A number of images from growing up in Brooklyn come to mind with respect to my father and the kind of man he was and the kind of man I was supposed to be. Reflecting on this, it has occurred to me that those images have a relationship with the post-World War II era of our culture and the time in the life of our particular family. I was one of the “baby boomer” children, born in 1949, and my father was a hero as I suspect most fathers who served in World War II were heroes to their children. Those days father was a hero and mother was dutiful.
Somehow by the time I reached early adolescence father was no longer a hero. He had become a fallen hero. He was absent. One of the generation of “absent fathers” who were so popular in the sociological and psychological lore of the late 1950s and early 60s. Mother, meanwhile, had become embittered and depressed. Her needs were not being met. As it turns out, adolescent boys don’t do all that well with embittered and depressed mothers whose needs are not being met. Adolescent boys don’t do well with absent fathers. Adolescent boys want to be heroes and in their minds there is hardly any challenge they can’t meet and no challenge they won’t accept — even the challenge of making an unhappy mother happy.
When I was a boy, there were pictures of my dad standing next to a Boeing supply plane somewhere in the Far East with this hair blowing and the look of rugged individualism on his face. He would tell stories about flying supply planes over the Burma Road overloaded with Coca-Cola. The army hospitals that he would supply needed their medicines, crutches and what not but the staff also wanted Coca-Cola. He told us about the time he had the plane loaded to dangerous levels with Coca-Cola so that the plane could barely take off. Once airborne he hoped to burn enough fuel to shed the weight needed for the plane to reach altitudes high enough to get above the mountains of Burma. I could picture him full throttle racing down the rapidly diminishing runway—just barely getting the plane off the ground and flying off into the sunset to deliver the precious payload to our heroes overseas.
Another image is of a vacation in the Catskill Mountains when I was perhaps five or six. There had been an old airfield across the street from the cabin that my grandparents owned and that we would occasionally visit during the summers. Down the road from the cabin was a small swimming area created by a dam that blocked the flow of the Schoharie Creek. From the bridge crossing the creek, you could see in water that was perhaps 10 feet deep the wing of an aircraft that had apparently crashed either on takeoff or landing from the airfield less than a mile away. The image is of my father diving into the water and seeing his enormous back cutting through the foam amid the powerful strokes of his arms and legs casting a huge wake on either side of his body. He then disappeared under the surface and dove down to examine the wreckage. It seemed an eternity that he was under there. Long enough that panic began to fester in my gut at the thought that he was gone forever. Suddenly he breached the surface—arms flailing and simultaneously exhaling and in hailing in a dramatic “whoosh.” He was a whale of a man.
It is not clear at what point everything began to change, but I know the hero of my early childhood and the hero of post World War II America became the absent father of my pre-adolescent years. I can recall leading the charge from the stoop in front of our home in Brooklyn up the sidewalk toward my father once I saw him round the corner from the subway on his way home from work. At some point I knew not to try to jump into his arms. Either I had gotten too big—and I certainly had gotten bigger — or he had gotten too tired for he certainly had gotten tired.
I know now that his business was failing. I know now that he was bound to fail at selling imported silk handkerchiefs after Scott paper came out with the paper tissue for the military in World War II. I know now that five children in six years are more than most men can take. I know now that mother’s bitterness and depression were just the other side of the energy that would become, in a few years, the woman’s movement. I know now it is hard to be married to a hero — especially one who gets tired and angry and who fails. I know now, or at least I believe I know, that part of mother’s bitterness had to do with having to backtrack from a hard one autonomy. Autonomy she had achieved during the war through working in factories and participating in the war effort. Having to abruptly change into a homemaker as if all that had never happened left her bereft in ways she would never be able to articulate. I know now that mother was not alone.
But at the time it was all very perplexing I wanted to be a hero just like my dad, but I didn’t want to be a disappointment and I didn’t want to make mother unhappy and somehow or other that was all tied together with being the kind of man my father was—a hero/absent father. Somewhere along the line, I got it in my head that I could take care of my mother in a way my father couldn’t. It wasn’t, at the time I suppose I was 12 or 13, a competition between me and my dad. It was more that I would compensate for what he didn’t seem to be able to do.
I don’t know whether he sensed my entrapment in what would prove to be an impossible task, but it was about this time that he would wake me up before dawn on Saturday mornings and have me accompany him to the golf course to be in the company of men. There was always a terrible moment when we would come home. Mother would begin to go after him with her frustrations as we would walk in the front door from these outings. Without exception, I felt very guilty and at the same time very indebted to my dad. I needed the time with him, but somehow I just couldn’t square it with the commitment to make mother happy.
In my adult life I have come to realize that the dilemma of needing to become a hero and, at the same time, being present and available to the important people in my life is a dilemma that is shared by many men in my generation. It turns out that the hero who came back from World War II was also wounded and there has not been any room for his woundedness to be part of the world we inhabit. As the son of the wounded hero, I am part of a generation of sons of wounded heroes—all of whom grapple in some way, shape or form with that woundedness. In the challenge of intimacy—that is to be emotionally available in a relationship—that woundedness becomes exposed. When women cry out for more intimacy or closeness, are they truly prepared to find the wounded hero that resides inside the men who they approach or are they looking for their image of all the things that were missing from their mothers lives—all the things imagined to reside in the absent father.
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