06/27/2011 02:42 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2011

Thanks Dad for Failing: Even When Dads Fall Short, Good Can Come of It

As Father's Day came and went this year, I finally got around to thanking my dad for his failings.

It's not that my dad was up (or down) there with the growing number of celebrity and politician dads who get all tangled up in headline scandals. But like most dads (me included), mine had his shortcomings, and I've been slow to forgive him. And to thank him.

My problem was that I didn't, as the old song goes, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative where my dad was concerned. True, he dragged his family here and there in Latin America, from one failed business venture to another, kind of like Harrison Ford did as a somewhat obsessed entrepreneur in The Mosquito Coast.

But in the process, I got to live in exotic places, mix with various cultures, learn how others lived (and thought). All that "internationalizing," as my father called it, would help me later as a foreign correspondent reporting from various parts of the world.

And yes, dad blew all the hard-earned money I had saved for college when I was working at a wildcat oilfield in Venezuela. He was supposed to be keeping it for me. I never knew where it went. He was an avid big-stakes poker player and it could have gone that way. And like many Americans in the tropics, he had a particular thirst for alcohol, including the demon rum. Maybe he drank it away, or sank it into another bad business venture.

Short of money, I had to balance college with long hours serving tables in a diner, working as a soda jerk in a drugstore. But the experience made me more self-reliant, more appreciative of the value of money (and tips for good service). And dad did help get me the oil field job, and I learned a lot about oil drilling and that did help me greatly covering the North Sea oil bonanza and other oil industry stories

Sometimes, I unfairly blamed my dad.

During World War II, when we were living in Panama and unable to buy things that we would normally get in the U.S., my fervent boyhood wish was for a bicycle. Christmas after Christmas, no bike appeared under the tree. The problem was German submarines sinking freighters venturing out from the U.S. but I blamed dad for us not being in the U.S. where we would not have had the problem. Eventually, the bike arrived, brand new from Sears and Roebuck, and I rode it everywhere, along the beach, out to old ruins left by pillaging and plundering pirates, the family dog Bubbles tagging happily along.

Another thing I blamed my dad for was my Hispanic heritage. It's not that I didn't love my mom, a dark-eyed beauty from El Salvador. But my dad was American so why didn't he marry an American so I could look like the white kids in the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, where I attended school?

My dad was from Virginia but he didn't harbor the deep-rooted racism prevalent at the time in the South and blatantly institutionalized in classic colonial style in the Canal Zone. When I would complain about being called a "spic," the favorite racial epithet for the few Hispanics then attending mostly-white Canal Zone schools, dad would say something like we are all God's children and not to let it bother me.

But it did bother me, especially when I joined the Boy Scouts and was told I couldn't go to a World Scout Jamboree in the U.S. with the rest of my scout troop on a U.S. military transport ship. Murky reasons were given. Resentful and angry at everyone (including dad), I suspected it was because I was a "spic." But dad scraped together enough money to fly me to the U.S. so I could attend the jamboree. There among boys from all over the world, I found that I fit right in, a multi-racial kid in a multi-racial world.

Later as a young, idealistic reporter I discovered that before dad went into business for himself, he worked in Honduras for United Fruit Company, an American-owned firm that dominated the banana-exporting business in Central America and the Caribbean. I wrote my dad asking him how he could work for a company that back then employed plantation workers in near-slave labor conditions.

He never replied, but lately I got to thinking how things with my dad all fell into place, how I was the better for it. For example, had he not worked for the banana company, he would not have met my mom in neighboring El Salvador. And they would not have made me.



My dad, William LaSalle Wright, in the full tropical garb
of the era, when he worked for United Fruit Company
in the 1920s