I have been commanded by faceless internet tyrants to write a post about Thanksgiving. The message just showed up on my Facebook page with no explanation, but containing a hint of threat. Since the people running the internet can now ruin anyone’s life as easily as dropping a towel on their spouse’s nice, clean floor, I’m afraid to say no.

So, here’s the story of the most miserable day in my dad’s life, which he told me about last night as we ate pizza for Thanksgiving. After he came back from the war in Korea, he was stationed with a jillion other marines at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. His superiors decided to stage a big amphibious landing exercise, just to keep everybody from getting bored.

If you’re part of an amphibious landing, that means you start on a ship, then you climb down the ship’s side on a net as if you were a homicidal howler monkey, carrying everything you need to kill people. At the bottom, you drop into a floating metal box called a landing craft, which takes you to shore and forces you to run onto the beach and fight because part of it falls off, rendering it no longer seaworthy.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Someone chose to hold this exercise during the winter. Even though San Diego weather is constantly temperate to the point of catatonia, on this day the temperature was in the 40s. However, the marines were dressed appropriately for invading a tropical island held by the Japanese Army, so it was okay.

After all the marines had climbed down into the landing craft for the exercise, the wind blew up some rough seas. That was no fun for anybody, but it really wasn’t fun for the guys on the first two landing craft that reached the beach and flipped over in the surf.

I like to imagine that somebody said, “Everybody back to the boat!” However, unloading marines so they can climb back up those nets is slow work when the landing craft and the ship are both jumping around like frisky dolphins. Every craft had to wait its turn. Steaming in a circle. Tossing around like Satan’s personal carnival ride.

Now comes the really miserable part. The sea water was 18 inches deep in the bottom of my dad’s landing craft, and every man got seasick except him and one other guy. This added a modest quantity of vomit to the sea water. For the next four hours they went around in a circle, as wet as tadpoles in a windy 40 degrees, propping up helpless seasick men so they wouldn’t drown in their own vomit. Once they did reach the ship, my dad helped tie all the seasick men to bosun’s chairs so they could be hoisted up.

At this point my dad said he and the other survivor “ran up that net like squirrels.”

So in the spirit of the holiday, my dad is thankful that shit isn’t happening today. Happy Thanksgiving!

Artist's rendering of the beach in question
Artist’s rendering of the beach in question

I remember when I was eleven years old doing my very best to cut out my grandfather’s heart and eat it. He was trying to do the same to me, so it was all fair. Plus, it was on Christmas Day, so we deserved some kind of forgiveness, or dispensation, or something like that.

Here’s how it went. On Christmas morning my sister and I assaulted our toy-encircled tree like a troop of baboons, after which my family opened gifts. Then, before we could play with our new toys that made every other toy we’d ever owned look like cow flop, my parents made us get dressed and drove us to my aunt’s house. The entire extended clan ate the noon meal together, with us kids at the short tables. In this way my people broke the holiday bread, reaffirmed our family bonds, and in the afternoon, as the Good Lord intended, we played poker.

I don’t know why we played poker within spitting distance of the Nativity Scene, but that’s what my people did. I didn’t learn much about religion, but I learned that if you’re not playing poker to cut out someone’s heart and eat it, you might as well be playing with a wad of dirty newspaper and a stick. I also learned that faith is a wonderful thing, but don’t draw to an inside straight.

We played for cash. Nobody cared that I was eleven years old. If I was dumb enough to raise into a pair of aces, I must be too stupid to spend my allowance on anything good anyway.

My father didn’t play poker with us. I didn’t think about it then, since he pretty much minded his own business and nobody bugged him about it. But yesterday he explained to me why he didn’t play. When he was in Korea during the war, neither he nor any other marines got paid. The Corps held onto their money, since they sent men to places where there wasn’t a damn thing worth buying anyway. The Corps finally shipped them home on an actual ship, which stopped in Japan so the men could get their back pay in real, U.S. cash.

Poker games broke out in every unused cranny of that ship. Not every man played, but a lot of them did. After all, there weren’t many recreational activities on a ship crammed with marines. However, the main point is that by the time they reached San Diego about six guys owned all the money, and hundreds of fellows were broke.

My father did not play poker. When he got home, he bought a new car.

This is all fantastic evidence that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance. Here’s a fun fact for you. If you look around the poker table and can’t tell who is the least skilled player at the table—you’re the one whose heart is about to be cut out and eaten. Now that I think about it, that’s true of a lot of things in life.

My grandfather died when I was 15. The family drifted, and after a few years the Christmas dinners stopped. We didn’t play poker anymore. But by that time I felt like I was a pretty good player. In my twenties I decided to see how good I was, and I started flying to Las Vegas to play poker. I won a little sometimes, and I never lost much, so I kept playing.

The crazy point came when I landed in Vegas, went straight from the airport to the casino, and played for 40 hours straight. At the end of that time I was $10 ahead. I thought, What the hell? I’d won a lot of hands, and I hadn’t lost too much money on any hands. Then for the first time I paid attention to something I’d seen thousands of times. Every time someone bet, the dealer pulled out ten percent and dropped it in a hole in the table, where it went to pay for electric lights, and Wayne Newton, and hookers for Japanese high-rollers.

It wasn’t enough to be good. You had to be supernatural. I never surrendered poker money to a casino again. I played other games like craps and blackjack, and I lost my ass because I hardly understood them at all.

To wrap this up, jump forward in time to my wedding. I’m not the wildest guy on my block, and my bachelor party was an event of less than thermonuclear festivity. Instead of strippers and tequila, my best and oldest friends came over to my place for the evening, and we bonded by drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker.

I took all their money. I cut out their hearts and ate them. Hey, we were playing poker. Screw ‘em. If my grandfather was fair game, what did they expect?

My dad in Not-a-Damn-Thing-Around-Here Korea, 1951

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.