  At least, he was not willing to withstand her scorn.  (“Hell hath no fury…” etc., etc.)  Dad was always good at pushing the time envelope, though, having been a coast-to-coast trucker for some years before my creation.  I responded to his beckoning and watched the final moments of bobber-watching tick away.  The scene was always the same: Dad would crouch on the clay banks of the river, the three or four poles propped up on Y-shaped twigs, eagerly switching between wristwatch and bobbers.  He had the trip home timed to the second, and always held out for that “big one” that could bite at the last second.  Alas, the final tick-tock would come and the poles would, with much ‘gosh darn it’ regret, be broken down and stowed in our beautiful carriage.

            We children, too, would be stowed as fishing equipment.  Such is the way men transport their young.  I, as always, was first in the car.  This was not to hurry the others along, though.  It was only that the ride home was my favorite part of any fishing trip.  I loved the feel of the wind as the corn whistled past the open window.  The sun always shone on the way home, even if it had been raining during the actual fishing.  (This always upset Dad!)  Brian would be smiling at having once again out-fished the Old Man.  The Old Man, too, would be smiling- he loved to drive.  A certain peace would always come over his face as he took the wheel and hit the open road.  I would eventually learn the many reasons for this solace, but at age six I had no idea.  The feeling in the car would always be cheerful and positive on these rides home- in that quiet male sort of way. 

           This day I sat in the front, between Brian and Dad, because the back seat had been folded forward to accommodate the long fishing rods and the numerous boxes of worm-smelling tackle.  Mom always hated it when Dad put wet, seaweed-encrusted fishing stuff in her beautiful car.  The family car always became ‘her’ car somehow.  The family truck always became ‘his’ truck.  Things just worked like that.  Nothing, though, could spoil this warm afternoon’s whimsical ride through the country.  Dad took the long way home, and put extra pedal into those little dips and hills that put the “tickle in your fancy”, as he called it.  There was a certain safe feeling with dad behind the wheel- the kind of feeling that only comes from knowing that your pop is in control of things.  Nobody else can ever quite equal this.

            There was a blue-gray mass that lumbered into the roadway from the left.  Before I could register what it even was, Dad was hard on the brake and spinning the wheel to the right.  Before I knew it, I was picking myself up off the floorboard, Dad’s firm hand helping me back onto the seat.  I had bounced off the metal dash, somehow, but my body had the resiliency of youth.  I reassured dad that I was fine.  I got a brief looking over, and he was out the door in a second.  I had seen my dad angry a few times before, and I knew that he would be angry this time.  Our beautiful chariot had been fiendishly smashed by the carelessness of another.  I could see through the windshield that we had gone off into the ditch and squarely crashed into a solid-looking telephone pole.  I looked for damage to the other people’s car, but strangely saw not a scratch.  My six-year-old brain was hard at work trying to figure out just what had happened.

            Tearing my unbelieving eyes off of the wrinkled hood, I saw Dad stride over to the other car.  He was not a mean person, and I had rarely ever been spanked or otherwise roughly handled by the man, but I feared his anger.  That’s not to say I feared him- it’s just that he had a masculine power that you knew lurked under the surface.  That power would be alien to me for at least another six years, so for the time being it only made him seem mysterious.  With mystery comes fear.  At that age, I only knew that Dad was somehow different than Mom on some profound, arcane level.  His masculinity stayed locked in a carefully guarded closet like some dangerous demon, which Dad could summon up at any time to smite those who would arouse his rage.  True, I had never seen the demon, and therefore had no proof of its nature, but I could sense it. 

            I watched the old couple get out of their still shiny car, which had appeared from out of nowhere to destroy our pride.  Dad crossed the last few feet towards them, and I awaited the demon.  I wanted to see it- to finally know what it was that fueled my apprehension.  What was this beast that made Dad, who was kind and gentle in all ways, so different from our kind and gentle mother?  Mom was tender through and through.  There was no secret closet in her mind.  Her temper was plain to see without any hidden source.  I could feel from her no tremors from any hidden fault lines.  She was like me, I thought to my age-six self, and I could understand that.

            The moment had arrived.  Dad was near the old couple, who were standing together with worried looks.  Their own ignorance had cost our poor family an irreplaceable $800, and we would never be happy again.  Dad loved that car- he finally had something nice to show for all his hard work.  He would be angry and the demon would be summoned.  Dad’s last steps were swift, almost a run, and his arms went out in a manner I had never seen before- this was it.

            Dad threw his arms around the couple and held their short frames to his chest.  I heard some sobs from the lady, who grabbed Dad about the body and repeated over and over again, “I’m sorry!  I’m so sorry!”  The elderly gentleman had tears in his eyes.  I could hear him explain that he had no insurance.  I didn’t know what that was, exactly, but I knew it was bad not to have.  I heard Dad’s deep, consoling voice over the other’s, “Don’t worry.  Don’t worry about it.  It’ll be alright.  Don’t worry a bit.  It’s just a car- everyone’s alright.”  He held them there for a long time- until the weeping stopped and the man decided that he’d better move the car out of the road.  Before the lady left, she kissed my Dad on the cheek and said, “You’re such a nice man.  You are such a good and nice man.”  He kissed her cheek in the same awkward and tender way he kissed us goodnight, and that was that.  All this I witnessed through the windshield of our ruined car.

            Dad walked back, pulled the fender away from the tire, and started up the car.  It worked well enough to take us home, but that was the last I ever rode in our magnificent set of wheels.  That last fishing trip, though, was the most important ride I had ever taken before or since.  I saw the demon, and it was no demon.  What Dad kept locked up in the closet of his mind was, indeed, a power he could summon at will, but I feared it no longer.  I saw it for what it really was.  It was the same power that made me feel secure when Dad was at the wheel- and when he tucked me in at night.  This was a power I still respected, for I knew that it could be dangerous, but I also wanted to have for my own someday.  I was beginning to learn what it was to be a man.

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