My father died last winter. He was an old man who lived a full life. His departure was naturally a catalyst for reflection. Born in 1931, he was barely a teen when World War Two ended. However, the war and the approach to it on the homefront shaped his approach to the rest of his life. He operated as if the nation was on a war footing until he retired from the military in 1979. Imbued in Cold War fears and mythology, he went into ROTC his freshman year of college just as the Korean conflict began. He always told those who wondered that he went to college mostly to play football. He was an offensive guard who occasionally played defense. As for his studies, well, he graduated. After college he was assigned to a small Air Force installation in the Twin Cities. He got married and began a family. It was my mother who convinced him to stay in the military when his four years of active duty were up. She wanted out of Minnesota. She wanted to see the world. He wanted to be with her. The journey began.
After a few years in Texas and Alaska, we ended up in Maryland. We were my older sister, myself, two younger brothers and a younger sister. The family was just beginning. Dad was assigned to the newly chartered National Security Agency. Three years later our family (which had added three more members) was in Peshawar, West Pakistan on a small USAF station. It’s raison d’etre was to eavesdrop on the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. While we were there India and Pakistan fought a brief war and my mom and siblings were evacuated to another USAF base in Turkey. Meanwhile, the US war on Vietnam was ratcheting up.
It was that latter war that would cause my father more distress than probably any other element of his life. In March 1968, he was told he would be going to Danang, Vietnam in February of the following year. I remember the night he shared that information with me. It was the same night that President Johnson announced that he would not seek nor accept the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. As anyone who was paying attention at the time knows, 1968 was a hell of a year. Assassinations of political figures, student worker rebellions, antiwar protests attacked by police, insurrections by Black residents of the US after Martin Luther King was murdered; it was an unforgettable year. My political sympathies were with Robert F. Kennedy and his antiwar platform. My thirteen-year-old self knew the war was wrong and many of my friends’ older siblings were already either marching against it or getting drafted to fight it. I preferred the former over the idea of killing and risking getting killed. My father prepared to go there.
At home, he talked to me a lot about being the “man” of the house while he was gone. He and my mother decided to have another baby—who would be born while he was gone. I took the whole thing somewhat seriously, but hey, there was new music to listen to and some cute girls I liked. When he came back from his tour I was fully enlisted in the antiwar movement and he was still in the military. Sparks were certain to fly. On top of that, my older sister and I were more than mildly interested in al least the trappings of the counterculture. This mindset of rock music, groovy clothes, marijuana and more was finally creeping into the conservative suburban community my father had left us safely ensconced in. The family’s upcoming transfer to Frankfurt am Main in western Germany would toss my sister and I into one of the hipper cities in that country. Rock concerts were just a streetcar ride away. Excellent hashish was available for two dollars a gram at the junior high and high school set up for military dependents and real German freaks hung out in a nearby park playing music, getting high and subverting the dominant paradigm. It was pretty damn cool. Dad was not impressed.
My father had no clue. He had seen a few hippies in California when he shipped home and there were a few GIs in his command who pushed the military hair regulations to the limit. He was also quite aware of rock music and, to his chagrin, actually found some of it to his liking. He was not ready for our friends. The boys had longish hair and the girls didn’t wear bras. The latter distracted him from his Catholic asceticism and the former just disgusted him. He still thought all males with long hair over the age of four were perverted. He ultimately changed his mind regarding that, but never liked long hair on men. We talked almost nightly about politics and religion. At first these discussions would take place at the dinner table. It was after a particularly heated argument on my sixteenth birthday about the massacre of thirty-nine people at Attica State Prison by law enforcement that my mother forbade political discussion there. It was too upsetting for her and most of my siblings. The conversations were moved to a later hour and a different venue. I learned about debating from him and he learned to listen to people who had ideas far outside his realm of thought. It was thirty years later that he admitted I had helped him to modify his thinking about the war in Vietnam. He didn’t become an antiwar protester, but he did realize it had accomplished nothing in part because the United States was on the wrong side.
In my junior year I began to look at colleges. In my search for financing that future I applied for numerous scholarships. Despite his pleadings, arguments for and generally harassing me about applying for an Air Force ROTC scholarship, I refused. During one of our almost daily discussions about the world and my viewpoints, he asked me why I didn’t want to go into ROTC. I looked at him and quietly said that I had no desire to be part of the military. It was as if he was a business owner and I had rejected his offer to be a partner. When he pressed me further, I told him I wanted nothing to do with war. He tried to convince me that the military did other things besides fight wars. I wasn’t buying it. Already that spring, the US military had mined the harbors of Haiphong, bombed their dike system and bombed civilian hospitals, schools and markets. This was in addition to the daily air raids and general mass murder that occurred. All I could see was war. A friend of mine whose father was a three-star Army general had an older brother at an East Coast college. Their father had recently told him to never come home again. This was after military intelligence sources reported the brother’s antiwar activities to the father.
The struggle between generations continued after high school. By then, the US military was officially no longer in Vietnam and a so-called peace treaty was signed. Henry Kissinger accepted his half of the Nobel Peace Prize while his northern Vietnamese negotiating counterpart rejected his. After all, said the negotiator Le Duc Tho, the war was still raging in Vietnam. Just because hardly any US troops were dying didn’t mean the US wasn’t funding and assisting in the ongoing killing. I continued to protest the war and my dad continued to work with those who were planning and facilitating it.
I went away to college in New York City. Despite my good grades, I fucked up and ended up back at home. It wasn’t the best move for me or my father. He gave me a month to get a job or get out. I found a gig at an IHOP as a fry cook and was granted a reprieve. My life involved work, weed, beer, rock and roll and sleeping on a couch in the basement of the family house. My older sister remained in Europe and the younger siblings worked out their own arrangements with the old man. It was an American family, circa 1974. In the fall I went back to school at the University of Maryland. It was an experiment that ended with me getting kicked out for joining an occupation of an administrative office after they arrested a couple friends at a protest against Marine recruiting on campus.
Later that year, he was sent to Munich. I stayed in Maryland smoking a lot of grass and drinking too much. I visited over the holidays in 1976. Then, after a conversation we had near the Munich Olympiastadium where he told me I needed to get on with my life and he wasn’t going to say a thing no matter what I decided, I hitched to California. After he returned to the US, I would visit in the summers. Our relationship was like that of a divorced couple trying to be cordial in public. The fewer words we spoke, the better off it was. When we reflected on those years’ decades later, there was little to do but for both of us to apologize for being assholes. The truth of the matter was that he didn’t like or understand what I was doing and I didn’t think it was any of his business. To his credit, he did offer to get me a lawyer should I ever need one. It never came to that, in large part because I knew a couple lawyers who helped me out of a few jams.
As for that reconciliation, it came after I fathered a child with a woman who my father liked, even though her values reflected mine and not my father’s. His declaration that any grandchild of his born out of wedlock would not be his grandchild flew out the window the day he first held our son in his arms. He loved children. That’s one reason he had twelve of them. He learned something from each of us and every relationship was unique. After leaving the military, he became a high school teacher and girls’ basketball coach. The majority of his students seemed to remember him fondly; stern but flexible are the words I remember seeing on one of his evaluations. It wasn’t always that way. The flexibility is something he learned from being a father who at the least understood he could learn something from his children. The sternness was always there. I think it came from his mother.
The new tone in our relationship was not a result of either of us changing our political stances too much. Sure, I wasn’t out on the barricades or fighting the police—in large part because there were no barricades to be on. Nor was he joining me at meetings to organize against the latest US military assault. Our debates about politics were often still strident and not interested in compromise, but they were also no longer so strident that we didn’t have plenty of time to talk about other matters, enjoy a couple beers, go to a ball game or just hang out enjoying the mountains of Vermont or a meal with family in the summer heat of his Maryland backyard. He was a fan of Ronald Reagan but was disgusted by Ollie North while I wished the both of them an early death. When I was helping to organize antiwar protests in Olympia, Washington during the first Iraq War, the local daily profiled me in a feature on the protests. My father disapproved of my antiwar activities, but shared the news article with his colleagues at the high school where he was teaching. By the time Trump sat in the White House, his faith in capitalism was wavering, at least when it came to fostering the inequality he saw all around him. He cursed the super wealthy who thought hoarding cash was a moral duty and wondered which would go first: the capitalist economy or what he still believed to be US democracy. His demise spared him the ugly truth ahead.
While I sat with him in his final days, he reflected on his life. Of course, the reflections meandered between timelines and confused instances, but mostly his recollection of events was clear. Naturally, his remembrance of certain moments in my youth we were both present at was different than mine. In his final weeks he called out to his god and saints frequently, even speaking parts of the Catholic mass in Latin. Et cum spiritu tuo. Time moves on.