There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time, maybe thirty years or so.
It took me so long to get around to this for a couple of reasons. First, once I came to realize the missed opportunity of that phone call, however farfetched, I kept waiting for you (whoever you were) to call me again. Second, I wanted to be prepared this time and, since I didn’t know how much time we’d have, I wanted to make sure I asked the right question.
Years after your death I got a phone call that echoes to this day. It went like this: the operator said she had a collect call for Jack Scott. I said, “Speaking. Who is it from?”
“Your father”, she said.
I told her she had the wrong person. “My father is dead”.
She asked if I would accept the call or refuse it. I said again, “My father is dead. I won’t accept the charges”.
A voice pleaded desperately. “Jack, please talk to me. It’s your father. Don’t hang up on me. Please.” The telephone company doesn’t give anything away so callers aren’t allowed to speak until charges are accepted.
The voice shocked my heart; to my ear it was yours.
The operator said to him, “Please, sir, you are not allowed to speak to him until he accepts charges or you pay for the call”.
The voice said, “I can’t pay for the call. Jack, please”. It was your voice or so close to it I couldn’t tell the difference: Southern Virginia redneck cracker with a little Sussex County, Delaware mixed in. Sorry, that’s a description, not an evaluation. While you were alive I always thought you were proud of your dialect, sometimes even exaggerating it, strutting it like a rooster making sunrise happen.
The operator asked again if I would accept the call, or not. “Not”, I said, “I won’t accept the call.”
The voice said,” Please, Jack”, one last time and the line went dead.
I felt an immediate surge of regret. This had happened too fast for me; I was caught between a place where things seemed solid and certain, and a Twilit zone whose reality could be quite the opposite. I was spooked, not thinking clearly. Hearing that indelibly familiar voice, I was not at all sure that it was not yours. What would it have cost me to talk to you and convince you that I was not your son, or be convinced that you were my father, however dead? Immediately afterward and from that time forward, that uncertainty grew. Obviously, since I am writing this letter now to you I have some hope of picking things up where we (?) left off.
I sat there thinking, what have I done? And then, what can I do about it? I first thought I’d try to locate the operator and have her attempt a reconnection. Trying to think more clearly in my very unclear state of mind, I realized I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to go about doing that. I didn’t even know if it was possible. With each passing minute I knew the chances of success were swiftly moving toward zero.
I knew that what I thought had happened could not possibly have actually happened. Even if the dead could talk to the living why would they need a telephone and an operator and be compelled to abide by AT&T’s rules of conduct?
Even so, I was feeling the full effect of having made a very large mistake, one I knew even at the time I would long regret. I’ve never stopped hoping, without expectation, that you would call again, but that call never came. This makes a sad person sadder. I’ve always wanted closure with you, but the door’s been left ajar again.
I’ve never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted a conversation with you before you died. Didn’t happen. Let’s say hypothetically that the phone call was meant to be that missed opportunity. So, now the score’s tied: you blew the first over a span of 64 years and I blew the last in as many seconds.
Now, without the opportunity for feedback , I’m going to attempt to reopen that dialog as monologue. Sorry at the dark humor of that, because I know it would make you squirm to be the listener, as far as you’re capable, rather than the lecturer. I’m not going to pretend that you’re here or that I am wherever you were calling from, but I am going to imagine that we’re in the same place at the same time.
First off, in the terminology of local mythology, I don’t think you’re in hell. You did damage, but you were never evil or malicious, not even cruel. You were just ignorant, stubbornly so. The arrogance that went with that was only skin deep, protective . You relocated from your birth culture into a world of what you took to be superiority. It’s ironic what that made you appear to be equal to those around you? You started out making fun of those fools chasing little balls around the golf course, and ended up out there in the snow playing with brightly colored balls. You thought you had finally joined the in-crowd.
I think you’re not in heaven, either. Intruding a bit of prevalent belief system here, I suppose your proper setting is in a sort of kindergarten, at any rate a place of learning and preparation for your next attempt to become a happy person, capable of giving and sharing happiness. Capable of compassion, empathy and understanding from less of a distance. I’d like to hope that.
God, the memories that call brought back. I will try to be fair, but honestly more of them were bad than good.
First, the good. Judging from photographs which included you and me, up until I was maybe six or so, about the time we moved from Nanny’s “room and board” to our new, first house, you always looked at me with what looked like love and pride. Pride was a big thing with you. It puffed you up, but its simulation brought you gradually downward toward the end. Not just macho pride which was a cultural thing, man, but a more basic exaggeration of self which made mirrors lie. We didn’t appear in many photos thereafter. I suppose the older I got the more of a threat to you I became.
I want to make it clear to you that I am not as sure of things as you always insisted you were. This letter, for instance, is one long guess. I’m not writing it to change you, only to get your attention.
There were two compartments to your life before golf and the country club.
There was your prison, the store. Mostly this was the grocery store wherein you incarcerated yourself, thereby giving yourself reason to absent yourself from family life. You came home to eat, complain how tired you were and how many bills you had to pay, nap a little longer on Sundays because of relaxed hours at the store, sleep and groan your way back to work.
There was a back room in your cell. You know something funny? I can remember you spelling, “B. E. E. R.” to mother, not knowing what that was. I didn’t know you were an alcoholic, a secret drinker except when you were out with the boys. I don’t think you drank at home or in front of mother. I know you drank at work and on the boat, which means that I must have seen you drinking hundreds of times, and yet I cannot clearly remember seeing you drunk, but then I didn’t know what drunk was. I just thought that was your natural behavior when you were reluctantly having fun. You gave work the hours of your life, including those the rest of us wanted. Except on those lighter occasions, you were a martyr to your lip service that work will set you free. The small print was that drunk is not as good as happy, but it will do.
You gave me a lot of advice which entered my mind with the same weight as legitimate lessons taught and learned. What have I learned from you? I’m not being spiteful, but I honestly believe the answer is Nothing. By that I mean, nothing I want to retain. Nothing I would call useful in figuring out how to live my own life. All things considered, the weight of it was (and is) negative. I have spent my life attempting to unlearn what you spoon fed my mind early, when it was open to you. I grew up loving you until I wanted to stop loving you, which was hard to purely do. Your love was like your advice, lip service based on that monumental cliché of misinformation: Do as I say, not as I do. Even in that there was, as will be seen, deceit to everyone around, including as its core your own self-deception.
Your second compartment was the water, which we both loved as much as we loved anything.
Once I was old enough for us to have become adversaries, the one oasis where we met regularly under truce was the Delaware Bay, aboard your 24 foot clinker built charter boat, Miss Teddy. Do you remember the evening when you took me to see her just after you bought her, moored in the darkness of the “crick”, aka Mispillion River in downtown Milford, Delaware? You were proudly in love and I fell in love at first sight. This expanded my world into the realm of dreams. For you this was an escape hatch, a safety valve from the dedicated prison of your iron clad work ethic. Your grocery store was your second; your first had failed in bankruptcy which I think branded you with a scarlet B in your shame, and burned monomaniacal determination to succeed into your mind.
I was happily aboard when you proudly took me and others down the crick to the docks at the Mispillion Lighthouse with its pair of mile-long stone breakwaters pointing toward Cape May. This was her home for the next and best years of our lives, which ended for me with my departure for college.
If you still have memories of her, this will be for you I’m sure, as it is for me, the best of the good. I can’t speak for you, but water has always been magical to me connecting as it does with everywhere, including, during rain and storms, the sky and through the sky, all else. That magic was not only for water, but for those magical creatures living within it as well. Fishing is a ritual of mystery and faith. Back in those days fish and other sea creatures were plentiful. One didn’t merely go fishing; one went catching. That was the faith of it, that particular belief in the abundance of things unseen. The mystery lay in what you would catch next, not knowing what it might be, and when. Such delicious expectancy.
Your happiness spilled beyond mere fishing into your society of customers and drinking buddies. Miss Teddy was a charter boat, on which you took out parties of paying fishermen from wherever, to pay or defray the expenses of these enjoyments.
I think I went out every day she went out, but you were stuck in the store everyday but Sundays, mini-vacations you allowed yourself when the weather was good. Fishing throughout the week was made possible due to other “captains” you partnered with. After expenses, you split the income with them. I remember a few of them. There was Slim Exley who worked at DuPont’s in Seaford and Ralph (Steely) Steele, and Captain Wiegand, a flier stationed at Dover Air Force Base. Even though I can’t remember his first name I remember the lives he spared by not bailing out when his plane died, but instead aiming it into the vacant ground. I remember my High School wood shop teacher, a rare friend of mine who drank a fifth of scotch a day, which probably had something to do with nearly killing himself by driving into a telephone pole on the way home from the boat one day.
Now, here’s where memory’s sky darkens. I know you remember all of this and more, but I want you to be aware of how well I remember it, and more.
I (and later, my two sisters as well) suspect that you loved mother more than she loved you. I suspect yours may have been a “shotgun wedding”, but I don’t care enough to compare your wedding license with my birth certificate. I was in my 40’s when I learned from mother that you had had a previous “shotgun wedding.” Turned out I had a third sister, five years older, which I had not known about.
Skipping around to set the stage for the next plot development: her name is Nancy. She’s nice enough, but is married to a racial bigot who belongs to two chittlins’ societies. I visited them once but cut it short and never returned. I was interested in a black woman at the time; he said of African Americans that” down here we call them niggers.” I left the next morning.
I did meet her mother, your first wife, whose parents annulled that first marriage because you had, apparently, married above your station. She was in her nineties, in a hospital and radiantly beautiful. I would have liked to have sculpted her face; I’ve never see lines like that. And I’ll never forget what she said when your name was first mentioned, “Oh, John. My first love.” It felt like that love had never gone away. It brought tears to my eyes.
More stage setting: My early sex education was embarrassing. I grew through puberty into a shame of my body and its urges that never completely went away. The school part of it was something like Sex for Mannequins. At home, my mother took on the role of educator. At first, she would leave me books and booklets to read while they went out to the movies. Personally she would submit to Q & A sessions. I can remember asking her if it really felt good and if she really enjoyed it, to which she answered yes, and yes. My father’s participation in my sexual education was brief and to the point: Keep your pecker in your pants. That’s it.
Now, here is the part for which I will never forgive him if I live to be a thousand. Until my sisters reached a certain age I think he walked or paraded in the house naked, at least between his bedroom and the bathroom, which meant passing through the hallway onto which my doorway opened. I know I’m oversimplifying the floor plan, but I want it to be obvious that the following did not happen just once. I don’t remember over what time span this occurred, over what years of my young life. This is what he burned into my brain, for whatever reason including none, through whatever motive. His penis was much larger than mine, my penis was much smaller than his. He found some humor in this; he took some pleasure from this. I’m going to leave it at that. It had (has) its effect.
One other penis memory. At this time he had moved up to owning an automobile agency, selling Nashes and Crosleys about the time the war ended. He had gone deer hunting and returned with a young male deer. He and his cronies had gathered in the dim light of the rear of the garage to “dress”, meaning butcher, the deer. They were drinking, and then they were drinking more. When they got to the penis someone held it up and showed it around, making merry sport of how small it was. This is another of the photographs that I carry in my memory.
Now back to the present in the past that I was working up to. I don’t know if ______ _____ was his last skipper or just near the end of the line. At this time I had my driver’s license and a car which places it my age at that time. To cut to the chase, my father who loved my mother more than she loved him, was having an affair with ______ _____’s wife while he was out on the Delaware Bay driving the boat. I don’t know if he had affairs before, but he got me involved in this one. To make a long story short, he had me delivering his handwritten messages to her and bringing her replies back to him. I don’t remember how many times, but just once put me in a position of betrayal of my mother.
Here’s where my memory clouds over again as it did over the clear remembrance of his drinking. During this period he was being bad to my mother, hurting her, though not physically. They must have had arguments, lots of them, which I can’t remember. He must have by now been drinking at home in her presence. He was an angry man with an ugly temper, but I can’t believe he would ever hit her; I don’t remember. I don’t know if she was aware of his affair(s).
I’m using the third person while referring to you, but you know who I mean.
Let’s summarize a little, you and me. Work enabled you to evade the warmth and ties of family life, substitute for that your escape into the bottle and justify your role as head of family due as reward for the sacrifice of your life for the technical comfort of that family. You were breadwinner, provider, bringer home of bacon, our hunter gatherer, our lord and master. You suffered for us and we owed you for it. The role you set for yourself with me was that of dictator, angry dictator. You reserved the freedom to tell me what was wrong with me, to express your disapproval. Reciprocation was not allowed or things would have gotten really ugly. I don’t recall that you ever hit me; in fact when spanking or paddling was called for that was mother’s job, and she got no satisfaction from it. But you had your ways of letting me know that I didn’t deserve all the things you gave me. At no time did you ever acknowledge that I was living up to any of your expectations. The problem was that I didn’t know what your expectations were, and neither did you. And, if you did, you had no idea of how to communicate them. It was like playing Blind Man’s Bluff, using only the word: Cold . . . Cold . ..Cold . . .
More Summary: While you were here you became a hypocrite to the extent that your denial of it caused you more pain than you could understand or express. You couldn’t confide in others because you lacked the emotional vocabulary, and your macho pride didn’t allow a Southern Virginian male the ability to open a window of opportunity in order to breathe freely. In other words you were locked inside a prison more confining than your store. Again, this didn’t make you evil, but it did limit your goodness.
I don’t think you know the next memory I am going to reveal. In fact it’s pretty shadowy to me. How it came about, what surrounds or went into it, I can’t recall. What I can see clearly is a car parked in a woods. There are two people in it. I can make out a man and a woman by the occasional glow of a cigarette being lit, probably a Lucky Strike, your poison of choice. You were the man. The woman was ______ _____’s wife. I know that because, as messenger, I helped set this rendezvous up. Her name was Mary and she was blonde and pretty. I remember creeping closer to the car so that I could get a clear shot. In my hand was the single shot, bolt action .22 caliber rifle you bought me on my ninth birthday. I remember getting my sights on your head and holding that stance for a while, then lowering the rifle and crawling, then walking away from the cause of what I considered to be your abuse of your wife, my mother. I wanted to kill you, and had justified it in my mind but couldn’t pull the trigger. I don’t think it was due to fear of the law.
We all then drifted out of each other’s lives, each of us, all of us. After venturing out into the cushioned micro world of college, financed by the sweat of your brow, I fell the rest of the way out of the nest onto the hard ground with only dreams and vague memories of flying. I lived all of my lives, none of them well, and am relieved enough that they lie behind rather than ahead. I repeated some of your mistakes – the alcohol- for one, and maybe the women. I don’t have enough information to know about that, and I’m not curious. You and mother stayed gathered together wrapped in the appearance of normalcy while aging together. You died first, of a stroke, which took eleven days to conclude. You gave no sign of recognizing any of us. Mother died in her sleep a few years later. Her doctors killed her with uncoordinated prescriptions.
Betty married an insane Nazi during your lifetime. What you don’t know is that she escaped his threat to kill her if she tried to leave him by doing just that and living secretly with friends until his death from cancer which, mercifully for her, happened shortly thereafter. She has remarried, apparently contentedly. Florence divorced her first riches to rags husband, whom you knew, because of his drug problem, which you didn’t know. You had forgiven him for being a Jew and a Mexican because he was then rich. She also married well the second time.
If you want to know about me, give me a call.
I remember you took me down to your birthplace, Brookneal, Virginia, several times. I remember you carousing with your childhood buddies, introducing me to them with the appearance of some pride, and showing me some of the local sights, such as they were. This is hard country with poor people. You were here during the Great Depression, surrounded by it and all those stung by it into abject submission. How many dreams were then killed? I think it bankrupted your father, whom I think was a pioneering Ford dealer.
During our tour of your childhood haunts, you drove me past the Blackstone Military Academy where you were forcibly enrolled as punishment for knocking up one of the local rich girls, rich being relative at the time. Gradually, something came over me, absorption, an osmosis from all those places and your memories of them, and from you. I began to go back in time, back to your time, to see what you had seen, feel what you had felt. That day, I had one of my epiphanies, or revelations or miracles or whatever; however it can accurately be described eludes me. Time stopped. In that parenthesis, I was you. I became you. I was you. Your thoughts were mine; your history was mine, I inhabited your body. I don’t know how long it lasted, but when it ended it was something I would always remember, but never share.
That conversation I devoutly prayed to have with you, the one that never took place . . .
Remember me mentioning that? Does that embarrass you? Is it too unmanly, that much sentiment?
Let me make a substitution. Let me wish instead for a comparable equivalent of the Venusian Mind Meld with the charges reversed. Turnabout is fair play. Just for an instant, however long it takes. I’m 75 now, considerably older than you were at the time of your death. I’m making no claims about my life. Let it all hang out, warts and all: the shames, the guilts, the hopeful loves, the fleeting joys, the heady illusions of triumph. I just want you to have a look, to feel me.
I want you to recognize me as whatever I am.
Would you do that for me?
That’s my question.
®Copyright 2013 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.