Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Father

I have been hesitant to write about my father, because it's a sad story. He has been dead for forty years now, so I thought I ought to write this, if only for posterity. There is something to be learned from his life, as there is from nearly everyone's, if only you look closely enough.

His parents were born in the late Victorian period and met in the London area during the Edwardian period. His father was in the third generation of a family of tailors from Shipston-on-Stour, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The family had lived in the Midlands for several generations and the male lineage was said to have immigrated to England from France as Huguenots, probably in the early eighteenth century. His mother came from a line of furriers originating in Yorkshire. His father got a job at Liberty of London at age 14 and bicycled to work until World War I broke out. He then joined the army and fought in the trenches in France, where he was non-fatally wounded in the throat by a sniper while repairing sandbag emplacements. After the war he remained at Liberty's for the rest of his career, rising to the position of vice chairman of the board of directors. When first married their neighbors were the author Kingsley Amis's parents, and years later my parents showed the elderly Amises around Manhattan when they visited New York.

My grandfather did not become wealthy through his job, but was able to buy a house with a large garden in the up-and-coming suburban town of Purley, Surrey. Their first son was named Ivor; my father was named Richard and attended Whitgift, a private school. I don't know much about Ivor, because he was killed in North Africa during World War II by another British soldier who was cleaning his gun. My father was six feet tall and athletic, playing rugby and swimming. He is said to have been a bully, and he had no interest in academics other than geography. I suppose he was the English equivalent of a jock.

As soon as he turned 18 in 1941 he joined the army. After a time he was sent to Sandhurst, the same college attended by Winston Churchill and comparable to West Point, for officer training. He became a lieutenant in the King's Dragoon Guards and commanded British tanks. During the course of the war he served in Italy, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. He met my mother in Athens, where the British were stationed to ward off communists after the Germans had fled. They married in 1946 and moved to England in 1947, the year my older sister was born. His father got him a job at Liberty's, and we lived in Coulsdon and Purley. I was born in 1950 and my younger sister was born in 1954.

I don't know the circumstances, but apparently my father was fired from Liberty's. I believe he got another job from which he was also fired. Eventually he traveled to the U.S. and was hired by a textile company in Manhattan. The whole family moved to the U.S. in 1957, and most of our youths were spent in Pelham Manor, New York, just north of New York City. His work record didn't improve much in New York; he was fired at least twice, and finally looked at a career change some time in the early 1960's. Both he and my mother were skilled at making good first impressions, but my father didn't have much follow-through, and people spot this quickly in the business world. He took some vocational tests and was told that he had a high IQ and would make a great insurance salesman. Subsequently he worked as an unsuccessful life insurance agent.

The first few years in Pelham Manor were relatively pleasant. We were well adjusted, and life seemed stable. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, and we lived in a rented house near our elementary school. But by the time my father became an insurance agent he was already becoming a serious alcoholic. He started with beer, then moved to cheap wine, and in his later years was a heavy vodka drinker. A sales job was a mistake for him during this period of his life, because he was unaccountable for most of the day and could do whatever he liked. He was gregarious and liked to schmooze and drink. He wasn't picky and probably had a few low-life friends. My mother began working in the mid-1960's and thereafter became the main breadwinner of the family. As already discussed in my post about my mother, my father continued to decline and finally killed himself on the Ides of March in 1974.

When I was growing up, I was hardly aware of my father and was very close to my mother up until about age 12. From then onward my mother became far less important to me, and when I was a teenager my father was often antagonistic. He used various pretexts to bully me, and we didn't have much of a rapport. Often the household was chaotic, with my parents fighting over something or other. When intoxicated, my father became vicious and insulting, and, combined with my mother's expressive Mediterranean temperament, if they had a fight you could expect shouting, thrown objects, broken glass, spitting and occasionally a physical scuffle. This made us reluctant to bring friends home. However, one thing I had in common with my father was enjoyment of cards and games, and there were a few occasions when friends came over to play poker, with my father participating.

One of the reasons that we didn't get along well, besides basic male rivalry, was that our personalities were nearly opposite. I am quiet, introverted and thoughtful, and he was loud, extroverted and reckless. He was always looking to fault me about something, and finally he settled on the idea that I was a coward, which he confided to my mother, but not to me. He had observed that I was more cautious than he was, and later he seems to have concluded that this was a sign of cowardice when I filed as a conscientious objector for the draft in 1968. Because of his military background, a conscientious objector was a coward and there were no two ways about it. He forced me to withdraw my conscientious objector application, which he thought of as a disgrace to the family. In the end it made no difference, because the Vietnam War was winding down, my lottery number was 365, and I was never drafted.

This brings me to how his background made him a misfit as an adult. He was not closely supervised when he was growing up and liked to raise hell. He would take a large kite called an Atalanta to the beach and use it to hoist a pail of water into the air and then dump the water on sunbathers. As a teenager he sneaked his girlfriend, Muriel, into his bedroom while his parents were at home. Going from this to war and marriage to a foreign bride within five years was not likely to produce a stable adulthood. I'm not sure whether he would fit the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he certainly had symptoms. He was usually nervous, chewing his nails constantly, grinding his teeth and chain-smoking Viceroys, and he had ulcers. He didn't sleep well and would wake up in the middle of the night and read an entire detective novel. But it is also significant how poorly prepared he was to be an adult. Unlike most middle-class parents today, his parents ridiculed formal educations, because they thought they had done perfectly well without them. He thought the same way as an adult. Even though his lack of a college education probably contributed to his failure in the business world, he still didn't think that it was necessary for his children to attend college, and it would have been fine with him if we had all just got jobs after high school. His main piece of advice to me was "You can do whatever you like, but don't get caught."

From my vantage point it is difficult to determine which factors had the most negative impact on my father's life. The factors that I'm aware of include a poorly supervised childhood, traumatic war experiences, unsustainable early successes, narcissistic tendencies, an inappropriate bride and a difficult transition to civilian life. The most obvious problem, which is easily seen today in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the transition to civilian life. My thought here is that war conditions are completely incompatible with conventional peacetime life. For many soldiers, war becomes the norm, and activities such as having a career and raising a family lose all intrinsic meaning to them. I don't think my father took business seriously, and I can't honestly say that he was wrong. On an instinctive level, war is far closer to the norm in human history than showing up at an office every day and helping a corporation increase its profits. It is probably the case that those who go into war without being fully prepared to exit into civilian life are at risk for becoming social misfits when they do leave the military. My father mistakenly thought that he would get lifetime credit for his war exploits but soon found out that no one cared about them. To make matters worse, Americans saw themselves as the victors of World War II rather than the British (though the Russians were probably more responsible than any other nation).

The choice of my mother as his bride also seems to have been a big mistake. He oversold himself at the time, and in effect my mother married down. Her family was better educated, more culturally sophisticated and significantly wealthier than his. Moreover, she had little to offer in a practical way. She was only 21 when they married, had not been to college and had no experience in business or anything else. She had led a completely sheltered childhood. Yet her expectation was that she would live in a wealthy, respected household and spend her days raising children and entertaining guests. The marriage was a disaster waiting to happen, and after my father died my mother quickly latched onto the kind of person that she should have sought to begin with, a wealthy businessman who had the means to take care of her. If my father had instead married a savvy Englishwoman who steered him in the right direction, he would have had a much better chance of adjusting to civilian life in England and may have been better able to navigate the British business environment, as some of his friends were able to do. As it was, my parents often seemed to inhabit a fantasy world, and although I myself am given to imaginative thinking, my early family experience always draws me back to extreme realism.

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