24 December 2009


In my father's high school yearbook, the Shorewood High School Copperdome from 1941, the year he graduated at age 16, he is described for his senior picture in the following way:

Monas Bachman: "Trustworthy Tony known for his cheerleading and dramatic work, is also known as "Monas the Manager" or "Monitor Monas" for he was a Hall Monitor in his junior year and has been track manager the last two years. He is a senior editor of the Copperdome and member of Quill and Scroll."

When I was a kid I studied that page like a sacred text because it was a window into the self-reflective world of my dad--as a kid--beginning to shape his own story as a young man. Forever linked for all time on a page along with people named Ted and Dawn and Kitty Lou, this class would soon be called to national service a brief half year after graduation with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My dad would turn 18 in the service, like a lot of young men of his generation, and when I was growing up this yearbook, along with his hundreds of Polaroids from the war would be the images upon which he would construct a narrative of sacrifice. It was always an oddly sentimental experience to look through the book and the pictures, to hear the familiar stories--mostly because the images were in black and white, set forever in shades of gray that were more revealing for what the man in front of me, in living color, did not become.

For much of his adult life my father was consumed by an undiagnosed depression and in clinical terms, a variety of unresolved issues that because they were never adequately addressed and so made manifest in fits of rage and led to a successful yet unstable professional life, a failed marriage, and an early death. In his "seven years of famine"--from a divorce and job loss in 1976 to a heart attack and death in 1983, he was remarkably reflective. It was during those years that the books came out, the pictures got spread on the floor of his apartment where I visited him on weekends, and he attempted, for the first time in his life I believe, to re-write the story he had edited for himself in that 1941 yearbook.

When I got cut from the basketball team my junior year of high school and we both had to admit that his vicarious desire to see me be a player he would have "cheered for" as a kid himself, we shared a kind of mutual loss, celebrated my own athletic achievements beyond his, and then started sharing books and ideas together. On one particular afternoon I remember coming home to his apartment and finding him listening to Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" and excitedly explaining to me the connections he heard between Elvis' and Cole Porter's lyricism. During Camp David there were reflections about his grandfather's unfulfilled Zionism, practiced from Milwaukee's Jewish East Side middle class, and lines drawn from Golda Meir to '48, '67, '73 and then this peace with Egypt. I was astounded to learn, however briefly, that he not only paid attention to Israel but cared. That he chose not to educate his children in these matters earlier remains a mystery.

In 1981, with Reagan in power and a fear that the Selective Service draft would return, my best friend and I gathered around a kitchen table with our dads--both of whom served in the Second World War--and listened to man who resisted the Vietnam draft, fled to Canada, and only recently had returned to the U.S. My friend and I were dead set against the draft--not wanting to fight, as we put it, in Reagan's wars for oil in the Middle East or against Communism in Central America. However, in order to get student loans for college, one had to register for the draft. It was a dilemma my dad and I talked about over and over again and I can remember first telling him I'd resist, absorbing his disappointment, and then, later, upon reflection, deciding to register. While I made that decision alone, I always appreciated how we prepared for that moment together.

That was the last real big decision we made together as father and son, save one.

Two years later, during my sophomore year in Madison, a massive depression sunk in. I found myself unable to take notes in class, unable to read, unable to sleep. I had never felt it before and was shattered by its sheer force to prevent me from accomplishing anything productive. I remember seeing my friends, like balloons, drifting happily through their lives while I remained tethered to the cruel, cold ground. Backed into a corner of failing all my classes, I went to see an exceptionally compassionate dean and dropped out, literally at the 11th hour, salvaging a semester. The fear that was coursing through my veins when I walked back to my apartment to call my dad was quite profound. But not as great as the warmth and understanding with which I was received on the other end of the line when I called him in his apartment back in Milwaukee.

I remember the tone--loving, full of humor and understanding, even hopeful. And then, with a pretty good dramatic effect he said, "You know son, before the service I had a couple terrible semesters in Madison. I was really immature--nothing like you--and I dropped out too. This is your chance to figure out who you are and what it's all about." I was so relieved.

I'd see him that Thanksgiving and again on Christmas Eve, at the holiday party we went to every year where we gathered as a family, it seemed, with every other family made from a Jewish man who grew up in Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s, married a non-Jewish woman and had kids.

Dad was really angry with me that night because when I showed up at his place to take him to the party, I was wearing a grey and red sweater, jeans and basketball sneakers. He was wearing a camelhair jacket, shirt, tie and slacks. He found my manner of dress disrespectful. And exploded in a decidedly non-festive rage. At that point his career was over, his health was slipping, and within three months, at age 58, he'd die of a heart attack in bed.

We drove to the party separately and only later, when he saw that all the other kids in college were dressed similar to me, did he relax his stance toward me. I remember squeezing into a chair next him, eating and sharing a drink, and talking about a variety of things. We looked silently across this room filled with people, Christmas Eve night, a room filled with men he grew up with, shared business with, lived in a community with, and the mixture of achievement and loss felt like a heavy and precarious balance. As he darkened I reminded him that the sweater I chose for that night was red and gray, his Shorewood High School colors. My high school colors, I reminded him, were blue and white, so he could "at the very least show some appreciation for my homage to his cradle of civilization."

He gave me a knowing glance for the sarcastic comment and I could feel him relax into me--a last moment with him that I'll never forget these twenty-six years later. I reflect on that gesture, that of father leaning into the son, as the last one we shared before he died. I'm sure there were other hugs that winter break but none that I remember like this one. It has the force of a generational tide shift, in real time, though it seemed to be lost in the noise and tumult of voices in a home at a party. Lives in disarray often don't afford the neat good-bye. So I took this one.

Driving back to Milwaukee for Dad's funeral that March with my uncle, in stunned silence, the only words spoken in the car were, "You know, your dad worked on jeeps during the War but he never looked under the hood of his own car."

And that metaphor has propelled me these last twenty-six years to introspection, self-examination, prayer and service to God, and the study of Torah that can lead to a more just and redeemed world. One of the most enduring lessons I learned from his depression and death is that the call to serve doesn't last a few years. It lasts a lifetime and it has as many glorious mountain tops as it has deep, dark valleys. Sometimes in life we have the opportunity to "cheer." At other times, it's all we can do to "manage." And whenever possible one should try to minimize the "drama." Unless it's a good movie or book.

Trustworthy Tony known for his cheerleading and dramatic work, is also known as "Monas the Manager" or "Monitor Monas" for he was a Hall Monitor in his junior year and has been track manager the last two years. He is a senior editor of the Copperdome and member of Quill and Scroll.

I salute you, Dad.


Jan Katz said...

That was such a beautiful reflection. I adored your dad and his gentle style and warm sense of humor. Now I know a different side of him and your beautiful family. Thank you for sharing.

Old First said...

Thanks for this. Well, now what about my dad and me? Must I wait till he dies before I can write about us?