Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Song for My Father (by a friend, for his father)

Horace Silver is one of America's greatest jazz musicians / composers. One of his most memorable compositions is called "Song for My Father." Even if you are not a jazz fan, you've probably heard part of that song, because Steely Dan used its "signature" motif in their tune "Ricky Don't Lose That Number," and used it in the same way that the Horace Silver Quintet had. There's a vocal version of it, but I believe Silver's original was an instrumental.

This is a song for my father.

He was born in 1924. Thus, he was a child during the Depression. Times were bad for his parents then, as they were for most Americans. He sometimes would tell of how his own father, desperate for income, tried to start a mail-order business to sell pills that, when added chickens' drinking water, would supposedly cause hens to lay more eggs. As I recall, he said a package of pills cost a quarter. That was a lot of money during the Depression: it would buy a breakfast of two fried eggs, French fries, two slices of toast with jam, coffee, and apple pie.

His father had been a self-educated civil engineer. He'd spent many years in South America, building railroad bridges and laying out rail lines, until the Depression brought all capital projects to a halt. Hence the egg-pill scheme....which itself ended up laying an egg.

Dad's father had served in WWI, in the Army. But dad's grandfather had been a career officer in the Marine Corps. He'd served in the Spanish-American War, and retired as a full colonel.

Once upon a time, long ago, my family had some social standing. Its history goes back over 700 years. One ancestor became a lawyer--a canon lawyer, which is to say, he was a man of the cloth who specialized in Church Law. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, that ancestor helped paper over the seizure of all the monasteries' property in the name of the king. There were some others, uncles, I suppose, who became lawyers, and one was even a small-time judge. But in terms of the direct line, I am the first lawyer in my family in nearly 500 years...to my father's disgust.

At one point, an ancestor was a prominent banker in London. But he was addicted to gambling. To try to recoup his losses, he tried the typical loser's gambit of doubling up. When that failed, he attempted to cover his losses by embezzling from his bank. He was eventually caught, of course--but only after he'd stolen the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars. He was tried (I have a copy of the trial transcript), convicted, and hanged.

My dad's first ancestor to come to America did so as the result of another gamble that failed, when he--possessor of a knighthood--backed King Charles I against Cromwell in the English Civil War. But he'd not stayed on to the bitter end. As a refugee, he came to Virginia in 1643, bringing with him sufficient funds to become a plantation-owner. And yes, he had slaves.

His descendants, plantation owners all, routinely served as Justices of the Peace--which, in colonial Virginia, as in common-law England, was a big deal--and as members of the House of Burgesses. They were counted as being among what were known as the "First Families of Virginia."

My father's great-grandfather was a doctor, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. But he too placed a losing bet, on the War of Northern Aggression. As was the custom back then, professional men automatically got to have high commissions as officers. This one was a colonel. When the Federals captured Vicksburg, he was taken prisoner. He spent the next few years treating patients in a prisoner-of-war camp as a guest of the Union.

After that, the family fell on hard times. As was common for Southerners during and after the Damned Yankee (the "damned" is redundant, of course) "Reconstruction," they were poor. Hence my father's grandfather's choice of a career in the armed forces--which was quite common for poor young Southern men (and some who were rich, such as George Patton) until well after WWII. He was able to get a college education only courtesy of Uncle Sam, via Annapolis.

The Depression completed the work that the Civil War had begun. Ever after, Dad was quite frugal. The only cars he'd buy were Fords or Chevrolets--preferably a "demonstrator model" sold far below list price. And he never took any chances, at all, on investments, forever fearing to lose what he already had.

Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather before him, he served in a war--in his case, WWII, in the Pacific, as a Marine. He was in the Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest of all in that "theater" (and perhaps anywhere).

He was always willing to tell stories about being in the Marines. In fact, for him, those times were the high point of his life. He was in perfect physical condition back then, fighting a noble war, and the camaraderie among the leathernecks was astounding.

But I could never get him to talk about combat. The only times he'd open up, about the things hidden deep within him, were when Mom was out-of-town--because, after I reached legal age, I'd buy a couple six-packs of beer, and proceed to get my dad drunk. That would loosen his tongue...but never, ever about combat--with two exceptions.

Once, he mentioned the shock of seeing a fellow Marine whose intestines were spilling out all over the place after he'd been struck by shrapnel. Another time, he mentioned riding in the front seat of a jeep, to the right, after the Battle of Okinawa was supposedly over. Another man was also in front, between my father and the driver. A die-hard sniper put a bullet right between the man's eyes, killing him instantly. Other than that, he would never talk about anything other than his good times during the war. It was only when I recently saw The Thin Red Line, which is perhaps the only realistic war movie ever made, that I understood my father's reticence.

He did tell me that, when the news broke that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan, he and all his fellow Marines burst into tears. They knew the war would end without an invasion of the home islands of Japan--an invasion in which my father's unit was scheduled to be in one of the front ranks that would assault Japan's shores south of Tokyo. After the horrific casualties of Okinawa, they all knew that the Japanese would fight to the death in their homeland even more than they had elsewhere, and that perhaps nearly all of the Marines in the first waves would die.

Several decades later, when I was a student in Japan, I visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's dead from "The Pacific War" (as they call it), and toured the adjacent Museum of the Pacific War. (Yet another flag-waving propaganda film about Pearl Harbor has just been released. I do wish Americans would face the truth about the background to the Pacific War and Pearl Harbor, instead of using it as an occasion for jingoistic Japan-bashing. But then again, I do wish the North would face the truth about the background to the Civil War.)

Japan's war museum has on display a two-seater Zero fighter-bomber. It would be hard to describe the feelings I had as I stood at the foot of that aircraft, which is suspended from the ceiling at a downward angle. While there, I met some Japanese veterans of WWII. I could not help but wonder if one of them had been among those on Okinawa who had been trying to kill the man who became my father, or had been among those whom he had been trying to kill. (I did not ask where they had served, of course.)

It always amuses me to hear fellow Americans talk about how "we" have never lost a war and suffered an Occupation such as Japan's after WWII. I quickly remind them that the South not only lost a war (and 365,000 men), it suffered an Occupation that lasted 12 years--longer than that of Japan after WWII.

It was strange to meet those Japanese veterans. At times I felt I had a lot in common with them. Both Imperial Japan and the Confederate States of America started a war that was almost impossible to win--although they came much closer than history acknowledges. Thank God, they lost. But the pain of the loss is still there, lingering through the generations. I can fully understand how Japan's Imperial Family and the country's ultra-nationalists still refuse to accept responsibility for Japan's wartime atrocities, because, in much the same way, far too many (white) Southerners still refuse to come to terms with the tragedy of the South's past and its legacy of "Jim Crow" laws, segregation, and--even now--racism.

Historically, engineering has been a profession of the lower-middle class, something like school teaching or the ministry. That is why my father's dad had become an engineer. That is why my own dad followed in his footsteps. The family was poor. Only the GI Bill enabled my father to take a degree.

Engineering is perhaps the only profession where, as a general rule, either you are good at it, or you are out. The successful practice of law, in contrast, is notorious for its ability to be based on bullshit. Hence my father's antipathy for my choice of a career. Even medicine has far more room for error. (Incompetent doctors' mistakes are often literally buried--though, thanks only to lawyers and courts, doctors are now sometimes held accountable.)

Dad was a good engineer. He was also an old-fashioned do-it-yourself home repairs guy, of the type that is almost extinct now. If it involved electrical or mechanical devices, or plumbing, he could fix it. But engineers are notoriously poor at playing office politics. It was only with the rise of William Hewlett and David Packard that engineers began to rise to the top of corporations--and, of course, Hewlett and Packard were entrepreneurs, so they started at the top.

Most of the time, engineers were overworked and underpaid, while the bullshit-management types, like typical politicians, took the credit (and the pay raises) for their successes. So it was with my father. The last year before he retired, he made less than half of what a 24-year-old top graduate of a top law school can expect to make today. He was well aware of this, but not at all bitter about it. Instead, he referred to himself as a "burro," and watched in amazement as the corporate racehorses garnered stunning salaries and stock options.

Dad took pride in his work, but was willing to let the management-types take the credit and the money. He did not want to play corporate games. He just wanted to be good at his job. And he was. He had no dreams of getting rich or famous, let alone of restoring the family to prominence.

I was born late in the marriage--an "accident," when it was thought my mother was too old to conceive again. Perhaps for that reason, I was also born a cripple. (For that reason, I was the first male in a direct line going back more than 225 years who did not serve in the armed forces at all, and thus not in combat.)

When I was a young child, my father would spend long hours slowly, patiently, stretching my legs, bending them, trying to get them to work right. It was all in vain, as were multiple surgeries. Sometimes, while working on me, he would remind me of how he used to change my diaper. When I was older, he would again remind me of the diaper-changing, always adding "And you're still always making messes that others have to clean up!" (As an attorney, I would of course shoot back: "That's what lawyers are for!") In my teen years, we had some very bitter rows, and were never again close. My becoming an attorney just made it worse.

But although he never realized it, my dad taught me something by the force of his example: do your job right. Don't just do enough to get by; do it well. Other people are depending on the quality of your work. And even though they might be far enough removed from you in the scheme of things, such that they could not suspect that it was your laziness or incompetence that ultimately led to the screw-up, the fact will remain that it was your laziness or incompetence that ultimately led to the screw-up. It isn't just a matter of avoiding guilt. It's a matter of taking pride in your work, but without being vain about it, of a job well-done, even when no one knows...or, perhaps, cares.

You see, he was very old-fashioned that way. Although he (unlike I) never preached morality, morality ran through everything he did--perhaps unbeknownst even to him.

On May 14, Dad had a medical checkup. The doctor immediately put him in the hospital. I flew to the city where he was hospitalized, and spent time with him. On May 22, his kidneys shut down. Then began what I knew to be a death watch over him, 12 hours a day, my mother and I alternating shifts.

He'd been in much pain from some other medical problems, and the doctor put him on morphine. He would occasionally have a lucid interval, though. (By the way, "lucid interval" is a legal term. It will come up in your wills course, or--if you don't take wills--perhaps in the wills portion of your bar exam.) During those intervals, he would usually ask me to lift up each of his legs in turn, and to bend them, because he could not move them at all. He had also lost control over his elimination function. The hospital had him in an adult diaper. It was I who sometimes changed that diaper while my father endured in embarrassed silence--if, that is, he was conscious.

When his kidneys stopped producing urine altogether, the doctor said the end was near. Dad had one more lucid moment. It lasted only about five minutes. He was unable to speak. He wanted desperately to talk to me, but all he could do was make sounds, not words. He had a look in his eyes that I cannot describe, other than to say that it was the same look my 97-year-old grandmother occasionally got in her eyes in the weeks before her own death, last year. I hope I never see that look again. And I hope I never need to look at anyone that way.

When I was sure Dad could understand what I was saying, I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. I told him of what a good father he was--even though, I added, at times, he had truly been a pain in the neck. I told him that, even though he was not happy that I had become a lawyer, that I had tried to be a good lawyer, just as he had been a good engineer. I told him how proud I was of him because he had always been such a good husband, a good father, a good man ... and a good role model for me.

Shortly after that, he slipped into unconsciousness again. He never came back. At approximately 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, he began gasping for air, like a fish out of water. Within a few seconds, he was gone. After a few minutes, I kissed him again, for the last time, and said goodbye. Whereas he had been running a slight fever before, his scalp had already cooled below normal body temperature. Soon a nurse's aide came in and wound tape around his head, so--as rigor mortis set in--his jaw would not be agape. As his skin color turned ashen, my mother and I left.

So why am I telling you all of this? Obviously, in part, it is because I am trying to deal with a pain that runs very, very deep.

My father was old, 76. I knew his time was coming. As is so common among former Marines, he'd allowed himself to fall apart. He drank too much too often, smoked, never exercised, and got overweight. (I, unfortunately, have followed those examples too--without even being a former Marine.) As a result, he had developed heart trouble and become diabetic. Every Christmas that he lived was the best gift of all.

A few months ago, my fellow author, had recommended a book to me about WWII, A War to Be Won. I'd quickly bought it and sent it to my father. He and I both knew what I did not have to say: that it was unlikely he would be around to receive it as a Christmas present this year. He had been living on borrowed time for a long time, and his credit line abruptly ran out. I do not know if he finished reading that book before he died. But I do know that at one point he thanked me very, very much for it, and asked me to convey his gratitude to my friend for recommending it.

Father's Day is around the corner. Many of you are young enough that you can expect your father to be around for many years yet. But you never know. I do not know what your relationship is with your own father. But if there are antagonisms between you, I urge you to find a way to set your ego aside and to try to make peace, even if your father will not set his ego aside ...

This does not mean you should give in--I would hardly urge you to do what I myself was never willing to do. But often there is far more common ground between disputants than at first appears to be the case. That is the wisdom of Atticus Finch, in which I, unfortunately, do not share. What I am saying is this: instead of the perfunctory "I love you, Dad" phone call, or the Hallmark Father's Day card, please try to let your father know that you are aware of how much he (presumably!) has done for you, and how much your own good qualities (assuming you have some) are due to his influence.

I was lucky. I was able to tell my father some of the things I needed for him to hear from me, for the first time, before he died. All those years, I had been gambling without even knowing it. And I won--though too little, too late. I hope you do not repeat my foolish pride. (I suspect my father had made the same mistake with his own father. Near the end, he was delirious. He called out for his wife / my mother. But he also called out for his own father...who had died in 1962. I think there were some things he wanted to tell him. Well, I hope that's what he's doing right now, and that they're having a long, long talk.)

For those of you who are fathers, or expect to be fathers, I hope you will realize that there are some things in life that are so important that you will see there should be a limit to the sacrifices you make--even in the name of your family. Getting good grades in law school is important. Becoming successful as a lawyer is important. Those things will benefit your family as well as yourself. But if you are too caught up in the rat race, you turn into...a rat. I don't care how many brilliant contracts you write, how many brilliant court victories you win. Long after all that's gone and forgotten, your children will still be around (I hope).

I know that, as my father lay dying, he was aware that he was dying. I suspect that, in his lucid moments, he was able to give some thought to his life, to what he'd done with it. I am quite sure he was satisfied with his work as an engineer. But I hope that what he saw, and was most satisfied with, is that he had been a good husband, a good father, a good man. Maybe I am hopelessly idealistic, but somehow I think that that's far more important than the usual things men live for, even though he died in obscurity and will soon be forgotten by all except those who loved him so much.

Sitting there those nights, watching my father slowly die, I had a lot of time to think about my own life, and what I want it to count for.

In the great chain of being that stretches back those 700-plus years, I am now first-in-line for the next sweep of the Grim Reaper's scythe. However long, life is short. And as some wag once said, "The thought of one's impending death has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind," or something like that.)

My father's ashes now fill a little container that looks like the sort of small gift box that would hold, say, a pocket watch. Not much to show, is it? With luck, I shall have the secret satisfaction of knowing that my life really did count for something.

And now, I shall light up a cigar and crack open a fifth of my favorite Scotch (which was also my father's favorite). If you wish, think of it as having a solo "Irish wake," even though there's not a drop of Irish blood in me. Or think of it as another manifestation of an old Southern custom (even though I am nowhere near the South)--for as the saying goes: "When the going gets tough, the tough get...drunk."
On this Memorial Day, here's to you, Padre. Semper Fi, my fallen warrior.

From a friend, a memorial.


annegb said...

I'm constantly impressed by those of that generation, who went through a lot of things we baby boomers are now bellyaching to the skies about, without saying anything.

My son was a Marine. I never understood while he was alive, what it meant to him, never validated how proud I was.

Thanks for sharing, Stephen. You're a good guy.

Anonymous said...

My dad is still alive, but my friend, who wrote this, is a good guy too.

Anonymous said...

How wonderful to be able to touch your past even if just through the words past down. It is great to know where you came from.