In October 1941, my father found himself in Reykjavik, tried to get back to Charleston. Orders arrived: he was to sail on the USS Salinas, an empty oil tanker pressed into service as a convoy escort. The Salinas met up mid-ocean with a westbound group. On the 30th, the tanker was in moderate seas some 700 miles from Newfoundland. At 0700 a torpedo struck portside, two minutes later, a second one hit the ship. My father was thrown into the water, his left thumb shredded by shrapnel. In Charleston, my mother woke, sat upright, heard him call her name. The Salinas settled to her nearly-loaded waterline. After 45 minutes or so, my father was rescued from the cold, grey water. The crew jerry-rigged the ship, it labored on to St. John’s Bay.
On average, according to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, officers and enlisted men served for two years and six months during the Second World War. Dad enlisted before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and left active duty almost eight months after VE Day. He spent more than four years in the Navy, close to five, including 14 months in France. Apart from a few words on the damage to his thumb, he never talked about his wartime experiences; I’m drawing these sketchy facts from things my mother said and records the Navy provided at my son’s request. I do not know the nature of his activity in embattled France—he spoke the language—or whether he had occasion to use the revolver he brought home. I do know this: there is no salvation in war, it took the joy from his life, and the stretch he was kept on active service after he had done his fair share left him bitter and sarcastic. He took words for bullets, shot me down, watched me try to stand, shot again, never lethal, always crippling. After I left home, moved out of range, he would go on a bender if I had any small success, a promotion at work, a mention in the local newspaper. His brother told me, “I wish you could have known him when he was young.”
Yet, taking a longer view, it was my good fortune to be born a white boy, blond hair, blue eyes, in a middle-class family, grow up in the second half of the 20th century, come of age in Connecticut, get a fine education. It was chance, an accident of birth, a random spin of the wheel, utterly undeserved, no matter that it felt, in my youth, like the natural order. Through high school and college, my worst personal experiences—counting only those that weren’t my own fault—took place at home, and, if it wasn’t always easy living under my father’s misshapen thumb, my problems were nonetheless trivial, my hardest days would count among the best of another person’s life. I’ve hurt so many people, lashed out at the merest whiff of disrespect, said unforgiveable things, turned my back on friends and walked out on women who loved me, sometimes in anger, sometimes in a sort of preemptive betrayal, sometimes for no reason I can name. But my family of origin is not to blame for the damage I’ve done, I knew better, the fault is entirely mine. Truth is, I was damn lucky, and I must stick fast to this perspective, call myself back to this promontory whenever my mind fixes on minor injuries sustained in the distant past, harsh words spoken long ago, and I start to think awry.
I was ten, still a dreamer, when the Russians launched the first Sputnik. I think I saw it pass overhead, a speck in motion, when some adult showed me where to look in the sky, but I can’t remember whose finger I followed with my eyes, and I may have imagined it. I was 15, still a loner, when the Cuban missile crisis flared up and we all thought the world was coming to a fiery end, as it nearly did. Then came the assassination of our beloved Catholic president, and news accounts about hostile fire in the Gulf of Tonkin, official reports we had no reason to doubt: President Johnson soberly delivered a televised address to the nation. I graduated from a parochial high school in West Hartford, bounced between several Jesuit colleges, went to Europe as an exchange student, stayed in Belgium and Germany through the events of 1968, the killings in Memphis and Los Angeles, riots in Paris, repression in Prague, turmoil in Chicago. I read the newspaper, studied in earnest, drank filter coffee in the daytime, a local blue-collar beer at night.
In the summer of 1969, I returned to the United States, got swept up in the peace movement, demonstrated in the streets against the war in Vietnam. Even now, I cannot judge to what extent my political views were driven by the threat of conscription. Turned back on itself, sound leftist thinking would say that my ideological commitments merely masked my economic interests. My student deferment expired, I was classified 1-A for a month or so, even underwent (and passed) a physical exam at an armory in New Haven. But the Hartford draft board granted me a one-year occupational deferment to teach philosophy—as though the humanities were vital to national security—at a small college on the coast of Maine. The war in Vietnam was fought, in large part, by young men who had fewer choices, urban blacks, poor Southern whites.
The afternoon of December 1, I joined students and other young faculty members in a campus hangout, a small, free-standing wooden building, painted white, where we could drink non-alcoholic beverages, eat snack foods, sit, talk, read. But we gathered on this occasion to watch the first draft lottery on television. It was an attempt to make the selection process fairer: 366 plastic balls were taken, one at a time, from a glass bowl to determine the order, by birth date, in which men between the ages of 19 and 25 would be called up for military service in 1970. The first 195 draws would meet the quota. As each capsule was chosen, we scanned the assembly to see if anyone present had been born on that date. Some, of course, heard the month and day of their birth announced, knew they’d be drafted to fight a racist war (“those people don’t value human life”) in futile defense of a corrupt dictatorship. Young women crossed the room to comfort them. After the 195th ball was drawn, the crowd thinned. I stayed to see my birth date, May 25, come up in 361st place. The luck of the draw.
The academic year ended in anguish and confusion with the shootings at Kent State University. I flew back to Belgium to start working toward a doctorate. Far away the war went on and on, Hue, Quang Tri, Kontum, An Loc, the lies, bombs, napalm, body counts, body bags. Returning to New England in the early 1970s, I supported myself by working in an aluminum matchplate foundry while I read, and read, for a dissertation on Chomsky’s linguistics, finally abandoned the topic, chose another, hammered out a study of Lévinas’s ethical thinking, defended it the week before I got married. My wife and I saw Nixon go down in shame, thought we’d never see a more disgraceful president. Celebrated the birth of a son the spring Saigon fell. The infant slept in his crib while we watched the desperate scenes on television, South Vietnamese civilians scaling the embassy wall, families mobbing rooftop helicopters, thousands left behind, most facing hunger, many, summary judgment. But our own lives went on, a career change, another child, a series of moves that eventually took us to New Jersey.
My wife waited for me at the bedroom door one morning, jiggling the keys in her hand. I checked my appearance, decided to change my necktie. “You’re going to miss the train,” she said.
I shrugged. “I’ll take the next one.”
She drove me to the station for the 8:43 to Newark. I tucked the Journal under my arm, carried my briefcase in one hand, held the handle of my rolling suitcase in the other. It was a glorious day, the sky cerulean, but I had other things on my mind, a midmorning meeting—I worked on the 20th floor of the Deutsche Bank building, my office window facing Liberty Street—and an afternoon flight to a southern city.
The train pulled out on schedule but soon came to a halt. No explanation. I called my wife to complain about the delay; she was suitably sympathetic, did not mention the necktie. In Newark, I switched to a PATH train to the World Trade Center, but it, too, moved slowly, stopped, advanced, stopped again. The conductor announced that we were being rerouted to 33rd Street.
A throng milled at the 33rd Street station. I shouldered my way up the escalator, out to the street. Someone told me two airplanes had flown into the towers. Someone else looked me in the eye, said, “The south tower collapsed.” I nodded but did not understand, pictured one of the towers, the one on the left, tipping to the right, leaning against the other. A young woman saw that I was dazed, asked where I lived. Westfield. “Stay with me,” she said. Hours later we reached her apartment in Newark. She called my wife, told her where to get me.
Thus it happened that I missed the early train the day thousands died unspeakably at my destination. This outcome was neither the result of divine providence, my mother’s faith, nor the consequence of fate, a secular belief that nonetheless presumes agency and purpose. It was dumb luck. But it was hard to get that through my head. I cycled between acute feelings of unworthiness and a grim resolve to make something of myself. I did not have to go to Vietnam, I was not burned or broken at the World Trade Center. I am one of the undeservedly fortunate ones, and I’m old now, retired, pretty much out of harm’s way. If my life has not always been joyful, if it has seemed like a long slog, that is my own doing.
My son and I both have my father’s name, a simple biographical fact that undoubtedly complicated the already convoluted process of establishing a personal identity, a signature style, a distinctive way of being in the world. He joined the Navy in 1999, my son, served in the Pacific fleet, then transferred to the Atlantic, sailed on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, saw the real world from the decks and the virtual one on the screens of combat information centers. (The world, he reports, is mostly water.) He came up through the ranks, took part in the evacuation of American citizens from Beirut, taught surface warfare operations in Newport, Rhode Island, went to sea again, completed other missions. He’s a civilian now, a disabled veteran, lives in the countryside, near me, in central Virginia. We talk about the nature of contemporary warfare, the resurgence of populism, the social psychology of terrorism. He mentions his own military experience rarely, briefly, obliquely. I don’t press him for details. Yet sometimes we realize, suddenly, that the watery world is full of quirky people saying unexpected things, and we laugh. Some mornings, too, when the dog paws me, come on, slugabed, it’s time to be up and about, I surprise myself, I am glad to be alive, don’t want to be anybody else, wouldn’t change a thing.
Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash