Mom was gone; Will was gone; John was gone – each on their own respective paths.
I was standing in the drive way on Nakoma Drive, looking. They were all there. We were kids, a family.
John left first, then Will, then Mom – and then one day all three gone.
I turned around and they were gone, seemingly vanished.
Dad and I looked at each other, tears, instantly recognizing the oddness of the moment.
I was a sophomore in high school in Dallas.
Our family of five was down to two – Dad and me.
And that’s how it would be for the next few years.
It all felt a little strange.
Not knowing what else to do, we went to the movies.
Out of Africa was playing, based on the Isak Dinesen novel. Dad drove me to the theater where Meryl Streep’s booming voice filled the room:
“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
We knew something was ending. Something else was beginning. The world was opening up. Dad and I went to Jerry Jeff Walker shows, talked at dinner on Greenville Ave. His best friend moved into the house for a bit. We talked about Jung and individuation, and Beat poetry and growing and learning and Jack Kerouac and the road and Texas and what it’s all about over and over and over, evening after evening. Some days or weekends he traveled and I had time on my own, or with friends. And on it went for three unique years, years that would cement a friendship, a time like no other, three years of high school with Dad as my teacher and mentor, sage and advisor, here and there. Good advice and bad, it was all there.
Finishing high school, he looked at me and wondered why I didn’t look back.
“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”
That was certainly the case. Twenty-nine years after that fall day, Dad shuffled off to parts unknown. Each march, before I travel, I think of him, rummaging through his letters, making sense of a life, of the road, a space between here and there, between his life and Ma Ma’s and Moultrie and Texas and Paris and Afghanistan and Hong Kong and California where we're going tomorrow. Rummaging through a dusty old box Will and I brought from Texas, there are letters of longing and wanderlust, admonishments from his father, love letters, and letters of friendship long disappeared, many I cannot read. There are incomprehensible poems on bar napkins, some typed out, half completed memoirs and other stories.
In the summer of 1968, he wrote to his parents from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore:
“Dear Parents,” he writes, his penmanship more clear than usual, as if still grasping at that elusive task of trying to impress them.
Afghanistan leg of the trip is over. We
toured the entire country, including the extraordinary rough northern road up shore
to the Soviet frontier. The country was
extremely beautiful. Sortov like riding through the Yellowstone Park day after
day. We came across a canyon to rival
the Grand Canyon, ie five miles across and two thousand feet from top to bottom. We covered a dessert where the lion dust was
up the to the hub of the rover….”
On and on the story goes, recounting missing the two-year-old son John left to stay at the grandparent’s. Dad recalls John running behind the car when they dropped him off, begging for them not to leave him behind.
Uncle Bruce recalled Grandad as a menacing man, although his tone was quite thoughtful in letters to Dad.
Like many of his generation, the war changed the old man.
It changed everything.
As Dad wrote shortly before he died in the second chapter of his unpublished memoir:
“Toward the end of World War II, existentialism was in the air. Paris had been liberated and young soldiers were using their passes to flock to Les Deux Magots to sit at the feet of Jean Paul Sarte. .. Dad was at an air base in Gaya, India. Yes the town where the Dodhi tree, under which the Buddha received enlightenment, stood. Uncle Carl and Uncle Louis were in the Philippines. Uncle Winston, the only daredevil of the bunch, was in Moultrie, Georgia, gnashing his teeth….”
The army thought it best one of the brothers remained home. Winston taught dad to shoot a bow and arrow, taking him out to the woods to find a bow.
“And I, at the age of seven, was looking out of my classroom window and realizing that I was me. And I began just began my eyeballs. The rest of the world was out there and not-me. I was different from and separated from my classmates, the classroom, the whole outside world beyond the window. I was a separate alone entity., all my myself and locked inside my head. It had never occurred to me before that I was not just an organics part of this world with the entire rest of the world. It was lonely feeling and with came the uncomfortable that there really could be a not me and the world would carry on with me. It was my first hind, certainly , not my last, feeling of existential angst.”
That feeling would remain throughout Dad’s days. A typed undated poem, reflects the same theme:
“The moon revolves around the Earth and the earth spins on its own axis and revolves itself around the sun. The Earth wobbles on its axis and we record it by the starts. The sun, also a star revolves around its nebulae. Does it also wobble. And the other starts, what do they do? The watch is an instrument whose gears turn a pointed around a dial in an even motion, and we call it time, yet in the beginning there was no time.”
This is the first of many poems in a folder entitled, “Tobacco Smoke: An Odyssey.”
A note about the poems. Dad was moved to drop out of college when he first read Howl in 1956 hanging around in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s old bookshop in North Beach. His first poems were presumably written then, although the first dated poems are from 1964, the last in 1990.
Dad’s grandmother taught him to read, asking him to re read from Gods and Heros. He loved the story and wanted to find out what happened, compelling him to think about the world of myths and mythology, a fixation that would endure all his days.
“Books became my steady and reliable friends,” his writes in chapter four of the unpublished memoir, “Bookworm.” His father, a Harvard trained doctor who scolded him often, was suspicious of his interests:
“Jack,” he addressed his son, who’d spent his day reading and day dreaming in the back yard.
“I have noticed that you with your reading are moving into a dreamworld. This is unhealthy, so from now on you are not to read any books until it gets too dark to see.”
He hoped to kill his father, the war hero he adored.
“Mentally, I entered a period of covert, but thorough going, rebellion with Dad, which to was to last the next ten years. Until I left home for good and it didn’t make any difference anyway. I longed for his approval, but not enough to change my ways.”
Leaving home, Dad made his way to Cambridge Mass, to Harvard, following in his father’s footsteps, before dropping out to be a Beat Poet in San Francisco. Many of his early poems take place in North Beach, near Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookshop. Over the next decade he moved incessantly, back to Harvard, back to the military, back Harvard, back onto the road. Dad would travel for the next decade, meeting mom at Ft Benning, Georgia, seeing with his best friends, completing that Harvard Law degree and Princeton PhD in literature.
There, for a small time in the early 1970’s, Dad found happiness. As his writes a handwritten undated poem in 1973:
“At that table much was debated
The pain in my chest was alive
But were the children
The boys with their golden hair.
One straight, one curly.
Benny came into my arms.
Time and again.
John laughed and wanted to talk.
I sit with them and know them and love them.
Dorothy was there and loved it.
Loved the matter of love and the way we all laughed.
And I know that this time I wouldn’t.
Have to hope to see them tomorrow.
Because I had tomorrow.”
He had a heart aneurism that year.
The theme of a literal broken heart, runs throughout his poems.
He hated being a lawyer.
“I deal in pain,” he wrote in one poem.
“And with every case, I try to make it so I don’t die a little.”
Still the poems flow, sometimes drunk, sometimes angry, or futile:
“To hell with it all, to try to understand it,
Peer out through a fine alcoholic haze.
To understand, perhaps to dream
To look to laugh (cry?) to sit in a bar.
But it has red checkered table cloths.
Have another bourbon. Think I will.
To laugh, and to feel like crying… that’s no literally cliché.
Tired - can you understand that – tired….
This poems getting out of shape Mahitable, and where’s the wry humor, does the other show too bad.”
Still, he reflects on this mix of cultures, of his life, of the food, history, mixing spices:
“Coagulating the gumbo mud to bog down the soul,
Until ripped and blown about by the flash, and light and relief of hit tears, blinding remorse.”
Still his heart ached:
“Open Heart Surgery” he wrote on the same yellow legal pad from 1973.
“They rolled me into a room
An they shaved my body clean.
They covered me and they were good.
They hooked me up and explained why they did it.
And I thought of mother.
And chatted with them.
And they said, “lets go.”
I said, “ how long?
They said, “three words.”
I learned now to murder.
To learn how to die.”
That night Dad prayed to God, in a familiar deathbed refrain, if you get me the hell of this one, I’ll give my life to you. A 70- to 1 chance, Dad survived. And he found a way back into that church that he was lost within, between First Baptist Church in Moultrie and Freudian analysis.
His memoir includes a story from 1943 in Moultrie:
“I remember very much one question because I knew the answer to it; “What is the color of your heart?” … I held up my hand. As it turned out the question was rhetorical, and without acknowledging me, the earnest you man in front of us held up his Bible and proclaimed, “Your heart is black, as black as the color of this Bible.” Adults preaching that sort of balderdash were not to be trusted and I avoided Sunday school when I could. In a way these events all occurring, between the ages of four and six, are paradigmatic of my subsequent relations to religion. As a retired clergyman of 75, my relationship with religion still involved a resentful resistance of arbitrary authority and a great impatience with ignorance.”
His last poem was drafted 18 years later, dedicated to his second wife.
“We know that in our being,
We have her and we have me.
9 December 90.”
I often think of that fall day we went to see Out of Africa, beginning my second year of high school 36 years ago, 29 years before he shuffled off, when I needed him most. We talked about the wonder of it all over diner. That conversation is still going, even now, all these years later, with all its pain, heartache and recovered love, between Brooklyn where he visited and the Chelsea Hotel and Afghanistan and Bastrop Texas and Houston where we read Robert Frost poems and Shakespeare and said goodbye, throwing his ashes into the trees in the Sam Houston National Forest all those years ago.