Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Living with Ghosts


When I went to my mother's house yesterday, I took two boxes of loose photos with me.  There are photographs that I can't identify, people I don't know.  I would hand one to my mother and ask her about it.  There were a lot of photos of nothing, just land and sky or maybe a cottage or shack.  

"I don't know.  Maybe Canada,  It could be upper Michigan."

Apparently, my parents went places before me.  Huh.  But we'll get to all of that (perhaps) later.  I'm going back further.  This is my father in his navy outfit during World War II.  I have his discharge papers somewhere.  I have no sense of organization, or I would just pull them out (of wherever) and tell you the years he served.  Born in 1920, given the U.S. active involvement in the war between 1940 and 1945, he is probably twenty-two or twenty-three here.  He served as a machinist's mate in the South Pacific on a large ship.  How's that for vague.  A large ship.  As I write, my ignorance about much of this stuns me.  Was I never curious?  Did I not pay attention to the tales?  Or was my father, like so many others, reticent to talk about the war?

Pop would tell a funny story about how he got into the navy.  Drafted, he was asked in which branch of the service he wanted to serve.  He didn't want to go into the navy, he said, but he was nervous and when they asked him, he said "Navy."  Boom!  They put a stamp on his papers.  He said he tried to change it, but it was too late.  True tale?  Who the heck knows?  But he would follow that up with, a benediction.  "Being in the Navy was better.  You had a dry place to sleep and hot meals.  You didn't have to dig trenches and sleep in the mud or eat K-rations."

His "large ship" was in battle.  He told me a little but not much.  I know from a photo, at least, that the "large ship" had weapons.  

Dad's the second from the right on the top row.  He told me that he was almost courtmartialed for fighting.  He and his buddies went ashore for the first time after being I don't know how long at sea, but long enough that they were eager for some r and r.  Dad said he had never drunk liquor before, and that evening he drank for the first time.  He doesn't remember it, he said, but he woke up in the hoosegow.  His buddies told him that he had gotten into a fight with two military policeman and had hurt one of them pretty badly.  So he was being held on the ship until they could get him in front of whatever panel he would have to face.  When they put to sea, however, they were attacked by Japanese planes and it was an "all hands on deck" situation.  They let him out of his cell to man a station.  After that, he said, they just dropped the charges.  

This is one of the very few photos from that period in the box.  Shore leave.  I couldn't say where.  

Dad was married when he went into the navy.  He had a son named after him.  Junior.  While ashore one time, he got a tattoo with his wife's name inside a heart, two colors, blue and red, on his upper left arm.  It was a small tattoo, maybe two and a half or three inches tall.  He said he had tried to remove it with sandpaper after the divorce.  I remember the tat, but by the time I was around, it had faded and you could no longer read the name inside the heart, so I don't know if it was his wife's real name, "Myra," or the one I had always heard in reference to her, "Trixie."  

For real. My father was married to a woman named Trixie.  

This was one of the photos in the box.  I showed it to my mother and asked her if this was Trixie.  She couldn't say.  Somewhere else, I believe, I have a photo of her with her son.  I think.  I will look for it today.  Maybe I will be able to say one way or another.  But there are not many photos from the 1940s in those boxes.  There was this one and another.  

When I showed this one to my mother, she said rather disdainfully, "That's some woman your father knew, a girlfriend or something."  

Why don't I know these things?  I am regretful now that I can't ask my father.  There are stories in these photos that have simply disappeared.  God. . . if he'd only had a blog. . . .  There are very few letters remaining.  As far as I know, he never kept anything like a journal.  

There were many photos in those boxes that I showed my mother that caused her to wonder, "Why didn't I write anything on the back of these--dates, people, something."  

From the few tales I heard my father tell, one would gather that they were not in war zones all the time.  For example, he boxed in the navy.  His ship was part of a fleet, of course, and he claimed that he was the Fleet Champion for his weight class.  I have no way of verifying that, but he told me of his fights, of fighting a fat guy, for instance, and learning that it was no good hitting him with body shots.  He said he beat the only man who had ever defeated Joe Louis, the longest reigning heavyweight champion of the world.  The man had beaten Louis as an amateur, my father said, and my father had beaten that fellow in the navy.  Of this, however, I have to be skeptical.  Louis did fight as an amateur, and he lost some of those fights.  I've looked it up.  But Louis turned pro in 1939.  I don't know.  Maybe.  It is mathematically possible.  

When he left the service, my father was a bartender/bouncer and was a boxing trainer in my uncle's professional boxing gym.  Here, there were eye-witnesses to my father's prowess, and among his family and friends, at least, he was legendary.  

Pop grew up a farm boy, and he had farm boy muscles.  It was then that he made his own heavy bag and hung it from the high rafters of the barn.  He had taken a gunny sack and filled it with dirt.  He would swing it out far, he said, and stop it with a punch as it swung back toward him.  He would swing it, over time, higher and further.  Once, his older brother came to the farm and saw my father doing it.  He wanted to try.  

"Don't do it, Harry," my father said he warned him, but older brothers being what they are, he swung the bag and then his fist. 

Harry's wrist snapped.  

"I tried to tell you, Harry."

My father had black curly hair that he combed straight back his whole life.  Here is a photo of him and a navy buddy I would assume on shore leave.  I never saw my father with a mustache, nor had my mother.  I find it curious that his buddy had curly hair and a mustache, too.  

This is the back of the picture frame.  Photomatic Photoframe.  The old International Mutoscope Corporation.  Did they set these up in Asia during the war?  They were early photo booths.  I looked them up.  

There are so many mysteries I will never be able to solve, though, forgotten things, untold things.  I know I am redundant, but as Salter said, "The one who writes it, keeps it."  I think the one who photographs it, too, though my tenant takes photos but never writes.  Ili used to tear up old photographs.  In an era of selfies, though, there are fewer words than ever.  I don't know anything. . . but I think narratives must be written.  Lives must be told lest we never existed. 

So. . . here I am, for the time being, living with ghosts.  

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