27 March 2010

Questions Under the Hood

There is no question that one of the greatest periods of my dad's life was the time he spent in the service. Pictured above here, as a young man in the 980th Engineering Corps of the US Army, stationed at the time of this photograph at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Dad learned how to work on jeeps and tanks, and, according to the stories he loved to tell, he also learned how to play ping-pong with a cigarette in his mouth, paddle in one hand, and donut and coffee in the other. Don't ask how he pulled it off--he never really showed me himself but as a kid of 6, 7, 8 or 9, I had no reason not to believe him.

These stories--more like small anecdotes or vignettes--would come pouring out during the years of my parents divorce, when I'd stay at his place and after a ball game if Johnny Carson's guests were a bit dull, I'd heave the box of his war pictures down from a shelf and make him recount various stories. The time his friend from Detroit thought their carrier was on fire and insisted on trying to bring a case of beer on to the lifeboats (false alarm) or the first time he kissed a girl, in France, of course. Dad didn't like to build too much narrative; his stories were minimalist, I'd suspect because by the 1970s, he was aware of their past place and not particularly sentimental about them. But he knew, and relished, the heroism I saw in them, despite their somewhat unremarkable martial relevance. He was one of several million guys who never actually saw action but served his country with pride, a legacy I wish I had continued, truth be told. My friend Rev Dan Meeter and I had lunch recently and we were talking about why we feel that politics and social policy should, to a degree, emanate from the pulpit. And we both shared the idea that we were motivated to serve our nation as much as were motivated to serve our God.

In 1985, a couple years after Dad died and I was a student at Hebrew University, I invited my teacher George L. Mosse to come give a talk in Ze'ev Mankowitz's undergraduate history seminar on Mount Scopus. George, who had just written about war memorials, asked me in front of the students if I had noticed what was carved inside of the large cross that stood in the center of the WWI Cemetery down the road. I gave him a blank stare. "The sword!" he bellowed. "The sword! To convey the notion that God and Country were virtually indistinguishable!" A lesson I never forgot.

Dad seemed to leave God behind when he returned home in 1946. GI Bill, a BA from Madison, some messing around, and then marriage and the start of a family by 1958. In succession there were kids from 1958 until 1965. By 1975 my folks had split and Dad died of a large and instantaneously fatal heart attack in 1983.

Each year when his yahrzeit comes, I marvel at the nearly incomprehensibly fast nature of his demise. It seems, from a certain perspective, that he lived life on the run from himself, never really pausing to make decisions based on just enough reflection to shift, alter, or even change direction.

He was smart as hell; really handsome; and ready with a joke. He had a kind of charisma that during my teenage years, made him the go-to guy for a lot of friends who couldn't talk to their dads but could open up to mine. I loved that about him.

As I was saying Kaddish for Dad this week in Shul (he died on the 8th day of Nisan, March 22 on the secular calendar) I stood in front of the congregation and my mind wandered (full disclosure) as it often does. I remembered a story I have written about before--that when Dad died, my uncle, Dad's only brother, came to pick me up at my apartment in Madison. We said very little to each other on the 90 minute drive home to Milwaukee; and the reality is, I can only remember one line: "Your father worked on cars during the war but he never looked under the hood of his own car." Or something to that effect.

Never looked under the hood of his own car.

The Sages could hardly have invented a better metaphor, had they lived in mid-century America where Car was King.

And so, dear reader, here is a Passover lesson for you as this last Shabbat in Egypt comes to a close.

First, look under the hood of your car. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipppur need not be the only times of year on the Jewish calendar when you examine your heart and soul and seek to make amends. Nisan, the month of our liberation and, according to the Torah, the first month of the year, is a perfect time for you to contemplate a new life, a new start.

Second, tell stories at your seders this year. Tell the Exodus, the grand narrative, of course, since its historic lessons obligate us to continually build a better world. But tell family stories as well. Tell the stories you want others to tell long after you're gone. This will prompt questions, questions beyond the Four Questions, an examination under the hood of our own lives that will help each of us, in our own way, merit redemption.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice entry.

I don't think your father was so unusual. Fathers - indeed men - looking under the hood is a pretty recent phenomenon.

Happy Pesach.

David S