February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

25. Father Knows Best: Home and General

By |2023-12-13T01:13:48+01:00December 2nd, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
American poet Randall Jarrell.
T

hough my mother was gone and my switchboard heartbreak was still raw, home remained a sweet place, mostly because its nooks, crannies, and trees had become a cellular part of my daily motion (turning “familiarity breeds contempt” on end).

The porch walls against which I had thrown countless tennis balls and baseballs in my Walter Mitty role were scuffed with dents from my throws.

Whereas before my mother had objected to all this male noisemaking, she was now, in 1965, a someone who had belonged to a before.

In that before, the house at 3434 34th Street had included mother, father, and mischief-maker, that merchant-in-chief, me. Now all was calmer. Spain seemed like an era ago. Every morning I’d wake to find at least two newspapers on the dining room table, the Washington Post and the New York Times, the latter fetched by my father from the local drugstore when it opened not much past dawn.

By the time I rose at eight, he’d read all the papers and circled in red marker the articles he thought I should read to prepare myself for his version of my day, which included chats about world events when we’d go out for dinner later at the local cafeteria some five blocks away. We’d walk there, as always, since neither of my parents had ever owned or driven a car. Though the world was in most respects just as spacious then as it is now, the notion of walking someplace, and talking along the way, seemed somehow more normal, if not feasible and desirable.

My father busied himself reading the Greeks at my age, twelve, while prowling the streets of New York pretending to be very adult.

The living room was, predictably, lined with bookshelves and made thicker by the month, as my father’s vast collections grew to epic size. I rarely touched his books, preferring my parallel life lived through sports scores. I did open the books occasionally to feel at home with the passage of time, since each one was signed “Percy Winner,” with the date beside it. My favorite was a small blue tome titled “The Discourses of Epictetus,” and my affection for the book had no relationship whatsoever to the writings of that ancient Greek sage. It was the signature I reveled in: “Percival Horace Winner, 1913,” which in essence meant my father busied himself reading the Greeks at my age, twelve, while prowling the streets of New York pretending to be very adult and embroidering his name “Percival Horace” instead of Percy, to earn membership in the “cool” of his streetcar and typhoid time. I loved this book. I loved fondling it. I thought of it with greater affection than Sam’s breasts, and this by itself, this love of words, made me smile. I wished I’d had the book handy when Sam made her speech. It would have impressed her, I think. Or I could have shown it to Marcia, but no doubt her tears would have made the old ink bleed.

We, the father and son of 3434, made do largely without a TV. There was the old Motorola from 1958 my father tuned into only to watch the nightly news. He preferred Huntley and Brinkley to Walter Cronkite, disdaining the latter’s avuncular style. I, of course, also disdained the avuncular since I tended to disdain all words I didn’t understand until they made an effort to understand me, or my father explained them. He did explain why he liked Huntley and Brinkley, and that was because one tended to lean to the right, the other to the left. I examined both these men carefully and to me they simply sat upright and spoke to the camera. No doubt my eyes, more attentive to box scores and not steeled by the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, was unable to discern the slight right and left leaning. Perhaps it was all in the shoulders.

This female-less life left my father to his old male friends from the war, when he’d worked in psychological warfare, which I understood as trying to fool the enemy by feeding it lies or sending spies into occupied lands to gather secrets.

One man who came by on a fairly regular basis, usually on weekends, was the General. He of course had a surname but I was told to call him “General”, and I followed the order.

He was a dapper man in his seventies endowed with wit and kindness and a way with boys. He told me stories of the war, when he’d been a B-17 captain, a member of the Army Air Corps. He told me there was no Air Force then, belying the suggestions my comic books offered. The army was of the stubborn belief planes were of little use, until they proved essential, and only then was the Air Force born. He gave me Randall Jarrell’s short but potent poem to read, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (Jarrell had flown during the war), and said one day he’d surprise me with “a leap into the past.”

That day came in early winter when he arranged with my father to fetch me on a weekend, and together we drove in his car to the National Archives, at which as a retired general, he had special permission to enter its stacks, not usually available to the public. We entered a giant dusty room filled with stacks of books and photo albums that rose floor to ceiling, as high as any dinosaur.

A friend of his had arranged dozens of photo albums piled one atop another on a big oval table at the center of the room. The General knew I liked war comics and listened avidly to my father’s own stories. He also knew I imagined pilots as heroes and warriors, immortal in the way that a young man believes his heroes to be, a world in which characters, like superheroes, did not die. They’d remain airborne, inked and in color, because mortality was not yet in the young mind’s real grasp.

The General changed everything for me that day, becoming a Sam in his own right, but in a way that was far less casual and set aside libido as a trifle.

In the books before me, which he invited me to leaf through, were hundreds of photos of very young men in front of their aircraft, many adorned with the painted likes of Hollywood sex symbols, like Betty Grable’s cleavage, and each plane had a name, like a B-17 which might be called “The Betty Express.” The General told me the airmen were allowed to paint the planes to give them relief from anxiety in their free time and let them dream of peacetime and imagined bedroom scenes with their wives or the women of their dreams. The General was blunt about sex. “They let us think of women so we wouldn’t have to think about not coming back.”

Over the next hours I came to understand the meaning of the visit and these hundreds of 8 x 10 images, most in black and white but a few in color. They were pictures of entire crews that left on bombing missions over Europe and Asia but never came back, hit by flack or shot down by enemy fighters. The men I saw looked like boys and almost all of them smiled, with the exception usually of the captain, whose expression was inscrutable, like that of a man who couldn’t bear to smile lest he mislead the image.

The General had been one of those captains, then a Major, and had survived some sixty bombing missions over Germany. He’d given me the Jarrell poem because he’d lost countless gunners, and as the poem said, their remains were often hosed out after landing. “We never looked back. We knew. You don’t look at that kind of thing. You just hope you develop a callous big enough that you get used to the hurt.”

The General had lost countless gunners, and their remains were often hosed out after landing.

I didn’t always fully understand what the General said, but his meaning was always clear: do not glorify combat. And at a deeper level, learn to differentiate between fact and fiction, and whatever you do, don’t let your emotions get out of hand.

“We got up every day and we knew some of us wouldn’t be coming back, and we were all scared shitless, and some of us cried, and others just broke down, because, you know, and those times do all sorts of crazy things to you. You just have to try to stay even-keeled and not give in to panic, ever, because if you do, you just pass it down like the flu, and then you can’t do a thing. You’re stuck, paralyzed.”

The General’s words many times came to mind in these years so many decades later, when a virus was greeted with a panic welcome mat.

I was not an impressionable boy. I had strong ideas and a fierce love of a fantasy world I wished to be mine and true, but I could not ignore what I saw and felt as I leafed through those pages of young ghosts.

The General showed me a smaller album with his planes and his crews, he’d flown B-24s over Romanian oil fields before commanding his B-17, which flew from outside London for much of 1944 and into 1965.

We said little as he drove me home. I was too immersed in sadness, my comic book world suddenly dented. I felt a sudden urge to be with my mother, with a woman in charge, someone I imagined would heal the wounds of the day.

The General took me to the back door, patted me on the head, shook my father’s hand, and left, but not before giving me a present. It was a book titled “A Night to Remember,” a recently released recounting of the Titanic disaster by a writer named Walter Lord, a friend of the General. “When you’re through with the comic books, read this. This will tell you how things can happen out of the blue that none can dream of, and you’ll like it.”

I accepted the book with sincere but casual thanks, not much expecting to read it, let alone imagining that doing so would change my life.

By the time I opened its pages, my father saw less of the General, who would soon vanish entirely, as if he’d fallen off the edge of the pre-Columbus planet, a world I knew existed because my father had shown me paintings and maps of what many then believed would happen if you sailed too far into the vast and forbidding sea. People, like boats, could disappear into the flat-world’s waiting crevice.

But the sinking vessel featured on the cover of the General’s gift, Titanic, my make-believe genes seized upon and salvaged with passion, so that as others of my age focused their amazement on transistor radios and talking Christmas trees, I instead —already a devotee of ocean liners — turned myself over whole to the year 1912,  transformed not into a cockroach but the emissary of  a calamity whose eerie side soon came to make me tick.

A plethora of lost planes and one huge lost boat, both introduced to me by a retired general, the General.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.