25 November 2013

Even An Old Ring

Before you go off to war, you have to dress up for war, something little kids know, often forget as youth, and then, when necessary, remember.  Or, in wartime, are commanded to wear the mantel of honor and defense.  My dad was still 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and by the summer of 1942 was enlisted.  His studies were suspended and his training took him to various points in the Lower Forty-Eight before he was shipped over seas to serve his country as an Army Engineer.  Nothing to glamorous--jeep and tank repair is about it.  A lot sitting around.  A quiet period; and, one which I have filled in over the years with noisy speculation about an imagined transitional time for Dad between boyhood and adulthood, wherein were made fateful choices, habituated into the sinewy stuff of his grown up life.

His posture is a deceit.  Look closely and you'll see that his shoulders rear back some, defensive against the inevitable onslaught of moral choice, career commitment, and the complex navigational systems required for building a career, a family, a life.  Nattily put together then, the tie perfectly knotted and tucked away, thumbs confidently holstered in his pockets, his fingers are, nevertheless, clenched, tensed, holding on to himself.

Dad loved this pose:  he'd demand the half profile throughout our childhood.  He thought it classy.  Here is in 1958:  boat, cap, cigarette.  It's a good look.
 But at enlistment there was the boy's smile with his lips peeping open and the faintest of squints into distance, his right side face is shaded and brimmed by the Army cap that never seemed to get passed down.

I had one of his dog-tags for many years, which included the famous designation of "H" for Hebrew and the small wedge at the top, for jamming into the dead's mouth to aid in speedy identification on the battlefield.  Thankfully, he made it home.  The dog-tags were stolen from my apartment one year in college by an oddball political campaign volunteer who I never was able to convince to return the i.d. despite my pleas for the sentimental value of the loot.


But his ring I got.

Actually, before it was his ring it was my grandfather's ring.  Ridged gold, classically modern, with an opaque jade stone setting.  It seems elaborate for my tastes.  Not something I'd ordinarily be inclined to wear.  On Grandpa it seemed just right.  He wore it well and it represented, to my kid's eye view, the adornment of a man who had earned it.  When Grandpa died, Dad started to wear it, though not on his ring finger where his father carried but rather on his pinky, given my father a kind of mobster chic that I think he relished.  Even though by that point his advertising career had bitten the dust and he was finding his way to make a buck through an anemic real estate market and discount shoes.
I don't know what Dad hated more:  selling shoes or selling real estate.  He had sold television time for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, led a team of young hotshots who worked and partied hard and took team trips with their wives to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, San Francisco and of course, New York.  In those days he could have chosen a ring of his own but for all I know, maybe he expected to receive the ring as a blessing, bestowed from father to son.  Maybe Grandpa never bought it but received it from his father.  If true, this bit of the narrative is lost forever.

So from Grandpa to Dad, the silent passing; and then from Dad to me.  After Shiva in the early spring of 1983, I took the ring (which was removed from his body by the funeral home) and his Clark Wallabees and headed back up to Madison.  With the ring in my pocket and his shoes on my feet, I walked up Bascom Hill in a kind of other-worldly march both backward and forward into time.
I was aware that time had shifted, tectonically, and that my steps were my own but were also being guided, by forces of history and memory that would no longer be exclusively my own.  Dad hadn't walked those prairie hills in those exact shoes, but he traveled the trails of Madison well and I had a sense of mission and purpose to the work that lie ahead.  Book spines, notepads, dialogue with faculty--each of these mundane expressions of campus life would be overlaid with an intentionality priorly unknown.

I became, as it were, a soldier in the battle to overcome silence; to reawaken a muted family narrative;  to reify a broken covenant with our Tradition; and to walk, intentionally, in the steps of our ancestors.

These dark days of the year, Kislev's cold, clear skies, paint hued truths in suspended rays of silver, orange and blue.  It's no wonder, I suppose, that we read of the Biblical Joseph in these days.  A man who wore his father's clothes, too soon.   He took them willfully, vaunting his favored status.  And paid a price.  Joseph's descent, a journey of years in another land, including jail, rescue and elevation, brought to bear the hard-earned truths of his most humbling characteristic:  what talents he had to use for the good came not solely from him but from his God.  His older brothers hated him for this and as we know, it was nearly a generation before he himself could fully grasp its depth dimensions.

Who among us would not admit that there is both the torment and the reward of hard-earned reconstruction in the trajectory of our lives, seen through the lens not of days but years?  Who among us--after an uncountable number of consecutive winters, years of waning light, withering cold, deadened branches and blown leaves--who among us would not count as one part merit and one part dumb luck the very ability to stand at the horizon and notice time pass with the wisdom one gains merely by surviving?

We are what we are and we are always what we say we are, over and over again.

And sometimes, to celebrate having made it, you get dressed up.  A tie with a crisp knot.  A new hat.  What the hell--maybe even an old ring.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Andy, I just love your writing & introspection. & then you wrap it all up & pull everything together as great writers do.
Zai Gezunt!