In my earliest memory I am floating above the ground, my arms spread wide, my fingers splayed to grasp a shiny red apple wreathed in lush green leaves clutching gnarly boughs. My face bursts with laughter as I pluck the fruit. Strong, firm hands wrap beneath my armpits, holding me aloft, gliding me gently down to earth where I scamper to show my mother this wonderful thing that grew wild in nature instead of a bin at the commissary.
That’s it. A snippet. Fifteen frames of celluloid found lost beneath the splicer where someone compiled a short film to be shown at my Oscar presentation or flash before my eyes when I melt into Death’s embrace.
My imagination decodes the image. This was … This was … This was behind our quarters in Bad Kissingen. West Germany. 1963/64. I would have been about four. What I remember is that Mother used the apples I picked to make dumplings. That may be a story I heard or a detail I invented; I have no memory of eating those dumplings.
I can see Dad pull a deep drag from the cigarette gripped between his bronze fingers and exhale a Magic Dragon billow into the sky above his head. A severe crew cut—still rich brown at the end of his twenties—crowned his face, laugh lines cut around the blue glint of his eyes and the corners of his lips. That face, his arms, and those hands that lifted me into the apple tree were deep, coppery bronze. Dad always looked tan, even in deepest winter.
I see that because it was a constant. The image. Dad always looked like that. As he got older his hair got grayer and his face more leathered. For a brief time after he returned from his Vietnam he wore a mustache, and after he retired he allowed the crew cut to grow out. A little. But his ramrod martial bearing never wavered.
Typical of soldiers in the 1960s and 70s, with high alert Cold War scares and proxy wars, Dad was in and out of our lives as the Pentagon shipped him wherever they needed an officer of his rank and specialties. Time for father-son bonding had to be stolen from other activities in both our lives.
When we lived in Ft. Knox Dad bought me a set of child-sized golf clubs and brought me to the golf course. He always joked I was more interested in chasing squirrels than golfing. Over the years he spent all the time I could stand working with me on my golf swing or the placement of my hands on a bat or playing catch in the back yard. My sense is my lack of enthusiasm for sports frustrated him. Not because he wanted me to be different but because it was something we couldn’t share.
He never stopped trying to find that thing we could share.
A handful of snippets echo that awareness to me. Distinct memories of Dad and me. A fishing trip. Riding in his Fiat convertible. A soapbox derby. Rolling my eyes at his corny quips when I play my new Sgt. Pepper’s album.
Later, when I had graduated from college, and lived with or around him, we discovered something we shared, which was a love of Classical music. But that was long after we had stretched the bonds of our relationship into some floppy, saggy strands that only clung to living with mutual disappointment. Long after my teens and early twenties when I would have little to nothing to do with my father. Most of my memories with Dad come from the time before I gained a second digit in my age.
Today I’m remembering the trip we took to Washington DC, just him and me. We had a hotel room and he took me to see the Orioles play the Senators, to the top of the Washington Monument and the image of Lincoln on his Olympian throne.
We had come for a battery of allergy tests at Walter Reed. But it was the fun sights of Washington we saw together that stretch before me—long seconds, hundreds of frames, reels—the pinnacle of the father interacting with the son.
There is a long, lingering pan of the sea of white tombstones standing alike, shoulder to shoulder, rank and file, in the green lawns of Arlington Cemetery. “When I die,” my father reminded me for the umpteenth time with an umpteen to go, “you don’t have to worry where to put me. There’s a spot for me right here.” And I fell silent, still not familiar with death as anything more than an abstract principle that happened to people I didn’t know or who had been born long before me.
Bobby Kennedy was recently slain and the muddy turned turf over where his coffin temporarily rested screamed some kind of tangent about Death but it was still an abstract like the eternal flame. Like the Tomb of the Unknown.
We caught the Tomb at the Changing of the Guard when the sharp Marine ritual stepped out in liturgy of camaraderie and respect that the outside world was just starting to question in light of Vietnam and Civil Rights and that psychedelic whirlwind people consider the Sixties when everyone I knew was either military or middle America. I was too young to comprehend that whole Brother-in-Arms mystique, but Dad had been through boot camp with boys who didn’t come back from Korea and knew other men whose names were being etched in silver bracelets and would later grace The Wall. And his solemnity impacted me.
“Soldiers are the men who want war the least,” my father used to tell me, “we’re the ones who have to fight it.”
I thought of Arlington today. My Virginia siblings were in Arlington today. They were visiting Dad’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death. He rests in Death as he stood in life: surrounded by his brothers-in-arms. His identity as a soldier provided him a precious sense of meaning. Calendar vagaries will rotate this anniversary back to Fathers’ Day every decade or so.
Today I find it focusing my reflection. I salute my father for everything he was to us.