I don’t believe he liked me, but I can’t tell you that for sure. I can say I don’t think about him. Mom, I think of every day. I talk to her in my head, still hear her voice, still see her face, my eyes still glisten when I look upon her picture.
I was with my mother and sister when he died. We gathered around his deathbed in the west wing of Kennesaw Hospital on a Georgia spring afternoon. I was 28 years old and had flown in from California that morning. I sat on a blue plastic chair and watched my familiar stranger silently slip away. I remember thinking how lucky he was to go out that easy: unconscious, feeling no pain, fear, or remorse.
Just before he died, I stood up and walked over to the hospital bed, leaned forward, kissed his forehead, and then lied through my teeth, “Good-bye, I love you.” I’ve regretted that lie ever since, regretted that I sent my dad out on one last note of falsity, regretted that the “I love you” was said for the benefit of my mother and not for him. The truth is, I didn’t love him. But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate him either. I simply had no idea who he was.
I lived with the fellow until I was 17, and I can honestly testify that we never shared a genuine moment. We were two polite passengers who found themselves aboard the same cruise ship. We said “Good morning” if we passed in the gangway. We tipped our hats if we came upon each other while strolling the sundeck. We said “Good evening” if we, by happenstance, were in the same line waiting for dinner’s third serving.
There were no beatings. He rarely drank, and when he did he never became drunk or abusive. Although he had at least 30 jobs, causing his wife and four children to move 30 times, he always had a job. We were never without housing, clothes, or food. Sometimes we had more than we could use, sometimes we had scarcely enough, but we always had enough.
My mother was the daughter of John Rogers Flannery. There was a time when, sitting in his office high up in the Flannery Building, John Rogers could count the following as his holdings: Flannery Bolt Co., American Vanadium Co., Montour & Lake Erie Coal Co., a large piece of Duquesne Beer, a department store, an advertising agency, and more. Flannery was a devout Catholic and a big deal in Pittsburgh. My father was a Protestant, a divorcé, the sole child of a small-town Pennsylvania lawyer, and nine years older than Mom. When the pair eloped, my mother’s parents promptly disowned their daughter.
On a Sunday afternoon, 18 years after my father’s death, Mom and I were chatting on the phone. She had reconciled, somewhat, with her kin. In fact, she’d recently received an invitation to a family reunion. My maternal grandfather was one of 8 children, his wife one of 11. I have more cousins, aunts, and uncles than I have dollars in the bank.
I flew to Pittsburgh and spent five days with relatives I’d never seen before. Many had known my father when he was young. This is what I learned.
My father was called Bill by his friends. He was a handsome, redheaded, Scots-Irish lad, six foot one inch tall and weighing 190 pounds. He attended Rutgers University, majored in engineering and played starting halfback on the football team. He never graduated and he lied about that for the rest of his life. He was said to be a dashing, reckless kid, booming around Pittsburgh in stolen cars, playing ragtime music on the piano, the center of every party.
In 1928 he drove a Model T from Philadelphia to L.A., where he worked as a stockbroker until the crash. He took up flying and later became a captain for Eastern Airlines, piloting a Ford Trimotor on the New York to Miami run. There was no radar then; you flew low over U.S. Highway 1 with an ordinary road map in your lap. If you saw inclement weather ahead, you guessed how bad it might be and turned back, landed, or flew on.
He had several airplane accidents. Luckily all of them occurred while he was flying his private plane. The last crash, in 1947, put him inside a full-body cast for one year. He had broken every major bone in his body. At first, doctors said he wouldn’t live, and then when he lived, they said he’d never get out of bed. Three years later he was playing tennis five days a week.
He was in pain the entire time I knew him, but I could never judge the intensity of it, because he never complained. He had a volatile temper, which detonated after the slightest provocation. But I never, not once, felt threatened by his explosions. I knew, even as a small child, that none of it was directed at me.
He had, as I’ve said, many jobs: stockbroker, airline pilot, vice president of Bantam Motorcycles, but mostly he worked aerospace. In the early 1950s he represented Lockheed before congressional appropriations committees, selling the latest atomic plane scheme. At one time or another he worked for General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Cubic Corporation, Chance Vought, Boeing, Northrop, Honeywell, Litton Industries, the Nevada Test Site, and many, many more. Moving, moving, moving.
In my time with him he never held a job more than 12 months. My mom once told me that, at first, everybody seemed to like him, and then, after a while, they didn’t. I have wondered if it wasn’t hell for him, encumbered with four kids and a wife, particularly a wife coming from a wealthy family, and knowing, as he must have known, that the day he set foot on a new job was the day he’d start looking for the next job.
I have thanked him in my heart for never giving up, never running away from us. I have cursed him for making me attend 22 schools before I left high school. Lately, I have made peace. In the end, most of us do the best we can.