Sorting out his Father and his Country

Jun 20, 1999 – Peter Rowe – San Diego Union Tribune 

San Diego, California  –  The journey to his father’s bedside seemed endless — Lindbergh Field offers no direct flights to Grenada – but Alexis Dixon arrived in time.

Sir Eric Gairy still clung to life and power. He floated through consciousness, drifting on waves of pain and painkillers.  Gairy was a shell, hollowed out by prostate cancer. But politicians surrounded his bed, awaiting commands. In a moment of clarity, Gairy addressed his driver. “I don’t want you to move the car.”

Hours later, Dixon asked for the keys. Glancing at his oblivious master, the driver refused. “I can’t move the car. Sir Eric told me not to.” Gairy died on Aug. 23, 1997. “A flamboyant and extraordinary figure even among the Caribbean politicians who were his contemporaries,” began The Times of London’s obituary. A controversial man, Gairy rose from poverty to defy the British Empire, leading his nation to independence and becoming its first prime minister.

In Grenada, people still debate “Uncle Gairy.” In San Diego, where Gairy lived in exile, Dixon still sorts out his legacy. It’s not easy being the son of the father of your country.

Passionate stories

Dixon inherited his father’s carriage. “You walk as if you’re wearing a crown,” a friend said. “We all wear crowns,” Dixon replied. He also shares Sir Eric’s commitment to the poor.  Dixon works at Neighborhood House, a charity that runs San Diego’s Head Start classes, the Food Bank and dozens of other do-gooding ventures.  His father gained prominence as a labor leader, founding a union for the poorest farmworkers.

After successfully striking the island’s nutmeg and cocoa plantations, Gairy formed the Grenada United Labor Party (GULP). In 1951, GULP captured a majority in the legislature.  For the next 28 years, Gairy and GULP wielded enormous power. Gairy never married Dixon’s mother, the daughter of a wealthy planter who despised the rising politician.  As a child, Dixon rarely saw his father. But he heard about him, constantly. “People always talked about him, and it was never a simple story.  It was always a passionate story.”

Such tales

Gairy was arrested for disturbing the peace.  Fined for an obscenity-laced speech.  Shadowed by a British battleship.  Trailed by assassins.  Founding the Caribbean’s first medical school.  The stories were embellished and, in Alec Waugh’s novel, “Island in the Sun,” openly fictionalized. Gairy eventually married, but was never truly domesticated.  “My father talked about his destiny,” Dixon said, “and his destiny was Grenada.  It was his child, his primary relationship.  No one — children, wives, anyone — could take precedence.” 

Out of time

Gairy became prime minister in 1967 when Dixon was 10. Educated in Europe, the boy caught only glimpses of his father.  It required a conspiracy to bring them together. In March 1979, Gairy was overthrown by a band of rivals led by Maurice Bishop.  The deposed prime minister settled in Point Loma, moving in with his son. They played tennis, often as doubles partners.  They dined together — Atlantis, the now-closed seafood place on Mission Bay, was a favorite.  Some nights, they talked.  Dixon adjusted to having a flesh-and-blood father, Gairy to life as a commoner. “I had never seen my father drive a car before,” Dixon said. In October 1983, Bishop was assassinated by former colleagues.  President Reagan dispatched the Marines.  When the island fell, Gairy left Point Loma, aiming to retake power. He never succeeded.  GULP’s powers had faded, and Gairy’s time had passed. Perhaps a national figure cannot be a household fixture.  But when Dixon shaves, the mirror reflects another face.  Sometimes, he looks into his father’s eyes. There, he sees great determination — and great loneliness.

Peter Rowe’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  He welcomes phone calls (619) 293-1227, faxes (619) 235-8916 and e-mail (