No Cat, No Cradle

I am going Home to say goodbye to my father.

Whatever Home is.

When I was growing up Home was always southeast Kansas. Cherokee county. Riverton. A brick rancher which my grandfather built with his own hands which was not—Mother is careful to point out—the house she grew up in. It wasn’t the house I grew up in, either, but it was always where we called Home.

Our growing family lived in a series of post housing. It was as if we had no real home: moving from post to post, school to school, small group of friends to small group of friends. Georgia. Kentucky. Germany. The house in Riverton was always the hub to which we returned.

After Dad’s first tour in Vietnam the Pentagon assigned him to Ft. Monroe in Virginia’s Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads is the geographic designation for the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean with the Chesapeake Bay, James River, and York River. It was our last major relocation as a family, though we did move to a larger house in a smaller town after Dad’s second return from ‘Nam.

Once we “settled” in Hampton Roads we made regular pilgrimages to Riverton—up I-64 to Richmond, I-95 to Washington, cut across Maryland toward Breezewood, Pennsylvania (Town of Motels), to the P.A. Turnpike, west to St. Louis, and catty-corner to Joplin before crossing into Kansas. Or, as I like to say, “over the river and through the woods.” Thirteen hundred miles. Twenty hours of drive time, in theory, but the logistics of transporting six children and (once) 5 schnauzer puppies in a Buick station wagon argued against “driving straight through” even with two drivers.

Today when I say home I mean that second house my parents bought, when I was in 8th Grade, in a sleepy fishing hamlet nestled up against where the York River spills into the Chesapeake.

They bought the house years before my father retired from the Army. Years, in fact, before he was finished moving post to post.

Our family was something of an anomaly vis-à-vis mainstream military culture of the early 1970s. I wasn’t fully aware of that fact. We lived off post, but plenty of military families lived on the economy as it’s called, with a housing allowance toward mortgage or rental. Hampton Roads—with NASA, a major naval base, Air Force base, Coast Guard station, Marine base, and two Army posts, besides ancillary properties—was awash in military dependents. It was more than government housing could possibly accommodate so we lived on the (local) economy.

That little town we moved into is about four times as populous today. I don’t even recognize it.

That’s Okay. I don’t recognize Riverton, either. All the things I carry in my brain get brutalized when I look at what they have become.

Our family was an anomaly in that Dad moved to his subsequent assignments while we stayed put in the family house. In the four decades since we carried our worldlies into that house it has gone from a lone two-story with a lame landscape slap-dash in a hinterland housing development to being a relic of the city’s transition from rusticity to suburbia. Three generations of Matzeders, in countless permutations, have called it home during that time. The landscaping is much better. In my mind. It’s probably changed, too.

If the projections of some climate scientists are to be believed most of the town could well be reclaimed by the Chesapeake in my lifetime. There was a hurricane in the 1930s that caused legendary flooding in that area. I’ve seen the photos. One day it will look like that, again. All the time. The house might still be on dry land, but the creek across the street is going to be much closer.

That is decades in the future. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

The bridge where I stand now feels like it spans the Rubicon.

I am going home to say goodbye to my father.

This is where my first impulse is to reach in my Cliché Drawer and find It wasn’t supposed to end like this for my next line. Except, the truth is this is exactly the way it was supposed to end. A man works his whole life, raises a family, and dies in their bosom. Nothing is better than that, is it?

The arc is naturally more complicated than the summation above suggests.

My father has lived longer than either of his parents did. He passed his threescore and ten quite a while ago. I hope he can look back on it and call it a Good Life. I know he considers it a better life than he had any reason to expect.

He was born in the Middle of the Great Depression. One might say wrong side of the tracks, if one were rummaging through a Cliché Drawer. It might be accurate. He was born and raised in Leavenworth, Kansas. Yes. “Where the prison is.” There are other things, too. There are plenty of tracks. I could do the research on the demographic breakdown of the Leavenworth population in the early 1930s vis-à-vis their proximity to the tracks … but that’s a rabbit hole I’d be in for years.

There are railroad tracks all through the rolling hills of northeast Kansas. These are dissected till plains, left by the last glacial period. The terrain is different from the southeast Kansas Ozarks whence my mother hailed, and different too from those vast, west Kansas wheat fields that spring to the mind of those whose only connection with Kansas is Oz.

Dad grew up in a single-parent household. It wasn’t a “father died a war hero” single-parent household. No one ever spoke of it as I was growing up. My father was devoted to his mother whom his father abandoned and that was all that was ever said about it.

As an adult I once ran into one of my Matzeder cousins. We knew we were cousins. We had to be cousins. There are not many Matzeders in the United States. Like my mother, this cousin is an amateur genealogist and was curious about my lineage. “Oh, Uncle Clarence’s bastard,” was the immediate response. Then, “I didn’t mean to offend you. That’s just the word we used back then.”

No offense taken. But I think they hung that label on the wrong Matzeder.

If that’s what they said I’m sure he heard it.

My grandmother was a waitress at the Officers’ Club at Fort Leavenworth, leaving before dawn and walking onto the post for her shifts. It was a meager living.

Dad helped his grandfather grow vegetables out back to supplement the family income. It was the Depression. Every working class family in America had it hard.

“We didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Dad says. He ate lettuce sandwiches. He walked four miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways.

Dad went to Catholic school. School was not easy for him. He never considered academics his strong suit. A college education was beyond his attaining, either financially or academically. So at 17 he packed his bags, climbed aboard a Kansas City train, and rode to boot camp outside San Diego.

In his photo in his sailor-suit he looks like a little boy. I remember being seventeen. I thought I was grown-up, too. Not grown-up enough to join the military, but that was never in my cards.

Dad, still in his teens, served aboard USS Blue, a destroyer tender stationed off the east coast of Korea during that war. When he came home he worked a series of stop-gap jobs while parlaying the GI Bill into a college degree. At college he met my mother (and the rest is history … or my story). He joined Army ROTC. He graduated with both a degree and a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission.

It was a secure career decision at a time when few had heard of Vietnam. The Cold War at half-thaw was our conflict du jour and my father became a tank commander standing in the Fulda Gap. So to speak. He and Mother were so affectionate sometimes my sisters and I often hid in embarrassment. We were really an adorable family.

He had risen from desperate poverty to a securely middle-class lifestyle. It was the American Dream. I have only recently come to realize how much an accomplishment it was. I really respect that.

I believe those were the happiest days of Dad’s life. Others might see it otherwise. I am just remembering, as an adult, childhood perceptions from half a century ago. And Memory is labile.

It was not idyllic. Among other things Dad’s frequent, lengthy absences took a toll. The family dynamic wandered off in directions no one could have predicted. He and I went through long periods of estrangement. They were mostly my fault. He has always come through for me.

I think I was a difficult son for my father to relate to. I was not like him. I was bookish and not interested in sports. There wasn’t any fault there. It’s just how it was.

One sister once told me, “All I remember of childhood is standing in airports waving goodbye.” Now I’m going to tell him before he’s gone.

I hate goodbyes.

* 4/15 17:27 I added a sentence at the end of this to clarify that my father is alive, but ailing.

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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4 Responses to No Cat, No Cradle

  1. sb says:

    I love how honest it is.


  2. mom says:

    I just took this up to your Dad. He liked it.


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