Bill Manson’s parents. "Did you realize he actually met Lawrence of Arabia, heard Caruso, fell in love with an American woman, did fashion illustrations in the ’20s, couldn’t give away his Packard Straight 8 in New York in the crash of ’29?"
Oh yeah. This sepia one is Dad, the 19-year-old skinny kid in the lieutenant’s uniform, with the canvas strips wrapped around his legs, huddling on the Turkish cliff in a trench, waiting for orders. Not knowing what in hell’s name to do next, even though he was the only officer in his company left unscathed, supposedly In Charge. He doesn’t look that romantic, just tight-faced. Scared to bits, I’ll bet. You can’t see them, but Dad says Turkish shells and sniper bullets are whistling down from the clifftops above. This is World War One, you understand. Gallipoli. Churchill’s disaster. And it’s what happened next that explains why I’m here. Some colonials — soldiers from New Zealand — came by. Just corporals and privates, rough as guts, didn’t give two hoots about officers. “Here, mate,” they said to Dad, and started telling him things: how to rig periscopes and trigger-strings, dig latrines, use mud to bind wounds — they helped him survive Gallipoli. They instilled such an admiration deep inside him that after 30 years and another war, he emigrated to New Zealand and became a fanatical Kiwi himself.
Yet what stuck out, as I grew up in Kiwiland, was that Dad couldn’t stop being English. Edwardian English. He was born in 1896. He remembered hearing the bells ringing in the new century, the 20th. He remembered seeing Queen Victoria’s casket file down the Mall in London in 1901. He was five. He remembered the horseless carriages that would backfire and panic the real horses in the streets. And then, his war. The Great War. He could never get over the English generals at Gallipoli who wined and dined aboard their anchored ships while their men ate worm-filled biscuits and died on the cliffs. He was so disgusted that when he made it alive out of Gallipoli he transferred into the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. He flew cloth-and-wood biplanes over Palestine. Crashed nine times. But maybe worse than his injuries was the guilt: even in the mid-1980s he still felt bad about holding out bombs and dropping them by hand on Turkish army tents below. After the war he tried to go back to school. Architecture. Dropped out. Felt too old. He was 24. Tried to work in the family insurance company. Too restless. Went to Canada, Bay of Gaspé in the smoked-fish business. Got sucked into World War Two. Air Force intelligence at Eisenhower’s headquarters. Headed for New Zealand right after the war. Couldn’t get out to the Pacific fast enough. That was pretty much the bio-pic my brother and I had of Dad.
Yet at the end of his life he’d sit at sunset with his rosy French-and-Italian vermouth (dry and sweet, mixed with a splash of gin and a squeeze of lemon) and say, “I feel such a failure.” He had become a portrait photographer and a history-book writer. But throughout my brother’s and my childhood there were always quiet anxieties about the future, about money, of course, until what must have been a modestly decent chunk of family inheritance arrived from England. They never told us how much, and they didn’t give up the day job. But you could see the raw anxiety drain away. Life was more…relaxed. Even if it started Dad questioning his own success.
I’d reassure him that he’d been a great father and he was better off beyond the claws of his snotty family in the old country. His problems with them were deep-rooted. So much so that, like most things of importance, we never talked about them.
That was the trouble. I never got around to asking him, really asking him about all this stuff. About him. Maybe it was because there was such an age difference — he was 47 when I was born — he was not your average football-kicking, race-you-to-the-end-of-the-pool kind of dad. Hated picnics on the beach. “Sandwiches are always filled with more sand than wich,” he’d say. Never went camping with the cousins. Wouldn’t trap possums or hunt deer. Not interested in seeing the All Blacks, New Zealand’s world-champ rugby team. A Democrat-style socialist where my Kiwi mom’s family were all “Nationalist,” Republican types. Drinking wine in a country where — at least then — slugging back beers was the only way you could show you were a real man, someone to be trusted. And, for crying out loud, he got to painting nudes, from real live models, in his studio in our home. I loved Dad, but his un–New Zealand side was, through high school — and it shames me to say it — my dirty little secret. I was happy he didn’t come to football games.
This is not to say that New Zealanders were philistines. There was plenty of culture to go around. It was just the way I saw kids looking at Dad. The cherry cheeks, the white mustache, the beard. The black beret. The English accent. Worst, the attempts at cracking a New Zealand accent. He thought the breakfast cereal Creamoata was from a Polynesian Maori word. He pronounced it “cray-ah-moh-ahta,” very carefully, each time. No one had the heart to tell him it was just a combo of the two words “cream” and “oats,” mate.
In the end it wasn’t till I started wandering myself, got married, and my (American) wife started asking him direct American questions that the real dad emerged. Pretty soon the two were talking opera, reading Arab love poetry. It was only through her that I heard what kind of a young man my dad was. “He was that first, lost generation!” she said. “The First War kicked him in the guts. He was forever trying to pick up his life after that. Just like Hemingway. But what a life! Did you realize he actually met Lawrence of Arabia, heard Caruso, fell in love with an American woman, did fashion illustrations in the ’20s, studied art in Paris, tried to become an opera singer in Rome, couldn’t give away his Packard Straight 8 in New York in the crash of ’29.… This was his life! How can you not have talked with him about all this shit?”
Of course the next time I saw Dad, 1986, he was declining fast. Too late for talk. My fault.
Oh. Here’s another photo. This is great. Dad and me playing French bowls outside the Bar du Petit Port in Menton, right near France’s border with Italy. I’m 28. He’s 75. Yes. We had this one time together. We’d go there every morning for three weeks — both in berets, on principle — for a glass of pastis, a game of Pétanque — boules — and a chance to flirt with Sylvie, the patron’s daughter. She wasn’t all that pretty, but she had this laugh, and Dad and I both looked desperately for a sign that she favored one or the other. Trouble was, Dad, who never cared about winning or losing at Pétanque, kept winning. “Ah, monsieur,” Sylvie said once, “lucky in boules, lucky in love.” Yeah. That’s the photo I’ll keep, if you don’t mind.