May 12, 2010
My father was a very complex man. Incredibly handsome, he was always attractive to the ladies. Tender, he would never allow my mother to beat me when he was around. Accomplished, he could find deer or fish when no else could. And, he was brave beyond any bravery I have had to muster because of AIDS. Watching the HBO series, The Pacific, has renewed my pride of my dad's bravery in the Pacific in WWII.
My father fought in the Pacific Theater of WWII as a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska in 1941 when the Japanese viciously attacked the American bases on those islands as a diversionary tactic to their larger attack on Pearl Harbor. After that battle, my dad followed the Marines' advance on the Pacific islands rebuilding damaged airfields for US planes.
My dad wanted me to be as good an outdoorsman as he. He gave me my first rifle, a little 22 when I was very young. After that gift of the rifle on my first deer hunting outing with him, he chased a deer over a mile toward me so that I could bag my first deer. As I sat tending the fire, I was amazed as the deer bounded over the fire, my gun at my side; but, I didn't fire. My dad at the gallop shortly followed the deer. His words to me as he jumped over the fire were "Why didn't you shoot?" He bagged the deer and told my mom later that I had wounded the deer which allowed him to bring it down. As a trophy of my supposed hunting skills, my dad had a coat hook made of one of the deer's hooves for me.
We lived for a while on Puget Sound in Washington State upon which my dad and I often fished. I loved the quiet times we spent together in our little boat on the Sound. On one of those fishing trips, I caught a fifty pound salmon which my dad helped me reel in. He was so proud of my catch that he showed off the fish at the dock and had my picture taken with it. My mother was equally as proud if somewhat perturbed as to what to do with fifty pounds of fresh salmon.
It was soon after the catch of the trophy fish that I learned my father had a mistress. My dad and I were at a local swimming hole in Tacoma, Washington, Lake Wapato, on an unusually sunny day. With us was an attractive blonde woman, who was very affectionate toward my dad. When I got home, I blurted out to my mom that dad was with an attractive blonde at the lake. My mother became furious with my dad; and, after they went to bed, I could hear them arguing in their bedroom at the top of the living room stairs.
Dad was a stalwart Scot. He worked as union electrician after he retired from the Service. I often watched as he worked with live electrical wires without flinching as the current flowed though his body. After his Service retirement, he moved his mistress so that she could be close to him and they could carry on their affair. When he re-enlisted in 1965 for Viet Nam, he arranged his mistress' move to Saigon.
Much later when I was awarded my undergraduate degree in 1982, my dad told me over several beers that my older brother was not his child. He said he was playing minor league baseball in the late 1930's in Florida after his stint with the Merchant Marines. He noticed an attractive but obviously pregnant girl who seemed to be at all his games. Dad took pity on the girl and married her. At no time when I was growing up did either mom or my dad tell me the month and year they were married so as to hide the fact my brother was conceived out of wedlock.
Over the same beers my dad asked me when I would have children, even though he had met, Jim, my companion of three years. Dad was clueless regarding gay people. After his retirement he drank in a gay bar in Lakeland, Florida, called the Blue Parrot and was amazed that men tried to pick him up. Dad took me to the Blue Parrot quite often and I remember it as a pleasant place with a husky woman behind the bar.
Dad was recalled to active duty in 1965 to serve in Viet Nam. Dad's mistress followed him to Viet Nam where she lived in a Saigon villa while dad fought in Da Nang. It was in Viet Nam that my dad began smoking opium. He had been a heavy drinker; but with the opium I began to notice a distinct change in his letters to me. His writing became more disjointed and sad. After his Viet Nam service, the Army sent my dad to Letterman Hospital in San Francisco in 1968 to cure his opium addiction and post traumatic stress syndrome. Letterman's "cure" was to give my dad Quaaludes four times a day, which he combined for the remainder of his life with a case of beer a day until he died in late 1990.
I hope that the gentlemanliness of my father endures in me. After all he married a girl he hardly knew so that her child could be legitimate. My dad was a Sergeant Major in the Army Corps of Engineers. He must have encountered a number of misbehavers and he knew that his gentle admonitions were sufficient to correct the behavior. My mother, on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian who fervently believed in the "Spare the Rod Spoil the Child" approach to child rearing. My father saw mistakes and misbehavior as acceptable and forgivable accidents of youth and would not allow my mother to beat me when he was around.
Bravery, courage, gentleness, and a love of nature are my father's legacy to me. As I battle AIDS, I think often of my dad and his gifts to me. Many gay men, I am told, suffer from father absence. My parents divorced in 1968 when I was thirteen. After the divorce, I saw less and less of my dad; yet when I earned my undergraduate degree he came with his fourth wife, upon my invitation, to witness my graduation ceremony. I was the first member of my extended family to graduate from university; and I remember with pride my dad's loud "Woop" as I received my degree from the University Chancellor.
AIDS is a pernicious disease whose lingering makes us long for a surcease of suffering. My feet hurt always with neuropathy and my cognitive functions deteriorate by the day. I have a tremor that is accentuated when I am under stress, such as reading or typing a letter.
Sometimes my neuropathic pain and cognitive dysfunction make me think of suicide. While I believe suicide is a rational choice; I do not believe that suicide is rational if you have life options. Our lives are made of the choices we make. In my belief, over all these choices is the need to find purpose. It is purpose that makes life quick. My friend, Beth, sick with terminal AIDS complications, in 1994, chose to end her life with Seconals and Brandy. I helped her die and called 911 when after ten minutes I could not feel her pulse. I recall how strange her flesh felt; it was as if I was touching a steak fresh from the grill, warm to the touch but not yet cold. Beth killed herself because she was told by her doctors she would die in agony in two months. Secretly, Beth also knew that she had run out of money sufficient to support her Sausalito lifestyle. I believe Beth's suicide was justified and rational. She died as she wanted, looking out over San Francisco Bay from her hillside home.
Bravery is the outward sign of courage as gentlemanliness is its inward sign. My father was a great man who fought in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. I cannot but believe that his service required bravery and courage. I also believe his gentlemanliness was shown in his adopting by marriage my older brother. I also believe that Beth was courageous in her decision to choose death rather than suffering without purpose.
My dad's bravery and courage have taught me to choose life rather death over the thirty years I have had HIV. I continue to believe that the day is sufficient to the day, and try to be as present in the moment as I can. Life is an unfolding river upon which we float as if on a raft. We must also be courageous in our life choices and not worry that we made the right decisions. We must look forward and refuse to regret the choices we have made that have brought us to where we are now. Truly, without doubt our lives are unfolding as they should. We must strive to be kind to our fellow beings and to our shared world.
These days watching The Pacific, I amazed at the bravery, courage and gentlemanliness my dad must have had in that deadly war. Bravery is but a fleeting thing; courage is planted in the soul. In my struggle with AIDS I must be as courageous, brave and gentlemanly as my dad. I owe him that.