Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why I Sometimes Spend Time With My Family

In The Pride of the Marines John Garfield played a Marine Corps vet who returned home blind. Here he endures a heartbreaking Christmas tree tragedy. I can't help it. Every time I think of certain mishaps, I laugh. In addition to knocked over Christmas trees, I laugh at the thought of dropped wedding cakes.

My father is a Newfie. Born in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1926. In Newfoundland it snows eight months out of the year. When my father was born, most people on the island did not have electricity. If families were unable to put enough food by to last the winter they might very well starve. When my father was a babe in arms, his mother took him to Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Brooklyn before Brooklyn became stylish. Long before Brooklyn became stylish. He was raised in a three room tenement apartment with no hot water, no bath tub and a communal toilet that was shared with the other apartments on the floor. My grandmother lived there until I was in my teens. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived downstairs. It was a very New York arrangement.

My grandfather was an alcoholic New York City Ironworker. He was one of the men who built the New York skyline, when he could get work. If he could get work he had a tendency to drink up his paycheck and leave his wife and six kids at home. My father's people were Ironworkers, Teamsters, maids, longshoremen and cooks. They were the salt of the earth, which is another way of saying they were poor.

In 1943 my father graduated from Boy's High and joined the Marines. He was sent to California and from there to the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands and war. He served with the First Marine Division and rose to the rank of Sergeant. It is probably for the best that he did not have to participate in any of the horrendous amphibious assaults, but he heard plenty of shots fired in anger and endured regular bombardments. Even though he was discharged from the Marines in 1946, my father stayed a Marine sergeant for the rest of his life. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi.

In 1949 my parents met and got married. The newspaper article announcing their wedding was headlined, "Miss McCarl to wed Marine sergeant.

One of my father's prized possesion was a book, "The Old Breed- A History of the First Marine Division in World War II". When I was a kid I was fascinated by that book. I spent untold hours studying the photographs and looking at drawings and paintings by Marine Corps artists. In addition to a detailed and very readable history of the First Marines the book served as a sort of high school yearbook of World War Two. Every Marine who won the Medal of Honor had his picture and a paragraph or two describing what he did to earn the US Military's highest honor. Most of them won the medal for falling on a Japanese hand grenade, absorbing the impact of it's explosion and saving the lives of his comrades. At the end of the book is fourteen pages of small type: a list of every member of the First Marines who died in World War Two.

As a boy, I was terribly proud of my father. He had a Globe and Anchor tattooed on his shoulder with the dates he served and the words "Semper Fidelis". Sometimes he would let me wear bits of his old uniform, his hat, or one of his campaign ribbons. When I played war I never played Army. I made my friends play Marines.

My father hung on to his copy of "The Old Breed". As an adult every time I went to visit my parents I would take it down from the shelf and look it over. When he moved to California this year, I looked around his new apartment and asked him if I could look at the book. When I put it back on the shelf I told him, "Look, Dad, you don't owe me anything. You did right by me and I'm grateful. I just hope someday that you'll pass that book on to me. When I was a kid, I was so proud of you. You were my hero. " He didn't say anything back.

A couple of weeks ago I was back visiting him. He mentioned something about his property and who would be getting what.

"Give it to Heather. She's a good daughter. You'd be dead without her. You know the only thing I want from you is that book."

He was quiet for a minute, then he said "Take it with you today."

I put my hand on his arm and told him, "That means a lot to me."

He looked away and said, "Means a lot to me too."

I am hurt and angry when my father continues not to recognize me; when he can't seem to hear me; when he fails to show the slightest curiosity about the man I've become. Still, I weep to see him old and frail. Like so many things in my life, he's not much, but he's all I've got.

Stars and Stripes Forever- Jake Shimabukuro (Buy)

Jake Shimabukuro is a Japanese-American. He is considered, along with James Hill, to be one of the two great masters of the ukulele. The ukulele in it's present form is a truly American instrument, like the Sousaphone and the banjo.


@eloh said...

For him, just like my father, to show affection is to show weakness, it can not be tolerated.

But he is the one person who would without hesitation die for you.

I miss my dad.

When you stop and remember, you see that they showed their love with actions, not words.

sfmike said...

Dear Jon: So glad to hear you are retiring, and so glad to hear your "I'm still not blogging about my cat" represents your version of being narcissistically personal rather than your kitty having gone to heaven.

When it comes down to it, it's how you write about your personal stuff and your kitty that makes it interesting or boring, and you make it interesting for somebody who doesn't even know you.

Loved your Marine dad story. He's too old to change so all you can do is be kind to him just so you don't feel any guilt when he's out of here. By the way, at first I thought the title photo was from the John Waters classic "Female Trouble" where Divine smothers her parents with the Christmas tree when she doesn't get cha-cha heels.

Nazz Nomad said...

wow. if i had human feelings, I would be weeping now.

Birdsong said...


Finding this story in print (after having heard it from you directly over the telephone lines last month) has reaffirmed my suspicion that writing is truly your calling.

As ever....
Peace, love & music,

Jon said...

Wow, a bunch of cool people wrote in. You should all click on each other's names and read each other's blogs. Thank you.
Laura, I'm a little embarrassed by all of the little mistakes and clumsy bits but I figure I'm better off writing a flawed something than a perfect nothing. In that sense I guess I'm a writer. I sometimes feel driven to write something down. Thanks.

Jon said...

Oh, SF Mike. You've been on a hell of a hot streak lately. You make me want to seek out high culture.

Nazz, my dad can fool me. You ain't foolin' me. You've got a good heart.

@eloh said...

By the way, you made me choke up and tear up with this post. I shall have my revenge.

Birdsong said...


Don't be embarrassed about your writing or about baring your soul in any way.

When I gave birth to my daughter at Valley Hospital almost 25 years ago (yes I went back to the old neighborhood), every doctor, medical student, nurse and student nurse checked up on me repeatedly and quite thoroughly. After that ordeal I figured nothing could ever embarrass me again.

As a male, you probably don't quite get it, but maybe you do. I do not underestimate your powers of observation or your compassion (and sometimes disdain) for your fellow humans.

But, after all these years I sometimes wish I had kept more of an air of mystery about myself. I feel I repeatedly reveal too much to the world at large in many ways, as can be seen in my songwriting and through social networking. Sometimes I feel like deleting my facebook page. But sometimes I get such good feedback, I just want to inflict myself on everyone.

This leads me to an apology to the other readers that when you click on my name there is no blog to peruse. I guess leaving my comment is the first step towards that....

Hugs to all of you,

Joe said...

If we have always been lumbered with war and starvation as a species I think we can also except the inconvenience (sometimes) of having warm hearts. There is of course a contradiction in there somewhere.

As for looking back at past lives everybody does/did. One of the many divisions our modern society achieves is the generation gap thing.

I have been reading Carver and finding it bleak. Which brings me back to where I started. Warm hearts along side the darkness is definitely worth it. And you write it well.

ib said...

Fine piece of writing, Jon, and I am glad you are a good deal closer to resolving that which often goes unresolved.

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