remembering my dad
Phantom Pain won the 1997 National Mature Media Silver Award for magazine feature writing.
by Deborah Mattingly Conner
THE DAY could not have been more beautiful. I stood with my mother and the deacon beside the long black limo and watched the attendant open the back door of the hearse. I saw them approach—the honor guard, walking slowly, rhythmically. They were coming to claim my father.
His entire life had been bound up in the image of the soldier. It stood next to him, remembering, in everything he did, even though he was only briefly in uniform.
We grew up in the ever-expanding shadow of Washington's Capitol. Always involved in some form of public service, he was the recipient of many awards and held in high esteem. At home, however, he was a different man: angry and remote, unable to connect to a family he clearly loved, but couldn't allow to love him back.
I see now that part of him was lost. The whole of my childhood was spent walking around the gaps of his missing pieces.
My generation came of age in the difficult Vietnam War years. Though it is humorous to joke that I left home for political reasons, the original decision was heart-wrenching. My father couldn't accept his country in any form but an idealized one, and there was no room for discussion or dissent. I left home very young and worked my way through college; he refused to speak to or about me during those years.
Over time, we managed to craft a fragile truce. It was during this period that I acquired what came to be for me a magic book, what I felt was an instruction manual for my father. It was The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester's mammoth social history of America from the Depression to the 1970s. The book was full of real people, real lives, not textbook facts. It told more than the cardboard when, where, what; it told the who and the why.
For the first time, I began to understand why certain words—The Depression, The War, Korea, The Communists, The Bomb—were incanted by my father with such awe, and why the desecration of America's symbols stimulated an automatic, wordless rage. During my parents' coming of age, the vast world had shrunk. Their generation had been through such a whirlwind of drama and horror that they spoke about it only in mystical phrases—things too big to talk about.
Manchester mapped the complicated terrain of the War Generation, making me see that they had been young, too, and had the same yearnings and dreams that I had. Dreams they never could act on until after the war absorbed their youth, leaving them determined to control and perfect the future. Hence the '50s. which they filled with creature comforts, a brightness denied to cast any shadow. Hence the wordless, distant love they showered on us, a symptom of their need to escape the past and feel things strictly in terms of their own perfected now. Their relationship with their children would also be perfect, with no room for the questioning that might break that spell.
I finally saw that they simply couldn't talk about the pain and fear they had lived. They couldn't explain their sacrifice.
But in my father's case, there was more than this.
My father had joined the war the first moment that he could. The youngest child in a large family, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his hero brothers. Once in the Army, he was sent to Northern Ireland as a mechanic, and the few small ragged pictures in the scrapbook left from that time show a tall, skinny blue-eyed boy, his arms encircling the shoulders of his beloved brothers-in-arms. He sits smiling with them around a campfire, his eyes shining and looking like the grandsons he would never know. In all my life, I never saw his eyes shine like that.
His unit was bound to go on to the shores of Africa in the first great assault there. But they would go on without him.
We didn't go to the beach when I was a child. My father never danced. He was an amputee, and his full-leg prostheses was never strange or curious to me. It was only part of him, and he was happy to have it, proud of his skill in making it undetectable. Any improvement in its mechanism was a wonder to him, and he was delighted to help and encourage others who shared the same affliction. On his last trip to Mexico, he was thrilled that his new appliance would have a molded realism—even toes—that would allow him to wear shorts and sandals.
When my brother and I would ask him casually how he lost his leg, he always said, "In the war." This explanation sufficed and was never elaborated on, even to my mother. After I read Manchester's The Glory and the Dream and his personal account of the war in the Pacific Goodbye Darkness, my dad began to open up when I would ask about what had happened in those years. He told stories of how my uncle was shot down, about people he saw injured as well as comical tales of his friends. He told me things he'd never told anyone else, because I listened. Manchester had helped me understand.
One day, he told me the story of his leg. Simply, without details or anguish, he told me of an accident on a field far from battle. He had been the victim of someone else's negligence, a rifle accident. I knew from my reading that there were "million dollar wounds," wounds that would heal but sent their bearer home—or at least, away from the action. On rare occasions, these were self-inflicted, preserving the body at great psychological and social price. Wounds of the soul.
My father bore something akin to this, through no fault of his own. Because of it, he felt he could never measure up to those who were wounded in battle, and he could never be sure who would misinterpret what had happened. His honorable discharge and the pictures of the generals visiting his bedside were tokens of proof of his innocence. But nothing could ever prove to him that he was a good-enough hero.
I came to see that always in his mind were the memories of the faces and the voices of his brothers-in-arms who went on without him to Africa. There, his unit suffered casualties of 90 percent. He never forgot that statistic, the odds that were against him in his parallel life of phantom destiny. He felt he should have been with them—even if it meant not being at all.
An entire generation silently remembered the ones they left behind on similar shores. All the heroics in the world could not return them. All that could ever be done is to remember, hold tight to the future and pass on the mystery of life to their children.
With gratitude, I understood.
All this went through my mind that day at Arlington. From a place beyond time, I watched the honor guard approach, surround and lift up my father's flag-draped coffin. They carried him off in measured beat, back to meet the lost part of himself, and I watched in awe of the appropriateness, the healing, the sublime perfection of the ceremony.
Copyright American Legion Magazine Apr 1996