March 1, 2012

Oh Father, Where Art Thou?

By Gary Hugh Fry

He died the day before my final exams. I was in a race against the clock, poring over my case notes, when the phone rang and a disembodied voice at the hospital said, “Mr. Fry expired at three-fifteen this afternoon.” The next morning, adrift in a mad sea of law students, I stared blankly at the exam book as my classmates wrote feverishly. I had come back to the law college in my hometown to be with my father at the end. It was winter 1964. Now, as I look back through the haze of so many years, I also see myself—a lawyer in his eighth decade trying to remember a man he may never have known.

It has been a full century since my father was born, shortly before the beginning of the Great War, into an era when men seldom revealed their thoughts and feelings, much less the most intimate details of their lives. So I know very little about his early years in Indiana, the setting of my favorite childhood book, The Bears of Blue River. I discovered  this  enchanting  story quite by accident one day after school as I was rummaging through the unmarked boxes my father kept in the rafters over his workbench—supposedly beyond the reach of a curious boy. To my surprise, they held the dust-covered relics of his own childhood. Mostly books. The incandescent images of The Fire Bear and The One-eared Bear were indelibly burned into a nine- year-old’s memory that afternoon.

What smatterings I have of my father’s earliest days I learned from my mother. He was born in Bedford, Indiana, a small railroad town ringed by limestone quarries; he had a much older brother (no one seemed to know whether John was dead or alive); he was still in school when his parents, stern religious fundamentalists, sold their modest dry goods store and retired out in California. I have always assumed that my father was an “accident,” since his folks were well up in years and nearing retirement when he came along. I picture a lonely boy.

Standing over six feet tall and surprisingly agile for a husky man, Dad played varsity basketball in high school and went on to Stanford, in the middle of the Great Depression, hoping to become a doctor. When the family ran out of money, medical school was out of the question. So with his degree in human biology and a pocketful of broken dreams, he took a clerical job in the rough-and-tumble oil industry. In time he was to meet an intelligent brunette, a high school English teacher with degrees from Berkeley and USC.

Mother was a very pretty women—a beauty queen in school who still turned heads when she reached “that certain age.” Gifted at the piano keyboard as well, she was swept into the most rapturous of moods when she played the impassioned Liebestraum—“A Dream of Love”—by the ravishing Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. With a finished technique and deep feeling, she played it often; she and the score were one. And like a fine porcelain vase, she was to be handled with delicacy. My father fell hard.

I was born nine months before the raid on Pearl Harbor, and Hitler soon would be on the road to Stalingrad. Pearl Harbor had seared the public’s imagination. People on the West Coast shuddered in fear—“Our homes are next!” We lived among the orchards of Orange County in a small community fragrant with the scent of citrus, too far inland to be a target. But the air raid sirens sprang up anyway, sentinels on highest alert. “Block wardens” made the rounds, pounding on doors and shouting in the derisive term of the times, “The Japs are coming!” Paul Revere was an archetype deeply embedded in the American psyche.

Dad was our block warden. Though hardy, he was classified 4-F—ineligible for military service—because of his severe allergies. Other men were shipped off to sea and the killing fields, so many grim statistics in the making. When the sirens wailed, Dad shot out the door and Mother dove under the Steinway clutching me closely, waiting for the house to fall in around us. A few hours later, Dad walked in—his face shining. He’d calmed the frightened women on our street. Often over a cocktail. Those days of false alarms were among his best.

My father was generous to a fault. He paid the poor toothless bricklayer handsomely for our garden patio— money we didn’t have—and opened his wallet to the “bums and hobos” (homeless, in the vernacular of the day) looking for handouts at the corner grocery. He didn’t ration his time or love, either. He patiently ran pass patterns with me when I tried out for the high school football team (a poor return on his investment) and taught me how to swing a golf club and keep the ball in bounds. He rarely stepped out of bounds himself. Once when times were tough, he “sold” his friend Mel some phony stock at a loss for the small tax write-off. Mel re-sold the stock to Dad the following year for his own write-off. They milked the scheme dry as an old bone over four tax seasons.

Come weekends, Dad would ask, “What are you doing, buddy boy?” “Not much,” I’d say. It didn’t take long to crack the code; he wanted my company while he was changing the oil and spark plugs in his green Oldsmobile, circa ’54, or tackling his latest woodworking project. I cancelled plans to hang out with my pals: I couldn’t bear to disappoint my father. He seemed happy when he was charming the reddish-brown mahogany into the whirling steel blade—with me on the receiving end of the plank. Sawdust stuck to our skin like fine cologne, a sweet pungent odor. And by a kind of magic, a beautiful cabinet with its gleaming lapidary finish soon appeared in our living room.

My father could be found in his workshop after dinner, puffing on a Camel. Strange voices poured from the short wave radio he’d bought at an army surplus store and rebuilt, a relic of the terrible war that had just ended. (Short wave had made transoceanic communication possible and was put to use by the Allies beaming secrets into Nazi zones.) Dad’s radio was forever attuned to some faraway place as though he were trying to revive contact with a lost homeland. In his solitary nook, he tinkered with the hi-fi components neatly arrayed on his workbench, painstakingly piecing together sound systems from scratch. But things are not always as they seem. That he was overcome by feelings of self-doubt and loneliness would never have occurred to me.

My father’s job had taken us to Tucson in 1950 when his employer, Grand Central Aircraft, was awarded a contract to make the B-47 StratoJet bomber “combat ready”—Cold War jargon for readiness to drop atomic bombs on Russia. The sleek jet superseded the propeller-powered B-29, the behemoth remembered in aviation history largely for its fateful missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the last of the modified StratoJets rolled off the line, Grand Central closed its doors. Dad hired on with another aircraft company but was fired six months later, the victim of nepotism. He tried selling Chevys at the local dealership, then life insurance, but it was not in his nature to push. He couldn’t close the sale. At the age of forty-four, he was washed up. He would never work again.

Mother—a traditional 1950s housewife—was suddenly thrust into a role she could not have foreseen: the family’s breadwinner. With her impressive credentials and personal charm she was soon re-certified and teaching English again. But the inversion of spousal roles, as well as other forces, had understandably taken their toll on her. Yanked up by her roots twice in four years, she lashed out bitterly. Father withdrew into his snug workshop, as into a reliquary for the dispirited. My sister Frances ran away from home, cut classes, wore her cropped, bottle-blonde hair in a taboo “ducktail” style. I argued back and bore my mother’s lashings—not all verbal.

When I got home from school late in the afternoon, I‘d find my father at the dining room table where I had left him in the morning drinking coffee with the milkman, still in his faded robe and slippers. Sunlight streamed in the windows, suffusing the blue haze hanging over the ashtray. His face betrayed the internal wear. Shuffling the pile of unpaid bills, he brightened whenever I went to the piano and played Chopin, especially the E-major Etude, his favorite piece. The Polish master’s doleful, bittersweet harmonies must have struck resonating chords with his inner voices—his own plaintive minor keys.

After Mother died, I found the long-forgotten letters my father had written to her from Tucson before we joined him in our new home. Buried in a hatbox deep in her closet, they show an earnest man wooing a woman obviously unable to return his love. Their new beginnings, he tells her touchingly, will bring her happiness such as she has never known. The Portuguese have a word to describe the yearnings each of them must have felt during their marriage—saudade, meaning “an indolent dreaming wistfulness for someone.” It is a longing so intense for those who are missing that the “absence is the most profound presence in one’s life.” Novelist Carson McCullers captured that feeling when she wrote: “There are the lover and the beloved, but these two often come from different countries.” My parents did. Two were smitten with dreams of love; neither was quenched. 

Frances and I dreaded the holidays. Father tried to find the perfect Christmas gift for Mother every year—an act of atonement? One year it was the beautiful emerald robe, the next a lovely blue cashmere sweater. She always made him return it. “Hugh, take it back . . . please!” Still worse, she began reminiscing openly about her college boyfriend. Dick was suave and ambitious, his folks well to do. We cringed out of embarrassment for our father, puzzled as to why she was telling her children—her husband’s children—of her lost love.

Cancer came for my father at the age of 51, his story untold. Yes, of course, I knew the man revealed by his deeds and by my own feeble divinations, but not the man crouching behind the large playful mask. Not the whole man. I knew the prematurely graying man who called himself the “Silver Falcon,” to which we’d reply, “No, Dad, you’re the Gray Goose!” And I knew the man who loved taking his two black Labradors to the pond at the public golf course for games of “fetch” and watching football on our twelve-inch Zenith TV with his trademark box of Hi-Ho crackers and big chunk of cheddar cheese. But his demons were invisible and nowhere to be seen, unlike William Styron’s. (In his memoir Darkness Visible, Styron unflinchingly takes the reader into the “dark wood,” the suicidal depression he managed to survive, the same emotional wilderness from which my mother did not emerge.)

When I was practicing law, I kept a photograph of my father on the bookshelf near my desk. The black and white portrait of the nice-looking, carefully dressed man with dark, combed-back hair—a man who should have been at the midpoint of his life’s journey at thirty- something—gazed down on me for nearly forty years. Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a moment until a much later moment. All those years I did not see what is so apparent to me now: the feeling of resignation in the subject, the sort of resignation that accompanies gradual defeat. A spirit curtailed. The viewer may be witness to an unseasonable surrender, the laying down of arms. Still the tableau seems to suggest, oddly enough, an atmosphere of calm and serenity. All the same, I want to step into the photograph and take that man into my arms, as though he were my own son, and tell him that everything will be okay.

“Put on a mask, and that is courage,” said French philosopher Roland Barthes, mourning the death of his mother. But to unmask another: is that love or greed? You tell me. Would the asking or the telling really have mattered to father or son? I was barely twenty-three and too wrapped up in my own life to see beyond my nose. Life is given to us only once. I was dreadfully unsuited to the questions and tasks alike.

My father was unfailingly kind and good-natured, endearingly naïve at times. “A sweet dreamer,” Mother said. He possessed the hands and spirit of an artisan who could make anything. Skilled in the alchemy that psychologists call “sublimation,” he took the stinging disappointments he had suffered and of them he made lasting beauty. Whatever its name, his unspoken mantra seemed to be, “You are where you are in life, so make the best of it.”

One December evening when I was a boy, Dad said he had something he wanted to show me—something important. He got out the ladder and we climbed to the roof where we huddled together in the cold, watching the heavens break out in stars, saying nothing. Venus was coasting along the horizon looking for home. With his powerful navy-surplus binoculars, we peered into the Great Nebula of Andromeda, the “spiral galaxy,” squinted at Callisto and Ganymede, two of Jupiter’s many moons—dust motes on the lenses. I never felt closer to my father.

A few days ago at dusk I was out walking Loki, our Lab mix, when suddenly I felt my father’s presence. Instinctively I looked up and saw the Evening Star— radiantly aglow and falling softly in the western sky. Something stirred in me as I recalled the journey we had taken to distant worlds so long ago. It was the shiver of realization—the realization that in some inchoate way my father had taken me into his inner world that night and opened his heart to me. He had been telling me his story all along—in his own way.

Without words.

Editor’s Note: When this article was accepted via e-mail for publication in The Voice of Experience, Mr. Fry responded:

On Friday I made a sentimental journey to my home- town—the same day your e-mail arrived. Synchronicity. I drove to my childhood home and knocked on the door. I’d been dreaming for years about my dad’s workshop, a central symbol in my story, yearning to see it one more time. The owner could not have been nicer. It was exactly as I had remembered—right down to the holes in the workbench where my dad’s red vise had been bolted down.

Gary Hugh Fry (thefrys8@q.com) is a retired lawyer living with his wife Karen and their motley  crew  of  pets on an old ranch in southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border. He practiced commercial real estate and finance law in Phoenix for 40 years, first as a partner in large firms and then on his own.