After surviving nearly eight months with pancreatic cancer — the same disease that killed his own father four years ago — my dad passed away quietly at home this morning. My three siblings and I were able to spend the last few days with him, which I know gave him enormous comfort as he slowly drifted away. I’d like to say that I’ve been preparing for today since he was diagnosed on February 27, but mostly I’ve been living in various states of denial and haven’t begun to comprehend this loss.
If you had asked him, my father would have insisted that history was never his best subject. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to think about the second half of the 20th century without the stories and commentary I’ve borrowed from him. He grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he lived down the street from Norman Rockwell. Of all things, he actually worked as a model for some of Rockwell’s Boy Scout tributes; he’s the kid in the middle of the “Ever Onward” painting, commissioned for the Scouts’ 50th anniversary in 1960. Though he shared Rockwell’s liberal values — particularly his vision of racial equality — I don’t think he shared Rockwell’s confidence that small-town virtues still defined the United States during the cold war. If nothing else, Dad’s experience during the Vietnam War ruined that illusion.
When Dad first learned of his cancer, he reminded me that he’d already lived four decades longer than he once assumed he would. As an undergraduate English major at St. Bonaventure, a small Franciscan university in upstate New York, he enrolled in two years of ROTC because he wanted to learn how to fly. He graduated a few months after ground forces arrived in South Vietnam. When Johnson got the war he’d been seeking, and when he and William Westmoreland promised that the troops would be “home by Christmas,” Dad believed them and breathed a sigh of relief. He seems to have developed a keen ear for bullshit after that.
By 1967, to his lifelong bewilderment, he found himself running Hueys in the Army’s 129th Assault Helicopter Corps, serving in a war he opposed and for an institution he came to detest. Until about five years ago, I actually believed his two tours of duty were relatively free of danger. If I had ever bothered to ask, I might have learned that he was stationed near Qui Nhon during the Tet Offensive, and that he lived each day with the expectation that he’d never see the age of 25. More than anything, he wanted to have children, and he worried that Johnson’s war would deprive him of that chance.
Remarkably enough, he survived the American war in Vietnam and became a father, first to me, then to three others who came to share his wry sense of humor and his well-placed skepticism toward authority. Over the years I’ve been able to notice this influence more clearly. In 1974, when I asked him who “Tricky Dick” was, he explained the horrors of the Nixon administration in a way that actually made sense to a four-year-old; Watergate was, appropriately enough, the first thing I ever learned about the American presidency, and I can’t say my impression of its officeholders has changed significantly since then. A few years later, I listened to my father describe the Desert One hostage-rescue attempt as “dumb with a capital D,” then promptly repeated the same (completely accurate) assessment to my fourth-grade colleagues. Dad was profoundly unimpressed by the Reagan-Bush years. During my junior year of college he recognized the Gulf War as a disastrous venture long before I did. During Clinton’s two terms, he agonized over the various Balkan wars and was bewildered by his oldest son’s apparent indifference when the US launched what he viewed as a cowardly air war in 1999.
After retirement, Dad spent much of his free time watching C-SPAN and surveying the ills of the Bush administration. When he wasn’t shaking his first at the television, he began reading more about the Vietnam War era, spending his last few months trying to finish Frances FitzGerald’s Fire on the Lake, Jules Witcover’s The Year the Dream Died, and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. The week before he died, when he could no longer walk and struggled to stay awake, he checked out Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco from the public library. The war in Iraq troubled him immensely, and he took some comfort in being able to watch the undoing of Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove, and the 109th Congress. In a rare moment of optimism, I asked him earlier this summer if he might hang on until January 2009. “That would be great,” he chuckled, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
At the bottom of it all, though, my father wasn’t a political creature. He was a quiet, funny man who loved dogs, golf, the Red Sox and — above all else — his family with an intensity that far surpassed his hatred for the “jerks” who ran the world. But powerful people at home and abroad pissed him off because he understood that the consequences of their actions trickled down upon the most vulnerable. He knew that idiotic wars and bogus heroism did nothing but sever decent, gentle people from the rest of their lives.
He also knew that he was one of the lucky ones — that he’d lived an immensely fulfilling life, despite the errors of the “best and the brightest” and despite the sickness that took him before any of us were ready to let him go.
I have many words to explain how very much I loved my father, but none to capture how much I miss him already.