By Dan French
He was larger than life. Rippling biceps, which he flexed in front of us. He seemed able to lift anything, solve any task, fix any machine, take care of everything that came his way. He had it all, or seemed to. He delighted in pouring red blood from the dinner platter of rare meat into a cup, and, staring at us intently, downing it in one long draught. He’d smile, deeply amused, and announce, “Today, we are eating Daisy,” one of our cows. I learned not to become too good friends with any of our animals. We called him, “Sir,” the only name I ever used to address him.
Dad never talked about his World War II experience. We knew he enlisted when he was nineteen, and that he was in the infantry on the front lines as his army division fought through northeastern France and into Germany. We only heard a snippet here, a phrase there, usually when drunk, the caged internal voice desperate to be heard after being trapped behind a stone wall of silence for so many years. Never a whole mouthful of words you could chew over, roll around in your mouth, swallow, and fully digest.
With each passing year, a ruddy face grew redder with each empty gin or vodka bottle, and a belly bulge reflected his steady diet of alcohol, mayonnaise, and red meat. Every late afternoon, Dad poured from his half-gallon bottle of liquor into a tall glass, three-quarters of the way with a couple of ice cubes for chilling, and topped it off with a splash of cranberry juice – a Cape Codder. He downed the first one in several long swallows within a few minutes. The second glass went down slower, as face relaxed and muscles loosened. He waxed poetic by the middle of the second drink, reciting Hemingway, naming the Kings of England, outlining the Antietam Battle in the Civil War, debating philosophy, the only time he gave away his Harvard pedigree. By the middle of Dad’s third drink, you had to watch him, eye which way the wind was blowing. An easy-going conversation sometimes turned on a dime into fury, threats, and worse. He eventually passed out in his bed to loud snores in front of our only TV located in my stepmother Phee’s and his bedroom.
His war experience leaked out of him in other ways as well. Periodic whippings of his eight boys, often for no apparent reason and always while drunk. We lined up in chronological age, a barked order of “Ten-hut!” followed by “Touch your toes,” and then up and down the line, again and again, with his wide black belt he kept in the living room closet to strike fear in our eyes and hurt in our behinds. Angry outbursts followed by multiple kicks to the behind over simple mistakes young boys make. Summer showers with eight boys being hosed down naked on the front lawn. Being forced to regularly hold the electric wire surrounding our fencing for the sheep, cows, and pigs to “make sure they were working.” Practicing incapacitating and killing Nazi soldiers on my brothers and me.
Yet, he was up and was out the door every morning off to the family lumber business during the week and managing a medium-sized New England farm on the weekends. He worked non-stop. He loved the Boston Red Sox, cherished the woods, and grudgingly acknowledged when we completed a job well done. Secretly, he wrote poetry, yet never shared it with us, possibly because it wasn’t manly enough.
At fifty-nine years old, way too soon than what one would expect, the man who went nonstop from five in the morning to dinner time seven days a week started fading. He took a mid-day break on Saturdays and Sundays. Walking up to the barn became a chore; he had to stop and catch his breath after the moderate incline. As his frailty set in, the farm, already downsized due to his sons moving away, unraveled. The breaks in the fencing went untended. When the main beam in the chicken cabin collapsed, he moved the chickens to another cabin rather than fix the beam. He sold off the remaining sheep and cows. A man once armed with superpowers was losing them. He had become a mere mortal, one of us.
He joked here and there about cancer, but refused to see a doctor. To assuage his fears, he drank harder. He came home by four in the afternoon, was drunk by six, and asleep on the couch by eight. At one or two in the morning, he paced back and forth like a zoo’s caged animal, accompanied by guttural noises. His emptied a bottle of antacid tablets almost as fast as he could a half-gallon of vodka. But he still walked out the door off to the lumber mill by five o’clock every morning.
During the last few years of his life, he also mellowed. One afternoon, Dad was busy making his favorite alcoholic drink when I walked into the kitchen.
He slurped down the first third of the glass. I hesitated, not knowing if I had the courage to ask the question that had been nagging me for years.
“You know, Sir,” I said, “You could always stop.”
There. I had said it. Finally. After all these years.
“Stop what, son?”
“Oh, that.” He gave me a melancholic, wistful look. I waited. I had no idea what else to say. I had probably said too much.
He finally spoke. “Maybe I could have at one time. But I couldn’t now.”
He took another long sip.
“I can’t stop,” he said, with both resignation and conviction.
I nodded, “I understand.”
He nodded back, “You’re a good son.” Dad took another long sip. “Why don’t you see what the other boys are doing,” he said, “I’m going to stay here for a few more minutes.”
The conversation had ended. Time to go. I headed outside.
It was as if he had accepted he could no longer work as long or lift as many pounds or do as much as he used to. That unspoken acknowledgment seemed to soften him. He was coming to terms with his mortality; to me it seemed way too early in his life for that. He was aging far faster than his years. For the first time, Phee, my stepmother, and Dad went out for the evening to a Lake Winnipesaukee dinner cruise, something he had always viewed as a luxury a working man would never do. He offered me a dozen eggs to bring back to Boston, and waved away the dollar and fifty cents that I pulled from my pocket, the amount I always paid. “For free,” he said.
One day, he read me two poems he had written, the first time he had ever done so. I felt honored to be his audience. He told me he was proud I had earned my Master’s degree, especially since I did so without completing undergraduate college. I replied it cost less and took less time. He thought that was clever.
I had to adjust to his new behavior. He extended himself in ways he could not have in past years. His edges smoothed out, the tension ebbed. My Red alert downgraded to Yellow. I opened up more, sharing more of my life and thoughts. We engaged in enjoyable conversations, however brief, about the world. My body relaxed more; it didn’t need to be in hyper-alert anticipating what might happen next.
Four days after Zoe, my second daughter, came into this world, I got a call from Phee. “Honey, Dad’s in the hospital. He had a heart attack.”
Dad had driven the hour to his Fryeburg, Maine offices and lumber mill as he did every weekday morning. By the time he arrived, he had difficulty opening his truck door and stepping down to the ground. He checked into the mill to make sure things were running and headed into the office, every step a labor. He must have thought he was getting sick, but he had never let a virus stop him. The men in the office could see he didn’t feel well and told him he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed, and he should head home. Normally, he would never refuse a good day’s work because of minor concerns like health. This time he consented, gave some instructions, returned to his truck, and headed home.
Getting home was a challenge. Shifting gears took effort. His breathing became more labored, until he had to pull over to catch his breath. His head slumped forward on the steering wheel as it had so many times before, but for a different reason. This time, he hadn’t had a drop.
Finally, he wheeled his truck into the yard. He hauled his body into the house and collapsed on the living room couch. Only my sister Liz, twenty-four at the time, was home.
“How come you’re home, Dad?” After one look at him, she asked, “Are you all right?”
She assumed he had started drinking way too early that day.
“I don’t feel too well, sweetie. I can’t breathe so good, and I feel awful tired.”
“Daddy, maybe I should call Dr. Hope or the hospital. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Sweetie, I just need to rest a bit and I’ll be fine.”
Within a short ten minutes, as his breathing became more labored, his anxiety increased, Dad pleaded to Liz, “Honey, please, you’ve got to call the hospital. I’m having a harder time breathing and my chest hurts.”
Frantic, Liz called Dr. Hope, our family doctor, who told her to call Laconia Hospital Emergency Room. When they heard her description of the symptoms, they told Liz to keep him calm, and an ambulance was on its way. In Wonalancet, right away meant a minimum of an hour.
By the time the ambulance delivered him to the hospital, Dad had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctors said Dad’s heart had the most damage they had seen for a heart attack survivor. He would most likely be incapacitated for the rest of his life.
I visited him several times in the hospital over the next two weeks. I had a newborn baby at home in Cambridge and a bed-ridden father in a New Hampshire hospital. One Sunday morning, the urge to visit him overcame me. As I headed out the door, Megan, who was two and a half years old and adored her grandfather, asked, “Can I go with you, Daddy?” Maybe she could cheer him up. In the dead of winter, my wife and I agreed I would not take Zoe.
When Megan and I arrived at Laconia Hospital, Dad, more cheerful than usual, flirted with the nurses who shooed away his pretend advances. He was happy to see Megan. She was delighted to see her granddad. She wanted to sit in his lap, but the nurse did not allow it. “He’s still too weak,” she said. He told her a few jokes. By the end of twenty minutes, the effort had tired him out and the nurse signaled time was up.
“We’ll be up again in a few days, and I’ll bring Zoe for you to meet.”
“Another granddaughter,” and he gave a tired, happy smile.
Two mornings later, in a dense fog, a pealing bell pulsated through the soupy mist..
“It’s the phone,” Kathy murmured. My senses swirled as I awoke. Five-thirty.
I picked up the phone with a groggy, “Hello.”
“It’s Bob, Dad died,” he said. “Phee just called.”
The invincible one had died. My first thought was regret that I had not brought Zoe on my last-minute hospital visit two days ago.
He had asked to be sent home. The hospital knew he most likely had a short time to live. He wanted to die at home on his own terms. Phee took him home in the late afternoon the day after Megan’s and my visit. He labored getting inside, and smiled upon walking through the front door. He insisted on eating dinner at the kitchen table, but not before he fixed himself a tall glass of vodka with a dash of cranberry juice, his remedy for all ills. Afterward, he watched TV for a bit and then, tired out, went to bed. He suffered another massive heart attack and died in his sleep.
I hung up the phone and cried, even though he always told us men aren’t supposed to cry and made fun of us and worse when we did. Images flashed through my mind of the whippings, being hosed down, the electric wire, put-downs and ridicules, explosions, constant drinking. I thought of his superman powers, the father who could do anything and everything, and how I grew up feeling as though I could never come close to becoming what he wanted from me.
I also inherited his love of nature and poetry, an appreciation of hard work and a job well done, a healthy disdain of those who seek power and wealth at the expense of others, a sense of humility, a desire to live simply. And there were his last years when his health slowed him down and he was forced to see the world in a new light, when I came to a greater understanding of him and our relationship.
In the years after his death, one of my brothers and I researched my father’s path in World War II. Over a six-month period, the 103rd Division, in which Dad was a squad sergeant, fought on the front lines in almost continuous combat through northeastern France into Germany, liberating a concentration camp, and down into Italy before the war ended.
As a World War II veteran on the front lines, Dad experienced and engaged in horrific acts of war that permanently scarred him with PTSD far beyond the physical wounds he endured. Paul Fussell, author and World War II veteran from the 103rd Division, recalled the first dead German body he encountered, “My boyish illusions [about the war], largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.” Dad returned home while the horrors of war continued to rage within. His anger uncontrollably spilled over onto his sons and the family he loved.
After talking with Bob, I called Phee. She told me, “He died in his own bed. They carried him out in his pajamas, just like he wanted.” At sixty-two years old, he joined the disproportionate number of war veterans who died way too early in their late fifties and early sixties, another casualty.
Dan French began writing creative nonfiction after a career in public education supporting the creation of high quality, equitable public schools. He is currently working on a memoir.