A Hungry Dog Goes Farther
One of the cool things about going off to college is that you meet people who are really different from the neighborhood guys you grew up with. One of those guys I met was Dan Brown. Although as soon as he got into his freshman year, he started going by his middle name, Regis. I guess he thought it had a certain swagger that Dan didn’t have. And he managed to pull it off, to reinvent himself, in name at least. Regis had a big personality. He was a highly magnetic and funny guy who owned every room he walked into. He rallied us on innumerable adventures, real and intellectual. But he had a tortured genius sort of mode, the classic Irish drunk raconteur, constantly at battle with dark, gothic demons...and his strict father. This resulted in renegade stands against authority and ‘the man.’ With Regis, we had hitchhiking trips, bad decisions, carelessness, anger and transcendent moments.
He was famous for saying overly romantic things like “the Spirit of Youth” and talking about “the destiny” in a capital-D sense. We hung on these nuggets of philosophy which he himself admitted were really pseudo-philosophy. He read all sorts of obscure and philosophical texts, including Carlos Castagneto, Herman Hesse, Thomas De Quincey, and more popular ones, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. He would get obsessed by a particular song and insist it be played over and over again. We would roll our eyes and accommodate these desperado requests. There were lovelorn times, bar fights, and crazy episodes with our band of misfit kids. He wore his emotion on his sleeve, and for that he was a compelling character on campus.
Unlike most of the other kids whose parents shuttled them home at holiday breaks, Regis was on his own to get home. And that meant hitchhiking the 135 miles from Erie to Pittsburgh. We gladly joined in. “No mom, I don’t need a ride.”
Unlike most of the other kids whose parents shuttled them home at holiday breaks, Regis was on his own to get home. And that meant hitchhiking the 135 miles from Erie to Pittsburgh. We gladly joined in. “No mom, I don’t need a ride.” He showed us how to do it. The main thing you needed was a fearlessness, and the moxie to walk out to the interstate with the belief that you would get a ride. And we always did. Although a few times we spent cold nights in the middle of nowhere. This was a few years before shows like America’s Most Wanted fanned the flames of fear across the country. And we benefited from looking like harmless college kids. This experience would lead to cross country hitchhiking trips in the future.
In Pittsburgh we’d hang out at his house in Mount Lebanon. I found his family really interesting. His dad had been a West Point cadet and then a colonel in the Army. So they had lived all over the place: Germany, Hawaii, Michigan, Maine, maybe a few other stops, and then in the ‘Burgh. His mom used to say you’ve got to “bloom where you are planted” in reference to their itinerant family history. She had a natural charm and beauty, and an old school effortless elegance that allowed her to mix with any group of people, including the raggedy kids that her son brought home. She treated us like real people, somehow transcending the separateness most other parents maintained. She would visit with us, drink wine with us, cook for us and then drive us back out to the freeway on-ramp when it was time to go back to school. She managed to balance parental love with the ability to give her kids a real sense of independence.
By the time I met Regis’ dad, Kevin, he was in the final chapter of his life. He had made it to a command position and seen a lot of action in Vietnam. Like a lot of former military leaders, he ended up as a executive at business consulting firm in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Regis called him Kevin, and he called his mom by her first name, Gay (for Gabrielle). That was so different from the families I knew growing up. By this point, Kevin was drinking a lot and smoking cigarettes. He had an air of authority, albeit a tired authority. His was the kind of gravitas you get from living through heavy stuff. He was a more real version of John Wayne than the overly-perfect Hollywood dress up cowboy on the screen. Although we’d never talk about the war, we heard that he killed people and was in nasty fire fights in the jungle. Like a whole generation of guys, he was haunted by the experience.
He didn’t need to give us punk-ass hitchhiking kids the time of day, but he was nice and would sit by the fire with us, mixing it up in all kinds of conversations and debates and chess games and readings, his big Newfoundland, Barney, laying by his side. Every once in a while a hint of the war would come up. Like when we were planning on camping out somewhere and we invited him. He just smiled and said something like I’ve done all the camping I’m going to do.
He had an aphoristic style that was the real deal. In response to our harebrained business notions, he would say things like “talk is cheap—it takes money to buy whiskey.” He tolerated our youthful hubris and romanticism, never once pulling rank. Regis had a healthy respect for his old man, and although he was conflicted by the old man’s procedural and disciplined ways, I could see he loved his dad.
He had an aphoristic style that was the real deal. In response to our harebrained business notions, he would say things like “talk is cheap—it takes money to buy whiskey.” He tolerated our youthful hubris and romanticism, never once pulling rank.
One time I asked Regis why his dad seemed a lot more skimpy on the support and rides than most other parents. He said Kevin would tell him “a hungry dog goes farther.” Just that simple—something you’d expect from a military guy. As basic as it is, it’s stayed with me ever since, cutting to the core of one of the central parental dilemmas -- how much support is too much. I think about that now as my wife and I navigate these questions in raising our teenagers. I haven’t thought about Kevin or those times in a while. You pick up these little pieces of wisdom along the way. You never know where you’re going to get a lesson or when you’re going to remember it.