Bud Donley, 23, died days before the birth of his son, who for 16 years wouldn't know Bud existed. The son says he dug up the past because even in death his dad is . . . : 'Still Part of My Life'

Flickers of memory haunted Craig Tomashoff as a child. Scenes of being at his parents' wedding . . . a set of books he'd seen with the name Craig Donley scrawled in them . . . hazy images of a time when there was no dad around--just his mom, his brother and him.

When Tomashoff, now 33, turned 16, his mother matter-of-factly told him that his father--her first husband--had died before he was born. And that the man he grew up believing was his natural father was actually his stepdad.

"I didn't think much about it," says Tomashoff, a Los Angeles writer . "That may sound odd, but my mom didn't seem too emotional about all this so I didn't figure I needed to be."

It would be another 15 years before he would begin the journey to find out who his father was . . .

*

It wasn't not knowing my father that bothered me. It was not knowing that he existed at all. I had spent all of my childhood calling one man Dad. Then when I was 16, my mother came into my room and calmly asked me to sign a Social Security benefits check. I had a father before the father I grew up with, she told me. He died before I was born. These were his benefits.

For the next 15 years, I occasionally thought about this unknown part of my past. But clearly it was a touchy topic for my mom and stepdad, so I left it alone. Why bring up painful memories? I had a good life with these parents. Then two years ago, the issue surfaced again. During a physical exam, my doctor, warning me about all the horrible things that happen to men over 30, asked about my family history. Was there a history of prostate cancer? Heart disease?

The time had come to quiz my mother.

Who Was My Father?

I waited for the best moment to spring it on her during a trip back home in September, 1991, but couldn't find the nerve until we sat in the airport, waiting for my plane to leave.

I could practically see her hair turn gray as she gave me precious few details about him.

His name was Bud Eugene Donley and he was from Oxford, Kansas, a one-stoplight town a half-hour's drive from my mom's hometown of Arkansas City.

They had met in college.

He died from the injuries he received in an explosion at their home 10 days before I was born. He was 23.

She remarried three years later, and my stepfather adopted my brother and me a year after that.

Hearing this tragic story brought a lot of things into focus. The Craig Donley from my childhood books. The brief period when I vaguely remembered living alone with my mother and brother. The wedding . . . that had been my mother's and stepfather's.

It also brought into focus my relationship with my stepfather. I've always assumed that a man's identity comes from his father, but it never felt that way for me.

I have no doubt that he loves me as his own, but there was always something about our relationship that didn't feel right. We never seemed to be from the same gene pool. He's a big man, well over six feet tall and on the far side of 200 pounds--a size I knew I'd never come close to.

Not as noticeable were the philosophical differences.

From the time I was able to tell a welfare program from a government handout, I knew my liberal way of thinking would never fit with his staunch conservatism. He loved football; I worshiped baseball. I talked to strangers; he thought strangers were dangerous.

Like vague recollections of some long-canceled TV show episode, the images all came back to me as my mom gave up her few stories about my dad.

As I sat in that airport, I knew I needed to learn more. But I stopped after sensing that this was painful territory. I knew my parents loved me and figured they were doing the right thing by keeping the story of my birth father a secret so as not to confuse me.

The last thing I wanted to do was hurt them, but then again this wasn't about them. It was about me. This father I'd never know was still a part of my life.

My mom offered to answer any other questions, but only if I mailed them to her.

I needed to get my answers first-hand. What characteristics had I inherited from my dad? Do I look like him? Do I have his mannerisms? Do we share any hopes and dreams? Pressuring my mom on these details wouldn't be fair to her.

Besides, her reactions made it very clear that she wanted to stay as far away from my search as she could. As my brother, who is four years older, we were never close. It never occurred to me to ask him nor for him to volunteer information.

So in May I went back to Kansas.

The Library

The local libraries in Oxford and Arkansas City--tiny rural towns--seemed like the easiest places to begin.

As I'd suspected, the accident that killed my dad had been big news in these southern Kansas towns. A front-page story in the Arkansas City Traveler, dated Aug. 19, 1959 explained it all:

*

Twenty-three-year-old Bud Donley and two plumbers were injured after checking out a clogged pipe in the basement of his home. An accumulation of sewer gas combined with his lit cigarette caused the explosion.

*

My mom, who was 7 1/2 months pregnant, was in the house at the time but wasn't injured. My dad was rushed to Memorial Hospital in Arkansas City with burns over roughly 50% of his body.

A series of small articles appeared over the next three weeks. On Sept. 12, he died without ever leaving the hospital.

Four days later, there was a funeral.

Six days after that, there was a small birth notice on a back page of the paper. I was born.

For a brief minute, I was like the devious delinquent discovering condoms in his parents' bedroom drawer. I felt quite guilty reading all these articles, peeking into family secrets I might be better off not knowing.

At the same time, though, I also felt like I was starting to settle an old score. I knew why nobody had talked to me much about my father. It hurt too much to remember.

There was only one thing left to do before getting the bad news of his death behind me and moving on to the good news about his life. I had to see the grave.

My father's younger sister, my Aunt Sheryl--who still lives in Arkansas City and hadn't seen me since I was a young boy--was ready to take me to where her only sibling was buried.

The Cemetery

I thought it would be different. I saw "Field of Dreams." I figured finally coming face to face with my father's grave would be this emotionally overpowering experience that would leave me a sobbing, quivering wreck.

But staring at the gray slab under the blue Kansas sky, no voices called to me. No ghosts appeared. I just stood there somberly for a few minutes, trying--but failing--to conjure up images of the good times we might have had.

What I needed was to be with people who had shared good times with him.

My Aunt Sheryl arranged for a few of his best friends to meet me at the Stumpwater Inn, a local diner. They showed up with high school yearbooks in tow.

There he was, a stick-thin kid wearing a basketball uniform hanging like a tent off his gangly body.

This was strange. I was seeing my father for the first time, and he was just a kid. I'd expected to see a mirror image of myself. Instead, the boy I was gaping at had a dark pompadour, sideburns and exuded an Elvis-style cool. If there was any family resemblance, I couldn't see it. We didn't even look like cousins. His friends must have sensed my concern, because one of them looked at me with the same sad eyes they must have had the day he died.

Like Father, Like Son

"I see a resemblance in the eyes," said Larry, who was Bud's best friend. "And your spirit. He was aggressive. A go-getter. You've got that."

They told me about his attitude. "He was always in the middle of things," said another friend. She pointed to a few candid shots from the yearbook. There he was, clowning for the cameras in each one.

They told me about his passion for cars and about the time his parents went away and he threw a house party, only to have them come home early and find empty beer cans in the dryer.

They told me about his appetite. When the gang used to go to the drive-in for a late-night bite, he'd go through two double-burgers, an extra-large order of rings, a chocolate shake and a Coke. And he never gained a pound.

It was fun to hear the stories, yet disappointing. I don't care about cars as long as they run. I'm not the partying type. I barely touch hamburgers.

To make it worse, I felt uneasy whenever these friends would start a story by saying "your dad did this" or "your father did that." I had grown up attaching those phrases to another man, and it was very hard to now see someone new in that role.

"There was one thing I remember your dad used to say," Larry's wife said. "He said he never wanted to grow old." There was a long pause. "I guess he got his wish."

There was an awkward silence at the table. The friends shook their heads silently, looking at nobody. I kind of felt like I was on display.

Like me, they had come looking for any reminder of their long-gone friend, and I hadn't given them anything to go home with. They wanted the original. I was the unrelated sequel.

As we parted, they took turns telling me about the funeral. It was one of the biggest, and saddest, events to hit the tiny town of Oxford. The crowd trying to get into the church was so large, the service was held outside. Loudspeakers were set up so everyone could hear the eulogies.

In some senses, the sadness never really stopped. In two weeks, these friends would be having their 40th high school reunion and a special prayer was to be said for their Bud. They invited me to attend--but I couldn't because of commitments back home--and to stop by to see them anytime.

"Don't worry," Larry said, reading my mind. "I think he would have appreciated your coming here."

A Father's Legacy

These words stuck with me as I drove back to my motel. I realized that, like a good son, I had taken this trip for my father's approval. Certainly I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, but what I really wanted was for him to see how I'd grown up and how I was carrying on his legacy. And that was never going to happen.

Maybe it would have been better not to have gone at all. I had hoped I'd come home to Los Angeles at least feeling more fulfilled having connected with my past. But somehow I still felt separated from it all.

I lay on my motel room bed, looking out at the stark black sky. Suddenly, I was watching one of those glorious Midwestern lightning storms, where thunderbolt after enormous thunderbolt explodes in the night.

Now this sounds pretty silly--and under any other circumstances I'd never consider it--but I honestly believed this storm was meant for me alone.

Somewhere out there, my dad had been watching over my entire trip. This storm was his way of letting me know everything was OK. Each flash of lightning assured me of his presence and approval.

Up until that point, I had seen this whole saga as a tragedy. Boy loses dad without ever seeing him. Boy grows up without knowledge of that dad. Boy has to reopen old, painful family wounds. As the lights above flashed like God's paparazzi at work, though, it became a happy story.

One life had been taken away. That was a shame. Another life had begun. That is an opportunity. I see now that it isn't what I look like or who I act like that bonds me with Bud. What I do with the life he never got to enjoy will be his real legacy.

And mine.

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