Apr 5, 2010

Benchmarks and Standards and Mortality

I'm lucky. Mostly, my friends have managed to stay alive. Most of my family has been pretty healthy, outside of a few car crashes and the usual infirmities that go with passing 50 without collecting anything more than $200. I made it to 62 when I always assumed I'd die in some fiery rock & roll death or something equally painful before 30. I'm not broke. I live where I want to be living. My wife has stuck with me for 42 years and she still tolerates me. My kids don't say awful things about me to my face and they let me hang out with their kids. I can still swing a leg over a real motorcycle (although not a real dirt bike) and ride to work every half-decent day. I can even think about taking yet another idiot two-wheeled trip across some part of the country that I've never seen or want to see again.

There is nothing about any part of the above paragraph that was under my control. It's just luck that I ended up here from where I started off. Where my trip started was Dodge City, Kansas. I was born in eastern Kansas, but made it to Dodge when I was 2 and left when I was 17. Some of my family, including my parents, lived most of their lives in Dodge. "Get out of Dodge" has always had a special meaning for me. I am a bit of a connoisseur of Dodge City history, but I'm not much of a fan of the place, itself. The place has too many feedlots, packing plants, and corporate farms and too little respect for what makes a town a community. Dodge, like most of small town Midwest, is an example of what happens when lazy rich people convince hard-working middle-class and poor people to vote against their own interests.

A bit of my string of good luck came to an end this week. Sunday, my father died and my step-mother died almost a year ago, making my father a widower twice. Dad was almost 90 and had been pretty miserable for almost a decade. He'd survived a heart attack when he was 60-something and cancer around the same time, but surviving wasn't the same as thriving. He was incredibly active until his mid-60's and by the time he was 80 he was tied to an oxygen tank and more-or-less housebound.

Only the fact that he wasn't able to play tennis, first, and golf, finally, bother him about being stuck in Dodge. WWII was all the traveling and adventure Dad wanted to suffer. He was an LST pilot for the invasion of Italy, Normandy, and ended up venturing across the South Pacific on aircraft carriers for the end of the war. Most notably, in his mind, he and his gun crew were "famously" pictured watching a Kamikaze pilot miss their ship, the U.S.S. Petrof Bay, by a dozen feet or so and crash into the ocean. If you find that picture, zoom in and look for the dark haired young guy in officer's uniform with his mouth open. That's my father. Dad said they shot everything they had at that plane and didn't put a scratch on it. The pilot just missed a ship the size of a half-dozen football fields and missed landing on my father by a whole lot less distance.

Until he was in his 70's, Dad didn't talk about that war at all, ever. He had a chest full of Navy mementos, a few patches and medals, but it wasn't part of the world he shared with us. In fact, he didn't share all that much except his income, discipline, and humor. He loved teaching and, especially, coaching high school and he worked steady 80-90 hour work weeks doing that. He was very much the quiet, damaged war veteran that gets a bit more attention today and was expected to man-up and rejoin society without a hitch or complaint in 1946.

In 1966, I became a Vietnam War protester and we found ourselves permanently on opposite sides of politics. He could not understand my opposition to all-things-Johnson-and-Nixon and I was mystified by his disinterest in the foundations of that invasion. When he began to talk about his WWII experience, his loyalty to chicken-hawks became even more mystical when I learned that he was a dedicated non-combatant and only volunteered for Navy service with the personal and declared condition that he would never shoot at another man. The men who ran the guns under his "command" were completely in charge of what they shot at because he never ordered anyone to "fire." He just tried to keep them safe and supplied.

With that background, you might have some idea why he always asked, "What did I do to raise such an idiot son?" Whenever I took off on some harebrained motorcycle adventure, he was convinced that I had lost what few marbles he'd managed to pass to my collection of genes. He wasn't any more in favor of--or understanding of--my backpacking, ocean kayaking, bicycle racing, or the places I chose to live (especially California). He wanted to be as far from "excitement" as he could get and Dodge was definitely a place like that; outside of occasional tornadoes and flooding.

When he was hospitalized for cancer, Dad lost enough of his eyesight that he was unable to read normal and oversized print. I bought him books on tape from one of my favorite authors, David Halberstam, about one of Dad's favorite subjects, baseball; Summer of '49 and October 1964. Dad loved the Yankees his whole life, especially the Mantle/Maris Yankees. He barely listened to either books because he was so upset that Halberstam chose to print the uncensored language of the players. He was especially disappointed with Mickey Mantle.

Being the Midwestern-guilt ridden son that I am, I've always had my father and his morals and his personal standards in the front and back of my mind. Hard to believe, I know. My writing laptop's desktop picture has a collection of my whacked hobbies and the motto, "Write as though everyone you know is dead." It's an attempt to free myself from the constraints of disappointing those who love me; mostly my father. All of my favorite writers have, most likely, disappointed their parents with their subjects and language. It's almost a requirement for anyone who makes any kind of attempt to accurately reproduce or create believable characters.

Dad's reaction to Halberstam and Mantle made a mark on me. I have at least 3 books almost to the easy-to-finish stage that I've abandoned because I couldn't write them with Midwest Methodist censorship standards and couldn't stand the idea of re-writing them with that constraint. So, consider this fair warning. While everyone I love is far from dead, the one who influenced what self-censorship I obeyed is gone. It could get pretty honest from here on.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom, for sharing with us. You are a good writer. Our friendship is one of the things I treasure from my years in Minnesota. Martin

Anonymous said...

I am certainly familiar with that photograph of the Kamikaze airplane disappearing past the deck of a navy ship and into the sea, while AAA crews pay close attention.

I got called to my physical before the number system and birthdays came into use, and that at the time meant "You're going". I had no plan. The days passed and I didn't hear from them. I've never heard from them. I dreamed at the time that I was in a room on an upper floor with other men, being processed into the army, while out a window I could see my friends loading their TD1s into the van for the next trip to Mosport.

I think you are fortunate to have any idea what your relation to your parents was. I have no such idea, and just keep all that stuff stored away - a single, multi-variable equation whose solution is clearly impossible. People go to experts to get opinions but that's what they are, and I could do that myself. What I couldn't do is decide any of them was correct.

Maybe when I'm older.

The black hole term "event horizon" aptly describes things like generation gap, death, &c. No information can come across, but maths tell us that no information is destroyed, either. Ah well.


T.W. Day said...


I'm not sure what I know about my relationship with my father, but I'm pretty clear on some of my feelings. He was the best, saddest man I think I've ever known. One thing my brother and I are in agreement with is that we can not remember him ever laughing and we only remember him smiling for pictures with my step-mother.

My draft call was avoided by joining the Navy in 1966 on their 6-months-and-in program. My Navy recruiter screwed up my physical date by two days and covered his butt by digging up asthma in my medical history and sending me to a local doctor for a preliminary physical. I failed that physical, mostly because my usual summer asthma had progressed to my usual summer pneumonia. I honestly did not know I had asthma, I just figured I was a wimp with allergies. After bombing the Navy physical, the Marines, Air Force, and Army passed on me and I was free. In the meantime, I'd been reading Halberstam's New York Times syndicated articles in a local paper and was convinced that my friends were dying for nothing. Still am.

I'm not sure that information or energy has to be destroyed to become so random that it is no longer information or usable energy. Some of my father's energy and data will exist as long as my kids and I and my siblings' and their kids are alive and remember him. That may be what there is of life after death. It's not that bad, though.

I think the worst part of my father's last years was that his faith, a very fundamentalist Christian faith, didn't give him much comfort. He was terrified of dying and clung to the misery that had become his life like he had finally lost confidence in his religion. For all that turmoil and conflict that it caused him in life, I'd have hoped it would be something calming in death.

Thanks for your thoughts,


T.W. Day said...

Thanks Martin. Some of the things you told me about your father came back to me this week. I will always be honored to have been your friend. It's not often that a guy gets to hang out with someone he read about and tried to emulate when he was young; and ends up with a friend.

Anonymous said...

I really liked reading that, as a guy who has written for recreation I know exactly how you feel about self-censorship. I just never put it in words, but it was always lurking back there. I've thought about this since reading "Benchmarks and Standards and Mortality"
Thanks! (from Sanders)