A lifetime Democrat, he voted for Eisenhower over Stevenson, on the grounds that “Ike was my commanding officer” — yeah, right. In 1940, the story went, he’d joined the army to “save England from the Blitz” (as opposed, more likely, to escape the clutches of his unhappy pappy), only to slip on the ice at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, tear a cartilage in his knee, and get classified 4-F a year before Pearl. Usually the story was preamble to his long-range plan for keeping “our” military heritage alive: I would sign up for ROTC (“Better to be an officer, Dick”) when I turned 18. I was in fucking kindergarten when he first served me this scenario, and not a day went by that I didn’t cringe at the thought of growing older (subtracting from 18 to figure how many years I had left).
Though the Meltzers as a unit never participated in the rites of any organized religion (other than Postwar Capitalism), Ol’ Man Meltz — though it might’ve just been a riff, y’dig?, tossed off in the same manner he read me sci-fi — occasionally fed me passages from the Bible (flaming pits and all), scaring the PISS out of me, and sometimes pretended to still be a Catholic — he’d been one for seven months. In 1935, to join an Irish frat at Brooklyn College — his way of being anything but a Jew — he took vows or whatever you do, ate no meat on Fridays, went to confession — the whole number — for as long as he could keep it up. It was easier to be an Irish Catholic, he surmised, than an Irish drunk. In all the years I knew him, he’d only sip beers and feign being drunk — what an actor. (He also collected beer mugs.)
Yet I lived to tell it. As so-called fate would have it, the weight of the whole thing proved too much for the old fuckeroo to continue to bear. When I was ten or eleven, the charade began to unravel. First to go were our trips to the movies. Maybe it was Creature with the Atom Brain, maybe The Creeping Unknown — something broke the camel’s back. One weekend he announced, flat out, that he’d had enough of the shitty flics we’d been going to — “half baked” was his term — and if I wished to see any more such trash, he wouldn’t be along for the ride. Huh whuh? — fuck you — as if this silly dance was MY idea! At first I felt betrayed…then a feeling of RELIEF set in.
In short order, he threw in the towel on father-son, on family altogether. Though for all appearances he went on behaving pretty much as he had, it was minus the constancy, fervor, commitment. From an imitation of life he moved to an imitation (and a weak one at that) of an imitation. The baggage of parenting, always a wretched cartoon, is more than any adult human, especially in postwar America, should have had to abide (a crack habit seems easier to finesse), and my father (what’s the word, lame? a loser? a dork?) was not made for it nohow.
In his labor-intensive — but ultimately finite — run with me, he lacked the killer instinct, strategic foresight, and parental finishing touch to be truly dangerous. If he’d known what he was doing, I’d’ve become a serial rapist (or a commodities broker) when the dam finally broke. (Call me lucky.)
Soon after giving up on the family thing, he gave up, in just as big a way, on Life Itself, even if, in his overachieving whitecollar mode, he probably passed to colleagues as animate for quite a while. No, he didn’t give up striving — or even bullshitting — just caring.
But with the pressure thus off, and decades to spare, he would still never become someone I (or anyone) could exactly “talk to” — he never mastered smalltalk or became approximately Real. Which today feels sort of tragic — or something — but that’s the fucking breaks.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.