07 December 2011

President & Senior Editor

When Dad graduated high school in June 1941, there would still be six months to Pearl Harbor Day.  He turned 18 that summer, started school in Madison, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army, Engineering and Maintenance, serving his country from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.  He was never at Pearl Harbor--his training took him around the United States until he was shipped overseas in 1944, serving in France and the Philippines mostly, with some time in Japan after the war ended.

Reading Adam Nagourney's fine piece about the final meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in today's Times, brought to mind the ritual I have of turning to this page in Dad's old yearbook--Shorewood High School's "Copperdome"--to contemplate the calm, optimistic and rather natty promise he exuded before the conflagration of the war seized his core, setting him on a course, I'm convinced, that he was never able to fully grab a hold of.

A loving father; a funny, charismatic guy, Dad was haunted by depression and demons that I've speculated over the years the war compounded rather than liberated him from.  In other words, some have critical experiences in their transitional late teens and early twenties that sets them on a course, that defines their time in the world, that creates if you will a sense of mission.  That didn't happen for Dad.  He didn't keep up with friends from the war; lost touch with the narratives that drove the rebuilding of this country upon their return from battle; and darkened, was in a way even diminished by the challenge of making a life after Roosevelt and Truman and the battle to save human civilization from a genocidal maniac and world fascism.

Skilled, brilliant and creative, he was senior editor of the Copperdome and a member of Quill and Scroll; but by the time he got back to school on the G.I. Bill, he never pursued his writing or journalism.  He instead moved slowly, toward a career as a Milwaukee ad man, moving up the chain in radio and early television, selling advertising for network affiliates in Milwaukee, Sacramento and Chicago, before coming back home in 1967.

Unlike the men of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Dad kept his army career in a tattered cardboard box, had to be nudged to bring it out late on a Saturday night, prompted to tell what to me were his legendary stories--among them my personal favorite, waking up on a ship in the steam and fog to red lights flashing and the fear that an explosion had occurred.  His Detroit friend Joe Petrovich screaming, "Tony, the goddamn ship's on fire!  You grab the life-jackets, I'll grab the Schlitz!"

Joe was a skilled illustrator and one of my other favorite artifacts from those years was a V-Mail he drew for a letter Dad sent to Grandma:
Mind you--this is a letter sent to a mother who was a new American, my grandma having emigrated from Minsk in 1903 and settled on Walnut Street in Milwaukee, where she was educated and grew to marry a second generation Jew, my debonair and generously hearted Grandpa Charlie, one of a small number of Jews who graduated from the Marquette University medical school in 1924, the year Dad was born. 
My dad had that perfect blend of shtetl darkness and cynicism mixed with a pride in America's promise.  But at his own critical turning, he seemed to have broken the connection, substituting sports, the immediacy of the dollar, and a kind of making of an American family that was absent the redacting hand he demonstrated mastery of as senior editor of the Copperdome.  The story got away from him and we, his children, were left to write our own based on family and neighborhood experience, history, our own souls, and the small archive of evidence he left behind.

When Dad died, the U.S. Army sent us an American flag, along with a certificate signed by President Reagan, thanking him posthumously for his service to the country.  Dad wouldn't have liked that very much, having a low regard for the President's "abandonment of his New Deal roots."  (A row of his Roosevelt and Truman biographies sit on my shelf now, evidence of a man whose soul once burned for the betterment of his nation.)  All these years later, I piece together these mosaic tiles, forging a picture of man more complete as time continues in his absence, 28 years and counting.  Life after death.  The grandkids he never met know the words to his high school fight song.  These are important lessons to pass on.  That kind of thing.

I'm the President & Senior Editor of the Monas Siegel Bachman Survivors Association and I've decided to keep on holding meetings.

No comments: