By lex, on June 20th, 2009
My father was born on 30 September, 1916. He died on May 11, 1982. Just a couple of lost weeks before my graduation from the Naval Academy. He was a good man, although not, I think, a great one. There were times where I resented this in him. I don’t know why.
He was, for most of my life, the best friend I ever had.
He was born in a hardscrabble town just outside Richmond, settling in the still-wounded city with his long suffering mother and his complex, sometimes brutal immigrant father. She was a daughter of the Old South, born in 1875 and raised on stories of The Cause, and how things used to be. The man my father – and all the rest of us – called “Pop” had sailed to Africa as a merchant seaman by age 16. He fell somehow afoul of the law in France – I only found out later that the scrolls and daggers tattooed on his forearms were underworld signifiers for the men he’d swore to kill – and sought greener pastures in the New Country.
Pop was a big man, a giant for his time. His first job here in the US was as a strike breaker in Chicago, complete with the ax handle. Got a real job at last as a lineman on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, eventually working his way up to being an engineer. Stopped off one day in Richmond and convinced my grandmother that there was money in his exotic European accent and steadily paying job, while he was himself convinced that there had to be something behind all of that genteel refinement. She was a nurse, and had spent some time in San Francisco before coming home to Richmond. They both lived their lives together as poor as field mice but surrounded by her family and his occasional roguishness until the day she died of complications from diabetes. I was too young to much remember her.
Pop had ice blue eyes that had become clouded by age and perhaps remorse by the time I knew him. His physical strength had dissipated within his still enormous frame. A French last name – an alias it turned out – behind a Dutch accent. The smell of pipe smoke and old man, of things collected in the attic and withering there. My dad, who didn’t share much about his times growing up, admitted to me once as Pop lay dying – he was north of 90 when he went – that his old man had been pretty hard on his sons growing up. Beat them around quite regularly, and with force.
My dad never touched me, except out of love.
He’d dreamt of going to the Naval Academy, but while his grades were good, his family was too poor to have any influence with the local congressmen. So he spent a year at Randolph Macon College, doing agricultural and mechanical work to pay for it before the money ran out. That would have been around 1935 and the Depression still pressed down hard on everyone. His test scores were good, and he was restless. He joined the Army with a promised stint at the coastal artillery school at Fort Monroe, Virginia. It was a kind of prep school for West Point at that time. After a year he was accepted to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York. Most of his classmates went on to Corregidor and Bataan.
I came along late in his life, he was 44 years old and had already left the sea behind him, while continuing to serve as a reservist. Gave me his own name out of pride, not knowing perhaps that it hadn’t traveled the years very well. He managed to instill in me a pride of family, and a pride in the land that somehow avoided all the negative influences that could go along with being a Son of Virginia.
He loved to laugh – used to nearly choke himself with laughter – but would never countenance a racial joke nor any kind of stereotype. He could not tolerate a bigot. Considering the time and place he grew up in, I often found myself wondering in later years how he had become so evolved. But like many things, he never spoke about it. When the old man would tell a sea story, one could lead on to another and that to the next, me having to place mental bookmarks where I’d ask questions afterward, but the things he would not speak about could fill volumes.
Despite his relatively advanced years as a first time father, and an incautious attitude towards health maintenance, he tried hard to be the dad that threw a football or baseball around, although he had no notion of soccer, considering it something of an imported enthusiasm. There were hard hikes through the Shenandoah mountains, fishing in aluminum boats on the Virginia lakes and rivers, camping trips on the Appalachian Trail and Boy Scouts. There was help with the math homework. There was always an answer for every question, and never a lie or a promise not kept. He knew the names of all the trees in the forest, and all the stars in the sky. Every once in a while he would pull his old sextant off the wall, go into the back yard and shoot the stars for lines of position affirming him home, or else check his watch against the sun and declare it officially noon in Virginia.
He was a deeply honorable man, and a thoughtful one. Something of a romantic, his favorite childhood book had been Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” There was never much in the way of disapproval, except when I would most richly deserve it: The old man could curse like a sailor when provoked, and thankfully that didn’t happen too often. When a softer touch was called for, perhaps I would say something mildly objectionable when we’d be riding back from some country jaunt in his Porsche 356 Speedster, his answer was a studied, neutral silence that would always set me back to thinking. Every little victory was celebrated enthusiastically, and there was always encouragement when things looked blue. Depression era deprivations had kept him a compact man throughout his life, but you could actually see him swell when he was proud. Sometimes it looked like he might burst, and what flowed out of him would flow into me, and then back again.
When you’re a teenager or very young man, all full of whipcord muscles and restlessness and certainties and everything in front of you, you’re in a far different place than a man on the other side 60, carrying too much of the world on his shoulders. At times I believed he had become soft, almost maudlin. He drank rather more than he probably ought to have occasionally, and when he did so he was not always at his best.
The last time we spoke I was 21, we argued about something and, knowing everything there was to know, I chided him when he expressed some class of doubt or weakness. A week later my mother and sisters arrived unexpectedly at the Naval Academy in tears to tell me that he had died suddenly of a heart attack while helping his older brother put a boat in the south fork of the Shenandoah River, where once we used to haul fat black bass out one after another on a good day, or watch the bobbers swirl in the gentle current, the pipe smoke wreathing us in the mist when the fish weren’t biting. I felt like something essential had been suddenly hollowed out of me, something I had always counted on for strength without even knowing it was there.
Sometimes it feels that way still.
Every time something went well for me early in my flying career, there would be an urge to call him on the phone and let him share in it, before remembering that there was no one on the other end any more, that there never would be. One of my first real regrets in life was that last conversation we had. Another was wishing I had had the chance to form an adult relationship with him, to get to understand him better as a man.
It’s taken a while, but I think I understand him now.
With apologies to the Bard, whom we both loved: He was a good man, take him for all in all. I doubt that I shall look upon his like again.