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A Man Called Dad : A trumpet-playing professor; a screenwriter with rules all his own; an eccentric actor whose silences can wither a man; a doctor forever chasing a dream; an ex-sailor who finally comes to his son's rescue . . . sort of. Five writers recall life with father. : A Bungled Stab at Being the Hero

June 14, 1995|STEVEN DE SOUZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lots of men have a school bully in the woodpile of their junior high memories. But my nemesis wasn't another student, he was an adult: the P.E. teacher, Mr. Zighler.

What sin I committed that made him single me out I never learned. I never joined the varsity teams, which Mr. Zighler coached, so I never fumbled the ball on his watch. I could never have made any teams anyway, because I was incontestably undersized, underweight and uncoordinated. Unlike the rest of my clan.

The de Souzas weren't just butch on the playing fields. They had a long nautical tradition, even owning several ships--the family testosterone went on and on.

During my childhood, my dad was gone seven days a week, diving headfirst into the boom of postwar real estate. But he wasn't completely derelict as a parent. One astonishing day when I was 8, he actually stayed home on a Saturday to take me to Little League tryouts. "You throw like a girl," he hissed at me as we drove home. He was right. But what did he expect? Until that afternoon he had never even played ball with me.

My father clearly wasn't going to accept my almost daily report about the manly P.E. teacher.

"Steven, you're not unloading your whole cargo. There's got to be something in your hold that's making waves with this Sigmund."

"Zighler," I corrected. Dad's metaphors were always this salty: The half decade he'd spent at sea had permanently altered his vocabulary.

One day during gym class, we were running up and down the bleachers and Zighler, as usual, wasn't pleased with my performance. He whacked me on the ass hard enough to make me lose my balance, and I fell on my chin and cut my lip. But the instant I tasted blood I tasted victory as well. I decided I'd hardly be hurt any worse if I went limp and rolled down the stairs to the floor.

When I hit the floor, I made a satisfying splat. My mouth filled with blood, which I dramatically spat out. I was pleased to see that Zighler was shaken, though only for a moment.

Incredibly, he asked, "Did anyone see what happened here?"

I pointed a blood-tinged finger. "You hit me, that's what happened!"

Zighler looked past my incriminating finger to the rest of the class. "What's that? Someone pushed you? Who was it?"

"You, Mr. Zighler, you!"

He looked at the other kids. "Did anyone see me hit Steven?" Of course, no one had. But now, at least, I had my wound to unveil to my father.

*

Later, I showed Dad my gashed lip and tried to defuse what I knew Zighler's strategy would be. "He's just going to snow you. He'll look you right in the eye and lie to you."

"Steven, I've told you before, you're describing a mental case. They don't put mental cases in positions of authority. When I was in the Navy, if someone was a few links short of an anchor chain, the scuttlebutt would. . . ."

Oh, God. In my moment of greatest need, he was Popeye the Sailor again. And then it hit me--this fixation on man and the sea.

"What about Capt. Queeg?" I suddenly offered.

"Capt. Queeg?"

"Sure. He was in a position of responsibility. And nobody noticed the first signs that he was losing it."

"Except for Van Johnson," Dad muttered. Van was Dad's favorite character.

"Are you seriously saying that this Mr. Sackler . . . "

"Zighler."

"Whatever. He's really like Queeg?"

"That's what I've been telling you! And to him I'm like . . . "

"The strawberries!" Dad cried, galvanized.

"Exactly!" I shouted, recognizing the righteous Van Johnson gleam that suddenly appeared in Dad's eyes.

I was saved.

*

Ionly gradually became aware of the commotion the next day at school. My crony, Tevlin, was coming toward me with the corncob-wide smile he always had when he was the bearer of especially stunning news.

"You can forget about biology, Desooz. It's canceled."

"Canceled?"

"Yeah. During recess some crazy guy slams his car into the playground, runs up to Mr. Siegler and says, 'You touch my kid one more time and I'll kill you!' Then he punches him in the nose and drives away!"

"Jesus! Did anybody recognize the guy?" It was hard to believe. Mr. Siegler was one of the most popular teachers in school. Why on Earth would anyone. . . .

A chilling thought suddenly raced through my mind. Siegler. Zighler. Zighler. Siegler. The names were so similar . . . no . . . it couldn't be.

Trying hard to sound casual, I asked, "D-d-did anybody get a good look at the guy who hit him?"

"Not really. But he was driving some old foreign job."

I knew that old foreign job. It was a 1946 Mercedes Benz. One of Dad's motley tenants had given it to him in lieu of six month's rent.

That night when he came to the table Dad was beaming, clearly waiting for me to mention his bold intervention on my behalf. "Anything interesting happen in school today, Steve?"

I was about to furiously answer when a flash of insight struck me. What a difficult gesture it must have been for him to take the often suspect word of an imaginative, even devious child against a presumably reliable adult. I could also see his real need to know that, just once, he had indeed come off as a hero, after years of watching his real estate dreams sinking. How could I dash his spirits with the emotional blow that the one time he had heeded a son's cry for help, he had completely bungled it?

Actually, it was easy.

* Steven de Souza is now a strapping, 6-foot-1-inch, 185 pound, happily married, proud father of two. He has killed 1,214 people in his screenplays "Die Hard," "Street Fighter" and "Judge Dredd," but he still throws like a girl.

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