I saw this picture online and shared it on one of my pages, but the description I added got me to thinking about my dad and my childhood memories of him.
(“Stolen from my daughter-in-love because it’s too great not to share. Soldiers leave their families and home to fight for their nation, but they do not stop having families and homes to return to. And I am so grateful for the technology that allows contact even while Daddy is away. My father was gone so much of the time when I was little (61-70; US Army, Air America) and there was no personal contact, just the occasional letter (he’s not a writer) and a rare phone call which my mother took and then reported back to me that “Daddy loves you”. I wish we had had this kind of chance to interact.”)
Now Dad is still alive, so this isn’t a memorial blog, but a remembrance of earlier times and how it was for me growing up. On the one hand, it sounds so…cold and dysfunctional–an absentee father, who was barely around, who didn’t make much of an impact in my earlier years and not much more of one later on. On the other hand, you must realize the generation he is from, where Father went to work and Mother stayed home. Father’s contribution to the children was providing them with the physical necessities of life and Mother handled everything else. I make no judgments, I don’t feel abused or neglected. And while we had our normal share of issues like any other family, I don’t think I had a bad childhood. So let’s talk about my dad.
Henry was born November 19, 1940 to “Big” Henry (who only became big when “Little Henry” was born) and Louise, in the Army post underneath the supports of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Both of his parents were in the military–Granddad was a cook and Grandmom drove an ambulance during WWII. He had an older sister and two younger brothers–and the youngest was only 3 years older than me. My oldest grandparent, Big Henry, was married to my youngest grandparent–he was almost 30 and she was 16 when they tied the knot. Big Henry was from Tylertown MS, and Louise was from Shreveport LA (I think). The family moved all over, but the kids ended up spending a lot of time in Tylertown, being raised by their father’s sister, Lena. She was almost 6 feet tall and had been married to a man who beat her. She left him (unheard of back then!) and came home to take care of her bachelor brother and the family home. They had milk cows for a long time and she dealt with those farm chores as well–while being legally blind.
My father was a rebel in his youth, a fact that shocked the older me who had only know the conservative, solid as a rock Father figure. He and his father used to get into shouting matches, with Big Henry telling him that he would never amount to anything. He ran away from home several times–and once for a prolonged amount of time, getting caught in CA only because he was out after the teenage curfew time and got picked up by the police. When he was 16, he took his demented grandfather down to the recruiting station and got him to sign approval for Dad to join the army. Needless to say, the next day, his Aunt Lena went down and straightened that out, so he did graduate high school there in Tylertown, with a graduating class of 14. At some point during his high school years, he went swimming and dove off the bridge into the river, smashing his elbow…and carried the scar the rest of his life. It did not impede his ability to become a pilot, so the manual dexterity must have been there.
He went into the US Army and became that pilot as a warrant officer, flying during the Vietnam war. He flew Caribou — not the animal, but a type of military cargo plane and was one of the first to transport the planes across the Pacific Ocean for use in Vietnam. He met my mother at Virginia Beach while he was stationed at Fort Lee, prior to going overseas. They met in June and were married in October–and because of their birth dates, on the wedding certificate she is listed as 20 years old and he is 18–although he turned 19 the next month. My mother, the cradle robber. She was so determined to marry him that she made the arrangements and bought her wedding dress without her mother’s help–a sore point for my grandmother. Who was so determined that her daughter not rush off into something bad that she wrote a letter to Dad’s BASE commander, asking about this young man who had swept her daughter off her feet and was going to marry her (come hell or high water, according to my mother). It all worked out and they married at the chapel on Fort Lee in 1959.
The Army moved them with appalling regularity–to the point that I was conceived in Monterey CA (where my father, who cannot carry a tune, washed out of Russian language school) but was born on Fort Leonard Wood, MO. (Which has always been a pain to put on forms that do not give enough room for a three word city name…) I was born on August 23 and 6 weeks later, we moved. Let’s put it this way: my parents had 40 addresses in the first 20 years of marriage and I was there for all but 2 years of that. To say we moved a lot is putting it mildly.
I vaguely remember Fort Bragg NC. I have images of laying in the back of the car, watching out the back window as the telephone lines swooped down from pole to pole, with an early morning (like just at sunrise) sky. I remember eating the paint off a shed out in the backyard, don’t ask me why I ate paint, but if it had lead, I didn’t die. I had a wading pool. I remember being bitten by my mother’s friend’s dog and having to have my ear tacked back on (the front only, didn’t lose the whole ear a la Vincent van Gogh). My mother has a very old tape reel recording of me talking when I was about 3 and I had the thickest Southern accent you’d ever hope to “heah”…and I said “mamember” instead of remember, as in “Doncha mamembah?” You will notice that there’s not really a memory of my father back then, but he was around, at least some of the time.
When he went to Vietnam, we lived in GA for a little while, and then moved up to Baltimore to be with my mom’s parents. These are the grandparents that I really got to know. Between our moving and the distances involved when we finally stopped, my father’s parents weren’t near so I only saw them maybe 8-10 times before they died.
We moved to Saigon the year I turned 5. Dad was flying for Air America at that point. I *think* he came home for dinner every night, but I don’t remember. I do recall mosquito netting on the bed; climbing up a wooden room divider to get a ring and having the whole thing fall over on me. I started first grade at the American school there. We did a gift exchange at Christmas and my parents had gotten a snow globe for me to give — and I cried bitterly when I realized that I was not going to get to keep it. One of the little boys comforted me and told me that he had brought a doll, dressed in Vietnamese style, that I could have. It was the first time a non-family member male had been kind to me (that I can remember) and I still own that doll, more than 40 years later.
I also got caught playing with matches by my teacher and she spanked me–and then my parents punished me. (And no, she wasn’t fired and there was no lawsuit; I did something dangerous and got an immediate punishment that was deserved.) I remember going up on the roof of our house (flat roofs, like a patio area in the close quarters of the urban life of Saigon. I tripped over a hammock one day and hit my head…I also remember being up there at night and watching the “fireworks”–tracer bullets. About the only thing my father will say about his time in Air America is that rotten potatoes smell worse than rotten bodies. Don’t want to know how he knows that.
It was many years later I found out that my father, and the other American men whose families also lived on that street, were all carrying guns and took turns guarding the homes. One man even shot and killed a couple of Viet Cong soldiers. I was living in a war zone and it didn’t seem any different from daily life. The war got bad enough they closed the school, so my mom taught me and a couple of the other children from the street. We were there for the Tet Offensive of 1968. Must have done well enough in my home schooling, because I went on to second grade…
…In Bangkok. We were supposedly going to Australia when we stopped in Bangkok and ended up living in Thailand for 3-4 years. We started in Bangkok and Dad was still flying–and not home as often. He was there enough to get my mother pregnant with my brother, who was born in the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in 69. We moved up to the northern part of Thailand, in Korat and Dad was home a lot more often then. We lived there for about 9 months or a year, and then moved way south, on the Gulf of Siam, in Pattaya.
It was awesome living on the ocean. I love the water so I spent a lot of time down on the beach. I was under very strict injunctions to NOT go into the water by myself, which I kept–except for the one time I was offered a chance to water ski. I stepped on the double ski, the boat pulled me out into the water, I rode around in a circle, and then landed, back up on the beach with only my feet getting a little wet. Never told my mother either. I used to make sand castles and imagine myself in my own world. We were living in a resort area, so there were tourists, but we were one of the few actual year-round residents.
I must tell you that he did read to me–a poem called “Custard the Dragon” which I loved. It’s the only thing I remember him reading to me but we did it often enough that even today I can recite, “Belinda lived in a little white house with a little black kitten and a little grey mouse and a little yellow dog and little red wagon and a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.” Realio, trulio. It is one of my favorite poems and I have read it to both of my children and I look forward to reading it to my grandchildren in turn.
My mother home schooled me for 3rd and 4th grade. I don’t know if it’s the natural ego-centrism of a young child, but while I was aware of my father being around, he wasn’t a major player on the stage of my life. He went fishing one time and got shipwrecked. I do remember standing in the kitchen watching my mother get more and more upset, until he finally walked in. The boat’s bottom had fallen out (new boat, bad bottom apparently) and the fishing expedition had had to swim for a nearby island–and wait until some Thai fishermen noticed and then rescued them. In the day before cell phones, there was no way of knowing something had gone wrong until the return time passed…and hours went by without a word. I think he might have been able to call once he got back on the mainland, but if he did, the call went to our landlord’s house–we lived for years without an actual phone in the house at all. And without TV. Ahhh my deprived but amazingly rich childhood.
Oh and the sunburn he had from sitting on the island most of the day. I remember my mother peeling sheets of skin, large enough to use for letters, off of his back when it finally healed.
It may be that I don’t remember more of him being around because I was sent to bed early, or as I indicated before, just the normal childhood centering on self as you discover the world.
We moved back to the States and from that point on, he was around most of the time. But he’d get home from work, we’d have dinner and by then, we had a TV, so he’d watch that or read a book. As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that my father is one of the most solitary people I have ever met. He loves me, he loves his son and he loves his wife, but he doesn’t really know how to interact with us. He HATES crowds, which is not an unusual habit–except that to him, more than about 5 people is a crowd. In amazing and stark contrast is the fact that he is also a very entertaining person to be with. He’s very smart, he has a very dry and clever sense of humor, and he knows something about almost everything, which means he can carry on a conversation.
He worked in Iran for 3 years with Honeywell, trying to computerize the Iranian Air Force and we lived there while he did that. We lived about 3 blocks from the American embassy where in less than 4 years, they would hold American hostages and not release them until Reagan was in the White House. I do remember that one time he took me to work–and children, I saw the MAIN FRAME. A computer, a single computer, that filled a room the size of a warehouse. He showed me these discs that had little bubbles on them. In the bubble, you could see two wire crossing through the middle of a tiny black donut. And that, kiddies, was a BIT. Not a BYTE, but a single BIT. Computer data was stored either on those infamous IBM punch cards, or on giant reels of tape. The computer I am typing this blog on is more powerful and able to do more things than that main frame could do. Miniaturization is a wonderful thing.
While in Iran, he met the man who would become his business partner in his next job–an automobile repair shop in Baltimore, where we moved in 1976. I think they settled on living there because that’s where my mother is from and her parents were living there at the time. In fact, our house was about 5 minutes walk from theirs. Owning his own business, my father worked 12 hour days for years. I did the last 3 years of high school there and once I graduated, I joined the Air Force and left home. But while I was in school, he was coming home for dinner every night and was at home on weekends. I spent more time around him, but we still didn’t have a lot of interaction that I can remember…not like my mom, who I talked with as we did the dishes after dinner, or when I got home from school.
My brother didn’t have a monopoly on our father either, since my dad is not a sports kind of guy. My mother is the one who played catch with my brother. And being epileptic and with a learning disability, he required more of their attention on a regular basis than I did. It just was how life was and it’s not until now, looking back that I realize how very little I know of the man who fathered me.
My contact with him since leaving home is very sporadic and I can go for months without talking to him. If he answers the phone when I call the house, he says hi, and then “I’ll get your mother”. When I’d call and Mom wasn’t home, we could talk, but only about things like computers (which fortunately I like very much and know something about) or rocks (which he is also very interested in–he’s been a jeweler off and on for years, doing it as a business when he first retired from the car shop). I could tell him about what the grandchildren were doing when they came along.
I don’t know what his favorite color is, how he views religion and what his spiritual path consists of; I don’t know who his favorite author is or what flavor ice cream he really, really likes. Or really hates. I don’t know how he feels about having to move so much that he has no real friends of any lasting type, no one from high school or the Army that he’s still in contact with. I do know that he’s pro-choice (while my mother is pro-life) which I find interesting considering he seems so conservative. I know that he worked hard for many years so that we could have the homes my mother wanted–and in fact, he gives things as a sign of his love. He and his father forgave each other and had a good relationship before Granddad died–and he admitted to his son that out of all his children, my father had done the best with his life.
And now he’s over 70 years old; he’s diabetic and I’m not sure it’s really that well controlled. He’s having problems with neuropathy in his feet and has fallen several times because he can’t feel where they are. His eyesight is going; he has macular degeneration and could become blind overnight–or never. It’s that kind of a cloud hanging over him. He doesn’t hear so well, so trying to talk to him on the phone is getting harder and harder for me. He is also showing some signs of mild dementia–forgetting words, losing the conversation mid-sentence, not knowing how to put his CPAP machine on to go to bed. Or forgetting to put it on at all.
I live almost 2000 miles from my parents, with no ability to travel and see them. The last time I saw them was a couple of years ago, when they came to the East Coast to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with what’s left of our family–me and my children, my brother, his wife and theirs. I have cousins somewhere that I never talk to and wouldn’t know them if they walked up to me on the street…so when my parents die, my family begins to end.
And there’s so much I don’t know. So many questions to ask, I don’t even know how or if I know all the ones I should ask. My father has two tattoos, gotten while in the Army. I have 13. We’ve never talked about them to each other–why we got them, what they mean to us. I do know why he tried the very early laser removal on them–because his customers at the car shop made judgments about him when they saw them. All it did was leave an ugly scar that draws more attention to the tat than if he had left it alone. He’s the one who introduced me to both Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire gin. His drink of choice was generally a Gibson; I love my martinis. He taught me to prefer quality over quantity, introduced me to clams, lobsters and filet mignon. It’s his fault I have champagne and lobster taste on a beer and burger budget!
He cooks, creatively and well. He makes amazing popovers and biscuits. He apparently has mastered the mysteries of the crockpot and does a lot of the cooking in the house now. He spends most of his time either on the computer or watching TV–or both. He had a desktop almost before they made them and his business used computers years before they became standard. (He even wrote programs specifically for small business applications.)
I realize that this has kind of wandered and for quite a while. It’s a lot like my father, who wandered from here to there geographically and in the jobs he held. There’s a lot I haven’t told you, but that is also only fair as there’s a lot he has not told me. Such an enigma and yet nothing hidden, just not mentioned. A very private and lonely man, a good husband, a loving father, a forgiven and forgiving son…a pilot, computer wizard, business professional, soldier. A reader, a watcher, a doer. No college degree but intellectual, comfortable with all levels of people and with who he is, but preferring his own company most of the time.
Does he have regrets? Don’t we all? I don’t know his. Would he have done things differently? Maybe. What specifically, I couldn’t tell you. Does he know who I am, know about ME? Not really. Does he love me? Yes. Without hesitation and without doubt, I know that he loves me. I just wish I could know him.
And I think I’ve missed my chance…