He wet his pants, often before I could catch him, and many times when I was not around, running errands. I had him wearing the adult “diapers” but more often than not, in pure rebellion, he’d take them off. I was not a patient person. he had not raised me to be patient.
Growing up in the depression, surviving World War Two, he often saw the world as frightening. It was a hard world to him, often unforgiving. The world had not been patient with him, and he didn’t expect it would be patient with me.
Memories haunted him, as they haunt all men, all fathers, of all wars. He told me a few, but as he told his story, I would often see what became known as the “Ten Thousand Yard Stare”, taking him to a world that was still so real, so alive, because life itself was so fleeting, so precarious from second to second.
“It was a Sunday” He said in one of his stories, “And I was kneeling in my foxhole, fixing my morning coffee. All was quiet. I had heated the water, fixed the coffee, and was rising to see what was going on, when something hit me that felt exactly like someone had swung the flat side of an axe at me with all their force.”
“What was it?” I asked.
He smiled that quizzical, hypnotic smile from his ten thousand yard stare, and he said “I didn’t know, while I was kneeling to make that coffee, that a sniper had drawn a bead on the back of my neck. When I raised up, the sniper had squeezed the trigger. In that one second, I avoided instant death”.
The round had entered his buttocks, passed through the front side of his leg, and destroyed one testicle, which is how close I and my brothers came to never existing.
He told me another story. “My friend and I had ‘commandeered’ a German refrigeration truck. Since it was our job as litter bearers to go get the wounded and carry them to safety, we were allowed to keep the truck for that purpose. While those other GIs were slogging through that mud, we’d honk our horn for them to get out of the way, and wave at them while they waved their middle finger at us when we passed.
“One evening” he continued, “We were up high on a ridge. The Captain decided it would be a good place to camp, since anyone trying to attack would have to climb straight up that cliff. What we didn’t know was that, during the night, Germans had lined up on both sides of that ridge, and when the first rays of daylight came, the very first burst of machine gun fire ripped through the bed of that German refrigeration truck. My buddy never woke up. Those rounds ripped right through his body while he slept.
“Without even thinking, I dove toward the back door of the truck. Thank God no one had come by to lock the latch on the outside. If it had been locked, I wouldn’t be telling you this story today. Mostly I hugged the ground along with everybody else. They shot the outfit to pieces, and I helped as much as I could.
“That afternoon” he continued, “two Germans held up a white flag. One was an English speaking officer. He told us the war had ended as we were fighting. We all looked around at the American dead, and no one said anything. I remember this one guy from Texas drily saying “Yipee”.
Like most men, my father returned home full of hope, met a good woman, and settled down to raise a family. he raised four sons, for whom he tried to be the kind of example his father had tried to be for him.
Through those years, he managed to shove memories to the back. He built houses, quality houses, for the people of his home county. He was recognized for honesty and integrity in business.
In time, the boys grew up, and my Dad and Mom grew old. My Mother suffered, as her father did, from diabetes that gradually robbed her body of health and vitality. My father struggled to stay strong, but I knew he had doubts. My mother’s health deteriorated, and she spent more and more time in the hospital, and finally that fateful day came. I received a call from my brother, who had spent the night at the hospital while I watched over my dad at home.
“Mama’s gone” said my brother in a voice barely suppressing sobs. His job was done, and now it was my job to tell my father that his mate, his best friend, his wife and love for almost fifty years, was gone.
I took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen, where he was washing dishes. he washed the dishes because he had to do something. I knew he hadn’t slept, and it would be time shortly to go back and stay with my mother.
As I approached quietly, he stopped and simply stood there, looking into the sink, waiting. All I could do was repeat the very words my brother had told me. “Mama’s gone”. They were the hardest words I have ever had to say.
In that instant, the man who had been the rock, the strength, the foundation of my life, collapsed like a child in my arms and began sobbing. I held him there as he had held me so often, the child was now the father, the father was now the child.
In time, I watched his mind decay as he had watched his own father’s mind simply slip away. He could no longer remember simple things, where he was, what year it was. Often he would say “I talked to your mama today. She said she’d be coming back home soon”.
“Yes, dad”. Memories of war, that he had successfully put away in other years, became the only things that he could now remember. He told me the stories, over and over again, only now they were different. He would stare into that world of youth, and then tears fell as he wept openly. “I should have died in that war, I should have…”
As his mind slowly slipped away into that fog of age and time, he would tell me a story of a man he knew many years ago, a man who was now dead, a veteran of World War One. The man’s name was Bob.
“Ol’ Bob and me, we’d be talking, and Bob’s wife would come in fussing. ‘When you gonna cut the grass around that clothesline?’ she’d ask, and ol’ Bob, he’d say ‘Frost’ll kill it this winter'”.
Then my father would settle into silence, only to repeat that story later. I think he was trying to tell me in his feverish mind not to worry, that things will take care of themselves.
In time, his mind failed so badly that I had to put him in a Rest Home. I hated that decision. The only thing I could find to justify it was that someday I knew, someone would have to do the same for me. What goes around comes around. It would be his payback for my betrayal.
On a beautiful summer day, June 22, 1998, my brother had been visiting the Rest Home. I had just returned home to answer his phone call. “There’s no easy way to say this. Daddy’s gone”.
My aunt showed up only seconds later to see how I was handling it. She hugged me, but I felt strangely relieved. This world had been a burden to my father after mama left it. he wanted only to be with her again.
My aunt told me that he had finished his lunch and sat in the rocker where he usually sat. They found him there, staring into another world, and smiling.
I like to think he was smiling because he saw my mother, holding out her hand and telling him it was time.
Someday, when I’ve walked down all the avenues, searched for my own truth and come to the end of my search, I think I may look up and see him smiling at me, saying “Frost’ll get it in the morning”.
I love you, dad.