Saturday, May 15, 2010
The Death Of My Marine
So, my father died.
That crusty, blustering bully of my youth has finally died of old age, and I’m heartsick because I’m missing his funeral which is going on right now in St. George. As his eldest son, I had always intended to honor him by delivering the eulogy.
It’s my own damn fault that I’m unable to go, and I have little doubt that Dad would enjoy taking this opportunity to lecture me for what he always called my poor planning.
The first big word I ever learned as a boy was “procrastination,” and for years I heard that word exclusively used in connection with me. It was my father’s favorite criticism. I came to hate that word.
“You know what you are, Alan?,” he’d ask, jabbing his finger hard into my skinny chest, “You’re a procrastinator.”
“Do you know what a procrastinator is?"
Inside my mind where he couldn't see, I was rolling my eyes.
"It’s someone who procrastinates.” He had apparently memorized all the forms of the word straight from the dictionary. “A person", (dramatic pause) "who engages in procrastination.”
He never knew when to quit. If there was such a word as supercalifragilisticprocrastinationalistic, he would have used that one on me, too.
Growing up, it was always a mystery to me how well liked my father was among the members of our various wards, because we kids didn’t care for him at all. We were one of those core families always present at every possible church meeting, activity, dinner, scouting event, and fundraiser. And of course Dad always dragged us to those awful welfare farm projects where we would slave an entire Saturday away hoeing weeds from the base of fruit trees. Grownups would often tell me how lucky I was to have such a fine man for a father.
One day when I was nine or ten years old, I remember standing in the living room looking at my father and thinking to myself, when I grow up...I’m going to come back here and kill him.
It would be the nice thing for me to say that I had a love-hate relationship with my father, but it wouldn’t be true about my first twenty years with him. Those years were hate only; no love that I can remember was ever expressed between either of us. Love and acceptance between my father and I didn’t manifest until decades later.
Mom often told me the story of how Dad and I had gotten off on the wrong foot from the beginning. He was fighting in Korea when I was born, and didn’t even meet me until more than a year later. Naturally, he had time to imagine how that wonderful day would play out, that longed-for day when he would finally hold his precious first-born son in his arms.
When that day finally came, I fought to break free from this stranger, terrified and screaming.
A career Gunnery Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, my father knew how to command obedience from grown men, but had no clue whatsoever about being patient with children. He could command respect from his troops, but he couldn’t demand acceptance from a baby.
And so he took my rejection very personally, and reacted to the hurt his child had inflicted on him as if he was a child himself. “All right”, his inner voice decided, “You don’t like me, I don’t like you either.” And right there, according to my own mother, the father-son bond ended before it had begun.
Whatever You Do, Don't Lie To My Dad
It took me a lifetime to learn that my dad actually did have some very admirable qualities. For one thing, he was scrupulously honest. But I didn’t view that quality as a plus, seeing as how he expected everyone else to be as honest as he was, and I rarely rose to his standards of probity.
At one point in my young life I decided that what I wanted to do when I grew up was to be a doctor, so Mom gave me a cast-off wooden box to put my toy stethoscope in, and I went around the house filling the box with band-aids, cotton balls, an aspirin bottle, and other medical essentials.
Later, I went up and showed my prized medical kit to my disinterested dad. Suddenly he noticed that there were a couple of military wound bandages in my box, and he grew instantly angry. “Did you take those from my top drawer?”
We kids were never allowed in Dad’s top drawer. My lie was instinctive. “No, I got it from the bathroom.”
As lies go, this was a harmless one, but it was a lie. Dad smacked me full across the face, then grabbed a yardstick and chased me from room to room, slamming me with blows on my legs and body until the yardstick finally broke across my little head. I was screaming and blubbering and desperate to get away from him, and I remember Mom pulling on him from behind, begging him to stop. “I can’t stand a liar!” he yelled with every blow.
When Mom finally got dad to stop hitting me, I went bawling to my room as my father dumped my supplies from the wooden box and viciously stomped it to pieces.
I never did become a doctor, by the way.
Following my mother’s funeral 14 years ago, my grown siblings and I found ourselves sitting around the table telling stories from childhood. One tale that Elsa recalled with obvious awe was the day of the backyard toss. For some long-forgotten reason I had once again stirred the ire of my father and he picked me up by my neck and the seat of my pants and hurled me over his head, sprawling and tumbling across the yard.
Our backyard was fifty feet wide, and according to all our memories, he flung me the entire distance. I’m sure that in reality it couldn't have happened like that. Dad couldn't have been that strong and I couldn't have been that light, but it was a memorable enough event for all of us to have it seared into our memories that way. Karl and John said they were certain that I was the child that Dad loved the least, but I told him they were wrong. He loved all of us the least.
War At Home And Abroad
A seventeen year-old farmboy from Farmington, California, my father lied about his age and joined the Marines so he could go and fight the Japs. After that he fought the Koreans. Then the Vietnamese. He wasn’t home very often, and we kids preferred it that way. Dad treated his kids the same way he would treat a squad of soldiers under his command, and as any sociologist can tell you, that formula does not make for a happy home life.
As an adult looking back on it, I’ve marveled at how hard and long Dad actually worked to support his large family, and how shamefully cavalier we were regarding his labors on our behalf. In addition to being in the Marine Corps, Dad sometimes had paper routes to run before heading to base, and he worked part time picking up dry cleaning afterward.
This was Dad’s way of showing that he loved us, and we never gave a crap. We were only glad it kept him away from home so much, because when he was home he was always angry and unpleasant.
Of course, he was angry and unpleasant because he worked so long and hard for his children and knew his children didn’t give a crap. Only after becoming a father of a passel of thankless brats myself did I realize how selfless and unconditionally loving my own father actually was.
Blame it on Disney
My father never drank of course, and he rarely beat us. (Beatings were rare, but not unheard of.) What he did was rage. Anything could set that guy off. He was Lewis Black without the sense of humor. The two most terrifying words one of us kids could hear from another was the whispered warning “Dad’s home!” as his car pulled into the drive. If we were smart we would quickly shut off the television and scurry out the back.
Things hadn't always been like that. When I was very young I can remember Elsa and I running up to him with arms outstretched and excited cries of “Daddy’s home!” Dad would scoop us up with a happy, “Hiya, Kiddies!”
I can’t really blame my father for the change in tone when he began arriving home without the usual welcome. I blame Walt Disney.
Disney scheduled The Mickey Mouse Club at 5 pm every weekday, and Dad would arrive home promptly at 5:27, precisely when we kids were engrossed in a cliffhanging episode of Spin & Marty. At such a moment, we were not to be disturbed, and Dad’s arrival at such critical plot points became a major irritation to us.
Captivated by the television, we soon stopped greeting Dad when he came through the door. Dad responded to this lack of affection in his usual mature way. His new routine consisted of charging through the front door to catch us by surprise then marching briskly over to the TV and ceremoniously shutting it off. Then he would head straight for the kitchen, never saying a word. This is how he showed us who's boss.
There was no way you could dare any of us to turn that TV back on. I have a vague, hazy memory of one of us trying it once. I don’t remember what that child's name was, but I don’t think that child lived.
Mom and dad were involved over the years in many different projects to bring in extra money. Mom was a bread baker and cake decorator, and Dad took orders for her wares at the hangar on base. They got involved with Tupperware, Tri-Chem, and selling World Book Encyclopedias. Every Thursday night they went to a World Book meeting, and we kids, who were supposed to be in bed when they came home, would stay up and watch The Twilight Zone. When we heard the car pull in at 9:20, we would hastily turn off the television and scramble for bed, pretending to be asleep.
I never knew how any Twilight Zone episode ended until I saw them in reruns as a grown man. I had no idea that the show involved ironic reveals and surprise twist endings.
Dad told me years later that the first thing he would do upon returning those nights was to put his hand on the back of the TV where the warmth of the tubes gave us away. He knew all along.
No Other Success Can Compensate For Blah Blah Blah, Blah Blah
Dad didn’t teach us Dad things, yet he seemed to blame us for not knowing how to do certain things a father is expected to teach his children. My dad never taught me to catch a ball -Mark Pitcher’s dad taught me that. When I have taught my own children and grandchildren that skill, the memory I have is that of Mr. Pitcher teaching me to catch the ball with my left hand and quickly slap my right hand over to secure it.
On base, Dad bossed a crew of G.I.'s who had already had their basic training, and now all they needed to know was to follow his orders. It irked him no end to find his own children had been turned over to him raw and under-qualified. Why should he have to teach them everything himself?
I was assisting him one day changing the doorknob on the back door. My job was to stand there near the toolbox and be at the ready. “Hand me that Phillips screwdriver,” he ordered. I handed him a regular screwdriver.
“I said a Phillips!”
I fumbled around, trying to find the name Phillip etched on the handle of any of the screwdrivers in his toolbox.
“Phillips! Phillips, you idiot! Don’t you know what a Phillips screwdriver is?!”
And who was supposed to teach me that, Fatso?
I thought this to myself. I thought a lot of things to myself when I was around my father.
My wife Connie has told our kids that if they really want to understand their own father and the environment he was raised in, they should watch The Great Santini. In this film, Robert Duvall plays an overbearing Marine who is abusive to his family, particularly the teenage son who, as the description at IMDb reads, “struggles to win the approval of his demanding Alpha Male father”.
My mother once told me that she felt like her entire life was spent worrying about keeping the peace between her husband and her children. In that regard she perfectly resembled Blythe Danner, the wife and mother in the film.
I grew up skinny, frail, weak, and asthmatic, and I knew I was a disappointment to a father who had hoped for a more athletic son. More than once I was called a sissy on the playground. Sadly, the more my father hammered home his expectations of me, the more craven and wimpy I appeared to him.
The Rise of Captain Rock
Ironically, it was the Viet Nam war that helped buy my escape from the overbearing presence of my father, and allowed me the opportunity to develop an identity of my own. Dad served two consecutive tours in Viet Nam, one right after the other. I later served a mission for the church, but for my money, the two years of high school with my father absent were the best two years of my life. Not having my father around so much actually provided me with the opportunity to get out from under his shadow, to discover my confidence and learn I actually had a pretty likable personality. I even experienced a bit of odd popularity of sorts.
Many of my closest friends today would be surprised to learn that I wasn’t born with “Rock” as my middle name. That mocking moniker was bestowed upon me at age fifteen by Eddie Eccles when I went to my first stake dance. After watching my awkwardly flailing attempts at dancing, Eddie dubbed me “Captain Rock” on the spot.
Eddie was one of the cool guys from out in one of the Cypress wards, and when he gave you a nickname, the nickname stuck. All his friends took to calling me Rock or Captain Rock, and it spread throughout the stake. As for me, I despised that name. Whatever you might imagine that someone with the name “Rock” looks like, I didn’t fit the description, and I knew it. It felt mean. Any time someone addressed me as Rock I would correct them. "My name is Alan," I would insist.
Three years later, when I attended Cypress College and became active at the Cypress Institute of Religion, sure enough, there was Eddie and the cruisers waiting for me like a gang of thugs. I was clearly on their turf now, and I was going to be called Rock whether I liked it or not. I decided not to fight it and just give in.
Anyway, by this time I was a much more confident guy. My body had grown tall and somewhat muscular, and I had a healthier attitude about the mild teasing I had been put to previously. I could laugh it off now. Eddie and his friends became my fast friends. To everybody in the social world I was now inhabiting, I was now Rock Waterman.
But not at home. My dad would sometimes answer the phone only to hear someone ask if Rock was there. “No one by that name lives here!” he would bark and hang up. Alan was the name he had picked out for me before I was born, and he was annoyed no end at what he saw as my rejection of it. One day he gave me an order. “Tell your friends your name is Alan!”
That was all it took for me. I almost never introduced myself as Alan again.
Years later Dad grudgingly accepted that my name had become part of who I am when my younger sister Mary explained to him that sometimes the name a person accepts for themselves belongs to them more than the one bestowed upon them at birth. Creating the person we are meant to be often requires "stepping left" and into a new creation. For some, that includes a new name. Following a couple of bad marriages, Mary herself stepped out of her old life and became the woman we all call Mariah today.
Years later still, my own drug-addled teenage daughter Amy announced that henceforth she was to be known as “Aimee Melba Toast Videlle.” I gave her no flak for it.
Things Gradually Get Better
After twenty-two years in uniform, my father finally retired from the marine corps and briefly went to work for a company in El Monte where he helped develop methods for air-to-air refueling. But he really hit his stride as a real estate mogul during the housing boom of the Seventies. All around Anaheim you could find yard signs proclaiming “Another Great House Sold By Waterman Realty and Investments”. He offered to put me to work in his office and teach me the business, and I attacked the prospect with gusto. But it didn't take long to find this wasn't going to work. I simply couldn’t match my personality to my Dad's; we just clashed too much. Everyone else in Dad's large office liked me fine, but somehow Dad was always irritated with me. It got to where I couldn’t stand being around him an entire day. I wanted to get rich, but this wasn't going to be the way it would happen.
Dad had great hopes that all of his children would continue the family dynasty, but in the end only Mariah could hack it, and none of us to this day knows how she stuck it out with him, including herself. Once dad had accumulated enough wealth to retire, Mom and Dad lived his dream (his, not hers) by buying the most luxurious, expensive RV on the market and hitting the open road.
Over time, the further Dad got away from his military roots, the less of a martinet he became, and the better he and I got along. There is a famous saying that "A marine may not always be right, but he's never wrong." Dad did not see this as a droll witticism; to him it was scripture. As time passed, Dad was more and more willing to let go of this fixed belief, and his willingness to admit error went a long way toward our healing reconciliation. But it was my marriage to Connie that really cemented the bond between us. I had finally made a decision he could get behind. I had finally met with his approval.
On the other hand, maybe he was just relieved to learn I wasn't gay.
Healing and Redemption
Dad and I had a chat once about his military experience wherein he seemed on the verge of admitting that he had been had by his government. He was beginning to recognize that nothing he had done in his military career really had anything to do with preserving America's freedoms, but it had lots to do with destroying the lives of innocent people who had the misfortune to be born overseas. His eyes were first opened after the Second World War when he was sent to Japan and Okinawa as part of the American occupation. There he learned that the Japanese people, far from being the buck-toothed savages he had believed them to be, were actually a gentle and respectful people. He was charged with teaching English language classes to Japanese civilians.
One day when Dad was home from Okinawa, my friends and I were outside playing war as we often did. Through the open window Dad heard me shout, “Die, you filthy yellow Jap!” I got called into the house and given the lecture of my life. I’d seen Dad angry millions of times, but this time what I saw was pain and disappointment.
Dad was always bringing back exquisite Japanese toys, dolls, and sculptures, and soon our house reflected the finest of Japanese culture. It was clear he loved these people and all their creations.
A few years ago I stumbled back into my childhood hobby of building scale models, and I had an idea for a birthday present for my Dad. I painstakingly built a perfect model of the C-130 bomber, a plane that had played an instrumental part in Dad's military career. I proudly presented it to him on one of his trips through Sacramento.
He didn’t want it. I was baffled. He got angry. “Why would I want more stuff to clutter up my motor home? You keep it, I don’t want to have to carry it around!”
He never said so, but I suspect he didn’t want to have a reminder of an instrument he helped use in the wanton destruction of a people he had come to love.
In the last two decades of his life, I rediscovered in my father a kindness and generosity I had never known growing up. That old soldier "Sergeant Waterman" faded away a long time ago, and frankly, he hasn’t been missed. In his place was now a giving man of tenderness. Dad would stop in to visit whenever his journeys brought him and his motor home our way.
He was becoming kinder, more generous. He was loving. Little by little and step by step, unnoticed even to himself I think, my father was becoming a new person, a better person, as was I. I was finally able to see in him what many others had seen all along. My father was a good, good man.
When I was fourteen years old, my dad’s own father -my grandfather- died, and my sister Mary told me a story I simply could not believe. She had accompanied Dad to San Diego for a visit to see Dad's Aunt Daisy to tell her that her brother had passed away. Frail, elderly, and living alone, Aunt Daisy hadn’t yet heard the sad news, and it had fallen on Dad to tell her. After being invited into her tiny apartment and sitting down for some small talk, Dad finally broke the news to Aunt Daisy. And here is the part I couldn’t believe: as Dad was getting the words out, Mary said she noticed his voice getting weird. It sounded strained and choked. Then she saw that Dad was actually crying.
Mary told me this story as she sat next to me on the edge of my bed, and my jaw must have hit the floor. She herself was still trying to wrap her head around the experience. We had never known our father to cry or express sadness of any kind. Ever. Hell, we didn’t know he had any emotion at all besides anger in him. We sat there, contemplating the possibility and marveling that our dad might actually have a bit of humanity in him. Could it actually be possible?
I am happy to report that I’ve seen my father cry many times since then. We have wept together and shared our love for one another countless times. Forgiveness is a marvelous thing. My father and I have both come to understand each other. We have found redemption in love.
After Mom died, Dad married a mutual friend of the both of them that they knew from their RV travels. The woman was a non-member, and Dad eventually fell into inactivity from the church. After Joyce died, Dad met and married the wonderful Darla, a solid LDS woman who is too good by half to end up with her name attached to this family, but we all aim to keep her just the same. In their few short years together, Darla was the best thing to happen to Dad in a decade and a half. She brought him back to life.
A couple of months ago Darla called to tell me that my father’s health was failing fast, and if I wanted to see him again, it should be soon. Dad was no longer able to live the peripatetic life of an RV nomad, and he and Darla had settled at her home in St. George. Connie and I had visited them there almost three years ago, and even then I was noticing that Dad was losing some of his faculties.
I owe my love of the Constitution and the molding of my conservative/libertarian philosophy to my father's indirect tutelage. In my high school days he became something of a conservative activist, and many of the books and pamphlets he brought home were picked up and read by me. I was greatly influenced by my reading of the principles this nation was founded on, and it set me on my own course of advocacy for freedom and liberty.
But during a conversation at dinner this particular day it was becoming clear that my poor father no longer had the ability to process or understand some of the very concepts we had been discussing vigorously for years.
In March, my brother Karl joined Darla and together they drove Dad up to Sacramento to see us. I put them up at a nearby motel, and for once in my life I footed the bill. Heretofore, Dad had always been the giver and I had been the taker. He would come through and take me on huge shopping trips to Costco where we would buy so many groceries that we still had some left when he came through again. He never accepted anything from us in return. Now it was my turn to treat him, yet I don’t think he was even aware of the reciprocation.
Connie and I took the whole crew to dinner. For the first time ever, Dad was not the dominant force in the room. He was the center of our attentions, and he was perfectly lucid, but he was no longer The Man In Charge. Instead, he sat passively and happy, enjoying the visit, rather than being the one who had to run things his way.
My dad sat across from my daughter Amy (no longer Aimee Melba Toast Videlle, by the way), and that was the favorite part of the visit for me.
A former teenage runaway, Amy had caused Connie and I no end of grief as a teenager. She had been in and out of juvenile hall and jacked up on crack; she got pregnant twice and stole from us constantly. The worries and complaints we had shared with my Dad over time poisoned his mind against Amy, and many was the time he cautioned us never to trust her again. No matter how often we told him that Amy had reformed and that we had forgiven her, he wouldn't accept our assurances.
Now he sat across from this personable young woman, a college educated suburban wife and mother with her life completely together. I was glad Dad got to see that. Dad couldn’t get over how beautiful Amy was, and told her so repeatedly. He enjoyed helping her perfect little children with their meals.
That was what I wanted my Dad to see before he died. A reminder to him of the power of redemption.
As I write these words, my father’s funeral in St. George is wrapping up. And I am stuck here in Sacramento. A victim, as I said, of my own procrastination.
Longtime readers of this blog will be aware of my recommendation here of an herbal formula that has kept me from getting seriously ill for the past three years. I’ve long been susceptible to bacterial infections in my lungs, which always begin with simple hay fever or cold symptoms. I’ve learned to keep this Anti-Plague formula in stock at all times, so that whenever I feel the symptoms coming on I can take the stuff and the disease never gets to my chest.
Well, I’d felt fine so long I got cocky. I failed to take my own advice and didn’t restock another bottle, and a couple of weeks ago I got the hay fever symptoms which soon hit my lungs and turned into full mycoplasma pneumonia. And now I’m simply too sick to travel. In fact, just writing this essay has been very wearing on me.
And so, my father gets in the last I-told-you-so. It's true. I could have been better prepared. I shouldn't have procrastinated.
On the other hand, I never got around to fulfilling that vow to go back and kill my Dad when I grew up.
I like to think that Dad wouldn’t have minded my procrastinating when it came to my plans to murder him. So now with his passing I'm calling a truce.
Gordon Elmer Waterman; crusty, blustery Sergeant in the marines, died of old age, frail and meek just two days after his 85th birthday. Concurrent with his passing to the other side, we are expecting at any moment the arrival of his latest descendant, Nathaniel Jones, through my daughter Amy. Nathaniel will join nearly 40 of my father's direct descendants already here on the earth. I like to think that Nathaniel is even now standing next to his great grandpa just awaiting the signal that he’s cleared for launch.
My father long ago made his peace with God and with his children, all of whom are still alive: Elsa, Karl, Mariah, and John.
Alan, Son of Gordon.