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May 15th, 2012

A Life…(continued)

A friend on Facebook remarked after I posted the first installment of this “WOW! I’m impressed that you are releasing this story to the world.”  But it’s time.  I need to get this out of me.  And I replied…

Well there’s more to this story then my dad, which hopefully I’ll be able to get out there too. But…yeah…I was aware when I decided to finally tell the story of my growing up that this was going to be the thing that got people’s attention.

Here’s the thing…I’ve been more reluctant to tell people this then that I’m gay. It’s that Sins Of The Fathers thing. You get afraid of what people will think of you. It still worries me and it shouldn’t. Mom was the one who raised me, not dad, and in any case I am not my father. Both my brother and I (he’s my half brother actually) were raised by good mothers and we’ve both lived by the values they set. He’s got a good home improvement business going for himself and I’ve been working in IT for almost twenty years now. Our police records are cleaner then your kitchen floor. We are not our father. But then…nobody is. Turn it around. If dad was a saint that wouldn’t automatically make me one either.

But I think it is true that the home you’re raised in makes a difference. The problem is these days we can’t have a discussion about home and values and what it does to a kid because we’re in the middle of a culture war and that means a lot of basically good homes have to get attacked and a lot of basically good parents and good kids have to suffer. It’s reminding me of how my own mother was treated back in the late 1950s and early 60s because she was a single divorced mother. And myself. Back then I didn’t need people to know dad was a crook to get placed in the problem child box, just that my mom was divorced and still didn’t have a man in the house.

I wouldn’t be telling this story if I didn’t think there was a point here I’d like people to get. I am not that narcissistic. You hear a lot of talk from the religious right about morals and values and what great champions of these they are and it’s all bullshit. They’re a bunch of tribalistic runts thumping their drums and screaming at anyone who isn’t of the tribe. It’s time the other tribes started thumping back because actually the moral high ground isn’t theirs.

That’s the story I’m telling here.  So to continue…and here I am reposting some of what I’ve written previously about mom’s first boyfriend…

There’s a reason my generation are called the baby boomers. We are the generation born to the ones who fought that war, came home, and all at once returned to what would have been normal lives were it not for the war…which for heterosexuals (and homosexuals, because the closet was not an option but a necessary means of survival in those days…) meant getting married and having kids.  All at once.  It was literally a baby boom.  Housing was scarce for the new families for years.  Suburban Levittowns sprang up all over America.  Schools had to be built, many schools, many, Many schools, to handle the load…only to later be decommissioned as my old high school eventually was, after the last of the boom had graduated. We are a massive bulge in the population, and that is because there was a war.  A very big, catastrophic, savage and bloody war…that changed so much…so very very much…

Mom told me often about the sailor she dated during WWII. When she got started, I could see that look of remembrance of first love in her eyes, hear it in her voice, still, so many years later.  So many little things about him she remembered vividly.  So many stories about the times they had together…about waiting patiently for his letters from overseas during the war…about how her father disliked Jews, but came to see them as fellow neighbors in life by coming to know the Jewish man she loved.  She loved him, probably to her dying day.

When I asked her once why she married Dad instead, she said her sailor was on a ship that was ordered into Nagasaki harbor after the war ended, and that his ship became trapped in the harbor briefly due to all the bodies floating in it.  She said the sight of it had driven him mad.  And for years I wondered, never doubting that he’d gone mad as mom had said, if that bodies trapping a big U.S. navy ship part of the story could possibly be true.  Really?  Perhaps he’d seen lots of bodies certainly…but so many they trapped a huge Navy ship?  Madness if it will strike, strikes young men around the age he was, so perhaps it would have happened to him anyway.  But I saw a post Conor Friedersdorf made in which he linked to an Atlantic article about World War II…The Real War. In it was related the experiences of a two soldiers, Neil McCallum and his friend “S.” who came upon the body of a man after a shell had landed at his feet…

“Good God,” said S., shocked, “here’s one of his fingers.” S. stubbed with his toe at the ground some feet from the corpse. There is more horror in a severed digit than in a man dying: it savors of mutilation. “Christ,” went on S. in a very low voice, “look, it’s not his finger.”

…and I got part way though the Atlantic article, when this passage struck me…

In the great war Wilfred Owen was driven very near to madness by having to remain for some time next to the scattered body pieces of one of his friends. He had numerous counterparts in the Second World War. At the botched assault on Tarawa Atoll, one coxswain at the helm of a landing vessel went quite mad, perhaps at the shock of steering through all the severed heads and limbs near the shore. One Marine battalion commander, badly wounded, climbed above the rising tide onto a pile of American bodies. Next afternoon he was found there, mad.

…and I realized then how I knew that war had been sanitized greatly by the mainstream press at the time so as not to damage homefront moral.  So I saw it then that yes, it could have been just as Morris told mom. Just imagine the aftermath of the first plutonium bomb, small as they say that one was, compared to what nuclear weapons can do nowadays.  Reading this Atlantic article I could see how it probably was exactly as mom had said.

So her sailor boyfriend became lost in madness.

Mom told me his family eventually had him committed to a mental hospital.  Mom was heartbroken.  Then her father had his stroke, or series of really bad ones.  He lingered, back in a time when medical care could do precious little for stroke victims.  When he passed away, mom was devastated.  Ruth probably was too.  Growing up I sometimes wondered if Ruth’s bitter view of life was in part because the only man she ever loved was gone.  Sometimes I feel like I need to cut her memory a break.  Sometimes.

In any event, Ruth sold their house, and apparently everything else my maternal grandfather Albert owned, including his business making and selling radios back in a time when radio was the high tech of its age.  I’ve written elsewhere about my doubts about the totality of this story.  But that isn’t what I want to go into here.  Mom would always tell me when I was growing up and exhibited an interest in electric gizmos, how much like her father I was.  At a very young age I would bring old junked radios I found in the dump and got them working again.  It wasn’t a lot of effort…back then radios were mostly vacuum tube contraptions and getting them back in shape was mostly a matter of taking the tubes to the local drugstore and running them on the tube testers that were ubiquitous then.

I would replace the bad ones with good and…presto…a working radio.  I never thought it was any big deal but mom encouraged that in me, along with my artistic talents.  I was a tinkerer, but also a budding romantic, and when I got a shortwave working I would sit with it for hours listening to the signals from distant lands, completely absorbed in the wonder of hearing signals from worlds beyond my little neighborhood.  When I was in fifth grade mom’s older brother Wayne bought me my first Heathkit radio kit, which I dove into happily.  I would have been nine then.  By then I also had my first camera, given to me when I showed some talent in the photography department.  Mom told me grandad Albert was also an amateur photographer and showed me some of his work…mostly poses of mom.

She was his darling girl and it really scarred her deeply when he passed away in such a painful, lingering way.  She never hesitated to encourage anything in me that she could see something of her dad in.  We didn’t have much when I was growing up…I never got every toy I wanted.  But I got nearly every book I asked for and anything that encouraged my interests in electronics and art she did her best to provide.  In many ways I owe a lot to granddad Albert.  I have always wished I had a chance to know him.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Mom and Ruth moved to California, to live near where her younger brother Dean lived in Pasadena. Mom and Ruth lived there for several years, and then one day they went for a trip to Catalina Island, and on the pier at Avalon she met dad.  They fell in love, married, and shortly thereafter they had a kid.  Me.

So many people died in that war…many from the two atomic bomb blasts alone.  Every year they toll the bells in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the a-bomb dead.  And every year it’s been in the back of my thoughts always to wonder if I was born because of one of those atomic bombs.  But that war violently changed a great many lives, and I am certainly not the only war baby ever born, who but for war would not be.

To be continued…

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