Monday, June 9, 2008

Angels Unaware: Musings Towards Father's Day

I thought yesterday was father’s day. Which shows how far removed you can get from these greeting card-driven holidays when your parents have died, or you don’t have children. We live in cultural worlds only tenuously connected to those of others, to the extent that we have not yet found connecting points to bring our worlds together.

Even apart from father’s day, I had been thinking of my father since I read last week that 6 June was not merely the day of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but D-Day.

My father never talked of his experiences in World War II. He did speak with obvious relish of his time at Pearl Harbor—even of the day of the Japanese surprise attack, when he was awakened by the sound of bombs falling and was slightly wounded by shrapnel when one hit the ship on which he was serving.

But of what happened after that, I never heard a word. I know he was in the Pacific theater during the war. The only observation he ever made about those years was once when he was drinking and burst into tears, exclaiming, “No one will ever know how that war scarred the men of my generation!”

So when I hear of any World War II anniversary, my mind automatically turns to my father’s war experiences, and all I do not know. Because my nephew Luke became interested in the war when he was a boy, I tried to obtain any information I could, a copy of my father’s military records. The hunt was largely unsuccessful, though my aunt kindly gave Luke a valuable scrapbook she and my grandmother had kept during the war to record the movements of her brother and half-brother, insofar as they knew of these through hints in letters they obtained.

So much about my father’s life is a blank to me. Family stories I have, since we are a family of storytellers. These suggest that he was the wild boy, the bad seed, of a family of “good” children—the one whose suspenders my grandmother had to tie onto tree trunks as she did outside work like gardening, to keep an eye on him and keep him from wandering away.

My father had his own stories. He was a skilled fabulist who wrote an account of his years growing up in south Arkansas that his college English teacher (this in a semester he did at Marquette while in the CCC) encouraged him to publish. My father’s yarns were tall tales of one lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Being at the bombing of Pearl Harbor was one in a series of such happenings.

On the day Bonnie and Clyde were shot, he was at the house of one of the informants who turned them in. He was thirteen at the time.

Growing up, I knew nothing of Bonnie and Clyde. I had never heard a peep about them until the 1967 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty came out. When I saw it and came home asking how two people could be shot without benefit of a trial in the U.S., my father exploded. They were criminals! They were known criminals. They got what they richly deserved. You don’t have trials for known murderers.

It was then that he told me the story of his having been at the house of one of the informants earlier in the day on which they were shot. According to his story, after they were shot, they were laid out on the kitchen table of a nearby house and people paid admission to see their bodies. He paid his coin and he looked.

And then there was the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, which my father also happened to hear, and about which he often laughed—at the gullibility of those who hadn’t realized it was fiction, who thought that the world was being invaded by aliens. It was a laugh similar to his ironic laughter about those who thought Huey Long was a demi-god, or that Orval Faubus (my father called him Mr. Faybus) was a hero and not a grandstanding demagogue.

I have always wondered what other stories there might be to hear, had my father lived longer. I last saw him just after Thanksgiving in 1969. Earlier in the month, he had informed my mother that he intended to divorce her for a younger woman, one he had met in his native state of Louisiana.

My mother’s response was to leave immediately, taking my brother Philip with her. Simpson and I were away at school, Philip finishing high school. She returned to Little Rock from south Arkansas to be near her siblings, all of whom save one lived there.

When we gathered at my mother’s new apartment for Thanksgiving, my father asked to see us three boys. He wanted to explain what he was doing and why he was doing it.

This interview was, needless to say, full of pain, recrimination (of my father against my mother, who was not there), and anger (mostly mine against my father; Philip and Simpson were silent). My father informed us he did not intend to offer alimony to my mother.

I challenged him. I told him that my mother had been nothing but a good wife, a hard-working one, who had kept house for him and his three sons for over twenty years. It was her work that put him through law school. She often maintained that she had actually earned his law degree; she had done the research for and had written his papers. As my father left us that day, he shook my brothers’ hands. When he came to me, he said, “I won’t shake your hand. You have opposed me.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me. Several weeks later, he ran his car off the road, driving drunk. Because the doctors providing care for him did not detect a broken rib that had punctured a lung, he died within days of pneumonia. I received a letter from my mother on 12 December telling me he had had an accident but was expected to recover. The next morning, she called to inform me he had died suddenly.

There are times when, as many of us do, I feel an intense weight of what-if regarding my parents. What if they had lived longer and we might have had a chance to say to each other all the things we hid in our hearts and were afraid to say?

What if I had understood that they were, after all, only human as I am human? What if I had been more forgiving of their shortcomings? What if they had grown up before having children and had not been emotional adolescents in adults’ bodies? What if they had not drunk to excess?

What if they had not had the weight of their own histories bearing down on their shoulders, their own unresolved issues with parents, the thwarted economic circumstances of the Depression—a particularly cruel experience for young people with keen minds and ambition, who lived in small Southern towns where opportunities for education and fulfilling jobs were few even apart from the Depression?

Several years ago, when I was in the middle of one of these what-if moments, I stopped to do a bit of shopping at a thrift store. As I rummaged through racks of shirts, I noticed an elderly man eyeing me.

He seemed, in fact, to be following me. This unnerved me. One doesn’t talk to a stranger in a thrift shop. I don’t talk to a stranger in any shop. I’m intensely shy. I sometimes deal with the fear of exposure or rejection in public places by encapsulating myself in a cloud of unknowing. If seeing makes one responsible for what one sees, then perhaps it’s better not to see.

As the man eyed me, I sidled this way and that. Still, the man dogged my steps.

Finally, he spoke to me. I don’t remember what he said. It seemed a little off, a tiny bit nonsensical. I was all the more alarmed.

Then he said something that made total sense. Again, I don’t remember what. I decided this was a “moment,” one of those times when we’re supposed to stop and encounter the stranger we have tried to keep at bay. I believe every moment is such a moment. But I often do an abysmal job of embodying what I believe.

We talked, my new-found “friend” and I. I do not know what about me had attracted the man’s attention. Perhaps he simply needed someone to talk to. He was eminently sensible, a sharp and interesting observer of the world around him.

As he talked, he mentioned that he was 84. That would have been my father’s age. I had just been thinking about him, about what he would be like had he lived, about what it would be like to talk to him now, with my adolescent father-son dynamics no longer in play.

They man then told me he had been in the Pacific theater in World War II.

The coincidences were remarkable. I had walked into that store down-hearted. I was down-hearted because I realized that, much as I would like to have the opportunity to talk to my father one last time in an adult conversation, this was never going to happen.

I had entered the store in dark spirits only to find myself pursued by an elderly man of the same age as my father, who had been in the Pacific theater in the second war, as my father had also been . . . .

The man was gentle, sweet, fatherly in all the best senses of the word. He was also black.

My father was a complex man, a tragic one in many respects. He was an ideological segregationist. He could spout the most astonishing nonsense about “the races,” nonsense that I often challenged at the dinner table, resulting in my being sent from the table before supper was over.

Yet in his interpersonal dealings with black persons, I never saw him do or say anything that was not exceedingly humane, exceedingly kind. Any sign of condescension or cruelty on the part of his sons to a black person—or to anyone who was down and out—and he’d react swiftly and mercilessly.

Though I bear (and will always bear) wounds from my relationship with my father, he was not a monster. I learned many good things from him. He gave freely of his legal services to those who could not pay. He shared with me his keen appreciation for nature. My father would take us sons for long walks in the woods, teaching us to read the signs of animal or human presence, to spot edible plants.

We’d go nutting in the fall, gathering chinquapins and wild pecans. On one occasion, as we picked up pecans, he pointed out to me how to spot where an old farmhouse now long gone had once stood. He showed me precisely where the house’s well should be found. And when we looked, it was there, though he himself had never been at this place before.

My father taught me the arts Southern men consider manly, essential for their sons: hunting and fishing. And to his consternation and that of others, I, the proverbial sissy boy, was good at both—far more than either of my brothers. I could bring down birds in trees so far away other hunters couldn’t even see them. And I could bring them down with a single shot—though I had no stomach for the killing, when I saw the evidence of it splayed in the dust and leaves beneath the tree.

Angels? I wonder. Maybe we encounter them more often than we know.

I have no doubt that on my day of painful meditation about my father, myself, our lives, I met an angel. I met a version of my father now, a version of my father had he lived: a man the same age, who had a similar military career, who was coincidentally (but not at all coincidentally) also black. Had my father had his druthers, I doubt (but how do I really know?) whether he’d have chosen to appear in my life at just this time of need in the form of an African-American man.

And that was part of the message to me, the hope that redemption reaches not just forwards but backwards—back into our lives and sordid histories. The angel I encountered that day was my father distilled into the best possibilities of his biography.

We do meet angels unaware. And they almost never look like who we think they will be, when we encounter them.

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