A Cautionary Tale about Fatherhood
John Caldwell was a Texan who married an Australian, a man of incomparable drive and raw courage, and a determined atheist. His story is fascinating, but it raises enormous questions.
Caldwell and his wife, Mary, were married in Australia during World War II, but were immediately separated by their military service. When the war ended, John found himself in New York City, with no civilian ships available to enable him to rejoin Mary in Australia. He booked a passage to the Panama Canal, and from there he hoped to find a ship to Australia. But because he was unable to do so, he bought a 29-foot sailboat, taught himself to sail from a book, and promptly set sail for Australia. He recounted his adventures and near death in a book called Desperate Voyage.
Starving—weight down to about 90 pounds from a fit 180, and drinking engine oil to survive—he was shipwrecked on a tropical island after completing most of the voyage. He recognized that he had been tossed ashore in the one narrow area where it was possible for his body to wash up without being battered to death. There he was found and nursed back to health by islanders, and eventually he caught a delivery boat to Australia. Later, John and Mary purchased a new boat and began a long sail around the world, raising their three children (one died very young) on board and in their various anchorages.
Ultimately John decided he had to remain in an island paradise. He took a renewable 99-year lease (at a dollar per year) on tiny, forsaken Prune Island in the Grenadines, and together the Caldwell family, with almost no financial backing, eliminated swamps, mosquitos and other hazards and built a tropical resort which would cater not to the rich but to more ordinary folks, a tribute to socialist influences. Capitalism, however, dictated that they change the island’s name from “Prune” to “Palm”. John became a key figure in the region, and even served as a guide when the United States liberated Grenada in 1983.
Mary recounts their family odyssey in her own book, Mary’s Voyage. She also recounts some of John’s childhood background. He grew up in depression-era Los Angeles with an alcoholic, abusive father, who was also a bootlegger during Prohibition, a man John himself eventually drove from the household with his fists. Predictably in his turn, John was harsh and demanding of his own children in the work of building up Palm Island, despite considerable happiness in their younger years. His two surviving sons left the island in a family rift, though they later returned and reconciled with their father.
Very likely, John’s childhood also explains why he was, against all odds, such a determined atheist. Given his treatment by his own father, he seemed incapable of imagining a loving God. Ironically, he expressed his beliefs primarily with words that appear to be borrowed from the author he most admired, Jack London, who put very similar words on the lips of the mentally-ill ship captain depicted in Sea Wolf. Here are some unfortunate comments which John wrote one night and Mary preserved:
Life has no deep mystery for me—just a bit of confusion about what is really going on and where Planet Earth is heading as we humans overpopulate it, pollute it, defile it, and disfigure it…. I know just what I am and what I want. I am an accident of history, a little ball of crap, living it out till I cash in my chips and return to the crap from whence I came…. No illusions about heaven and hell and all that baloney…fully convinced it’s all hogwash, and that hogwash is the opium of the masses as Marx claimed….
To me, the accidental invention of Christianity by Jesus Christ—this benevolent, itinerant, illiterate genius—and his disciples, was not unlike the aberrant forms of Christianity invented by the fateful Jim Jones of Guyana, who poisoned hundreds of followers, and David Koresh of Waco, Texas, who burned his followers....
I can stay truthful, veracious, and helpful without going to church. And if everybody had veracity and a social consciousness, that would be the best of all worlds. There would be no need to invent religion or heaven, or need to stick one’s snoot endlessly into the Bible—a book filled with iniquity, incest, hate, contradictions, assassination, wars and human sufferings…. I say the majority is in church setting up for Monday’s sins…. Every church is nothing more than a business place, based on money like everything else in society.
I accept the Christian ethic as a code to live by, but the mumbo-jumbo of Immaculate Conception, Lazarus coming back from the dead, resurrection and everlasting life is for the birds: definitely not for this kid. I believe in what I can sensibly believe, see, hear, and feel in my gut. Let’s face it. We are dirt and one day we will inevitably go back to dirt. That’s the only practical reality this world can promise the human condition.
Now these words are those of man who clearly hasn’t thought deeply about religion, who may in fact have spent most of his life fleeing from the Hound of Heaven. His ignorance concerning the literacy of Christ is appalling. He doesn’t seem to realize the contradiction between what he calls the “accidents” of Christ, Jones, and Koresh and his own acceptance of the Christian ethic. He has not reflected with any sense of meaning on his own miraculous survival, despite the fact that he admits elsewhere that he found himself praying, begging God for help when things were at their worst.
Sadly, John fails to recognize how closely his own words echo the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Catholic Church: Remember, O man, that “we are dirt and one day we will inevitably go back to dirt.” Nor does he perceive the terrible irony of his final sentence: “That’s the only practical reality this world can promise the human condition.”
In later years, John mellowed a bit. Near the end of his life, he admitted that he had pushed his family too hard: “You know, Mary, if I could live my life over I would change a few things: I would change all the insulting remarks I have made, my frequent bouts with loss of temper, ungrateful responses, arrogance, and things like that…. I just overdid it and was too stubborn to back up.” John Caldwell died in 1998 at the age of 81. We don’t know if he ever made his peace with God.
But we do know that he had an abusive father. Every man with a family, every priest with a parish, and every bishop in a diocese needs to think seriously about that.
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Posted by: Dan -
Jul. 11, 2012 11:31 PM ET USA
Thanks, Jeff. Lately, I have been asking myself: Am I the type of man I want my daughters to marry? Am I the type of man I want my son to become? It's a sort of examination of conscience that quickly, brightly exposes all the errors of both commission and omission.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Jul. 11, 2012 12:59 PM ET USA
A very sad story, indeed. What wounds we can make in young souls that they can think openly about everything except what really matters for their whole lives.
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Jul. 10, 2012 7:26 PM ET USA
Praise God in St. Thomas exclaiming "My Lord & My God". How little we understand and recognized the crucial importance of a father on his children, a coach on his players, a leader on his people. We all need to have a little more faith in "I can". But, we all need to have a little more Faith in Our Lord and the fact there is no ultimate reality for us to share if there is no Jesus Christ.