Falmouth Ma, at Night, in the Dead of Winter
Unarmed against evil
It seemed fitting at the time. A year had passed since my father had left us, surprised and hurt by my mother’s demand for a divorce. He was a wounded man and as such he had disappeared for a year to nurse those wounds. Evidently. There had been no contact with him until now. He sent notification to his twin sister who lived on the island that he would pick me up in Woods Hole at a certain time and date. It didn’t bother me that he expected me to show up and to be on time. I deeply missed him. A good husband he may not have been, but he was not a bad father up until a year prior to this meeting. The big questions hovered in the air: Where have you been? Why did you break off contact with us children? What will be, going forward? And not least: How are you? I was confident that receiving answers to these questions was the purpose of the meeting and was already looking forward to the peace of mind that I assumed would be mine as a result of it. Until the meeting, my father would remain the man of mystery he had created; this was his show.
There was an unspoken difficulty. At the time that he left us, I was an adolescent, and as such I was standing up to my father, arguing with him over anything and everything that happened to hover between us, relentlessly attacking him, questioning his authority. Looking back from this distance I understand that he fielded my behavior as best he could, and he did so strenuously, on point, as a father should. A large part of my life at that time consisted of this arguing with my father and then, without warning, I was arguing in a void. This is not a confrontation that an adolescent should win. An adolescent screamer needs to be—must be—put in his or her place.
There is a commandment for that:
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God gives thee. (Exodus 20:12)
The Talmudic discussion pertaining to this commandment is wide and deep. For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the precise demands of the commandment must be clarified. How do we honor our parents, and to what degree? Are there any exceptions? One of the discussions is whether the child must honor (meaning in this instance, support) the parent using his own funds or can he make use of the parent’s funds. This all sounds familiar to anyone with an elderly parent today. The children make decisions about the parent’s housing, healthcare, and about everything else pertaining to their quality of life, within the boundaries of the financially possible. Sometimes the decisions can be heart-rending.
At the time of the meeting, I was not thinking about supporting a parent. I was thinking about financial transactions moving in the opposite direction. There was no doubt about one central fact: when my father left, our family became poor. My mother took a job as a secretary making a little more than minimum wage, and her friends helped us when we were deeply in need. But we were poor. Lower class trying to pass as lower-middle class. This was a reality with consequences for young adults wanting to attend college. My older sister was a year away from college, but she was a gifted musician, and the general feeling was that she would be able to attract the financial support that she would need.
I, on the other hand, was experiencing a long cold shower of harsh reality. I was two years younger than my sister and as such I had more time to look for a solution. Since I knew that my mother was barely able to put food on the table for us, it seemed acceptable to me to ask my father if he was going to be in the picture when I needed some help two years down the line. It turned out that there was no need to ask. After the ferry docked in Woods Hole, I stayed outside on deck while the other passengers disembarked. I wanted to assess the situation. When I saw him standing by his car, he was waving to me, obviously anticipating my juvenile attempt at spycraft. I found myself waving back with more enthusiasm than I had intended to show. As I descended the ramp of the ferry to meet him, I realized that if I were willing to overlook this shortcoming of his having broken off contact with us, I would be willing to overlook any shortcoming. I did not know it then, but this is what is demanded by Jewish tradition of children who have, let’s say, a less than perfect parent.
The answer that I had received was in the form of the automobile I had seen next to my father. It was a clunker—one in a lengthy line of clunkers that would convey him through the rest of his life. For me, it was a formal Statement of Penury. The driver of such a vehicle would not be helping anyone with college tuition. That much was clear. Standing alone on the deck of the ferry “Islander”, looking at my father’s car, I knew that college for me would be scholarship or bust.
My father did not hug me. He offered me his hand to shake. This was his way of showing respect to me, treating me as an equal, as a grown man. I was relieved to avoid the intimacy that I was not sure I desired anymore. How confusing life is at that age! At first our conversation was stilted, and maybe not even that. I found myself relieved that he too found our situation uncomfortable. Though I was a talker by nature, I had no problem sitting in silence as he drove us towards Falmouth, eventually booking us into a low-end hotel on Main Street. A few buildings down on the same side of the street was a movie theatre, and across the street from the hotel was a diner. Movie theater, diner and cheap hotel: that was the venue of our reunion.
My father, handsome and charming, suffered from a subtle and insidious affliction: insufficient trust fund syndrome. There had been money in his family in the past, but it had been frittered away by the legal guardians of my father and his siblings. By the time they came of age, what was left was a monthly stipend that sufficed for the basic subsistence of each sibling. Maybe a little more than that. Whatever the exact amount was, it was the cause of two themes that characterized my father’s life: first, an inability to move on from the injustice done to him and his siblings at the hands of their legal guardians when they (in his words) “stole his inheritance,” and secondly, as a result of the first, a decades-long attempt to have some or all of the trust fund “untrusted,” so that my father and his siblings would receive a large bulk payment, enough for him “to do something with the money,” meaning invest it speculatively. He actually succeeded in this to an extent, getting part of the trust dissolved. He received a bulk payment, spent and invested it, and just like that, in bulk it was gone. Years later, during my final visit with him, I made an effort to free him from these obsessions, urging him to just simply let go, and to enjoy the rest of his life. After some time, when the subject of our conversation had changed, he answered me obliquely, telling me that his income fell short of being sufficient for his prescription medication. I was touched and concerned and immediately offered to pick up the slack, giving him a few hundred dollars out of my wallet. He was visibly thankful to receive it, as I was to give. I was more thankful that I had it to give.
Even while settling into our room we did not speak much. My father asked me if I was hungry and I mumbled in the affirmative so we crossed the street and sat down facing each other in the diner. We ordered hamburgers and after ordering it was apparent to both of us that the time to talk had arrived. I was on the verge of asking him a question when he suddenly said: “what do you want to do afterwards?” This one simple question enlightened me in a way that I had not known before, while at the same time disappointed me. His deflection of the real conversation that I needed to have showed me that he did not want to have it. Of course at that age I interpreted it to mean that he did not think that I was deserving of answers, which gave me the feeling that I would be intruding on his privacy if I did ask. And though I was still very immature at that time, I understood clearly that what my father had revealed to me inadvertently was a part of his character that was hugely flawed. Where should have been fatherly concern, there was an empty vacuum. The flaw was not in the vacuum itself, rather—here my enlightenment—it was in the realization that this attitude was thought-out. I could see it clearly: my father, having lost both parents to the flu by the time he was ten years old, was absolving himself of parental responsibility by claiming that he was doing just the opposite, in that he would share with me an important life-lesson. The lesson, in a nutshell, was that the world was crap and people were crap and if you let them, they will walk all over you and crap on you. Let’s be honest. This is a time-honored, widely-held worldview, and though it may be hard to get out of bed in the morning carrying such a view, even at that time, I had already had employers who held this view and were happy to expound upon it.
Coming from my father it was a surprise and disappointment. Before he left the island, our common project was to get me into the Air Force Academy. I had that same dream of many boys of my age to be an astronaut, and it seemed that the Academy was a clear path towards that goal. He ordered watered-down technical manuals for me direct from Nasa, and helped me understand them. As I write this a sharp memory returns to me. When he saw that I was becoming enamored with Von Braun, as anyone studying the Saturn rockets inevitably became, he made a point of telling me that he and his sidekicks were all Nazis. At the time, he said it as an aside, but I took notice. A few decades later some books and documentaries on that subject came out. It had taken that long to report that simple fact and its significance to the general republic. My father the prophet.
This plan for me was as far from a view of the world as crap as could be. Half a year after he left, that plan was in ashes. Before long I would become a second-generation hippy, becoming one of those who inherited the “free” life-style of the original hippies without the essential aspect of that life-style that made it what it was: a sense of revolution. When this life-style reached my generation there was nothing revolutionary about it at all. By that time, if you wanted to be revolutionary you had to be reactionary, meaning having a short haircut and neat clothes.
Who knows? My father hadn’t seen me in a year. He had not known me with long hair and shaggy clothes. Perhaps his whole approach—inviting me to join him as a student in the Hard-Knocks Academy—was a commentary on my appearance and the ideological necessities attendant to that appearance. He may have felt a need to toughen me up. Like that Johnny Cash tune:
I said, “We could go to a movie.” As the words left my mouth I knew that I would not be asking my father any questions about the past year, as I knew that even if I had asked, I would not have received an answer.
There was some self-interest in my suggestion. Beyond all of this personal baggage of which I have been writing lay the simple fact that Falmouth was “off-island,” meaning, part of the larger world one reached when the ferry entered the slip in Woods Hole. People who knew Falmouth in the early 1970’s would laugh at this, but for us Islanders any place that had a McDonalds, Burger King and an actual shopping center was “larger world.” Movies in the winter on Martha’s Vineyard were a weekend affair. Here, in the great metropolis of Falmouth, they were shown on weekdays too, or at least the present movie was, one that I had heard of and wanted to see.
When we reached the theatre my father hesitated. Pointing at the poster he said, “I don’t know if I want to see that.” I said, “Come on Dad. It’s a scary movie, it’ll be fun.” I believed that it would be and succeeded in convincing him. We bought coke and popcorn and went in. Then something strange happened. Seeing that we were the only two customers in the theatre, we each chose our favorite seats. We ended up sitting far from each other, he about two thirds of the way up in the middle section and me about half-way down the right side. It had happened without forethought and we looked at each other slightly embarrassed that we were caught preferring our favorite seats rather than sitting together. We turned towards the screen and started eating our popcorn, expecting the theatre to fill up.
To our surprise, the previews started and we were still the only ones in the theatre. It would remain that way, and we had a private screening of “The Exorcist.” This is a movie that shocked viewers when it first came out. Today it would probably raise nothing more than a chuckle. Fifty years of horror movies trying to out-horror everything coming before tends to dull the senses. But back then? Oh boy. That camera walk down the hall towards the possessed girl’s room, and the slow turn towards her in her bed set new standards of terror. But somehow, after the first round of this, I found myself cured of this manufactured fear. I was even slightly bored. Still, I was wanting entertainment, so the next time the movie reached that moment at the doorway just before the camera jumps to the demon’s face, I raised my empty coke bottle high, and, timing it perfectly, let it drop to the floor where it landed with a bang. My father let out the howl of the century and jumped out of his chair. I was playing it cool as if I hadn’t done anything, at least not on purpose, but I was holding in with great effort mighty guffaws, snot and tears of laughter on my face. He was shouting: “Jesus H. Christ! Jesus H. Christ!” and I found myself becoming detached, thinking that in a moment of serendipitous coincidence, he was echoing the priest in the movie. It was like some sort of five-dimensional thrust of holy words towards the evil being in the movie. It didn’t take long for me to imagine the words hurdling back into our world, and to ponder upon who then would be the evil being on the receiving end.
I had had enough of the movie, a movie worthy of the vomit that was spewed out by the demon in it. I stared at the empty seats before me and was mostly disappointed with myself at having frightened my father so completely. Was that my answer to his having treated me as an equal? I saw myself clearly then: a confused adolescent, and one with a cruel streak at that. I could have been the one that holy words should target. Though I wasn’t watching the movie anymore, it was as if I were playing it out in real life. I was physically unable to turn my head in the direction of my father to see the results of my actions. I was afraid that I had created a demon of my own, and that I would see a disheveled, disrespected lump of a man, a man who was my father, shorn of the dignity that was his due.
And then, as if to punish myself, I looked at the screen again. I was rewarded by seeing the head of this poor possessed little girl spin around like a top. This was the scene that terrified anyone who saw the film at the time. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That was when my father touched me lightly on my shoulder. I shot up in the air like a Saturn V, howling on the way up and on the way down. Totally discombobulated, I looked at him with crazed eyes. He ignored what had just happened and said:
“Let’s get the hell out of here. I can’t watch this anymore.”
Just like that we scooted out of the theatre directly back to our room, through a street-light darkness that recalled the movie. In the room I sat down on my bed, traumatized, trying to sort things out in my head. After a few moments I realized that my father was still standing. I looked at him and saw his head hanging, staring at the floor. I was immediately overcome with a crushing feeling that I had caused this. What was worse, I had no words of comfort. I could not even begin to rectify the damage, though I did try.
“Dad, it was just a movie,” I said.
“I know, I know. But Jesus H. Christ! It scared the bejeebies out of me!”
It was not just a movie. It was a portrait of Evil. It could not be ignored, it could not be put aside. Not even after we left the theatre. The starkest realization was that neither of us had tools to deal with such a portrayal. I searched for a Gideon’s Bible that I knew must be there (it was), but as I held it aloft, I knew that it was a tool that we had forgotten how to use. Americans had lost their religious belief in droves during the sixties and seventies. It wasn’t that my father and I thought that the effect of the movie wouldn’t pass. Our unspoken concern was that when and if Evil appeared in our real lives, we would be facing it unarmed. Defenseless.
We obviously were not going to turn off the lights and close our eyes, so we made our way back to the diner. Something had changed between us. It was as if an invisible hand had turned a hand-crank and shot us out of those seats like two reluctant pistons, to finally set us in motion towards an inner reconciliation, and in the physical world towards some cups of late night coffee over which we spoke not of his whereabouts over the last year, and not about the movie, but about Bobby Fischer and chess, Nasa and the future of space exploration, and the Red Sox.
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