15 As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. (Psalm 103, KJV)
As any regular reader of my blog knows, I spent 6 years of my childhood two miles away from the #2 Cold War target in the US, Offutt AFB, home of the Strategic Air Command. Most people from my generation have experienced school bomb drills and air raid sirens. Many people built bomb shelters to protect themselves and their family from The Bomb.
Mad Magazine was big in our house (never underestimate an irreverent Irishman with a dark sense of humor and the highest government security clearance) and among the song parodies that filled that magazine was this:
“Mine eyes have seen the horror of the coming of the Reds
They are tearing up Old Glory into 50 million shreds
They are hiding in our closets they are underneath our beds …
They are peeking through my window late at night when I watch (Jack)Paar
I have seen them in the glove compartment of the family car
They are hiding in the treetops they control the DAR
Let’s fight until they’re gone” (“Battle Hymn of the John Birch Society” Mad Magazine)
And, of course, Tom Lehrer’s great song, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”
Dad had a poster that said, “In case of nuclear attack, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” Putting our heads down between our knees WAS one of THE bomb raid protocols.
None of this was very serious to me until I saw the film, On the Beach. It terrified me. I was 11.
For years I’d been lulled to sleep by the sounds of the B-52 jets down the street either cleaning out their engines or preparing to take off for the nightly flights to protect American air space. But the night after watching that movie, I couldn’t go to sleep. My dad came in to talk to me, and I explained that I was afraid of the bomb. I didn’t want to end up like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck on a beach in New Zealand waiting for the fallout to get me.
My dad was very understanding and he explained that because we lived on a primary target we wouldn’t have to worry about fallout because we would be vaporized. Maybe not every kid would find that comforting, but I went to sleep knowing that a death like that was better than a long, drawn-out, painful, scary, debilitating death. At 11 I was concerned about the quality of life and death.
So that was my dad when he was alive, pretty young and pretty frisky.
Less than a decade later, he was dead, and not at the hands of the Russians in a moment of bright vapor, but after 20 years fighting a progressive, debilitating illness. It was my yellow cat under the bed, anyway, not the Red Army. He died of one of the many complications of Multiple Sclerosis, specifically, pneumonia. He was 46.
The last time I saw him alive was around February 18, 1972. I went to the nursing home to visit and do my homework as I did almost every weekend when I took the Greyhound home from college. He had been in a coma for a month or more. We knew what was happening. One of the tasks I often performed for him during that time was suctioning the mucus from his throat so he could breathe. A lot of things like that are deep down in my memory, like once (my brother told me) I’d done mouth-to-mouth on my dad because he stopped breathing. I think living through things like that, our memory just says, in the fullness of time, “Dude, I can’t handle ALL of this so some of it’s going into the vault, ‘K?” Anyhoo…
That afternoon I sat beside my dad, reading some poetry from some anthology assigned for school. I held his hand as I read. It was warm and alive, but not responsive to my hand, normally. But suddenly that afternoon, I felt him grasp my hand in return. That could be something awful — or not. I looked at him, and his snow-shadow blue eyes were open. In them was all the love in the world. We looked at each other for a long time, and I got the message that what was ahead of him was all right with him. Then I realized his sudden movement had pulled the IV out of his arm, and I had to call a nurse. That cascaded into having to phone my mom and my moment with my dad was over.
The next weekend I was up in Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. Sunday morning, I wanted out of there worse than anything. They were hemming and hawing about driving down Berthoud Pass in the snow, and I was just, “We have to GO!” I was a real asshole, determined to get out of there. Their car was stuck in front of our cabin. I unstuck that mofo using cardboard. I wanted to leave Winter Park (instead of staying to ski?) and there was no real reason other than school the next day. Finally, we left. The pass was clear, the dorm was the dorm, and Monday morning came. I went to class. While the professor was lecturing, someone came to the door and the prof gestured to me to come up. “Your Aunt Martha is waiting for you in your dorm,” he said.
I didn’t need to be told, but she told me anyway. We went to my room, and I packed what I would need for a couple weeks. After that, all the bullshit of funerals and words began, and with all that, the important part; the inescapable personal lesson that death is irrevocable, permanent, non-negotiable, finito.
That was fifty years ago and the calendar this year — except for 2022 not being a leap year — is the same. Monday is February 28 just as it was in 1972. And, for some bizarre reason, I’m missing my dad more than I have since the year he died.
He wasn’t always my dad, and he wasn’t always sick. For a while he was a teenager attending high school in Livingston, MT and living with his aunt and uncle. He was — I know mostly from having found some of his high school homework — a pretty deep-thinking kid. As I wrote here a few days ago, he wanted badly to be a poet. His favorite book was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated in 1859 by Edward Fitzgerald. Here’s a poem my dad wrote when he was 17, clearly trying very hard to imitate the poetry in his favorite book.
“And should it be, with yourself you are not ‘friends,’
How expect you more than the bitterest of ends?
Where will you find life-long, true, companions?”
Nowhere. This is a lesson I have learned, dad, and you were right. ❤
My dad, at age 17, was pretty wise. When I was 40 or so I realized I was embarking on the part of life my dad didn’t get to live. I hope I did all-right with the gift I’ve been given. I loved my dad — and I liked him. I know that even though I only “had” him for a short time, I was fortunate in the man who was my father. ❤