Dent Sheffelbein

Words: 1095

Rating: G.  Suitable for all audiences.

{Disclaimer: The name Dent Sheffelbein was chosen arbitrarily.  I know no person named Dent Sheffelbein, and any similarities to anyone named Dent Sheffelbein are purely coincidental. This story Dent Sheffelbein is a work of fiction.}

Dent Sheffelbein

Dent Sheffelbein knew the rules. Dent knew the rules so well that he experienced confusion when no rules applied.

Some might say that Dent’s confusion was borne of the fact that he was well into his eighties, when he –like all humans– regress back to the era of life where they experienced greater clarity. While we didn’t know Dent in his thirties, and for much of his forties, we knew a man who was dominated by confusion.

One of the most profound things that Dent ever said to us was: “I don’t know how you can see the world so clearly. The world has always been so muddled to me.” Our first thought was how difficult that must have been to admit to a person so much younger than he. Later, we realized how much it said about Dent Sheffelbein and how it clarified so much of what he did and said throughout his life.

Dent spent much of his life trying to avoid the responsibility inherent in decision making. He looked to rules for guidance. When he couldn’t find a rule, he looked for someone to help him define some measure of authority on a subject, so he wouldn’t have to rely solely on his facilities and resources in the decision making process.

Both of his parents died at what happened to be a crucial age for him. The push and pull from and to authority figures in our youth defines us as individuals, but that which we accept as sound advice forms us. When we’re young, our parents are the constant of our lives. As we choose paths in life, and define our individuality, it is defined with our parents’ model as the denominator. We view our parents’ worldview as antiquated, incorrect, and foolish. When we enter the real world, or that which follows the fantasy of childhood and the theoretical and idealistic views we hold in our teens and early twenties, we begin to see how our parents belief apply. The reason a certain age is crucial (for some it occurs between 19-25), is that we need to learn the particulars of how we can apply our parents beliefs, lessons, and advice apply. When a parent dies prematurely, as Dent’s did when he was eighteen, it deprives the teenager of the questions he has regarding the particulars of how Dent could apply his dad’s general advice to specific situations Dent was experiencing.

“What was it you said about getting along with coworkers?” was a question Dent was never permitted to ask his parents. “What was you said about appeasing a boss, paying bills, appeasing a spouse, and raising children?”

We all go through developmental stages at different rates of course, but for most it helps to have a parent ease us into that transition by answering difficult, embarrassing questions in a loving manner. Dent Sheffelbein did not have that luxury. He thought his dad “Was a fool who didn’t know anything, and by the time I realized he knew a lot more than I thought, it was too late. He was gone. I had so many questions for him,” Dent said, staring off into space.  

Dent Sheffelbein was cast out, adrift in a sea of confident people on the rise. He lost his rudder in life when his dad died in a boating accident. Life came up and told him that he had better start dealing with all the abstracts of life, because no one was going to help him through the chaos and confusion of life.

There’s also a profound belief such a young man experiences when his parents die young, and it involves people genuinely caring about what happens to a man throughout his life. Friends care, extended family members care, but none of them care as much about what happens to you in the day-to-day experiences we have as much as our parents. When they die despair sets in, of course, but there’s a huge difference between the excruciating immediate pain and the long-term, mind altering pain that can be numbing. 

For all of the reasons listed above, the Korean War was a blessing in disguise for Dent. The military provided him the direction he lacked after the premature death of his father. The military gave him purpose and structure in a life that was otherwise adrift. He could be a number that followed direction in life as a military soldier. He could avoid taking responsibility for the decisions of his life in the military. He could be adrift in the sea of life without consequences with another telling him when to row and how steer in a particular direction, and he could do what everyone else was doing without the introspection independent decision making usually procures. Conformity is expected in the military, and Dent liked doing what was expected of him. He liked the rules. It helped him fit in. In the military you are, largely, a faceless cog in the wheel. You can do things to better your standing in the military, you can stand out, but you can also fall back into the ranks with all the other fellas and be faceless.

Some personalities will do anything they can to draw some attention to themselves. Dent was the exact opposite. If a majority of those in line to receive Holy Communion wore jackets, Dent considered it compulsory that he wear a jacket. It wasn’t just embarrassing to him when his sons failed to conform, it was a whispering condemnation that suggested if we went to receive Holy Communion without a jacket, we were the shame of the family. If Dent had a father guide him through the particulars of life, through his crucial period of life, he might have had a greater hold on what to do and how to act in circumstances large and small. He did not receive such help, so he looked to others to help him through this difficult stretch of life, and that mentality lasted for the rest of his life.

In the world according to Dent Sheffelbein, when people look at you, they see you, and they know that you don’t know how to do it. When we fail to wear a jacket in the procession, we run the risk of being what they call an oddball, and odd activity can lead to the oddball label, and it can expose warts you didn’t even know you had.

***

When I proposed that Dent write a few things down about his life for his legacy, for his grandchildren, he returned: “When I die, I just want to be forgotten.”

Returning from the Korean War, Dent stood in a line of soldiers who were trying to decide what they wanted to do for a living. This decision was going to shape his adulthood and the many others who would be reliant on Dent for sustenance. He didn’t have his father to consult, and he forgot to seek advice from anyone around him in life, so he turned to the guy who just filled out an application confidently:

“What did you select?” Dent asked the man.

“Tool and Die,” the man said.

“Is that a good profession?”

“You get to work with your hands,” the man returned, “ and I like working with my hands, and it’s better than sitting in an office.”

Dent decided that the man had a well thought out rationale that would suit him, so he signed up for Tool and Die. He would remain in this profession, no matter how tedious the work, for the next thirty-eight years. He liked the rules of the profession. There was no need for creativity in Tool and Die. There was no confusion. He knew what to expect each day that he went into work, and they knew what to expect of him. The rules were easy to learn, and the profession gave him structure and purpose, and he sank himself into his work to such a degree that he didn’t think he could do anything else. Tool and Die didn’t call for thinking outside the box. You arrived, you did the work, you ate lunch, and you went home. Rules, structure, purpose, lucky to have a job, and now you’re a man by most definitions.

Dent fell backwards into a situation that provided him a wife and a kid. This provided Dent an urgent need to gain some clarification about life, because he knew the kids he was going to have would ask. Dent taught his children conformity, because that’s what he knew best. He may not have known too much about life or how to succeed within it, but he knew how to fit in. He knew how to avoid wearing the wrong clothes and saying the wrong things. He knew how to go to all the right places and practice certain principles in life. His kids may have grown to believe that many of these ideas were screwy, but they had to learn these ideas before he arrived at a conclusion. Dent taught his kids everything he knew about how to get along in the world, and those kids took that foundation of logic and went forth into nonconformity. Dent was horrified by this for much of his life. He never wanted kids of his to become an oddball, but those kids could’ve never been an oddball if they didn’t know the rules, and Dent knew the rules…even if he was confused by most of that which fell outside it.

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