Three Stories From My Father's Life Which Have Nothing To Do With Me
I am taller and stronger than him now, but this is not why he won't meet my gaze. He clears his throat, begins, stops short, begins again. This is what he tells me.
On October 28,1970, my father, who was not yet my father, was an E-6 Petty Officer commanding a PBR, one of hundreds of small U.S. Navy boats that patrolled the murky tributaries of the Mekong Delta.
The sun rose, and soon my father began to sweat under the rough rumpled cotton of his fatigues. Sitting in the bow of the PBR, he scribbled a letter to his mother with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook, the pages of which were smeared and crinkled from getting wet and drying out and getting wet again and drying out again. The index finger on his right hand bore a deep gash where the blade of his pocketknife had closed on it the day before, and he winced from time to time as he wrote. He was thinking about the motorcycle he would buy when he got back to America. He was thinking about the Pacific Coast Highway, and Big Sur.
In the boat’s stern the gunner, a nineteen-year-old named Maurice, sat drinking an Iron City beer instead of cleaning the rear .50 caliber machine gun. The machinist, whose real name no one knew because he went by Gizmo, sat next to Maurice. Instead of performing the scheduled check of the bilge pump, Gizmo finished his second beer of the morning and lobbed the can into the water like a hand grenade, with a smooth overhead arc. The can hit the surface with barely a sound. It floated, bobbed a bit, then took on water and sank as the boat cruised past.
The E-2, a boy from Arizona called Nicky, was sick because he’d neglected to use the pills for making water potable. He lay sleeping at my father’s feet on the deck he was supposed to be cleaning.
When he wrote home to his mother, my father described what he and his crew did as ‘cruising the river.’ What they were supposed to be doing was hunting. What they were actually doing was staying alive by avoiding the places where they knew a fight would find them.
But on that morning a fight found them anyway. The creek they were trying to hide in was only thirty or so feet wide, and the foliage on either bank, which seemed close enough to reach out and brush your hand through, burst open suddenly with gunfire. Gizmo took a round in the throat. My father saw Gizmo’s boots go up and then drop out of sight over the side of the boat, but he did not hear Gizmo hit the water. My father jumped to his feet and the notebook fell to the deck and got wet yet again. He took only one step toward the .50 caliber machine gun in the bow before the mortar shell which should have ended his life but didn’t shrieked down out of the air and lodged in the deck between his feet but did not explode.
Five years later, I was born.
On August 3, 1971, my father, who was not yet my father, rode the motorcycle he’d dreamed of along a stretch of US route 101, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, south of San Francisco. The bike was a Honda CB750, blue with silver trim, a four-cylinder monster.
Like a lot of young men fresh out of the service, my father wore his fine brown hair long in a sort of small, unconscious revolt against the constraints of the military and, by extension, the wholesome mores of the fifties society that had reared him. He had no political agenda, however. He rode his Honda and shaved when his face itched and drank too much and let his hair grow. His heart had been broken, to the strains of Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May,’ but he didn’t spend time thinking of that, or of much else. The war was now merely a job that had allowed him to buy his motorcycle and spend a year cruising the coastline between Washington and California with his friend Gary.
Gary had been my father’s third machinist, replacing Gizmo, whose body still rested beneath the coffee-brown waters of the Mekong. Gary was convinced that he’d been chosen by God to live a charmed life, and so never did believe he could die, not even in Vietnam. Despite sleeping on patrol and never wearing either his flak jacket or his helmet, Gary had departed the war whole and untouched. His happy recklessness continued in civilian life. Every day he rode without a helmet, wearing nothing but a pair of cutoff denim shorts. Some days he wore sandals, some days he went barefoot. My father, who had a chest full of shrapnel, wore long pants and a thick leather jacket, no matter how hot the day was.
The sun leapt out from behind the granite cliff above as they rounded one of the thousand blind turns that dot route 101, with Gary in the lead as always. Gary was the first to see the station wagon, whose driver had for some reason decided to pass a slower car on the turn. An instant later my father saw the station wagon, and both he and Gary did the only thing they could, which was ditch their bikes.
My father hit the ground on his right hip, bounced once, and slid off the side of the road into a tangle of tall grass and saplings. Gary wasn’t able to angle away from the oncoming car. He went underneath the wheels and came out the other side and kept going for seventy yards, leaving most of the skin and muscle from the right side of his body in a greasy red swath on the pavement.
My father got to his feet and limped along the highway toward where his friend lay. Cars stopped, and people opened their doors and stood with their hands cupped to their eyes, trying to see what had happened. My father called Gary by his name several times. When he reached him he saw that Gary’s shorts had been ripped from his body, saw that he was naked and dying. Then my father knelt beside Gary and called him ‘motherfucker,’ once and softly, through tears, because this was the sort of thing which happened in war but did not happen on a sunny day in California when you’d survived a war and had nothing to do but smile and look forward to a few beers and maybe some girls later that night. It did not happen, unless you were a stupid motherfucker.
Four years later, I was born.
On January 13, 1975, my father, who was not yet my father, lay in a semi-private room at Seton Hospital in his hometown of Waterville, Maine.
He’d come back home shortly after Gary died, and taken a job at a bakery. He still drank too much, but now he shaved each morning and had his hair cut twice a month by the same man who’d cut his hair when he was a boy. After a while he met my mother, who was not yet my mother, and they spent a year’s worth of nights drinking and dancing. Then my mother became pregnant. She quit drinking, and cut the dancing to once or maybe twice a week. They married, and then early one morning my father woke with his lungs heavy and liquid, too weak to stop my mother from bringing him to the hospital.
A translucent curtain the color of a dead salmon bisected the room my father lay in. On the other side of the curtain a man was throwing up. My father listened to the man retch. He heard the man’s wife making small consolatory sounds at the bedside. He could not see them but imagined the wife rubbing the man’s shoulders as he heaved, or else putting a cool hand to the back of his neck. From what he’d been able to gather through the curtain, my father knew the man was dying.
My father’s doctor came into the room and passed by the couple on the other side of the curtain without a word. The doctor offered my father only a perfunctory greeting, then said what he’d come to say.
“We believe you may have lung cancer,” the doctor told him. “It’s unusual in a man so young, to be sure, but not unheard of. I’ve called a specialist from oncology. He’ll be in to see you after reviewing the file.” The doctor tapped the end of his pen against the footboard of the bed, once, in a gesture my father took as a sort of apology. Then he left.
My father lay there for two hours waiting for the oncologist, or my mother, or anyone else to arrive. He listened to the ocean sound of his lungs, rising like a cresting wave on the inhalation, falling like that wave receding through sand and pebbles on the exhalation. He listened, too, to the man in the other bed, and the wife’s helpless, mournful cooing.
My father did not bargain with the God of his childhood. He did not promise to become pious, or to quit smoking and drinking. He did not promise to be the perfect father to his unborn child. Instead he concentrated on his body, and tried to decide if he believed it was dying. After a while, he became satisfied that it was not.
So when the oncologist came to tell him it was an oversight, that the other doctor had mistaken the black lumps of shrapnel in the x-ray for potential malignancies, my father only nodded silently in a way that made clear he knew all this without having to be told. And when my mother arrived and threw herself on the bed and cried tears of relief my father told her to quiet down, that there was a woman on the other side of the curtain who didn’t need to hear any of that.
Five months later, I was born.