Pacifist, Anarchist, Beatnik, Catholic, Chemist, Activist, Father
To hear my mother tell it among an ever growing list of cartoonish atrocities my father literally burned down the homes of Jews, murdered his first wife, and ran a baby rape conspiracy. At best this is followed by the loaded concession: “…But then he told so many lies you never could trust anything about him.” And his brother Gene finally sadly nodded diplomatically a little bit on that sentence and said “Well, with Ted you never really knew anything for sure.”
“He was,” his brother later sighed, utterly unprompted, “the consummate anarchist.”
Born Theodore William Gerard Gillis on October 26th 1931, in Queens, New York to a racist Irish political patriarch from Hell’s Kitchen and a Polish-Ukrainian waitress, Ted grew up an alienated middle child. Never close to or open with his family he finally he “borrowed” a chunk of money from them in the 60s and took off, cutting all contact. By all accounts Ted could wax dishonest, stubborn, and self-isolating. His alienation and bitter stoicism permitted few very far in over the course of his life. As his first child in the years before age rotted his mind I alone was born entirely inside his bubble; before me “the stories” never changed, nor any faucet of his character, and the facts have consistently backed them up. Here is a little of what we know:
Ted grew distant from his parents and brothers early on, in his pre-adolescence he found friendship with a old veteran neighbor and together they listened to radio reports of Franco’s bombs and Hitler’s conquests, carefully marking troop movements out on maps and talking about some of the things his neighbor had seen in the first World War. As a teenager in Queens he was accepted at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School a Catholic school that drew children from a mix of races, there he became a studied troublemaker, proud cheat, and member of a loose gang of outcasts. Eventually all the running from authorities paid off when he discovered a talent on the track at sprinting. His first true passion Ted loved the 50 yard dash, and would still talk obsessively sixty years later about the design of various shoes he wore and the shit he received for adopting an effete *white* pair. His career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.
He served the majority of the war as an air traffic controller but at one point was shot down copiloting a helicopter accidentally behind enemy lines while the front suddenly shifted south. Cut off for a couple months he was protected from Northern troops by a family of leftists who he later endeavored to protect in turn and who served as his springpad into anarchism. (When I was young in the early 90s I remember him awkwardly but not unpleasantly meeting up with members of that family visiting America; they had stayed in contact.) This adventure and momentary respite from his bitter service in ranks of the military is however second in impact to the bomb that ripped him open and left him with a plastic esophagus among other life-long health problems. It was during his long hospitalization that a delayed letter finally arrived: he’d been accepted to train for the US Olympic team.
Upon return Ted went to college in DC and partied endlessly with the children of ambassadors, getting up to larger shenanigans, trying to hide his class origins and dating a string of girls. He had no plans upon graduation and when approached about a job working with nitroglycerine said yes thinking it was a joke. It paid well for the risk and he left within a couple years. He got his masters in chemical engineering in the UK at the University of Surrey with a thesis on brownian motion and moved to Riverside California as part of a start up company applying a new gold-plating technique.
The move to California paralleled a growing identification with the Beatnik movement and the currents of individualist pacifist anarchism rising in popularity at that time. He worked alongside a pacifist anarchist mentor of Cesar Chavez in campaigns and was elected an activist county commissioner during water disputes. He came to travel and work primarily as a legal observer and in 1970 while assisting a student insurrection in Isla Vista helped burn down a Bank of America in a riot after a student was murdered by the police.
Some important loose ends nobody can quite recall sufficient facts for: At some point between Korea in 1955 and Santa Barbara in 1970 he married a woman whose father ran a business making preservatives for telephone poles and bitterly despised his politics, she died in a traffic accident within a year. He always referred to her as his one true love. Towards the end of the 60s we know he worked for NASA developing rocket fuel and early designs for what became the Space Shuttle, but the particulars aren’t clear. His time with NASA left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, prompting continued denunciations of space exploration as inherently miltarist, anti-environmentalist, and superfluous to God’s Plan. The ideological roots of this hostility lay in his interpretation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ted’s favorite thinker, and who he claimed to have briefly met before Chardin’s death, an encounter he was immensely proud of. I always placed this as after Korea, although if it happened, it would have to have been in New York before his Korean service, which makes sense since Chardin lived there and Ted’s connection to Catholicism was stronger then.
In 1984 a young woman read a series of articles on the ethics of storytelling and folksinging he was publishing in a radical journal (one of which was on cultural appropriation) and within a year they were married. Whereupon he moved from sunny East Palo Alto to rainy Portland with his dog and cat and became a father of three children. Their marriage was rough and divorce even rougher, leaving both destitute.
Having ditched chemical engineering in the 60s, Ted spent the 70s through 90s oscillating between activist bum and scheming grifter. He had little compulsion against certain forms of manipulation but believed in pacifism and deescalation intensely and loathed cops, politicians, the rich and the military with a fierce fire. The period I knew him most intimately over was the 90s. He was a silent, hesitant, withdrawn man, yet prone to bouts of charm, simmering rage towards institutions and those in power, flashes of outrage and frustration with crowds, stubborn stoicism in his personal life, and warm delight in his children.
As his old age set in he bumbled around between any paralegal work that would fuck with the cops, various schemes that usually involved convoluted cheats of the system… and at one point a plan to assassinate Dick Cheney. He married for a third time in the late 90s to a woman his children despised and who prompted the end of their visitations. Ted seperated from her a few years later but quickly suffered a series of physical declines and was finally made a permanent ward of the state, limited to a bed and few words from 2007 to 2013. He spent these years alone and largely checked out, full of resentment bottled up with stronger stoicism, and died on October 5th, 2013.
Although his goalposts shifted repeatedly and he held onto some minor accomplishments, Ted lived a largely failed life. He had sometimes stunning foresight but little real impact, and whether through timidity or bad luck this ineffectualness drove him to more deeply embrace Catholicism, 80s environmentalism, and Chardin’s notions of teological progress as he aged. Ted didn’t care that I didn’t believe in God, that I rejected faith and mysticism as fundamentally unethical, or even that I came to vehemently reject his hostility to space exploration. He thought I was wrong, of course, but framed our differences as ones of amorphous “experience” and so could openly admire my disagreement as the product of integrity and verve. His anarchism, so strongly couched in consideration of others and a refusal to escalate, was maddening. The most ill will I ever felt towards him was as a toddler when he’d sedately catch or accept my temper tantrum punches. A few times he laughed, and the shock and fury of this rare patronizing dismissal spurred me to race against him for years, to make impacts in argument or insight that mattered. He embraced these with delight and relief. I don’t think he was ever happier than he was in the early 90s, taking me to a far-left catholic church (although explicitly never asking or expecting I believe), sharing illicit sugary substances, and talking about mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Raising me (and then my sisters) became his retirement, promised land, and second chance. And when I (and later my sisters) broke off formal visitations a little over a decade before he died, it broke him deeply. In everything else, his marriages, housing, and income he’d come to accept drifting, not struggling too hard to make something of his life nor lamenting about it. But when the day came and I finally shoved back his domineering third wife and permanently walked out, he was indescribably disconsolate, thin aging skin holding together boiling regrets. But he was, as ever, instinctively and vigorously respectful of my agency.
My mother has tried to convince everyone for decades that my father was an unparalleled monster. And there were certainly glimpses of something harsher, a mind that usually knew how to get what it wanted and frequently saw nothing wrong with lying. Ted lied ruthlessly to institutions and anyone with relative power or wealth. Even still he was always explicit in these acts before me and they were not without internal turbulence. Nor were they all of the same craftsmanship. Cheating a corporation or the government could be delightfully involved scheme, lying to his tyrannical third wife was just an awkward, stupid, defensive act. Ted was probably a bad husband, and I have no way of objectively measuring just how bad, much less in what ways to which wives. By the age differential with my mother he was clearly a lecherous old activist, and in patriarchy that carries certain likelihoods, but in both marriages what I saw was a mostly beaten down lonely old man, squirrely, manipulative and vindictive occasionally, but relieved to have secured any companionship. He was bent but never broken, any excuse to go to the store or walk to the bus in the free air saw him dramatically uncurl and rejoice in small things.
I don’t know what the category “father” is supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’m okay with reifying those kind of relations, much less some specific, idealic formulation. But Ted was a really standout human being who was there for me at the start of my life and throughout much of it. If a parent is someone who shows you the world and holds your hand, then Ted Gillis was probably the best I’ve ever seen. The moment he knew he’d be bringing a person into this world he put his entire mind into making sure he did right.
In addition to being unbelievably gentle and self-sacrificing on many fronts, Ted treated me with a direct respect, dignity and compassion that I’ve only witnessed once or twice in my life with anyone else, much less from a parent. His commitment to talking directly and considerately to me like a human being has given me an incalculable leg up in life. And while he may have come up short at virtually everything else and decayed over his last decade from borderline incompetent old man to a vegetable in an unfathomable private hell, the insight he showed as a parent, friend, guide, and counselor, occasionally exposed a genius so sharp it takes my breath away to remember it, and a solitary audacity and resolute commitment that truly made him singular.