The other morning I was standing in line in a convenience store near Boston University. I was late for a writing workshop but knew I would be useless without the 20-ounce coffee I cradled in my hands. Otherwise I didn’t have a thought in my head until the young man in front of me turned for a moment. I flashed to my nephew, Owen, who is a student at BU, but it wasn’t him. Even with their matching dark eyes and short brown hair, the young man in front of me was too small too and fair-skinned.
Then it all came roaring in on me. My dad was here on the GI Bill after World War 2–Jesus Christ he would have started here 70 years ago. Then my brother, Owen’s dad, was here as an undergraduate in the 1970s. Then I was here for a few years of graduate school in the 1980s. How often did we walk in each other’s footsteps? Has Owen already stood in a place where his father stood 40 years ago and his grandfather 30 years before that?
When my dad was here, BU was a much smaller school, crowded around Kenmore Square a mile to the east of where I was standing. Who knows what was in the building then? It wasn’t a convenience store–they didn’t even exist then. Maybe it was a market or a drugstore or a small bar. Maybe it was the kind of bar an older student–my dad was 21 when he started at BU–would have slipped into on a Friday afternoon after classes were over for the week and he needed a cold one.
The picture above is of my father. It was in the city somewhere, outside of what I had long ago decided was a bar. He is in a long, wool dress coat, the same kind I still wear today, the same kind I will put on the first cold morning this coming winter and will wear until spring. My father was not a big man–5’9″ and whip thin then. He weighed 140 pounds when he was discharged from the army. The coat is just a little big on him, but he has on a shirt and tie, cuffed dress pants. He has a big smile and it’s not posed–he is in mid-stride. If you look closely there is the shadow of a man in a dress hat. The man seems to be waiting for my father in the doorway. My father’s smile is for him.
You can see my father’s inscription on the bottom of the picture, “One of my happier moments.” I think of this picture often, and when I recall it from my memory, the inscription is different–it’s always, “In happier times.” Now that I read it again, “moment” feels very different from “times.” Did something happen in that moment? Was he seeing someone after a long time or was the day of some import? He’s long gone now–36 years this month–so I can never really know.
Not much went well in my father’s life a few years after this picture was taken. The war never left him. He flew as a gunner in B-17 and B-24 bombers over the Pacific and was for a while small enough to be the sorry bastard who climbed into the turret under the belly of those big shuddering planes. I can’t imagine being up there, two miles above the earth, swiveling around in that ball, blasting away.
I like to think that his years at BU were a happy time for my dad. He was back home safe in East Boston. His big brother Joe was home safe. His cousins. They all made it. They all made it back to Jeffries Point. I have other pictures of my dad from when he got back. In one he’s in his dress uniform, hugging my grandmom. In another he’s hugging a pretty girl, his uniform hat perched askew on her head.
He met my mom when he was at BU. She was at Emmanuel College down the street, but they didn’t meet in the city. Instead, they both happened to find summer work at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. She waitressed. He helped keep the books. A city boy and a city girl, a world away in the mountains, young and healthy and free. I wonder what their romance was like. Did they carry a blanket into the woods and lay down there? Did they sneak into her room when everyone else was asleep? Did they find a radio and listen to Perry Como? Whatever they did, it worked. They graduated in 1951, married in 1952, and my oldest brother arrived in 1953.
My memories of my father are few and vague. What I know about my father after 1953 I’ve recreated from conversations with my family, from family pictures, and from his VA records. His VA record is, sadly, the richest mine, and it starts with problems he had even before he left the Pacific. Before the war ended, he was briefly hospitalized for “gastric neuritis” and then went back into battle. In 1955, he was hospitalized again for “nervous exhaustion.” By the time I came around in 1959, they were getting closer to describing it correctly. His problems were “service-connected,” they said, and “compounded by anxiety and alcoholism.”
I don’t want to tell–and you don’t want to hear–the whole tale. It was a 35-year-long car wreck that everyone saw coming and no one was able to stop. Even the doctors ran out of gas. The interventions became half-hearted, the clinical notes shorter and more rote. The last note before his suicide recorded a phone call from my father to his doctor. He was distraught and drinking heavily but neither of them seemed to know what to do. Even my father was phoning it in.
I finally got to the head of the line in the convenience store and paid for my coffee. I stepped out onto the sidewalk to the clang of the street car bell. There was a hint of winter in the air. I thought of that picture, my dad in that long wool coat. Maybe he wasn’t stepping into a bar. Maybe he was on his way to meet my mother. Maybe she was in Kenmore Square, in a diner, drinking a coffee, her hands wrapped around the mug for warmth, her eyes scanning the street, looking for her handsome young beau.