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Fathers and Sons

“Darling Harold,” a woman he met wrote on a photograph taken tableside at the Copacabana, “let’s always meet during the blackouts. XXoo.”

By Robert Israel
His father appeared before bedtime, disappeared into the back bedroom and the next morning he was gone. Harold, his two sisters and his mother, were alone.

Harold trundled off to school, ate food scraps from the deli where his mother waitressed. He contracted tuberculosis a week after waiting with burlap sacks for an allotment of coal alongside other families on relief.
He noted these milestones in his diary, beside pasted photos, clippings from the Gazette, United Press drawings of an impending total eclipse of the sun, reports of violent outbreaks in Europe.

After high school, there was work at the bottling company, and a long awaited holiday to Havana. But the party was short lived: the captain, hearing a crackle of radio reports about a Japanese invasion ordered a blackout as the ship crossed the Florida Straits.

“Darling Harold,” a woman he met wrote on a photograph taken tableside at the Copacabana, “let’s always meet during the blackouts. XXoo.”

The Army nabbed him a month later, he was off to basic and then to officers’ school in Virginia. With his mother and sisters waving goodbye, he boarded a troop ship for India.

In Calcutta, he was provided with three squares, clothing, supplies, a driver and a Jeep. Every day he’d cross the Howrah Bridge to the Officer’s Club where British soldiers hunched over their snooker tables lamented that the comforts of the raj would soon come to a hasty and unpleasant end.

He penned articles for the Mopwringer, a mimeographed newspaper. He took R & Rs in Chunking and Darjeeling. After V.E. Day, there were leisurely port calls in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tasmania, and then, finally, Los Angeles. He traveled by train to Seattle. Letters from home awaited him there. His mother had spent all his Army pay. His girlfriend had saved enough to bankroll the marriage and a honeymoon in Montreal: just get home, she wrote, and soon.

Months after the wedding, he searched for his father. When he arrived in Philly, another man answered the door. Back home, he opened up his diary and read the clippings again: they had gone yellow, brittle. So he added a few more slips of paper: receipts of money orders paid to a private investigator in Philly, a sheaf of unanswered telegrams sent to his father that led to dashed hopes.

He was now the same age as his father when the family was abandoned. He promised himself it would be different for his daughter and son.

His working days were long, the time together with his kids was scarce, he’d dress each day to head out for the road and when he returned they were asleep. He had signed up for Army reserves. Even if he couldn’t be home, it would be okay, so long as the kids followed strict rules, so long as his home ran like a company post.

But there was tension, the son and the daughter were at odds, she found ways to provoke her brother until one day he pushed her down a flight of stairs.

There were more disharmonies after the family moved to the suburbs. The son took up with wastrels and together they discovered that windows left ajar led to easy pickings, pillow sacks filled with pilfered goods, stash handed over to middle men for cash. The son was apprehended for breaking and entering. He moved out of the house a month after his seventeenth birthday.
In his dorm room that fall he ingested too much mescaline. He stood up, looked in the mirrored alcove between this armoire and desk and saw Harold’s face stare back and merge with his own. He collapsed in hysteria. His roommate dragged the son to the shower across the hall, doused him with blasts of cold water. Drenched, the roommate stripped him down to his skivvies, wrapped him in a blanket, and stayed until the drug’s hallucinatory effects had worn off.

Shaken, the son telephoned home. Harold answered. He told Harold what happened, leaving out details about the hallucinogens, saying instead that he’d had a bad night, that his roommate had helped him, that he was fine now.

“What do you want me to do about it?” Harold asked, and hung up the telephone.

Years passed, the son graduated from college and moved to the city, and one night he brought his fiancée home. Wedding plans were discussed.

More years passed, a grandson was born, his wife died, the family home was sold, and he had the first of several heart attacks. He called the son. Arrangements were made for an outing, his grandson seated beside him, to the lakeshore.

At sundown the son gathered up the blanket, the folding chairs, the thermos of coffee, the diaper bag, making several trips back and forth to the Dodge. Harold tossed a ball to the boy. The boy caught it, ecstatic.
“What a whippersnapper!” Harold exclaimed. “What an ace ballplayer!”

The ball rolled past Harold. His son fetched it and tossed it over to him.

“We never did this, did we?” Harold said. He regarded his son, like his father before him, standing on the outskirts of his life.

And then, with the grandson buckled into the child seat, they left for the long ride back home.


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