It’s necessary to understand arson on the Sabbath in order to understand my father.
My father took me to Pete’s Barbershop for my first haircut. Pete owned the largest barbershop in my hometown, with ten chairs, and with mirrors running the length of both walls so you could see yourself into infinity while getting your hair cut. Pete operated a gun store out of the back end of his shop, a logical side-business for any barbershop.
Pete’s entrepreneurial spirit soared above hair and guns. He also served as the town’s only arsonist in residence. If you had money troubles and needed your warehouse or your grain silo burned down for the insurance money, Pete would make that happen for an appropriate fee. He never left enough evidence behind for the fire department or insurance investigators to call it an intentional blaze—Pete was a professional.
At that time my Southern hometown enforced the Blue Laws. These laws prohibited hundreds of items from being sold on Sundays, because Sunday was holy and should be spent it in prayer and contemplation. The Blue Law rules about what couldn’t be sold made lots of sense. For example, you could by a hammer, but you couldn’t buy nails. In moral support of the Blue Laws, all of the barbershops closed on Sundays, except Pete’s. Pete remained open, cut hair, and sold guns on the Sabbath.
Eventually the leading citizens and businessmen worked up a fair amount of outrage about Pete’s improper behavior. They began throwing around talk about boycotts, city ordinances and fines. Then one Sunday night one of the town’s barbershops burned down. The next Sunday another barbershop burned. Local businessmen, especially the barbershop owners, stopped calling for Pete’s to be shut down on Sundays. No one else ever complained about Pete.
All of this happened before I was born, so my father had to tell me this story. I could see that he looked upon Pete’s strategy with approval, and even amusement. But I realized that I didn’t care about Pete. I cared about my father’s approval of Pete, which I recognize to be singular and not an attitude adopted by everyone.
Since the time my father told me about Pete, James Bradley published a popular book called “Flags of Our Fathers.” It concerns the famous photo of the US flag being raised at Iwo Jima, one of the most iconic photos of the last century. The author’s father was one of the six flag-raisers, and the book is about his father and the five Marines who raised the flag. I liked this book. Clint Eastwood even made a movie of it.
Some of my friends enjoyed the book, but they objected to it as well. They said it was sometimes inaccurate in terms of facts and numbers. They pointed out that it seemed unfairly biased against the Japanese. They criticized it for not treating some of the flag-raisers even handedly. These are poor qualities in a history book. I don’t disagree with these criticisms, but I disagree with the conclusion. “Flags of Our Fathers” isn’t a history book, it’s a book about a man’s search for the man his father used to be.
It could seem peculiar to want to know your father before you were born. It sounds like any one of a dozen bad movies. But I know I’ve changed since I was young. Now I have fewer hangovers and more back hair. I keep my mouth shut a lot more, so when I say something stupid the results are far more catastrophic. I know what my own youth looks like, but my father’s youth is an empty place, and there’s nothing a man likes to do more than fill an empty place.
I’ve seen my father work a lot of nights, outsmart executives who thought they were smooth, and design tools to handle strange, pain-in-the-ass problems. He nearly killed a clerk with shock once by giving back money he got by mistake. He crushed a fellow who admired him but who kept making mistakes, and when a stranger close by puked all over himself and the vicinity, my father cleaned the man up. He never told a joke, but he made people laugh. That’s how I’ve known him personally. But of course, it’s only through incidents I’ve been told about that I can know the man he was before I was born.
I do know a lot of the dates and places of my father’s life. But that doesn’t help me understand him, just like knowing the factory and manufacture date won’t help me understand a chainsaw. People do things, and that’s how we know them. My hometown was a rural place when my father was a small boy, but the roads were dangerous enough that his dog kept knocking him into the ditch whenever he tried to walk on the shoulder. His pet raccoon slept in the pocket of an old overcoat hanging on the porch. My five year old father got infuriated when he wasn’t allowed to do what his brothers did, but they were much older—in fact, old enough to fight in the war, and for one of them to die in it.
But the quintessential detail I have from my father’s childhood is of him standing in the kitchen with his dog, and his mother at the stove holding her baby girl. His mother had just refused to let my father do something he wanted to do, and he responded, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.” Obviously my father was a willful child and not to be trusted, so his parents gave him a .22 rifle and turned him loose in the local woods for the rest of his childhood.
Another war had begun in Korea when my father turned 19, and he thought joining the Marine Corps would be smart. He was a big, strong kid who could hit about anything he shot at, so the Corps slapped a uniform on him, gave him a rifle, and sent him to Korea. My father never told me many light-hearted stories about Korea. He served with the first helicopter unit ever used in combat. That’s less glamorous than it might sound, since his job was to climb down from helicopters on flapping ropes, use axes and explosives to clear a half acre of woods, and watch the damned Navy pilots land those helicopters.
On one occasion, my father’s platoon guarded a small valley, and the Chinese Army decided to send an outrageous number of soldiers through it. Over the next quarter hour the Chinese frothed through the valley killing Marines, who in return killed them in job lots. My father recalled having “the biggest gun that fired the fastest,” and he killed a lot of Chinese kids about his own age. Most were so close he could easily see their faces when he killed them. By the time the Chinese decided that this was a pointless exercise, my father and his sergeant were the only Marines alive. My father told me about this incident with no pride and no pleasure when I was a grown man. In fact, he had blotted out the memory of it and only recalled it 50 years after it happened.
After Korea, my father went to college and played football for a while. Later on one of his friends from college called him for advice. The friend had gotten a job as a P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t sure how to handle his upcoming duties. My father had never taught P.E., but his friend asked his advice anyway. My father told him to “go in the first day, pick out the two toughest guys in the class, and beat the shit out of both of them at the same time.” Then he wouldn’t have any problems the rest of the year.
My journey to understand who my father was before I knew him must necessarily end at the moment I become a nasty, bellowing newborn. So this last incident involves how my father and mother put themselves in a position to create such a repellent creature as the newly-minted me. When my father was 23, he noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my father suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.
My father’s younger sister was my mom’s best friend. He asked his sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my father and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my father was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my father’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my father and mom alone on what had just become a date.
They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My father, rather less outgoing, sat in the corner all night drinking beer and said nothing to anyone—including my mom.
The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my father’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my father still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.
On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my father pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my father’s car, and they drove away on their second date.
Six months later they were married.
Unfortunately, none of these incidents include anything about my father’s hangovers or his back hair. My picture of him as a young man remains a fuzzy sketch. But it’s a start. After all, any kid who threatens to throw a dog at his mom has to grow into a father to be proud of.