Monday, June 16, 2014

Father's Day After

Over the past years I have been working on a memoir. With Father's Day yesterday, I thought some more about my Dad, in many ways a mystery to me. He died when I was still in High School. As I have worked on the memoir, I have been digging in my own mind for the myths of family I have absorbed. But I have also been doing some research and have been discovering that the myths may be fact. Here, then, a day late, but just as relevant, some thoughts from the memoir in progress about Dad.

High School Class Picture, 1924. Harold on left side holding banner.
College Yearbook, 1928

Harold. Known to his friends as “Red”, “Buddy” to his mother. He was the youngest of three children. Bill and Beulah, his parents, were from neighboring homesteads in the woods on the edge of the Allegheny Plateau near Jersey Shore, PA. Bill was one of 15 children, the second oldest to survive infancy. Like many in his family, Bill was a railroad man, a brakeman on the New York Central with a couple fingers on one hand shortened by getting them caught in the couplings of a freight. I never got the sense that the Lehmans were a close family. All kinds of aunt-this or uncle-that were tossed around. By the mid-1950s their numbers were legion with more branches and leaves on the tree than I ever understood. I never met most of them. Even when they lived nearby. I didn't even know until this past year that many of their graves are in the cemetery in town.

My dad, as the myth goes, ran away from home in his mid-30s, leaving his father behind to run the pharmacy without his son, the pharmacist. He went to Maryland where, in late 1940 he was drafted and entered the U S Army in January 1941, 11 months before Pearl Harbor. He was almost too old which may explain why his registration papers and military ID give his birth year as one year later than it really was.

There is not a lot of information I was ever given about the next several years. There is a picture from his training in 1941 in Florida, some type of medical corps.

Recently I started looking through my Grandmother’s diaries that I have from the years 1940 – 45. They are revealing, but hide far more than they reveal. They do show that myths are based on reality and explain- or muddy- the truth. In July 1940 Buddy was mad about something and left the house at dinner saying he “wasn’t coming back.” He didn’t for months. Grandma notes the one-month date of his leaving, then in September he “sends for his clothes.” A month later she ends up in the hospital with a never explained illness. Buddy is sent a telegram by his sister and comes home for a week. A short time later Grandma notes simply that he “registered yesterday.”

He appears again in 1943, seemingly living at home. Grandma didn’t say much in any of her entries. Simple things like getting up, feeling tired, who she wrote to or got a letter from. Names pop up here and there. Which led me to another of the myths- that my dad had a very steady girlfriend. There she is in the diary visiting Beulah, and later, when he’s back for a short period, going out with him. She was the girlfriend who, according to legend, had her tires slashed by an angry Red when he thought she was going out with someone else. Was that what led him to run away in 1940 at age 34 and the owner of a pharmacy? No hint is to be found. Then what Grandma called an “awful shock” when Buddy calls from Augusta, Georgia, in May 1944 to say he’s married.

Germany, 1945
So his official story pops up again at Camp Gordon Georgia, standing at the Jewish USO of Camp Gordon, marrying Dora Moldawsky, a run-away from her family. It is May 1944 and he is only a few months away from shipping out to Europe. According to the story, he was too old by that point, six months shy of 39, to go to war. But because of the running away, four-year enlistment and incorrect birthdate, off he went. His new wife and family wrote letters, we are told, to get him discharged. He shouldn’t be there.

He shipped out in September 1944 and was in the middle of the end of the war actions in Germany.

Pine Creek Gorge, 1954 or '55
He returned home a year later, settled back into his hometown with the pharmacy, the family began. First son, me, then a second son. A brain tumor was discovered in 1958, he spent the last year and a half of  his life in a nearby VA hospital. He died in December 1964 at age 59 when I was 16.

That will be 50 years this December. I have come to know more about him in the past year, but it is all still ghostly, lost in the mists of the mid-20th Century. I have no way of knowing what part of me is from him, what from my mother who died three years before he did, and what is from my own experience and development without clear roots.

But every year, as Father's Day rolls around I do think of him. I have been blessed to be a father myself- for more than twice as many years as he was. I am saddened for both of us that we never knew each other when I was an adult. Perhaps things wouldn't have been good between us. That was a difficult and generation-dividing time.

We can't, of course, change the course of past history and in the end we only make our own history. For sixteen of my years he was there and today, my memories, tempered by the decades, are good.  A few weeks ago I posted a picture of Dad on Facebook and an old High School friend commented on how my dad had made him and his family feel welcomed and cared about. "He was a good man," I was told.

That is a good thing to know. I am grateful that I have that added to my memories of him. That my friend would have that memory 50 years later is good and even comforting.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks.

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