A generation before I was born and before he married my mother, my father was married to a woman with whom he had 5 children. He loved my four half sisters and half brother, but he claimed in retrospect to have not really understood how to be a father when they were young. He was drunk for much of that time, and he and his wife would divorce for the reason of “abandonment,” according to the papers.
WARNING: Coarse Language
He carried the war around with him, and without giving him an excuse for his behavior, I imagine him to have drank to shut it up. By the time I came around he had cleaned up, settled down a bit, and was a little more than half-way ready to be a father.
I was in touch with some of these siblings when I was growing up, and I wasn’t in touch with others. One night near the end, when he was sick and I was taking care of him, he talked about the sister I never really knew that well. When I was a little kid, she was living in Massachusetts with her husband and she had taken a bad fall down a flight of stairs. As far as the family was concerned, it was her husband who pushed her. I don’t know any of the details or how much truth there was to the accusation, but my father held firm to it. The fall resulted in somewhat substantial brain damage.
“You know,” he said in this haunted inflection that came from beyond him, “When he pushed her down those stairs, I used to drive to Massachusetts down to their neighborhood after you and your mother would go to sleep. I would drive down around there with a sawed off shotgun looking for him. I was going to blow that motherfucker’s head off. I did this for a couple of weeks before I started thinking of your buddy’s dad who had gotten into trouble.”
He was referring to a friend of mine whose father went to jail for 18 months for criminal intimidation after he waved a gun at someone with whom he had a score to settle.
“I was going to kill him, but then I thought about how much that guy’s going to jail disrupted that family, and I would have gone away for life. I thought about your mother and you, and imagined what that would have done to you two, and I finally gave up on those trips down there, as hard as it was.”
A few years before starting that first family, my father was on the Ernest G. Small in October of 1951 when it hit a mine. He talked about this once when I was talking care of him, and when he talked about it in detail his eyes glazed over in the same way they had during his story about his revenge plot and he spoke from beyond himself in that same haunted inflection.
So the possessed voice told me that one cold night he had talked with a guy who had sharp features and this beautiful, fair German hair. He told my father that he was excited to be making his way back home before his daughter was born. The ship took a hit and my father was sent down into the water to collect remains and to stuff them into a canvas bag. There, he came across a few parts, limbs and things, before coming upon the beautiful, fair German hair and the skull it belonged to. He grew nauseous and excused himself from his duty.
He carried that day with him everywhere in the back of his head, the day that the war became real and his mortality became evident. The day that the dead didn’t just float and rot over there, and that the lives war touched didn’t exist only in the abstract. He grew to have strong feelings about our various levels of involvement overseas, and came to feel that nearly no political battle was worth the horror we inflict on kids as a result. Closer to home he carried those demons with him everywhere and, without an education or awareness of appropriate outlets, he attempted to drown its impact out with booze. In effect, he ended up drowning out everything, not just the demons, for about a decade and a half.
By the time he came around and he gave the drowning a break, his first round of children had all grown up. When one of them got pushed down the stairs by an overzealous husband, he decided it time to step up in the way he never had before, only to realize that doing so would adversely impact the lives of the new family he had at his new home. I can’t conceive of how difficult this was for him to reconcile these two realities–to finally decide it wise to step aside–particularly because I feel as though the grandness of the gesture, shotgun and all, was by his own logic a way he imagined he could make up for the time he wasn’t around. And even though I am sure he craved it, blowing that motherfuckers head off and all, and even though I am sure it would have been satisfying for the moments before the reality of the aftermath finally set in, he decided upon a less dramatic, less combat influenced gesture that was in the end just as grand. He considered the preservation of his new family, set aside his demons and his ego, and he acted accordingly.
For that, and for how things turned out compared to how they could have had said motherfucker’s head been blown off by my father’s shotgun, I am eternally grateful.
PHOTO CREDIT: I don’t know who took it, but my father is there in the middle.