Father's Day 2013: In Memory Of My Very Odd Father
My father’s name was Mac, a word that means “whence” in several languages. My eighteenth birthday gift was retiring the honorific Dad, to call him as his friends and equals did. Let’s do that here.
Mac was a warrior. You’ve seen his face, in archival footage of WWII, and the grimly silent stares of his Marine comrades. He alone is speaking, answering the film crew’s questions about his head wounds. I knew them as big white scars. He had others, invisible.
One June day twenty years ago, he passed away at home. He was a bit of a seer; weeks before he was diagnosed, Mac said he had perhaps six months, that something was growing inside him, as he put it; “But if time can be stretched,” he told me, “then, maybe I’ll have two years.” We swore to go camping together one last time, for sure; but we never found that time.
“Five or six months, tops,” his oncologist pronounced. “Don’t subscribe to any magazines.”
But Mac lived two more years, weirdly active and healthy until the last six weeks.
“So far, your father has defied medical precedent,” the doc told me, not knowing all I’d seen him do. It wasn’t the first time.
Oregon had not yet passed a Death with Dignity law, so he decided to ride his old horse to the end of the trail, as John Wayne and Yul Brynner both did. Mac used the remaining time to tell me key details he had left out in the previous forty years. Until the end, I took copious notes and asked questions. It was my last chance.
He had been vague about many things. For instance, what about the senseless couch story? Going to college on the GI Bill, he had interrupted “a fraternity hazing,” as I first heard it from my grandmother, and injured two athletes in a fistfight. That was all I knew.
Finally I got the rest of it: A mob of jocks at Morningside College had hoisted some poor bastard in his skivvies aloft on a couch; they were carrying it overhead through the quad, chanting “Queer right here! Queer right here!” Mac ran across the commons and mounted the couch, stomping faces from a military elevated position. His veteran buddies soon joined him, and a bloody brawl ensued. The guy on the couch later became a friend of his, which alienated his vet pals.
He dropped out, married an equally strange Iowa farm girl named Hazel — yes, that’s what I call her, naturally — they made me in their spare time. For a long while, they became cool beatniks in Greenwich Village. (Thanks, folks. I still LOVE NYC! And so did they.)
After high school, when I stated my intention to beat the draft by heading to Vietnam, Mac said that was a splendid idea. But, he suggested ... why not go as an officer?
“Much better food,” he enticed, “better training, weapons, and more responsibility. That’ll look good on your resume when you get back,” he finished. This meant college, but by an amazing coincidence, he had just started work at a private college, and his contract included free tuition for me. “Be a darn shame to waste this opportunity.”
See how subtly he pruned the path of my life, leading me away from war. I desperately wanted to fly Hueys, which seemed much safer than infantry grunt (three times less so, it turns out.) No, the dirty dog was just buying time until Saigon fell, and then I’d be too late.
College soon showed me that I wasn’t college material. When I was feeling rudderless about my empty skill set, he sent me to an old carpenter, Burdell Swanson, who taught me what my father could not. Mac had learned construction by stacking sandbags on Saipan, the night before the largest banzai attack of WWII. Therefore he built in a frenzy, as if speed was the only practical goal.
He never said “To err is human” without adding, “Because ‘errant’ is an anagram of ‘terran.’” Zipping through crossword puzzles (in pen, of course), he slowed down a bit for the New York Times, savoring the challenge of finding any new word, one letter at a time. He studied Spanish, French, Hebrew, Chamorro, Lakota dialect, the Hawaiian language, Portuguese, and Gaelic.
Lá an Athar is Father’s Day in Ireland, also falling on the third Sunday of June. Much of my father’s blood was pure Irish from Dublin; but he suspected that a few corpuscles carried Native American, African, Romany, and Jewish genes. (I asked about that. Of one odd ancestor, he said only six puzzling words: “Ah, the last Jew out of Limerick.” But by that day, he was drifting in and out of medicated consciousness.
Max W. Taylor, Jr., was born on Friday the 13th, and raised on the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. He spent most of his childhood in the forest, usually alone but sometimes with other truants, who taught him to speak Cherokee. But his family moved to the city, where his mother made him wear a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit to class.
That was how he first learned unarmed combat, school’s most useful contribution to his education (and later, I submit, mine.) He dropped out of high school to play jazz in a seedy downtown hotel where Al Capone had laid low in the Thirties
At 17, he was in the Fleet Marine Force, just in time to fight on Saipan, Tinian, and Pelelui. There he became a trained killer, armed with a Thompson submachine gun. When he went to relieve his best friend on dogwatch sentry duty, he found a mangled corpse instead; thereafter, meting out death no longer bothered him.
His unit had so many Marines of color that it was nicknamed “the quadroon platoon,” made up of Hawaiians, Mexicans, genetic stewpots, red-haired misfits like himself, and a sniper who claimed to be a full-blood Apache, even though this was his first time out of Harlem. I know the names of his first best friends, all dead before he was 19; he carried them inside his head forever. Although I recall him as a man who didn’t have truck with firearms, my mother says he slept with a cocked .45 under his pillow for five years. After I was born, he whispered harshly in the deep night, “Somebody stop that noise, it’s giving away our goddamn position.” He was fast asleep.
I now have all his war stories, both the edited versions of my youth and the raw facts he had held back. There’s an entire novel inside one incident, perfectly laid out for me to write someday: his final bequest to his oldest son. But once he said, eyes closed in delirium, “No, blast it. I won’t have time to tell you about that.” Back to morphine sleep. That one haunts me.
To the best of my knowledge, he lied to me only once. In California, my first dog was killing the neighbor’s chickens; the day he vanished, Mac told his sad son that the Army had drafted my mongrel, Coyote, to patrol the DMZ in Korea with the K-9 Corp. At that age, I believed him. When I recalled that story as an adult and confronted him, he laughed at his own duplicity.
If your father has passed on, and if you are keenly alive to the loss of your best friend and counselor, please accept my knowing condolences. When my brother phoned, I had to man up and ask myself what Mac would do ... because I couldn’t ask him anymore, and that fact was shattering.
Thus, I surely do know how you feel, and can tell you only that it’s a privilege to miss a good man. Many have, or had, fathers who were not worth a tear.
Others, like me, were luckier. If such a fine Daddio is yours, and he still lives, you have some time. Tell him things. Listen to him, and be heard. There is time for both of you, but only one chance. Use it wisely.