Mel's s Passion And His Dad

The event shouldn't be memorable to me. But it gave me a key to unlocking Mel Gibson's Passion.

I remembered it after hearing this quote: “Got to leave it alone, Diane.”

I was 11 and standing with my friend Jeff after school on a lacerating Michigan November day. I had no ride, and I was not looking forward to walking the five blocks. So I waited.

Partway into my “hope the weather changes” routine, Jeff's aunt pulled up — his ride. Jeff bounded to the car and asked if she could take me home, too. I was “out of the way,” but in my small hometown, that is a relative concept. In other words, it wasn't much to ask.

Jeff returned: Thumbs up. I made sure to thank his aunt profusely after she dropped me off. I didn't notice it at the time, as I was trying to present a smaller target for the wind gusts, but Jeff took longer to get approval than you'd expect. Later, he told me why: His aunt had reacted with hostility to my name.

You see, I'm Dale Jr. Jeff's aunt worked for the same employer as my dad, Dale Sr. Not to put too fine a point on it, she (and many co-workers) despised my dad — basically regarded him as Idi Amin without the culinary refinements. For that she was willing to let her nephew's friend cool his heels in bad weather. Fortunately, Jeff prevailed upon the better angels of her nature.

Jeff only told me this story months afterward — once his aunt had gotten to know me and seen that maybe her ogre was at least a father who could raise a well-mannered (for the most part) kid. Happily, after the drop-off, we got along fine. During the summer,

Jeff and I would visit, gazing adoringly at the restored Corvette in her driveway.

She even let me sit in it.

In time, I learned — indirectly — that her opinion was not isolated. Others there (and from his stint as a store manager) griped about how uncompromising and unrelenting Dad was.

I could never reconcile the criticism I heard with the man I know, love and revere. The man who poured himself out to support his family, needing a quadruple bypass in 1998. The man who worked himself out of poverty to retire at 54. The man who made sure he was at every football game his sons suited up for, especially when there was zero chance either would play.

The man who waits with his hand on the phone on Saturdays when the University of Michigan Wolverines win, knowing he's going to celebrate with his elder son. The man who lives for the opening day of deer season and the company of family and friends. The man who is never more delighted than when he gets buffeted by hugs and chants of “Papa! Papa!” when his grandkids visit. The man who was always there for his elder son and namesake, who seemed to take forever to get his life in gear. The man who was utterly stricken when he parted from his younger son going off to war.

No, I don't want to hear my dad's a jerk. Tales from disgruntled co-workers gain no traction with me. At most, others see a public face — and that impression is limited, distorted and unfair.

So, as I said, this experience when I was 11 gave me a key to unlocking Mel's “Got to leave it alone, Diane.”

Remember it from the Feb. 16 Diane Sawyer interview? Gibson's nerves and coffee-gulping manic-ness vanished in an instant. He was addressing the coverage of his father, Hutton, by The New York Times and others. Instantly Gibson's tone became hard, fiat and gunmetal cold.

The man who handed on the Catholic faith to his loving and fiercely loyal son.

In that moment, Gibson's protectiveness about his film became clear. Unquestionably, it's personal — only his hands appear, driving the nails. Yes, he fell at the foot of Golgotha in his blackest hour of despair.

But I think he only knew to fall there because he remembered it, the faith of his father. None of this is to remotely defend Hutton Gibson's many horrifying views — for example, claiming on a radio station recently that the Holocaust was fictional: “It's all — maybe not all fiction — but most of it is,” he asserted. His son put no small distance between himself and those views in the interview, however carefully and sotto voce the effort.

However, unlike us, Mel has seen the nonpublic face of his father. The man who somehow managed to raise 11 kids on a disability pension and a Jeopardy jackpot. The man who likely did other kind things for his family and others that we will never hear about.

When the abyssal night closed in and Gibson was one step from the window to the concrete, he returned to the faith learned at his father's knees — and clearly not all of that was inexcusable ranting about Jewish conspiracies.

In the hour of decision, he reverted to his cradle faith and was healed. I think he regards it as an inheritance and the film its deeply personal expression. The two are linked. By now, perhaps, they are inseparable.

In that I think he's hardly alone. How many Catholics hold on to and express their faith in terms of heritage and inheritance?

I know more than a few.

Because of the blood link, The Passion of the Christ is far more complex and personal than both supporters and critics realize.

Dale Price writes from Warren, Michigan.