Mar/Apr 1998  •   Salon

Gaining a Brother, and Maybe a Father: Reflections on Keith Snow's "In Search of Captain Dooley"

by Tom Dooley

In this issue there is a nonfiction piece called "In Search of Captain Dooley." It's a remarkable account, simply and honestly told, of Keith Snow's search for his biological father and of the abusive childhood he experienced as a result of being adopted. What makes the story all the more remarkable to me, is Keith Snow's biological father was also my biological father, and while I've known Captain Dooley's identity from the beginning, I've had little more knowledge of him as a person than Keith has now. His death from cancer when I was four meant Keith and I were destined to share more than just his genetic material, but also his absence from our lives.

What Keith did not have, growing up, was the specter of Dennis Dean Dooley as a father figure. The man I did not know but felt I needed to measure up to in some way was a hero of nearly mythological proportions. A high school dropout who worked his way up through the ranks, not just the enlisted but commissioned as well, the father I grew up without was "honest to a fault" and universally hailed as a "wonderful man."

The tales making up his legend were many. At the age of 18, he "exposed himself to withering enemy machine-gun fire" to free a wounded comrade and was awarded a silver star, the first of many such citations, including three purple hearts, three bronze stars, and another silver star.

When he was 40, living in a cabin in rural Alaska against medical advice and common sense, he pulled huge needles out of his arms, left half his bodily fluids in a dialysis machine, and hand-cranked a diesel generator with one hand while he used the other to keep pressure on the bleeding holes. After he got the generator running, he staggered back across the yard and into the house, reinserted those pencil-thick needles, and finished his dialysis.

He had a poster with the words, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for I am the meanest sonofabitch in the valley." I grew up picturing this poster hanging next to his bed in the hospital room in Anchorage, Alaska, where he succumbed to cancer at the 42 years old. Turns out the poster never made the trip to the hospital, but it still hangs above my mother's bed, and its implications have held a presence in my consciousness throughout my life.

These and other stories left me with a deep feeling of pride for my father (not to mention a fear of needles), but they also served to make him somehow unreal to me.

As I grew older, I tried to learn about him by going through boxes of his stuff stored in the garage. I learned he had a penchant for self-help books. That he earned his GED while he was in the service. He and his brother started a business called D.D.D. Incorporated (for some reason as yet unexplained to me, my father and his siblings all share these same three initials), for the purpose of selling a special officer's combat notebook he designed. My mother told me Dennis was always coming up with elaborate, unrealized schemes—something he managed to pass on to me genetically.

A big surprise was his ex-wife. There was even a picture of her. She was blonde, I think, but I'm not sure now. One of the stranger things I learned about him was for part of his life, he quit the Marines and worked for the Goodyear Tire company. He played on their semi-pro corporate basketball team. As far as his military career was concerned, besides fighting in Korea and Vietnam, he was an embassy guard, a drill instructor, and a recruiter. He was serving in this last capacity when he met my mother (and, ironically, Keith's mother as well). My mother was working as a secretary in a police station. He came by regularly to recruit young men in jail for petty crimes.

I don't know if it was the unaccounted for years when he wasn't in the Marines, or the mysterious ex-wife, or just the overall two-dimensional picture I had of his character, but I never felt like I knew who my dad really was. When my grandmother contacted me a year ago, though, and told me I had a previously unknown half-brother, some missing piece of the puzzle clicked for me. It was like an invisible burden had been lifted. Dennis Dean Dooley had finally become real.

The story still contains mysteries. We don't know for certain if my father knew about Keith, and I don't know why he never told my mom the whole truth. As soon as Keith contacted the Dooleys, everyone did some quick math, and it turned out Keith was born after my parents were married, although he was conceived when they were only engaged. It seems Dennis was Keith's mother's recruiter. That my parents' wedding had been delayed over a year while the Catholic church conducted a thorough investigation into Dennis' previous marriage to determine—and here some major irony comes into play—whether he had any children, before they would condone the second marriage. That because of the delay of the wedding and other factors, there had been some tension, some drifting apart. They were living in separate towns, my dad driving up to see my mom every other weekend or so...

When my dad was on his deathbed, after he had learned the cancer had spread to his lungs and other organs, after he had tried operations and radiation and chemo-therapy and experimental treatments in Mexico, and after he had made them "pull the plug" on all life-prolonging efforts, he wanted my mother to know one thing: he wanted her to know he had always been faithful. And I suppose one could argue this was technically true, at least in terms of their marriage. But looking back, I can only wonder if he didn't die with a guilty conscience. This paragon of honesty could not bring himself to face what must've been the biggest moral failing of his life. I just wonder, did he have any inkling of what his indiscretion had wrought?

I do not blame him, nor do I respect him any less. What he did was in some ways inexcusable, and yet it's not my place to excuse him or not. I do believe it's important to acknowledge what he did, though. He took advantage of a young woman (she was 18) in a subordinate position. He slept around when he was engaged to be married. He possibly had a child and did not acknowledge it. He may have knowingly left Keith to be raised in an abusive home, and he didn't even come clean about it on his deathbed. As my mother pointed out just a few days ago, it's painful to think how much better both Keith's and my childhood could've been had she been able to adopt him instead.

I've wondered if guilt and anguish over what he did had anything to do with his cancer. There are many people who claim our bodies respond to our emotional state. I don't know which is more horrible, though: thinking my father's conscience gave him cancer, or that the country he so fiercely defended did so by knowingly subjecting him to Agent Orange.

In the end, I'm glad these revelations have come about. I feel like I've gained a father, somehow, although the gaining is bittersweet. I've definitely gained a brother, which for someone who grew up as an only child of a single parent in the Alaskan wilderness, and as a result has always felt somewhat "alone" in the world, this is a truly wonderful thing. I even think, or hope, my mom has benefited, because after 23 years she still hasn't fully put her husband's death behind her, and maybe this will help to create some closure.