(If this were prompted by the recent greeting-card, neck-tie 'holiday', it would be a belated tribute of sorts. But, as a matter of fact...)
Yesterday's NYTimes crossword puzzle jogged some memories loose. At 31 Across, the clue was "Savvy?". The correct answer being, 'dig'. (I hope I haven't spoiled anything. It was yesterday's, after all)
Savvy? Dig? Improbable or not, this made me think of my father, and about how very little I know of him and his life.
That my life should have turned out to be so very different from his seems, to me, to be completely self-evident, given the fact that, as all lives do, mine unspooled itself with so little forethought, leading me in no particular direction, regardless of how hard I might try to apply the reins. His life, on the other hand, because there had already been so much more of it, seemed to me to be solid and factual, and knowable, like a history from which a student might learn something profitable.
But my father never betrayed much curiosity about who I was or what I might be doing. While I had always been interested in who he was, and what he had been doing. Which interest, coming from me, seems not to have mattered all that much to him.
He was born in Pittsburgh PA, in the Mt. Lebanon section, in July of 1926. He was the youngest of three children, and my grandparents' only son. He was named Walter William Zimmerman Jr.
He had dark, straight hair that he combed straight back on his head. His eyes were hazel green, and his complexion tended to be sallow. He tanned very easily. He was of average stature, by adulthood standing 5' 10". He was particularly proud of having a 28" waist, which I never understood as something a man would brag about (although, at the same time, I felt self-conscious and somewhat overweight, because by the time I was in my late teens, my waist had already reached 32", and it didn't seem as though it would ever get any smaller); he had a lean build, more or less devoid of hair.
He smoked. And drank.
A few things I know about his youth: his mother had had a 'nervous breakdown' during the Great Depression, when my grandfather apparently lost whatever fortune he'd accumulated, and as a result, my father was raised for a time by his two older sisters, Dorothy and Marie. He hated rutabagas, because his family had grown them in their Victory Gardens during WWII. Once, during high school, his class was giving a play that required that a lantern be lit onstage. But this was against the city's fire codes -- a lighted match was okay, but an actual lantern was forbidden. My father disassembled a flashlight, repositioning the bulb, socket and batteries inside the lantern, so the actress, on cue, could strike her match, and then reach inside and twist the bulb, so the lantern would light, and the show could go on. He told me about this several times, over many years.
He enlisted with the US Army Air Corps, just as the European conflict was winding down. I believe he was training to be a tail gunner, and had one training mission that flew over both the Gulf of Mexico and some of Mexico itself. He joked about that being his only visit to a foreign country.
Right about then, at the end of the war, he met my mother, in Montgomery AL. They married at 19. My father left the military, worked for a while installing telephones -- a job he got with help from my grandfather -- and then rejoined the Air Force as a Lieutenant. Somewhere, I have a photograph of him, in uniform. He looks dark and virile.
And it was at this time that I entered the picture -- or, to be more precise, as this is all necessarily from my point of view, it was at this point that my father coalesced as a central figure in my world.
One of my earliest memories is of a nightmare about a nasty monster, which turned into my bedside clown lamp as I woke, screaming, My father came into my room and picked me up. I held onto him so tightly, my fingernails cut his neck.
My father sometimes tickled me, when we were walking down South Jackson St., in Belleville Illinois. I thrilled to the helplessness of laughing so hard, and I begged him to stop. When he did, and I'd regained my composure, I would try to bump into him, to prompt another tickle attack. Sometimes he fell for my seduction. Sometimes he didn't.
When it was time for me to have my first grown-up haircut, my father took my to his barber. I wanted to keep my long blond hair, but my parents had strict ideas about how their first-born son needed to appear, and to behave. It's embarrassing to admit that, six decades later, I still take pride in being able to sit so still in the barber's chair.
Just before my parents divorced, my father spent more and more time away from home. When he was at home, he was usually repairing something -- most often, the great black Buick that would soon take us all on such a fateful ride. Greasy, wearing old khakis and a smeared white tee shirt, he would come into the house and wash up in the kitchen sink.
And this is the period that the crossword clue recalls for me. When my dad was trying to explain something to my brothers and me, which he could rarely do with much patience, he would punctuate his instructions with what sounded to me like "First A? First A?" He repeated this over and over, as though he needed a response from me at least, since I was the oldest. "First A?"
"Verstehen?" That's what he meant to ask. "Do you understand?", a seven-year old German boy could grasp. But my brothers and I were all American, we had no idea what Germany was, and we were living in Illinois.
I suppose it should be funny, that he was asking his little boys 'Do you understand?' in a language they couldn't understand. But this curious tone-deafness on my father's part interests me. I think it points to the centrality, for my father, of his military experience, even though it was so brief, and fractured into two separate parts. There was always a certain impatient rigidity about him, struggling with an eternal desire to lie down and take a nap. I'm guessing here, because so little was ever said in my family, but I think that, set against the never-ending struggle my dad had with his own father, the military had presented him with a reassuring alternative for masculine relationship -- a setting in which my father, Walter Jr., rather than his father, Walter Sr., was in control. How else to explain that, without thinking, my father would treat his children as though they were not only members of the military, but also as though they were the enemy. Would you ask an American 'First A?'
My father had a best friend, a man he'd met in the Air Corps. The specialness of this man's friendship was such that, forty years later, and without ever having met him, my step-mother knew his name. None of us ever saw him. At least I never did.
With his marriage to my mother breaking apart, my father spent more and more time away from our house. Perhaps he was in St. Louis, closer to his job of selling used cars? When he was at home, he was most often taking a nap. It's as though he had become a sort of human landscape, lying on the sofa -- a low, soft mountain range, softly heaving with every breath. My brothers and I learned, very early, to be silent in our house.
Just before my ninth birthday, and after we'd moved into the last house we would share as a family, I had a dream about my father. He was a ravening tiger, and to protect myself and my mother, I had to kill him. Whether or not I succeeded in the dream, I don't recall, but I somehow saw what my dream was really saying. I still remember feeling guilt, for a violence I'd wanted to commit against my father, in my sleep.
Finally, when the family unit had fractured beyond repair, my brothers and I were piled into that black Buick my dad had spent so much time repairing. He drove us to Pennsylvania, saw us settled into the orphanage, and then disappeared for months at a time. On occasion, he sent candy bars, enough to put one by each plate in the communal dining room.
Even after he'd settled into his second marriage, my father continued to disappear, in a sense, working (when he could find a job) afternoon or night shifts. He'd always wanted to be an electrical engineer, he would say, but he couldn't go to college because of us kids. So he had to settle for working as a transformer repairman. Also, when his schedule allowed, he would tend bar at the neighborhood watering hole down the street from our house. It was a small joint my stepmother owned, because her father had signed his liquor license over to her. I spent most of my Sunday afternoons there, after church, cleaning the peanut shells, cigarette butts and other materials off the linoleum floor.
At this point, my relationship with my dad centered on my being the time-keeper. It was a role I hated.
"Wake me up in twenty minutes," he would say, and then turn on his side on the bed he shared with my stepmother. I hated this job. I would watch the kitchen clock as though my life depended on it, waiting until the second hand had made its full sweep, ticking off every one of the sixty little black marks. Then I would go up the back stairs, knock on the door, call him, and then look in, to make sure he'd woken up.
He always had. He always glared at me, in the darkened room. It felt like knives going through me. "Just give me five more minutes," he'd say, as though I was the one insisting that he get up. I hated this.
After three or four brief reprieves, he would rouse himself and go across the street, to pour beers and shots, and make pizza. One night, a regular customer -- a handsome, hulking mill-worker -- picked my father up and threw him through the glass-paneled front door. My father landed on the sidewalk, improbably uninjured. A couple of days later, the two men were sharing drinks.
As I've said, my father rarely spoke to me, at least not about anything substantive. There were the blanket warnings -- almost mantras, really -- that (a) I had to get good grades, so I could go to college, and (b) if I misbehaved, I would be sent back to the orphanage.
But there was one story, from his military career, that he repeated more than once, about a 'queer' he and his fellow junior-grade officers had discovered in their platoon, and how they'd decided that, rather than turn the guy in, they'd leave him alone. After all, my dad would say, he wasn't hurting anyone. Given that he had been, from the time I was in first grade, particularly concerned about whether or not I was parting my hair on the correct side, like the other boys did, or whether I was standing at the toilet when I peed, or if I might have developed a lisp, I've always wondered whether he was repeating this tale for my benefit. To let me know that he'd known a queer once, and he'd left the man alone. As long as he wasn't hurting anyone. Whatever that might mean.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman