84 years ago today my step-dad was born (May 9, 1924). He died 20 years ago at the young age of 64. I have shared on this blog about my relationship with my step-dad. Yes, he was abusive. It was always his way or the highway. Actually, it was just his way. So, I think if any of my regular readers were to describe my step-dad, that description would be pretty negative. Today, on his 84th birthday, I thought I would color in some more of the picture.
My dad was a WWII vet who got kicked out of his house at 16. His dad, who he referred to as ‘that lousy drunk’, no longer wanted to support him so dad learned very early on how to take care of himself. He never had the chance to finished high school. He never went to prom. He never went to graduation. He always used to joke that the only thing he got for his 18th birthday was a draft notice from Uncle Sam. We all laughed but I do not think he was joking.
He never spoke about his time in the US Navy during WWII. His ship was in the Pacific. He was indoctrinated into hating and fearing the Japanese. He referred to the Japanese people as Japs. He, no doubt, held the entire nation responsible for all of his pain. When I did a report on WWII in high-school I asked him if I could interview him.
“What do you want to know?”
This was his way of saying, “I would love to sit down and talk with you son but there are some things that are just too hard for me to relive. We can start but I may not be able to finish.” Of course, at the time I did not realize this.
He told me one of the things his ship would do is pick up survivors. And partial survivors. Partial? Yes, if there’s enough left to send back.
Then he told me about the time they picked up “a whole raft full of Japs.” He said there were 20-some Japanese sailors stranded in the ocean. They took them on board, stripped them naked and had them stand on the deck under armed guard until they reached an island with US military on it.
“W-w-why did you strip them?”
He told me stories of concealed weapons, how they were trained to kill with their bare hands, and the whole kamikaze spirit of “the Japs.” Then he said, “Once they were naked and huddled on the deck we saw they were just a bunch of scrawny little boys. They were smaller than you! I think if one of them had farted, we would have killed them all right there!” Then he laughed throwing his head back.
Little boys. Like me. I was 15 or 16. Littler than me? Really? I was probably 130lbs. Dad was 240 lbs.
When they arrived at an island, they turned the naked, skinny, dehydrated, and terrified boys over to some other US military group and watch as they were march off to somewhere inland. He said, “We were laughing and joking about our big prisoner catch when we heard gunfire.”
“W-w-what happened?” asks little Ric.
“They probably shot ’em.”
I think I may have caught sadness or guilt or grief or pain or fear or something in his voice and face. My jaw must have dropped or my eyes widened or something else that gave away my shock.
“They were goddamned Japs!” he defended.
That was the end of the interview. No more details. We never spoke about his WWII experience again. I did not complete the interview assignment for high school. Until now.
As I grew I began to see this interview as a turning point in my understanding of my step-dad. A man who by age 19 knew this world does not give a crap about you. A man who believed physical weakness spelled certain death. Was he fearful that I would be chewed up by this dog-eat-dog world? Did he at some level inside his broken and torn heart feel he needed to make me tough?
Years later, in one of our last discussions in this world I was complaining about work. At that time I was proposing doing something very different. Many people came out of the woodwork to raise their objections and tell me (and my bosses and my clients) it would never work. Lamenting and thinking out loud I said, “Its crazy. I don’t know why I’m even bothering. Some days I just want to say fine, forget it, do you’re way!”
I was 28. Dad was 64. I was 160 lbs to his now 140 lbs. He leaned forward in his deck chair as I took another sip of my beer.
“Don’t ever give up Ric! Never! You stick to your guns. Stick to your guns!”
And I saw that face again. Visible tears this time but still the same face. He made me promise him that I would fight. For him, these were not metaphors.
Two months later, dad was gone. My company gave me an award. Some Steuben crystal collecting dust somewhere. The men and women at that company never really understood why I ‘stuck to my guns.’