I never knew my father. Oh, I lived under his roof for twenty years, and I saw him more or less daily, but I never knew him. He wasn't an easy man to know. He'd been horribly, physically abused as a child by his mother's boyfriend. In today's world where you can drop a dime on such a monster, Child Protective Services would have taken him and his siblings out of that household. But it wasn't that way in Mississippi in the early 1920's.
I don't think anyone, even my mother who was married to him for fifty-one years, ever really knew him. I don't think he ever confided in anyone: "I'm lonely." Or, I'm scared. I'm depressed. Perhaps, if he had, his life might have been different. Though I didn't really know him, I know things about him and about the difficult journey life had been for him.
He was forced to work in the fields rather than allowed to attend school. Apparently, he seldom had kindness much less love shown to him. As soon as he was able, he left home to make his own way in the world though he never abandoned his mother and siblings and tried for most of his life to "buy" the love which by rights should have been his from birth.
He started smoking cigarettes at age twelve. Also at that age, he worked as a manual laborer building the bridge that spanned the Mississippi River between Natchez and Louisiana. Hard work and a day's wage were his badges of independence and manhood.
When he was twenty-three, he joined the Army and was shipped from Louisiana to Washington state where he was trained in construction. He and his fellow soldiers were the ones who would build the roads and bridges when the Allied Forces invaded Europe. The Army became the home he'd never known. He was taught hygiene and the importance of toothbrushes, clean, pressed clothes, and shined shoes. For the first time, he had friends, and fierce loyalty, already part of his makeup, became ingrained in his character.
When D-Day came, he was on the beach with death all around him. The next few years in Europe offered experiences he never forgot though he tried so hard to forget that eventually he forgot everything.
Europe was like a new world to him. He seems to have had an affinity for languages and easily picked up French and German. He had girlfriends which was no surprise because he was a handsome young man. His pictures from that time always remind me of the young John Wayne.
One of his best friend's was shot by a sniper. He carried his buddy all the way back to headquarters and ruined a disc in his back. As a result, he suffered back problems his entire life.
In London, he had a deja vu experience that puzzled and unnerved him. I have a faded framed print my mother bought in a dime store when I was a kid. He told me when he saw the picture about walking down a cobbled street in London. Before he turned the corner, he knew what lay around that curve. He described it in detail to his buddy who was him. When they continued following the lane, the street scene was just as he'd related it. The picture was that street.
When he was older and Alzheimer's already had sunk its tentacles into him, he told me of how they cleared mined airfields in Europe. He told me of things he'd tried so hard to forget. For all that he was a big, burly man, he had the sensitive soul of a poet. Childhood abuse and the horrors of war changed him, and he could never be rid of those nightmares.
He worked in road and commercial building construction using what he'd learned in the Army. He was a perfectionist when it came to his work. He helped build airbases and interstate roads in Louisiana. One of his last jobs was building high-rise dormitories at Northeast Louisiana State University, now called LSU at Monroe.
He loved sweets probably because he'd never had any as a child. He liked good jokes, Jackie Gleason, funny movies, westerns, and music. Music was his true love. He could pick out any tune he heard either on our piano or on his guitar. Playing his guitar and singing the songs of the depression popularized by Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams were his way of dealing with the mean blues when they overtook him.
His lifelong cigarette habit resulted in emphysema and two heart bypass surgeries, and still he couldn't quit.
He was not easy to live with because he didn't know how to show the deep love he felt. He had that stiff southern male pride and a hair-trigger temper. He emulated the way he'd been treated when he was a child. I firmly believe a man deserves to be remembered for his best acts. I saw him give the best of himself to my daughter when she came along. I forgave him for his failures where I and my brothers were concerned long ago.
As Alzheimer's overtook him, he finally was able to forget. I looked into his faded china-blue eyes, and saw...nothing. It was like looking in the windows of an empty house. I had a dream shortly after he was diagnosed in which he came to me. He was young and handsome and carried one of those old-fashioned suitcases. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he came to say goodbye. That he had to go and was happy to be able to do so. I think in his heart, in his mind, he left. I hope he found peace. Years later, his body surrendered.
So, wherever you are, Daddy, happy birthday. Be at peace.