Tomorrow, Friday the 10th, would be my father's 87th birthday. He was born of poor but honest parents, as he always began any bio material for his job at ad agencies, insurance companies, or for new markets for his short fiction and nonfiction. The winter of 1919 was a lean and blustery one in the Windy City. That, I think, was how he described it. A Depression kid, he had a real thing about a refrigerator full of food. With a wife seriously overweight for decades and a family of eight children, this would be a trick for anyone. But coupled with the Depression monkey on his back, he would get "apoplectic" at anything less -- his word, and when I found out what it meant, I remember thinking, "He's not apoplectic." When I encountered the words "phlegmatic" and "ironic" and happened upon the phrases "quiet desperation" and "keeps his own counsel," I adopted those when describing him. He died of an enlarged heart, the same thing likely to take me out, on a fishing trip in September of 1968. He was 49. On my living room wall is an 8-by-10 black-and-white glossy of him in his corporal's uniform. He is seated behind a typewriter. Most pictures of him include the typewriter -- and a pipe, though not in this photo. His smile is that of a matinee idol: a cross between Robert Taylor, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and JFK's Secretary of State, Robert McNamara. His photo on the wall is between an illustration of Lamont Cranston, "the Shadow" (he would like that), and an illustration of the Grim Reaper (his weapons: coke spoons, hypodermic needles, and prescription pill jars). An artist I like who did the cover of one of my books also did the illustration. Dad introduced me to The Shadow, and, in a sense, the Reaper minus drug paraphernalia.
This photo is dated 1943, just before he was sent to Manila. He is pictured ensconced in some corrugated tin barracks, the editorial office for the base newspaper, The Horned Toad. Its nickname is sure to be imagined correctly. His column for the Toad was called "Brizz-Bangs" and so were his characteristic turns of phrase, usually malapropisms, zingers of some kind, or often some hilariously bombastic overstatement so grandiose he was frequently taken seriously for Swiftian proposals. One, for example, involved how to employ Japanese POWs small enough, you see, to clean and maintain those hard-to-reach parts in the fuselage or cowling of a B-25 (even bomb bay sections). Only a readership of teenaged, barely literate draftees could find these treatises either offensive or helpful.
Here's a birthday card note for you, Dad.
February 9, 2006
It's me, Dad, Hammschlager. When we next speak you must tell me why that name. I suppose it seemed adorable for some reason. You will have seen M.J. by now, or have visited (did you have to see her through Plexiglas and talk into a telephone?), and she would have told you I got out of BJ's land war in Asia, about the drinking, and about your grandson, my son.
I don't know what to do, Dad. I love him and for good reason. He's a good man though untested in a lot of traditional ways. He's kind and far too smart. You may know all this. We're still left guessing down here and, as you put it, since it's a bet situation, I'm trying to stay with the house odds.
I can't get around the idea that it's my entire fault, the divorce, the booze, and that I'm a bit too quick to blame M.J.'s screwy genes. All of that gets me only so far. I try to steer him toward the idea of a benevolent God with the kind of awful mercy that spared your son and my brother, Paul, from an alcoholic's terrible death by taking him out quickly with a virulent cancer. The kind of hope I have to offer him is cynical, but I wonder if it's really worse than offering him any at all.
I tell him I love him all the time, and I try to listen to him, his brilliant nonsense. His medications help keep him from screaming and babbling in the shower or trying to take his own life. God help me, on some level I believe I've taken on the insufferable pride of believing I can cure him. I endure the unspoken jokes (by friends who are kind) about the blind leading the blind.
No one seems to know anything about this malady, and what they call schiz-affect is maddeningly incomprehensible to me. His first attempt at romantic love led to violence against him and the shutting down of his emotions. He was never very demonstrative in that way, but now he is in such full retreat that I am fighting this overwhelming compulsion to rail at God. The deity (who else? please) took this kid's affections and transmogrified them into the chilly ramblings of an obese social pariah who sooner believes in comic book magic than the true evidence of things not seen that you helped me to see, the way you did with algebra when I was flunking that too.
I'm asking for your help again. It's not that I'm praying to you, Dad. Just a birthday wish for you: a whole grandson with a whole soul. Anything, anything at all you could do....
The Cubs are still doing nothing.