My father always projected an image of strength when he spoke about himself. His hair, his barber Saul* had told him, was strong enough to break his scissors. His threshold for pain, he always maintained, was extremely high. The potent gases he produced, gases that rendered his strongest friends helpless, were but one more proof of his powers. He had convinced our mother that he had the strongest ego of any man she’d ever met. She told us as much. My sister and I scoffed, protested, dismissed the laughable notion as worse than ridiculous.
The strongest man in the world suffered as much as anyone I’d ever met. He was also one of the most sensitive people I ever knew. He would be the first to admit that everyone has demons, even as he positioned himself to be a demon to the little sprouts he was raising. Most things are beyond human control and frustration at our powerlessness is what drives us to desperate acts of unintended cruelty, he might have said.
Actually, he probably did offer that very insight during an angry lecture at some point. That point would have been when one of his children tried to ask him for his help. Any display of vulnerability by people old enough to express themselves fully was very discomfiting to him.
He was perfectly correct about the demons. Every human has at least one or two lurking, stalking, expert saboteurs waiting for the perfect moment to spring forth and insist that there will be no sleep for you this night. Demons, by their nature, are elusive, hard to describe, they tend to recede in the cool light of day. If they even can be compared, why would one bother? Each person’s demons are perfectly designed for them, ingeniously suited to disturb in their uniquely customized way. Your demons are fairly easy to vanquish, I can tell you exactly what you need to do to overcome them. My demons– well, those are some undefeatable motherfuckers.
My father had the unenviable advantage of possessing major demons whose origins were uncommonly easy to spot, though he kept the sources zealously hidden. He had other ways of battling them, he intimated, and it was pointless to reveal anything about them in any case. His efforts to always appear strong caused him to literally crack at the seams from time to time. His skin would begin to come apart, bleeding from many fissures. He’d eventually need to be hospitalized. In the hospital he’d surrender himself to be taken care of in a way he never could be cared for in his own home, where he fought an eternal war never to be weak, never to need anyone.
He was no different from many men of his generation in that need to appear strong, always in control. It was not part of the culture for men of that time to spill their guts like weak little sob sisters, admit fear, express a need to be understood or appreciated. It was simply not part of being a man, acting all sensitive. Before the age of the metrosexual man, men who seemed to openly crave understanding were seen as weak, effeminate, girlish. Even in the modern age of such men, too much of that is still seen as the mark of a whiner.
“The army didn’t make anyone a man,” my father used to say with disdain. “That’s an idiotic cliche. If you weren’t a man when you went in, you weren’t going to be made into one by the army.” The implication of this was clear– he had been a man at eighteen when he was drafted into the Great War.
There is a lushly gradated photo of this young man, a perfectly lit bust in a pale dress uniform, looking out from under a curiously tilted enormous looking dress hat, taken probably when he was nineteen. It is a beautiful shot I will share with you. We can look into his eyes and see that, indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words. He has inscribed it to his mother “Love, Sonny.” Here, have a look:
While we were preparing for my father’s funeral, I found a shoe box full of photographs of him in the army. In the black and white photos he looks trim and fit, with shiny jet black hair that would break a barber’s scissors. In almost every shot (with the exception of the obviously posed studio shot above) he is smiling, laughing, smirking charismatically. Truly, by the looks of it, a man enjoying the happiest days of his life. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. A GI at home with his comrades in some kind of cool summer camp, surrounded by other men who just plain liked him.
Somewhere in those photos, most likely, is Darius White, reputedly from Eagle Crotch, Arkansas, whose dismissive catchphrase, and the reason my father brought him up, was “ah, bat-shit!” Nobody seemed to mind being called a “Draftee Bastard” by the enlisted men and, as far as my father’s recollection, the anti-Semitism, while there, wasn’t too bad either. If the United States Army Air Forces had been integrated during our country’s heroic war against racism, some of my father’s best friends would have undoubtedly been the “night fighters” he never got to serve with.
Viewing the snapshots of his life, outside of that one where he is grinning like Moe of the Three Stooges, with his arms around his little brother, about four in the photo, and another kid my uncle identified for me as Herman, and one frozen moment on a picnic blanket, wrestling a shiksa he was no doubt also doing some undocumented nude wrestling with, the army photos undoubtedly show the happiest days of his life.
On the other hand, I had an eye-opening experience a while back, after looking through all of my mother’s maybe 15 large family photo albums. There is a series of photos, spread across two pages, where I am beaming in each one. My face is illuminated by the ineffable pleasure of being alive. In one I’m standing between my parents’ living room and dining room with my arm around a cousin I haven’t seen in thirty years, a cousin whose father was famous for his Cheshire cat smile, and we are about as happy as two people could ever look. I have my little aunt under one arm in another photo, and I am glowing with good will, optimism, happiness.
None of this seemed like me at all. Concerned, I did some research and realized with shock when these photos had been taken. During the darkest winter of my life, when I was turning thirty, a failure in art and life. I’d watched a glib, superficial classmate from art-school suddenly become a wealthy, international superstar artist and it finally broke me.
My father was very concerned, naturally, to see his son broken. I recall at one point he took charge, had me move back into the house, since I’d planned to travel and it wouldn’t be fair to the friend I’d promised to sublet my apartment to to force him to find another place to live because I was too fucked up to keep my word. Too weak and indecisive to resist, I moved back into the house of demons where I had already spent many a sleepless night.
I walked, that’s one thing I remember doing. Some days I must have walked ten miles or more. I dreaded speaking to anyone, which is an odd thing for someone who has always loved stringing thoughts together and puffing them glibly out of his mouth.
One day my father had me type a letter for him. He dictated it to me in the kitchen and I tapped it out on the great portable electric typewriter my mother later gave me. I typed faithfully until a typo appeared in the word “sincerely” at the very bottom of the letter. There was no white-out in the house and I apologetically informed him I couldn’t correct the mistake. My father had a temper tantrum.
Thinking of this reaction, it does not seem the reaction of a strong man, or even that of a generic adult.
A friend with an extra bedroom in his apartment called and urged me to move in. I did, and not a moment too soon. I continued walking, and avoiding people, but I played more guitar in that empty, resonant apartment than I ever had before.
One afternoon at a bithday party in Queens that spring, at the home of an older artist I’d become lifelong friends with since meeting her at age eleven or twelve, (it was her birthday, only reason I’d agreed to go), a pretty girl asked me if I would call her. She was wearing a white dress, seemingly with nothing under it, and I had been trying to be inconspicuous while craning my neck to see down the open neck of it for a better look at more of her caramel colored skin. I was at a loss for how to answer her.
I finally said, “well… it would be hard, since I don’t have your number.” She found this funny somehow and wrote out her number for me, which I managed to call a day or two later. A couple of nights after that we were sitting at the edge of the fountain at Lincoln Center making out like two hungry teenagers.
“You’ve got to come home with me,” I told her, suddenly knowing what to say again. She protested, there was a guy named Michael Rappaport who was in love with her, she wasn’t sure.
“I’m not Rappaport,” I said taking her by the hand and leading her to the subway. In my apartment afterwards I could not even faintly remember why I had been so depressed, for months, a couple of days earlier. Everything in the world suddenly seemed possible, easy even.
My father, knowing better, would have scoffed at this fleeting illusion. He’d have been strong enough, presumably, too look right through it to the essence of things, the inextinguishable horror and powerless disappointment that would always be there for people like us.
* Saul may well have been an Auschwitz alumnus, though I will never know. He was a European Jew with an interesting accent and a very low key affect.