Remembering Douglas Dean Todd
Born March 3rd, 1930
Died on Good Friday, 2000
One morning over breakfast, in the autumn of 1999, I mentioned to the other members of the Light Morning community that I would be going to Roanoke to see Douglas that day. Following his stroke, Doug had been staying at Salem Health and Rehabilitation, just across the street from the V.A. hospital. Then someone sitting around the breakfast table said, “Who’s Douglas?”
Cecile had become part of the community only recently, and her question stopped a spoonful of applesauce midway between my bowl and my mouth. It seemed inconceivable that someone living at Light Morning could not know who Douglas was. For me, it was a watershed type of experience.
Douglas had played different roles for different ones of us during the 25 years when he and Stanley lived just down the road: mentor and interrogator; a reliable source of both irritations and insights; an occasional enemy; and a best friend. He could be effortlessly charming one moment and fiercely adversarial the next. But above all else, Douglas was fully committed to exploring the interplay between his own unique and pricey calling and the founding vision of Light Morning.
Lowering the untasted spoonful of applesauce back to my bowl, I asked myself, “Who is Douglas?” Well, without Douglas, I wouldn’t have met Stan, who’s quite a special person. Without Douglas, many of our neighbors wouldn’t have been able to buy their land. Without Douglas, Light Morning’s second book (Wax Statues, Cotton Candy, and the Second Coming) wouldn’t have been written. Without Douglas, Joyce and I may not have stayed together. And without Douglas, Light Morning probably would have disbanded.
There are so many facets to this unusual man. So many windows through which to catch glimpses of him. So many stories.
Some of the following stories are from biographical sketches that Doug recorded on cassette tapes and then sent to us while he and Stan were still in Norfolk. Others are drawn from my goodly collection of Douglas ephemera. Still others come from the eulogy I wrote for him shortly after he died.
Twenty years have passed since that eulogy was delivered. Now I’m weaving the stories into a four-part series of posts on Light Morning’s resurrected website, fitting them together like pieces of a shape-shifting jigsaw puzzle which can be assembled in multiple and often contradictory ways.
So once again I find myself wondering who was this man that I spent a thousand Thursday afternoons with? And who is he to me now, now that he’s long gone? And how might these stories of Douglas’s convoluted life and incremental death speak to you?
How do we know what we know before we know it?
I’m getting ready to leave for another 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center in western Massachusetts. Here in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia, the mid-April weather is beautiful. The first Easter of the new millennium is less than a week away.
Joyce is helping me pack.
“What do you think Good Friday will bring you this time?” she asks.
I smile and shake my head. Even though I had no exposure to religion while growing up, Good Friday has occasionally touched my life profoundly over the years. As a nine-month-old infant I lay in a Seattle hospital room on Good Friday, awaiting the Easter Sunday operation that would save my life. Early in our marriage, I returned home from work on Good Friday to tell Joyce that a pea-sized nodule on my right forearm had been diagnosed as a malignant fibrosarcoma. The doctors said they would have to amputate before it metastasized; hopefully at the elbow, otherwise at the shoulder.
Then Tom Hinson was in a bad accident on Good Friday. He was an elderly African-American man who had been my grandfather’s devoted helper for decades and who had showed me many tricks of the carpentry trade. Tom was a deeply religious man, and he would die on Easter Sunday. Many years later our daughter Lauren was born, also on Good Friday. So Joyce’s question about this coming Good Friday was lighthearted, but hardly casual.
How do we know what we know before we know it?
I’m in the kitchen at V.M.C. on Wednesday afternoon, prepping a large salad with Alta. Our 10-day course will begin this evening, after a light meal. Alta’s an old friend and neighbor who’s been a mid-wife for many years. Now she’s feeling an inner nudge to become a hospice nurse.
“It’s just a different form of midwifery,” she says, “at the other end of life.”
I tell her about a talk Ram Dass recently gave to a group of hospice workers, called “Death is Not an Outrage.”
How do we know what we know before we know it?
On Day 3 of the course, I’m vaguely aware that it’s Good Friday. But here on my meditation cushion, a stream of impulses and images are distracting me from my practice. I’m making elaborate preparations so I can do my death well. I’m calling my aging father to discuss his own attitudes toward death and dying. I’m tape-recording some of Stan’s many stories about Douglas. I’m seeing Doug’s future burial site on Temple Hill and contemplating his grave stone.
All these seductive distractions bubble up from Good Friday through Easter Sunday. Then, after lunch on Monday, Terrell draws me aside and asks if I could take a walk with him. In the normal world this request from a friend who lives just down the road from Light Morning would be nothing special. But I’ve been on a vow of silence for nearly a week. And Terrell is the course manager for the male students. So this must be official business.
I nod a yes. He asks if I’ll need a coat as the New England weather has turned chilly. I touch the dark blue wool shirt that Douglas had given me years ago. It was from his navy days. The buttons have small anchors on them. They remind me that Doug and I have always been sea anchors for one another.
“This will keep me warm,” I say.
Terrell leads me outside and then down a path toward the stream. I become aware of a passing thought: “Did I do something wrong?”
For the course manager’s role is to act as an intermediary between the assistant teacher and the students, and the contact Terrell has initiated is highly unusual. It never occurs to me that he might be bringing news from outside. That’s how well this environment shields students from their workaday worlds.
We go to an empty tent platform beside the stream. I take off my shoes, sit down in a cross-legged posture, and wait. There have been some strong sits earlier in the day. I feel poised in the present moment, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my body, waiting for Terrell to speak.
“Douglas passed on Good Friday.”
The soft glow of a smile spreads across my face. Of course. Good Friday. What exquisite timing. The impossibly beautiful rightness of what is.
“There was some difficulty breathing,” Terrell says. “Stan was there. He’s O.K. He has friends with him.”
My smile deepens.
I notice that Terrell’s lower lip is trembling. He knew Douglas, too. And he’s not sitting this course; he’s serving it. There’s a big difference.
“This is multi-layered,” he says.
“It truly is,” I agree.
“Mischief right to the end,” Terrell says and grins. “Joyce was leaning across the vigil candle to move a plant away from the flame and her hair started to catch fire.”
I laugh with delight. Douglas was indeed a master mischief-maker.
“There will be a memorial service for Doug on the Monday after we get back. On May Day.”
The smile shines through my entire body. May Day. Beltane. The cross-quarter day that comes halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. What a send-off.
“There’s an email from Joyce. You can see it after the course is over.”
“Thanks, Terrell. I’ll just stay here by the stream for a while.”
He nods, gets up, and walks away. There’s no embrace, for there isn’t any physical contact at the center. And there are no condolences, for Terrell can see that none are needed.
I sit listening to the murmur of water over stone; feeling the warmth of the sun on Doug’s shirt; feeling the warmth of his love for me; and of my love for him.
Standing Up To the Drill Instructor
Douglas is in boot camp. It’s 1951 and he’s 21 years old. The United States has gone to war again, this time in Korea.
“After finishing high school in Sarasota, Florida,” he says, in his biographical sketches, “I went off to medical school in Washington, D.C. This was an unsuccessful endeavor and I was saved by getting a draft notice. Out of fear, instead of going into the army, I enlisted in the navy. I went through boot camp in San Diego, hating every minute of it.”
Drill instructors rule boot camp with an iron fist. Douglas vividly recalls one incident in particular. His troop has just come back from a difficult exercise. The drill instructor herds the men back into formation. He’s ranting and raving and the exhausted new recruits fearfully await his next orders.
“I am your God!” he bellows. “Get down on your knees and worship me.”
The men quickly drop to their knees. But not Douglas. Moments later, he’s the only one still standing.
The drill instructor stalks over and glares at him.
“You’re not kneeling, Todd!”
Douglas shakes his head. He’s too frightened to say anything, but he knows that there’s no way he will kneel down and worship this man. Or any other man.
“You’ll pay for this, Todd,” the drill instructor says ominously.
He’s the one who ends up paying, however. Douglas and several others go to the chaplain, the brass hears about the incident, and the drill instructor is assigned elsewhere. The brass must have also sensed some leadership potential in this new recruit. For as soon as Doug finishes boot camp, he receives a notice from Washington asking whether he would consider entering the Naval Cadet program.
“Like an idiot,” he tells us, “I thought that would be a grand idea, because I certainly didn’t relish being an enlisted man. So off I went to Pensacola, Florida, where I learned to fly — at least to the navy’s satisfaction — and had my ears surgically taken back. From there I went to Corpus Christi, where I learned to fly seaplanes.”
The seaplane Douglas learned to fly and navigate was the Martin Marlin P5M-1, a naval anti-submarine aircraft that was coming into service at the same time that Douglas was. Designed to confront the growing Cold War menace of Soviet subs, the Marlin was packed with radar and magnetic detection equipment, along with a full load of bombs, torpedoes, and depth charges.
According to an article in Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, it took eleven crewmen to fly this plane: “two pilots, a pilot-navigator, a radar operator, an ordnance-man, an airplane captain (mechanic) and assistant, a radio/panel operator, a pair of acoustic sensor operators, and an aft observer.”
While he never saw action against Soviet subs, Douglas did gain invaluable experience about the large, diverse, and well-trained crew that was needed to fly a Martin Marlin. What he learned about crewing this airplane would become relevant later on, after he and Stan had become yoked to Light Morning.
Nor did Douglas ever forget what had happened in boot camp.
“I suppose the reason for my telling you about this encounter with the drill instructor,” he says in another of those cassette tapes, “is to indicate that I appear to have an unbending nature. I have never compromised this feeling – which I haven’t to this day been able to put into words – of a relationship between myself and some still unknown force.”
In retrospect, perhaps this piece of self-disclosure about his “unbending nature” was intended to be cautionary.
After finishing his training and getting his wings, Doug was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. He had grown up in Florida and had only a vague idea of where Virginia was. He had never heard of Norfolk. But he would end up spending the next twenty years there. And soon, in Norfolk, his uncompromising stance would once again be tested by trauma.
Dreaming Of Transdyne
Doug is lying on a stretcher in the emergency room of a Washington, D.C. hospital. It’s 1967 and he’s 37 years old. He’s in the E.R. because of a suicide attempt. Stanley had just barely kept it from being successful. There’s talk of sending him to Saint Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington. But first they have to get him stabilized.
Shortly after he became a naval officer, Douglas had discovered that he was gay. Later he was outed. In 2010, the federal courts would rule that the ban on openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual service personnel was unconstitutional. But this was still fifty years in the future. So Douglas was crucified and given an other-than-honorable discharge from the navy.
This type of discharge was widely used to weed out as many “undesirables” as possible from the military. In addition to being blatantly homophobic, it was also covertly racist, since a disproportionate number of African American servicemen were being tarred with the same brush. Those who received an other-than-honorable discharge were denied the benefits of the G.I. bill and were frequently discriminated against by civilian employers. Douglas did manage to find work, first in commercial credit and then in a bank.
While still a naval officer, Doug fortuitously met Stan, a former enlisted man who had previously been outed by the navy. A casual date would later evolve into a forty-five year relationship. And it was Stan who would end up saving Douglas’s life.
After leaving the bank, Doug took a job with an attorney. One day he suggested that the secretaries in the office were being underpaid. He and these women were doing the same kind of clerical work, he told the attorney, so it wasn’t fair that he was being paid more just because he was a man.
His suggestion was not at all well received. Perhaps it was simply a case of having been ostracized one too many times, but Douglas left the law office in a huff, got a few things from the apartment he shared with Stan, went to the Greyhound bus station, and took the first bus out of town. It was heading for Washington, D.C.
Stanley came home from work to find that Douglas had come and gone. Early the next morning, after spending an anxious night alone, Stan heard a rumor that Doug might be in D.C. Hoping against hope, he called the hotel where the two of them had occasionally stayed.
Yes, Douglas was there. Stan told them to immediately go to his room and check on him. They did so. He was sprawled unconscious on the floor with empty pill bottles here and there. They called for an ambulance.
Stanley took the first plane to Washington. Douglas’s mother, Miriam, flew in from North Carolina. They were there when he finally regained consciousness. And they returned as often as they could over the following month or two.
In his biographical tapes, Douglas looks back over his life and says that, “the purpose in my telling you that I have done many things, and have had many jobs, is to say that I have failed in all of them. In other words, they were not for me. And because of this – which is a conditioning process, as I suspect all life is – I became suicide prone. And I was, or so I thought, successful with those actions many times.”
Here Doug is using the less literal definition of suicidal: to take actions that are significantly deleterious to one’s perceived best interests. (For example, to make a suicidal career move.)
“But my understanding now,” he continues, “is that this was only a revolt against the conditioning which I had received, and my inability to acquiesce to that conditioning. In short, I never saw any validity in the conditioning of the physical world, in the sense of being in the world but not of the world. I have never felt at home here.”
While residing in that Washington, D.C. hospital, courtesy of a close call with an overdose, Douglas is visited by a vision-like dream. In his dream, he’s looking down on a large group of younger people in the distance. All of them are playfully tapping into psychic gifts and abilities that he can’t even begin to touch. He also sees himself walking with a woman down a country road.
He feels somewhat disgruntled and left out.
Then he hears a voice that seems to come out of nowhere.
“All this is yours,” it says.
Or perhaps, “All this is because of you.”
As Douglas wonders what this could possibly mean, he hears the voice one last time.
Then he wakes up.
Ten years later, Doug and Stan will buy a secluded hilltop a mile or two down the road from Light Morning. Recalling his visionary dream, Douglas names their new home-to-be Transdyne.
* * *
Part 2 of “Who’s Douglas?” will be posted next week.