A wall of blood reared up off the coast of Sicily, thundered across the sands, and slammed full force right into my dad. WHUMP! It sent him reeling, his arms flailing like pinwheels, stumbling backward and backward, but never falling down, as if he had been on the receiving end of a Sugar Ray Robinson uppercut, the force of which alone kept him on his feet. The effect was psychedelic: Dad heard colors and saw sounds. The people who were most crucial during his first twenty-one years of life — his parents, grandparents, brother, aunts, uncles — flashed by in a hallucinogenic parade of fiery color.
When he got home from overseas, he was like a wind-up toy on amphetamines as he set about furiously laying bricks to form our house.
Dad was always engaged in some feverish activity — washing the dishes, changing the oil, building our house — but when I look back, it also seems like he never moved. From year to year, decade to decade, he’s remained immobile in my mind: 1962, 1972, 1982, sitting in the old, brown, corduroy rocking chair, like a cigar-store Indian with a two-thousand-yard stare. Now he is almost completely still. I hardly ever see him rise from the rocker. And the rocker doesn’t rock; it’s set in concrete. A pipe is stuck in his mouth, but he doesn’t blow the smoke out. Instead, the smoke spills out from between his lips, as if from a great burned-out fire inside his head.
Once, Dad met General George Patton, dressed to kill with his knee-high riding boots and his bloused, country-club riding breeches. Hands down, he was easily wearing the most eye-catching threads in the whole landing area. I know that he was spearheading the crusade against fascism, but from the way Dad described him — kicking sand around, stomach in, jaw out — he must have looked a hell of a lot like Mussolini.
No wood could be spared. That was the official dictum. But twenty-two planks had been set aside and placed on the wet beach, so that Patton could tiptoe across them and keep his boots dry.
As the general was going one way on these planks and Dad was going the other, for a brief moment their eyes met. Patton’s baby blues bored into Dad’s black pools. Patton didn’t like what he saw, and Dad didn’t quite know what he saw. The general wasn’t happy because his cover was blown. This humble, dark-complexioned private had caught him in an off moment: his helmet liner was off, his sweaty hair was matted together, and he was blotting the beads of perspiration on his forehead, like a grand madam powdering her sagging, pallid cheeks. Here he was, caught off-guard, acting human in the all-important eyes of the Other, even if those eyes belonged to a lowly, black-haired private.
As soon as Patton walked over the planks, they were picked up behind him and hammered together into crude coffins.
When I was a kid and we were winding our way down the road through Moon Creek woods, Dad would reach out the window and pound his beefy fist on the roof of the LeSabre: Indians had jumped on top of the car! Bompety-bomp. I would throw my arms around his neck from the back seat in excited fear, a good fear. It was one of many childhood fictions he created for my benefit. But there were other works of his that were decidedly nonfiction, having none of the sparkle of fantasy, and producing in me a sick fear, such as his vivid retelling of the bombing of the good ship Robert Rowan, on day two of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, World War II.
Despite his lack of formal theatrical training, Dad was a riveting Method actor. He alternately clawed at the air, hugged himself with abandon, and simulated explosion noises. He described, in a Marlon Brando mumble, the paper-thin strips of flesh, like molted snakeskins, which were hanging on rusty cables, torn from the hands of guys who had slid down them too fast into the lifeboats. He recounted, in a James Dean moan, how some soldiers soiled their pants or wet themselves, or how, if they were empty on both counts, as in my dad’s case, they experienced a throbbing, orgasmic tremor through the mysterious passages of their loins.
He punctuated the end of the narrative with a wild scream and collapsed, completely worn out emotionally and physically from his performance, and burrowed into a fetal position deep in the shag carpeting of the living room.
Then he sprang to his feet like an antelope waking up from a tranquilizer and delivered an encore, in which he recalled climbing down one of those cables and looking up to see the old supply sergeant standing on the ruptured, listing deck. The man was holding his arms straight out at his sides, his head back, in a crucifixion pose, staring up at the sky and slowly moving his lips, as if beseeching the gods to deliver an incendiary into his arms.
Mom would wince with guilty distress whenever he mentioned the cables. She would contort her face into a grimace, but it only made her beauty stand out all the more.
On another occasion, Dad related to me, in an urgent, Marilyn Monroe, little-girl-lost breathiness, how he had come upon a cat about thirty yards from shore. Its back or neck had been broken by the concussion of a bomb. There wasn’t a mark on it. Lying there, it looked confused, as if it couldn’t understand what had happened. He gently stroked its head, and then, not knowing what to do for it, he jumped up and ran away, carrying with him one more horror to repress.
If you find the American Heritage Picture History of World War II and turn to pages 376 and 377, you will be treated to a two-page photo layout of the Robert Rowan exploding in all its glory. The fighting temporarily halted as both sides stopped shooting and gaped upward in awe at the multicolored fingers of smoke clawing the sky.
At the end of Dad’s stint, the army confiscated his boots and gave them to a new recruit. He was sore about that. He liked wearing them. Those heavy boots made him feel grounded, anchored to the earth.
We kept his campaign ribbons though. They were stowed away, underneath his insurance policies, inside a small, battered, wooden chest with a carving of Jesus on the lid, which sits on top of his equally battered bureau. They have seen so little sunlight in all these years that their colors still retain a brilliancy. In particular, the green, orange, and brown threads of the European Theatre of Operations ribbon shine majestically.
Dad had to shoo away an Italian peddler who was trying to gather merchandise along the beach. The dead paratroopers who were drifting ashore certainly had a lot of goods to offer, but the army, acting on sound business principles, had other plans. They assigned Dad the task of helping the corpses ashore. All he had to do was take a firm hold of one of their many straps and lug them onto the sand. Their belts and straps and laces were fastened tight around their trunks and limbs, like bound parcels. At the invasion-eve pep rally the night before, their commanders had barked, “Tighten them up! Tighten them up!” This was to make them feel like tightly coiled springs, ready for action, invincible. But now their springs were sprung.
Dad told me that he tried to turn as many as he could onto their stomachs, to hide their hideously bloated, fish-bitten faces. Since these airborne boys had never gotten the chance to use their equipment, the army felt no compunction about stripping them down and reissuing all their gear to those next in line. Just about everything was taken off them, right down to their boots.
There is a picture, taken by war photographer Robert Capa, of these paratroopers on their plane the night of the jump. They’re all smiling into Capa’s lens like nervous bridegrooms. The next day they would be captured forever by the lens of Dad’s eye, after the Mediterranean had flooded their brains, swelling their heads to the size of pumpkins and washing away their nervous smiles.
The German flares lit up the nights. Every ship in the harbor shone without exception. All the guys scurried ashore when those crackling flares began their descent on the ends of baby parachutes. The flares took their sweet time falling, drifting ever so softly, cooing that an air raid was on the way. It was hard to pull yourself away from such a sight.
It was during one of those flare-lit nights that the outfit’s chaplain disappeared. There were several men who had been shaken by the night’s experience and were in pressing need of his soothing balm. But when morning came and the smoke cleared, he was nowhere to be found. Opinion among the men as to his fate quickly divided into three camps. Some argued that he was obviously the victim of a direct hit, having been blown to smithereens in his foxhole. Others held that it wasn’t quite a direct hit but, rather, a near hit, which buried him alive. Opposing these two groups was a small, beleaguered bunch who claimed that, for the father, this had been one air raid too many and that he had bugged out, gone over the hill.
Dad sided with these guys, and I think I would have too. I can easily imagine the chaplain cringing in his foxhole, his eardrums bursting from the explosions, his quivering hands gripping his rosary, his recitations of Hail Marys and Our Fathers interrupted by screams and bombs, until finally he snapped the rosary in half, jumped up, and ran.
There was one soldier who didn’t agree with any of these theories. He was an agnostic and didn’t believe that anyone could ever know what had happened to the chaplain.
The sergeants had told the men to dig ’em deep, and Dad had obliged. While he crouched in the foxhole, he could pretend that what was going on up above him was of another world. Still, sometimes he couldn’t stop himself from inching his head up above the lip of the hole to watch the show. Each blast would pick up a wisp of hair peeking out from beneath his helmet and lay it gently back down on his forehead like a mother’s hand. Occasionally the guns got lucky, and an unlucky German plane would languidly roll over and spiral gracefully to earth like an exhausted ballerina. The plane would crash in the distance and disappear, as if swallowed up in ink, and for a few minutes its trail of flaming debris would hang in the air. What was usually left was a large, glowing burn-hole on the side of a holy mountain, to which the devout would continue to make pilgrimages right on through the war.
It took 8,167 bricks to form the shell of our house, but Dad had miscalculated in his frenzy, and there were seventeen bricks left over, which forever sat in the back yard, sinking deeper and deeper into the earth with every passing year. We piously buried all of our pets out there in the yard, right in front of the sinking altar of unused bricks.
The late-night funeral ceremony we held for these beloved animals was replete with smoking jasmine incense and my father’s sepulchral intonations, as he held open in his hand, precisely halved, The Book of the Dead. But it was only a prop — he didn’t read from it; instead, he concocted his own mixture of sensical and nonsensical words: “dabbus morte,” “deebum torte,” “alarious thanatopsis.” In cadence with his chanting, I lowered the deceased pet into the grave, using a winch and platform built from my toy erector set.
The bricks were about halfway underground by 1965 and three-fourths by 1985. The rain ran off them and onto the communal grave of our dogs, cats, and dime-store goldfish, soaking them right down to their bones.
Mom participated as an acolyte in the burial of one goldfish and that was it. She alternately called our services corny and morbid. You see, Dad was stuck deep in the big muddy with a strawberry-blond, Scotch-Irish beauty of a wife who found it too painful to grasp the fact that Armageddons were fought in his head around the clock, every day, year after year. His head was on fire the morning Elvis got his first GI haircut, the afternoon Kennedy got blown to eternity, the night men landed on the moon.
Dad’s “Success in Business” correspondence school textbooks have served as excellent dust-catchers for nearly four decades on the highest shelf of the bookcase in the living room. Most of their pages have never been seen by the human eye, much less Dad’s. They had arrived in the mail with a thump on the doorstep every thirty days for thirteen months — THUMP . . . THUMP . . . THUMP. Like the thirteen steps a condemned man takes as he climbs the gallows.
Dad was the first one to hear them. Then he whispered to me to listen closely, and I heard them too. For the first couple of years, a quiet yet unsettling giggle seemed to be coming from the volume entitled Taking the First Step. But eventually that volume had been joined by the other twelve, and the giggle had twisted into a hysterical, jeering howl. They were defying Dad to pull one off the shelf and begin studying, knowing he never would. The whole damn set of books was teasing him to try to escape the endless clatter of bottles at the glass factory.
He was a poorly oiled cog in the machinery that turned out beer bottles, which were shipped 165 miles to Milwaukee to be filled and then another 165 back, to be swigged down by him and his buddies after work at a bar half a block away from the plant where they were made. Many times, whenever the planets were in the proper configuration and the jukebox was blowing its lungs out, he would raise such a bottle to a shaft of dusty sunlight beaming in through the tavern’s dirty windowpane, like it was a magic crystal ball. He would peer inside, looking for some portent of things to come, and study its tiny rising bubbles in the hope of divining some essential truth about himself.
On dark summer nights, the glass jars full of burning wax and the wind sighing through the silver-leaf maples, Dad would tell us stories. The flames flickering on our faces made the three of us look like jack-o’-lanterns who couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
He talked about a group of enlisted men who had trudged through a good part of southern Italy one winter. Their tour guide was a nineteen-year-old conscientious objector-turned-medical corpsman, who was made fun of by the natives because of his effeminate walk. They demonstrated their scorn for him by screwing their index fingers into their cheeks.
The young corpsman led the soldiers through Naples, proudly pointing to the sights as if he were in his hometown. They kept their hands stuck deep down in the pockets of their woolen trench coats and walked in silence as their teenage leader declared to their unhearing ears the glories of ancient Italy and discussed with himself the intricacies of Mediterranean architecture.
Finally, after about two miles, the corpsman gave up, joined his wards, and moved with them across the torn Italian landscape. They were dark, brooding figures stalking the countryside, searching for an elusive something. Shutters would swing closed and doors would slam shut whenever they were sighted on the outskirts of a village. Mothers would drop the laundry they were hanging, clutch their children to their breasts, and drag them inside, barricading the door behind them.
The men got quite far down the coast before the MPs herded them back. The army would gladly have let them go and written them off as permanently missing in action, but the ranks of the Seventh Army had been thinned, and bodies, live ones, were needed to pass in review of General Mark C. Clark, commander, Fifth Army.
The Seventh was so short of men; in fact, that some German POWs were dressed in secondhand, ill-fitting American uniforms and added to the ranks. Dad found himself marching shoulder-to-shoulder with a wild-eyed, tousle-haired, buck-toothed, shellshocked, grinning SS corporal who was wearing a stained GI field jacket with a jagged slash across the back, which had been stripped off an American who had caught a slice of shrapnel between the shoulder blades. Dad had to keep nudging the German in the ribs, because he kept lapsing into a goose step.
These men were given dummy rifles to shoulder and were tucked away in the middle of the column in the hope that General Clark wouldn’t notice, among the sea of determined GIs marching by, a pocket of sunken, empty faces with zombie eyes, and therein have his morale shaken.
For the remainder of the war, these men went from one newly liberated town to another and marched in parades with rifles that couldn’t shoot and minds that couldn’t think, as members of the conquering United States Army.
Separation day finally arrived. At the airfield, identification tags were attached to the men’s coat buttons. They were to be scattered like ashes over small, anonymous towns across the Midwest, each taking with him for the rest of his life a duffel bag full of troubles.
No one knew that Dad was coming. When he walked through the back door, the whole family was surprised, as much by his unexpected presence as by his strange appearance: he was a runny-nosed, red-faced man with bloodshot eyes in a permanent squint. His eleven-year-old nephew, Stan, Jr., was the only one to overcome his bedevilment and greet him. He sheepishly asked Dad if he had brought home any souvenirs. Dad widened his eyes a bit and gave him the only thing he had: his crumpled discharge papers. Stan, Jr., took them in his little hands and saw the words PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT FOR FURTHER SERVICE crossed out and replaced with the generic HONORABLY DISCHARGED. Someone must have remembered that he had marched pretty well in all those parades.
Mom’s naturally puckered, delicious, candy-apple red lips were glistening for all the male vacationers to ogle, as she dreamily poured a handful of white sand, glittering like sugar, onto Dad’s spine, letting it collect in the small of his back. Dad could set eyes on those lips any time, so instead he was busy dropping a few tears into the Wisconsin blue of Lake Forever Joy, billed as “The Workingman’s Resort.” His favorite song of all time was blaring from the loudspeakers: Engelbert Humperdinck singing “Release Me and Let Me Love Again.” He always got choked up whenever he heard it. There was the splashing of lake water and the dripping of tears. The strains of Engelbert’s voice desperately stabbed through the humidity. The song surged through the atmosphere on waves of heat rising from the water.
Dad always said he wished he could jump right into that song and sing side-by-side with Engelbert. Together the two of them could soar off into musical transcendence. I think that’s what was making him teary-eyed; transcendence was a pretty awesome thought. But then, maybe he was crying because he knew that his imaginary duet was never to be. And never could be. Transcendence is impossible.
Just as Engelbert was reaching the crescendo, Dad had the misfortune to look down the shoreline of bouncing beach balls and wiggling bikini bottoms and see two kids walking toward him carrying a beach towel stretched out between them, upon which they were bearing a third boy. Dad got a sick look on his face. . . .
High noon, and Graves Registration had a lot of policing to do. Several hours after the air raid, the beach was still littered with pieces of bodies. In the early-morning darkness, using the illumination from a sizzling flare, the Germans had attacked the harbor. In the silent morning, the long rays of the sun revealed the destruction.
With the increasing arc of the sun overhead, the smell invaded everyone’s nostrils, and the taste settled on their tongues. Dad was making his way down the beach to the field kitchen for lunchtime chow when he stopped dead in his tracks. Right in front of him on the sand were two severed arms that had landed one on top of the other, forming a cross. One was hairy and had separated at the bicep; the other had nothing more than peach fuzz and had taken some of the shoulder along with it. Around each wrist was fastened a watch. Still ticking. Tick, tick, tick.
A few feet over was a torn-open stomach. Sweat bees buzzed in and out of it, like it was a hive. Just inside it, gleaming in the sunshine, were some whitish, semidigested, C-ration beans, mixed with blood and flakes of fecal matter. Looking into that gutted belly was like staring into a dark pit. It was a sight you’re not ever supposed to see — raw, utter nudity. It seemed as if every permutation of human dismemberment had occurred, worked out by a bloody-minded mathematician. Scattered in the sand, like pieces of a witch doctor’s necklace, were broken vertebrae, sticky with spinal fluid. Blood was everywhere; the sand couldn’t soak it all up. It wasn’t thick. It was thin, like cherry sno-cone syrup.
In the distance, stumbling toward him through the gore, was a group of four soldiers, each holding on to a corner of a sagging, dark green, woolen blanket, into which they were tossing body parts as they came upon them. When the blanket got too full, they dumped it unceremoniously onto a pile that eventually grew to a height of about five feet, surrounded by a dark halo of flies.
The noonday sun was blazing away exactly like it did back home, when he would slip outside on his lunch break to escape the roar of the bottles. Suddenly, in a flash, the world compressed into a claustrophobic, suffocating little box, a cell whose dimensions were so small that one confined to it could neither stand, sit, nor lie down comfortably, but rather had to assume a continual, agonizing crouch.
And that’s what his life has been like ever since: gasping for air that doesn’t exist and clawing at walls that won’t give; straining to obtain a measure of tranquility, to regain the old world, but never making it. . . .
Engelbert’s lips closed on the last breaths of “Release Me,” and the three kids with the towel passed by harmlessly. Dad rolled onto his side, spilling the sand off his back, and looked far to the south, to Illinois, toward home. Back there, Grandma was reaching out for him. She was a spindly flower groping for the sunlight. Dad came to her, but it was too late.
Grandpa had been down in the cellar working on a paint-by-number set of Jesus Christ. He disregarded the numbers and applied his own colors, then titled the pictures appropriately: Jesus H. Christ in Red; Jesus H. Christ in Scarlet; Jesus H. Christ in Ruby. They were full of dripping nails and flames licking at Jesus’ knees. The cellar was an odd place for a studio. More light was available in the parlor or the kitchen, but those rooms were too full of life to suit Grandpa’s dark, crimson visions. Wearing a smock with red splattered all over the stomach, which made him look like a surgeon just out of the operating room, Grandpa crept up the cedar stairs with sandpaper footsteps. Under his nose he had painted a mustache just like the one Salvador Dali wore, except that Grandpa’s was fire-engine red.
It didn’t take him long to gather the import of the look on his son’s face: his wife was gone.
He wasn’t cut out to be a widower. His one-hundred-thirty-pound frame crumpled to the floor like a puppet with its strings snipped, and Dad scooped him up in his bearish arms and laid him down on the bed next to Grandma. Lying side by side, they were like harlequin masks — Grandma was smiling, dead; Grandpa was grimacing, alive.
Dad stepped out the back door and yelled the news down the block to his brother, Stan, Sr., who came over and joined Dad in a private pre-wake vigil. They stood staring at their mother and father, pursing their lips, wrinkling their foreheads, shifting their weight from foot to foot, as if trying to figure out the meaning of an abstract work of art.
It was as incoherent as ever.
Later on, the day came, as it does for everyone, when it was Uncle Stan’s turn. He was out back on the swing beneath his beloved weeping willow when a blood vessel burst in his brain and he quietly died. Aunt Doris looked out through the kitchen window as she was washing the supper dishes and smiled to herself as she saw her dear husband with his eyes closed, a smile of contentment across his face, just like he always looked after a satisfying supper. An evening breeze came up, and one of the low branches of the willow brushed against his cheek, as if it were trying to tickle him back to life.
After we came home from Uncle Stan’s funeral, Dad, in need of inspiration, reached for volume five of his “Success in Business” texts: How to Inspire Others and Delegate Authority. But as soon as he took it off the shelf, a snapshot of Mom, Dad, and me at a Fourth of July parade fluttered to the floor.
All the instruments of the band that marched by us that day were blaring just one shrill, screeching note — even the drum majorette was screaming along with it. When the band was directly in front of us, its members stopped, pivoted their columns around, marched in place, and blew that note right into us like a gale storm. Right then, Aunt Doris snapped the picture of us three with our hair flying back, our knuckles white around the arms of the lawn chairs, our eyeballs jumping from their sockets.
Then the band turned back around, resumed marching formation, and continued on down the street. My parents looked disturbed, but I could tell they didn’t want to let on to me that something was wrong. When the flag passed by, they and everyone else stood in review. The next band that came by blew out an identical din — a musical clothesline upon which to hang out the terrors of life. By then, the adults all had very worried looks on their faces. Some were shaking like they were undergoing a visitation from the Holy Spirit, others were as deathly still as if they had been sealed in plaster. The frightfulness of living was being dropped in their laps. This might be the fanfare announcing the approach of doomsday.
I jumped into my father’s arms. They were trembling, and he struggled to hold on to me. I started to slip. Mother grabbed for me. Both of them managed to keep me from hitting the concrete sidewalk, but the jig was up. I saw that life was too much. There were too many things to juggle.
Then the baton twirler dropped the baton. The earsplitting blare was silenced, and after its echo receded, one could hear from atop our church’s steeple the clock chiming away high noon: DOOM — DOOM — DOOM.
That night, before bedtime, as I almost always did, I sat in Dad’s lap in the old, brown, corduroy rocking chair. He’d rock us both to sleep while whispering into my ear, “Humboo . . . humboo . . .” — a soothing word Grandma had brought over from the old country, the meaning of which had long been forgotten. My little arms tightened around his waist, his hand gripped my thigh, and we dug into each other and braced ourselves against the encroaching darkness. We began to drift off, our eyes closed. The rocking slowed down. The springs in the seat creaked. “Humboo.” The rocking grew slower. “Humboo.” Slower. “Humboo.”