Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My Father Shakes Hands with the Stars

My dad in his 30s, circa 1937.

My dad's silent old age put so much distance between us that when he died, he seemed merely to slip over the horizon.  I visit his grave occasionally to remind myself that I knew him a little when I was a child.  He and my mother are buried in Sacramento, California, not far from where I grew up, at Sunset Lawn Chapel of the Chimes, across the street from a single strip of tract houses with front yards piled deep in rusting appliances and next to a defunct drive-in theater.  For a while the marker on his grave, one of the few written records I have of his life, confused me.  It reads Herman Heydron, Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, January 11, 1901-July 2, 1983, Army/Air Corps.   Was he a master sergeant in the Army or the Air Force?  I did some reading to discover what is doubtless well known by many, that it was only in 1947, the year my dad retired from military service, that the Air Force split off from the Army and became an independent branch of the armed forces.  I found that part of my father's history in a book, but it was a book in which his name was never mentioned.

There is no one to tell me the story that is only his.  My father himself stuttered from birth.  When I was old enough to wonder about his story, he had already contracted Parkinson's disease, a condition that made his hands tremble violently, grabbed hold of words he had once uttered with difficulty and shook them to pieces.   My mother, fifteen years younger than he was, barely had time to see his marker laid in place before she died, too.  In any case, she was never very forthcoming about the past.  My brother and sister seem to know as little about my parents' history as I do.

Dear Mary, my dad wrote to my mom from Hollywood in January, 1944,  How are you and Butch.  Tell Janelle that I seen a lot of stars and shook hands with them.  I wish you where  (sic) here with me now I sure would enjoy it more.  I love you very much  [here a word or two is covered by a dab of glue].  Love, Herman.    They had been married seven years.  "Butch" was their firstborn, my brother Ed, a baby then, and Janelle was my mother's niece and neighbor in San Antonio, Texas.   The message is on the back of a postcard from "The Masquers Club" whose members, as explained on the card, were "motion picture stars, directors, and producers."  A further line of information is kindly provided for the sender: "I am having dinner here tonight as a guest of The Masquers Servicemen's Morale Corps."  

Which stars, besides Eddie and Red Bracken (I'm not sure who Red is), did my father shake hands with?  Did the morale corps invite him the evening of January 10 because the following day was his birthday?  Or had he just come off the minesweeper he once mentioned having served on in the Atlantic?  Was he often this tender, this open, with my mother, or was he afraid that she would be angry because he was in Hollywood without her? 

Stories, especially stories loaded with detail, are the way I prefer to make sense of things, so it is hard to be in the dark about the very outline of my dad's life, to fill in the figures with only inference and imagination.  And what I have known on some level all my life but have only recently become fully aware of is that without knowing his story, it is difficult to believe in my own.

My father loved movies--I know that much--from the day the Army lent him to the production of the 1927 film Wings, first winner of the Academy Award for best picture.  He drove a truck in it, but I have never been able to spot him.  His favorite actresses were Wings  star Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, and the lesser known Juliette Prowse.  I see now that what these women had in common was a knowing gleam in their eyes.  One wonders what exactly they knew.  My dad himself was blue-eyed and red-haired, thick-lipped, large-eared.  In face and build he looked remarkably like the handless veteran Harold Russell, winner of an Oscar for his supporting role in The Best Years of Our Lives.   But my father came out of the war with no visible handicaps.   He was famous in our neighborhood for what he could do with a ball, any kind of ball, either filling in at shortstop during my brother's Little League practices, past 50 by then, his pipe clenched in his teeth, or tapping my mother's croquet ball far from the wicket she was about to attempt.  

But I am getting ahead of myself, rushing past the little I know.

Herman (I didn't name either of my sons after him) and his many siblings emigrated from Germany to Michigan in 1909.  He was eight.  Where in Germany did he come from?  To where in Michigan did he go?  Once he named Saginaw as his destination, but he didn't seem sure.  He didn't know his mother's first name, when or how she died, but her death occurred early in his life, maybe before he left Germany. His father was killed in a coal-mine collapse long before Herman was grown.  At sixteen, he and his twin brother enlisted in the Army, lying about their age.   The two of them were at loose ends for some time before that, under the care of people who didn’t have the resources to care much.  Herman, at least, stopped attending school when he was in the fourth grade.

Except for his brief career in film, the next twenty years of my dad's life are dark indeed.   He is supposed to have had at least one sweetheart before my mother, a teacher in one of the towns in South Texas populated by German immigrants.  I have one photo of him from these years.  He is sitting against the dark floral wallpaper of what looks like a hotel lobby with a cocky look on his face.  As a child, I only saw that look when he was winning a game.  From 1937, there are more pictures, beginning with a few of my parents' wedding, held in a public park on a bright day, toilet paper strung from the trees as decoration.

Forty years old and recently married when the United States entered World War II, he left the service not long after it ended and took up the civilian half of his life in California.  I have a picture of the car he and my mother drove out in the spring of 1947, a dark-colored sedan from the thirties with tiny windows.  My sister Vicki, one and a half, sits on the hood wearing a plaid sweater.  My dad had to shove a broomstick under the handle of the passenger door to hold it shut, and my mother shimmied across the hot seat every time they stopped, which with two little children must have been frequently, across the Texas Panhandle, through New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.  "It didn't bother us," my mother told me about the trip in general and the broom in particular.  "We were young." 

Vicki. Can't see the broomstick.

But I am 58 now, and I am guessing that my father, at 46, with a horrific childhood behind him, would not have felt very young.   In Sacramento, he worked steadily and made a living wage as a civilian mechanic at McClellan Air Force Base.  By 1953, when I was born, my family owned a small house in what was then a new suburb, a car, later two cars, a television set.  We ate very well, thanks to my mother's skill as a money manager and backyard gardener, and although her taste was peculiar, we were well clothed.  In 1963, my father retired permanently, sick with stomach cancer but, as no one predicted then, with 20 years left to live.  My mother, believing his retirement wouldn't support a family with one daughter ready for college and another still young--my brother was in the army by then--went to work downtown as a civil servant, first as a switchboard operator and then as a clerk.  My parents were, in sum, the kind of family-centered, working-class people whose existence is lauded by candidates for public office but no longer, I think, entirely believed in.  Working hard may have kept their "crimes confined," their "sober wishes" from "straying," as it did for the farmers in Gray's “Elegy"--or it may have been the memory of hunger that kept them honest. 

My father regretted his lack of schooling so much that his watchword, one phrase he never hesitated over, was get an education.   It wasn't unusual advice, and I followed it; I still read like the world is about to run out of books and sit through multi-part PBS documentaries waiting for that key piece of information about the cosmos or the Civil War or the human brain that will explain . . . everything.  My father, though, all but gave up his struggle with literacy.   Besides the postcard from Hollywood, I have an album of snapshots he put together in Panama during the forties with a few captions scrawled on the pages, and a tiny notebook in which, much later, he figured the mileage of his car.  That is all.  Reading must have been difficult for him as well since I never saw him read anything but the Giants' statistics and the program listings in the TV Guide.   Of course there is a third way in which we use language, the traditional one in which the unschooled pass on culture, but my father's stutter, later aggravated by illness, prevented him from talking much.  Now called a speech disfluency, stuttering is believed to be congenital but is aggravated by trauma and long-term stress.   I wonder, though, had my father been fluent, how much he would have said.

I have also wondered if he simply wasn't very smart, but the workings of my own mind, recognizably like his in many ways, and the intelligence of my siblings and all my father's grandchildren, lead me to believe that unlikely.   Even as an adolescent I also realized, although the vocabulary for it didn't exist then, that my dad had a fine emotional intelligence.  He seemed to know that my mom was getting mad even before she did, and he headed for the garage.   At night, in my infancy, he walked back and forth with me across our tiny living room until I nodded off.   Later, when as a sick child I didn't make it to the bathroom, he cleaned up the mess without waking my mother.  Until I was grown and gone, he woke me from bad dreams. 

No, low intelligence is not the only, surely not even the major, cause of illiteracy.  Words awaken memories.

During the 1970s, the last decade of my dad's life, when I was in my twenties, I sometimes asked my mother to tell me more of their stories.  By then my father had multiple and crushing health problems, and my mother was busy taking care of him, but she tried to oblige.  On the subject of their childhoods, though, I learned not to ask many questions or appear too interested.  When I did, she closed her eyes and changed the subject.  Although the outline of my mother's life had always been clearer to me than that of my father's, there were events in her past--anything to which she couldn't attach a happy outcome or put some kind of positive spin on--that she wouldn't touch.  Maybe she thought I couldn't handle the truth.  I am certain that she was also ashamed of it.   More important, she and my father spent their adult lives trying to forget where they came from.   Carolyn Forche has written that "the world in which we [postwar American children] were born was wounded, and particularly in America, the suture of choice for the closing of this wound, was silence."  Why should my mother relive past miseries to satisfy my curiosity when, by dint of her own hard work, I had been spared them?

 Some years back a therapist found it necessary to remind me that although my grandparents died decades before I was born, I could rely on the fact that I did indeed have two grandmothers and two grandfathers, that they had been born and come together and died, that they had existed.   But without records to refer to, without letters or diaries or pictures or even stories told around the dinner table, I have to invent them out of whole cloth, to guess at what they were like and what happened to them, then test my guesses against what I know of myself, the little I know of my parents, what I have learned about history and human nature.  It is a process full of missteps, embarrassment, withdrawl, the regaining of nerve, more missteps.  When I share my thinking and imagining, I often go too far, say too much to friends and acquaintances, more than they want to know.  I cannot seem to find the right tone in which to speak or write of these things.  I become frustrated, more convinced than ever that if I could only find out another detail or two, I wouldn't have such an alarming tendency to exaggerate, except on the days when I suspect that the truth would be worse than anything I've imagined, that in my version I've soft-pedaled everything, that I'm scared.   I am often certain that everyone around me knows I am only pretending to be real, that my true nature is spectral, like that of the grandparents who I can only assume existed.  In a family where hard times taught the middle generation, my parents', the one born between utter silence and telling, to push feelings down and away, emotion itself feels wrong, deviant, an act of disloyalty to the people whose story is also my own.  Or worse, at least for me, emotion feels fake.

More than anything else, of course, my parents wanted their children to escape the past.  If I have postponed the onset of desperation about being storyless until rather late in life, it is because I have been trying to raise my own three, now grown children.  I wonder, though, if instead of having spent so much time taking my kids to see mountains and oceans and churches and museums, reading them books, and showing them old movies, it would have been better to let them witness my struggle to make myself whole by reimagining my family's story. 

Last summer I noticed several crows--or were they ravens?--standing wide-eyed but with apparent nonchalance among the more recent graves at Sunset Lawn.  I wondered if perhaps the standards of the place were slipping and considered chasing the birds away.  In the end I got back in my car and drove past them.  The birds scared me that time, but they won't again. 

A red-haired boy stands alone on the rear deck of a ship on a cold night, avoiding the family scene below in which one of his sisters is very ill.  He is just tall enough to peek over the railing, but cannot look down over it at the wake of the ship, illuminated by a lantern, which one of his brothers has told him is mesmerizing.  He settles for listening to the rumble of the ship's engine and gazing at the stars.  The life he left behind wasn't much fun, he reflects, and the place he is going may be better.  It's the front of the ship that ought to interest him.  He heads in that direction.

My dad teaches a dog to swim.