Except in really exceptional circumstances with really exceptional people, father-son relationships can be complicated, difficult and even bloody. Sure, there are some “Hallmark” father-son teams, and a lot more good fathers than most people usually recognize these days. However, the stress of individuation, autonomy, father-son competition and the ever present generation gap can make for a mess of difficulties with the best of people – and often do.
My relationship with my father wasn’t exempt from such problems. It was one fraught with conflict, resentment and distance. It ended well, but it took a long, very hard road to get there. It is not a story I can tell with any justice in one sitting. Still, it seems that this is a good a day is any to tell you what I can in a single serving.
Dad was a hard a man as they come. He was rigid, unyielding and not one for compromise with anyone, including his sons. A tattoo was etched into his forearm; a skull skewered by a dagger from the top. A single strand of ribbon was wrapped back and forth, starting at the handle, crossing the dead, bony face, and ending at the base. There were three words on it, one at each pass of the ribbon.
Death Before Dishonor.
It was a sentiment that at different times in my young life seemed either cool in an old school sort of way, or crazy, which is about the interpretation I would expect from a snot-nosed kid whose experience with hardship was being forced to mow the yard and occasionally hearing the word “no.”
But it was, as I look back fifty years to the first I remember of that tattoo, a sentiment that was much more to him than skin and ink. And now it is much more to me.
Born in the shock wave of the great stock market crash, he spent his early years on a farm in depression era Texas with 12, yes 12 brothers and sisters. He signed up for the military when he was 16, an act he later described without ever really explaining as escaping his family. He barely missed the carnage of WWII. It did not save him from Korea, though, where he completed two combat tours, leaving his blood, bits of flesh and whatever innocence he had on the battlefield.
He had been awarded two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a string of other commendations that I know of. I did not learn about this from my parents. I might have never known about them but for stumbling upon the evidence. I found them one day when I was 15 and poking through his old effects in the bottom of a box in the garage. I asked him what they were for.
“Nothing,” he said, and in the next moment he was walking away. I asked my mother later that day and, after a lot of pressing, she told me. Most of the recognition he got was for being shot, twice; for taking a back full of shrapnel from a mortar round that killed two other men that were standing with him. One of them was a close friend. The damage to his back caused pain for the rest of his life.
Then there was the scar on his leg from a phosphorous grenade that burned him, white hot, to the bones of his ankle and calf.
The Silver Star was for doing damage to others. The story, near as I can remember it, was that his platoon was stranded on a hilltop at a fuel depot. They were low on ammunition and out of food. The base of the hill was packed with North Koreans and Chinese, leaving them effectively trapped and starving. During the night my father and four other men improvised the best weapon they had, diesel fuel, and used it to make fire bombs. They used them effectively, and burned a good many enemy soldiers alive. That was in 1950. He was 21 years old.
He got a nice, shiny medal for it. My mother also told me that he woke up screaming and soaked in sweat every night for nearly five years after he got home. Dreams of burning men.
“Nothing,” he said, and now I knew why – at least as much as a snot-nosed kid could know.
In 1965 he went to Vietnam as an advisor. In Vietnam, “advisor” was the English word for “primary target” to the NVA and Viet Cong. And of course, he got shot there, too. He was also exposed to Agent Orange, which was like a ticking time bomb planted in his battered body. Later, in his mid-fifties, when he first started showing signs of brain impairment which was later diagnosed as early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, the military was quick to respond with their typical support. They turned down his request to increase his disability and informed him rather abruptly that any connection between Agent Orange and Alzheimer’s Disease was purely speculative – probably the ranting of quacks and lawyers.
They reversed that position and recognized the connection in 2010, 19 years after he (and a lot of other vets) were dead. I am sure if they had known they would have gladly compensated him for his troubles.
I did not set out to write about the military’s shortcomings, even though those shortcomings are still shortchanging a world full of fathers. I just wanted to acknowledge what killed him. As Warren Farrell quoted a Vietnam Vet as saying in his book, The Myth of Male Power, “I got killed in Vietnam. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
What I really wanted to tell you was how my Dad got hardened; how he became the man he was, and yes, the father that he was – every distant, harsh, sometimes cruel and overbearing part of him. It was all these things, I think. It was old school, blue-pill manhood, the unspeakable nightmare of wars, the quiet, unsung weight of endless obligation to a wife and children, to country and comrade; to many things other than himself.
Or maybe it is just me, still looking for an answer, for the ten thousandth time. These questions never fail to haunt the mind of a son.
What could make a man live by such ironclad convictions and dedication, to a job, event to a country, but have seemingly so little to invest in his own flesh and blood? What made him so blind to the idea that providing meant more than clothing and beans on a plate? What could make a man willing to catch bullets, but not a baseball?
Those are the questions the son in me always wants to ask. And the son in me is never satisfied with the answers. Perhaps that is because the son in me is not a man, but a child.
The man in me sees something different. Like the fact that those plates of beans never quit coming. Like the clothes that were always on my back, and the roof that was always over my head. Like that fact that I could afford to be pissed off about having to mow a yard. And like the fact that he spared me the burden of knowing how it was all paid for.
The son in me spent a lot of years raking my father over the coals. I excoriated him time and again in my mind, for failing to give things he did not have to give. I spent years blaming whatever failures I had in life on him. Geez, if he had just had a better father I would probably be president by now.
And the fact is, my father probably did prevent me from becoming president, or any kind of politician, or a personal injury lawyer, or a scumbag academician peddling victim theory for a buck and a shot at tenure.
Remember that tattoo? Like I said, it wasn’t a fashion statement. If there was one thing my father would take me to task for, and sometimes brutally, it was to act without honor. Those three words, “Death Before Dishonor”? Well, I am pretty convinced that he would have been willing to apply that standard to me as well.
My Dad made early and fast progress in the military. On the battlefield he was a dynamo. He went from Private E-2 to Sergeant First Class, E-7, in just ten months from quick, battlefield promotions.
He never got promoted again.
His tendency to tell the truth, even in the face of power, did not do wonders for his career. It was a career that was more than once threatened to be terminated due to insubordination. My father wasn’t going to compromise, not with anyone. He was never willing to kiss an ass to get a stripe. As I found out in my own stint in the military, one that was also graced with the same lack of promotions, the apple did not fall that far from the tree.
Sometimes we learn because people take time to teach us and spell things out. Sometimes we learn because we have a living example of what we need to learn in front of us all the time. My father, covered in scars and the weight of more horrors than I could ever imagine, was my lesson. He was hard, and he made me hard. He was principled, and he made me principled. He was willing to pay a price for what he believed in, and he would not tolerate a son without a spine or who lived without honor.
I still don’t like the way I got all the lessons. The child in me probably never will. And I cannot honestly say that he didn’t also teach me what I did not want to be in some ways. There was some of him I am glad I did not become, and some of him I wish I had not become, but I have.
Still, it seems my spine, the one he gave me, has come in handy in the life I have chosen. And so has my honor. I would rather be dead than to be without it.