Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As a story of parental love for a child, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” ranks among some of the finest tales in American literature. The bond between the rigid, dogmatic polymath Zachary Jackson and his daughter Gemma is genuine: He is concerned about her welfare and her future, and she is devoted to him and appreciative of his interest in her. Even in the vignettes relating her experiences as a teenager, she grudgingly accepts the tutelage he offers because she somehow senses its importance not only to her but also to him.

Gemma’s relationship with her father stands in stark contrast to that between Zachary and the adult women in the household. Because she is a child, Gemma seldom realizes the extent to which tension is building in the Jackson home. She is aware that her grandmother does not respect her father, and that her mother is frequently protective of him. Not until she is twelve, however, does she realize that alcoholism is at the root of the family’s discord. Only obliquely do readers come to realize that the father’s dependence on alcohol costs him his military career and creates constant strain within the family. Also, because Gemma brings only a child’s perspective to her observations of family relationships, readers are left to imagine how her mother manages to stay with a man gradually consumed by the disease of alcoholism.

What is especially noteworthy is that Stephanie Vaughn does not paint Zachary Jackson as a bad man. Rather, readers are given a portrait of a genuinely good man, intensely devoted to his work and to his family, intent on seeing his daughter succeed in life. It is almost impossible to judge him a failure, even though his constant drinking causes him and his family tremendous pain. Through her portrait of Gemma’s father, Vaughn demonstrates how individuals can be good people although they are alcoholics.