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In Search of My Father

May 1, 2011

I took a blogging class a couple of years ago and the instructor pointed out that the average amount of time a person spends reading a blog is 90 seconds. Obviously, I don’t write for that audience—this week’s post is proof of that. There are, of course, things you can read in 90 seconds that are informative, worthwhile, or at least interesting: collections of trivia, comic strips in the newspaper, book blurbs. But nothing of lasting value is acquired. That takes sustained effort, a clear purpose for reading, a desire to benefit from it. The blurb on the back of the book is not the book and 90 seconds is not a sustained, purposeful effort. So, before you start reading this essay, know that it’s over 3000 words. Ninety seconds won’t do it.

In Search of My Father

I journal for many reasons. My writings catalog my triumphs and defeats, they capture my fears and delights, reflect my ideas and beliefs. They serve as therapy, consoling and soothing. My journal is supposedly intended for my eyes only, but, secretly, I want others to read of my life and loves, to sympathize with the nasty things that happen, to read my stories, to talk to me about . . . me. My journal is an encapsulation of so much of who I am. My daughter will learn much about me from my journal and, in turn, will learn much about herself. Perhaps this is why my own father’s journal is so important to me.

For twenty years, from 1935 to 1955, he kept a journal. It was a small, black, leather date book for 1934 that he started when he was nineteen. The final entry was written two months before his fortieth birthday:

1955

APR 20 (WED)

OUR 14th WEDDING ANNIVERSARY

WE HAD DINNER AT TAIL O’ THE COCK.

I GAVE JEANNIE A G.E. PORTABLE MIXER

Seven months later, my father killed himself.

There must have been reasons, of course, his reasons, although I can only speculate: A failing marriage; a recurrence of tuberculosis; an addiction to painkillers and barbiturates; being fired from his job as a TV newscaster in L.A. Not everyone is strong enough to meet head-on life’s sometimes fierce and unrelenting attacks.

He died when I was twelve so I had only that many years to know him. But when I look back, when I marshal my memories of him, it’s all form, no substance. His face is etched in my memory, as is his smile. I know from my mother that he enjoyed sports and he was an outstanding swimmer and diver at UC Berkeley, breaking his foot once when he miscalculated a dive and hit the edge of the pool. He played the horses regularly, took me to Pacific Coast League baseball games, and watched sports on TV when that medium was in its infancy.

I came across his journal recently and, as I hold the final two decades of his life in my hands, I’m hopeful that I’ll discover some substance to my father. I very much want to know the answers to questions I never had a chance to ask: What did he do when he was a boy? Did he like school? What was it like during the Great Depression? Did he believe in God? What did he expect of me when I became an adult? Did he have any advice for me? There are so many things . . .

We have many ways of learning about family. There are those things we remember from our childhood. I remember his workshop in the garage, for example. The tools were all precisely arranged on a pegboard above the workbench, which also had its own place for everything and everything was always in its place.

He had every issue of Life magazine from its inception in 1936. They, too, were organized, sitting in two neat stacks next to the workbench, the earliest issue at the bottom of the first stack and the latest issue on top of the second, the red-bordered cover’s black and white photo changing every week. My father was a methodical, organized person.

There are also things you can learn about one parent from the other parent or from siblings. But my mother is dead and she never wanted to talk about my father in any case. Was it too painful? Was there still anger after all those years? I don’t know. My sister died many years ago, long before my newly awakened interest in my father.

Children remember things, important things, from casual conversations and deep discussions over the years. I don’t recall ever having discussions, deep or otherwise, with my father.

And then there is the day-to-day life, the daily contact, the wealth of accumulated images, mental snapshots, remembered emotions from over the years. I have some of these. The warmest is of the many years my father read to me every night from my collection of Oz books, a collection he started when he was my age. Come bedtime, I bring out my collection of stuffed animals, a dozen of them, arranging them just so (are these my tools on a pegboard?), peeking out from the blanket, perched on my pillow, resting on my chest and legs. When we’re all ready, my father starts reading from the book he’s holding. The yellow chicken with the torn wing gets the place of honor tonight, roosting on his lap. As he reads, I’m lost in the story and my finger idly traces the veins on his hand.

Because so little remains of my father, this is a particularly poignant and tender memory, one I treasure. I envy those who have many more such memories.

But I have his journal. Surely, this will be an invaluable source of information and insights and deeper understanding, and, while it can’t make up for all the sources closed to me, it will tell me much that I yearn to know. It has too.

* * *

The journal lies on my desk, in front of me. I look at it in anticipation but as I move my hand to open it, to begin discovering the missing pieces to my father’s life, putting them together, seeing a sharper, deeper, clearer picture of him, a sudden anxiety sweeps over me and I hesitate. How can this one small date book contain twenty years, over 7,000 days, of his life? I pick it up and riffle the pages. Only half the date book has any entries at all and my anxiety deepens. I glance randomly at pages. His words make their way across each one. Letters are small, uniform, neatly formed; the words are evenly spaced. I notice, also, that after the first year the manuscript writing he had been using changes to printed upper- and lower-case letters. And then, ten years later, the writing changes again to printing in all uppercase. Should I make anything of this? Does this tell me anything about him? If it does, I am unable to decipher it.

Finally, I turn to the first page. This journal is the last and only hope of knowing more of my father. How much will it tell me? What will I learn? I begin to read:

1- Sat. Mar. 23, 1935 – 2:30-300

KTAB

New Trails, Fremont

 

            He was nineteen when this entry was made, the first of many radio gigs he was to have over the next thirteen months. And he recorded them – 153 in all, each one numbered, what you’d expect from a methodical, organized person. I look at a couple of more:

77- Wed. Nov. 27, 1935 – 1:30-2:00 PM

KROW

California History (Greely, Wilbur, foreman & servant)

 

106- Fri Jan 10, 1936 – 8:00-8:30 PM

KLX

Adventures in Science (Marconi)

 

            The 153 entries take up 51 pages of his date book. But that’s all there is in these fifty-one pages: date, time, station, program, characters. He was clearly in demand and from this I learn one more thing: that he was good at what he was doing. But that’s only one pixel in a megapixel picture. Where does it go? How does it fit in?

128-

Wed. Feb. 12, 1936 – 8:00-8:15 PM

KSFO

Played piano with Marion

Solo – Polonaise in A – Chopin

Duet – Comedy Overture

Announcer & Engineer

Joe Walters

 

            I’m stunned. My father played piano? I search through my sparse memory album of him, trying to find some reference to pianos or piano-playing but—nothing. How could my father play piano and I never knew?

Then, abruptly, the radio gig entries stop, followed by two blank pages and then a resumption of other kinds of entries. Maybe this is where it will happen, maybe this is where the essence of my father will begin to appear. But 51 of the 121 pages of journal entries are already spent and I’ve learned nothing, other than the fact that he played piano. I’m hoping, desperately, that the remaining seventy pages will contain what I’m searching for. I put the journal down for now.

* * *

The entries, with changed writing, begin again in the autumn of 1938, two and a half years later:

1938

Thanksgiving –

Home at Lafayette St. with

Mom & Barbara [his sister] – on crutches.

 

Xmas – Sunday

Home at Lafayette St.

Mom & Barbara

Worked 8-12

Dinner at Dinah’s Shack near

San Mateo (chicken)

 

The crutches almost certainly refer to his diving accident. Although he thought it important to include what he had for dinner on Christmas Day, the injury is mentioned nowhere in the journal. Why? It had to be an important event. It was certainly painful and probably involved an ambulance trip to the hospital, followed by weeks of recuperation. My own broken leg, incurred as an adult while hiking in Mexico, generated two journal entries. But the only reference to his injury is in that one word: crutches.

 

1939

Thanksgiving – Thursday

Home at Lafayette St. for turkey

dinner with Mom & Barbara.

Jeanne home with her folks.

 

This is the first time my mother is mentioned and, from the five words he devotes to her, I infer that the relationship is well under way. But there’s no exposition, here or later in the journal, on how or when or where they met or how he felt about her or any of a myriad things he could have written, that most people would have written. But he didn’t.

In these first three new entries are two important events in my father’s life: his accident and his future wife. Why does he not tell me about them?

*  *  *

            People keep, and treasure, the family mementos that pass from one generation to the next. These often have stories that go with them, family history, and even when they don’t, they can help illuminate a life. From my mother’s side of the family, for example, I have the quilts my grandmother made, the poems she wrote, the lavaliere she so beautifully hand-painted, the large wooden parrot she cut out and painted that hangs on our kitchen wall. Even though I never knew her, I know my grandmother was an artistic person and I treasure these items.

But from my father, I have very little. Photographs. His wallet with his Social Security card still inside. A shoehorn. His mammoth 1935 Webster’s Twentieth Century Dictionary. Some Boy Scout pins. (From the Scout pins, do I learn that he was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly. . .?)

I also have six twelve-inch transcription records he made in the forties at KFRC, San Francisco. Two are a complete episode of Sherlock Holmes, transcribed from a live broadcast at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, December 11th, 1944. The rest are off-the-air recordings. One record has a humorous farewell speech to a departing colleague. There are a couple of advertising parodies (“Try Epsom Salts – It’s the shits!” “Don’t be just any sucker – be an Allcock’s sucker!”) and a few minutes of my father trying to coax some words (or sounds) out of me at the age of fourteen months.

As I hear my father’s voice for the first time in over half a century (I’d never bothered to do this before), I’m not certain of my feelings, or even if I’m feeling anything. Nonetheless, I listen closely to his laugh (do I remember this laugh? Does it resonate?) and to the nuances of his made-for-radio voice. But this is pretty much the voice of a stranger; my father and I are linked more through biological than emotional ties. But then I realize that there is a connection, and a strong one: I have been in radio myself for over thirty years, doing music programs at various community radio stations. Maybe I’m my father’s son more than I know.

I have two letters written to me in 1971 by his sister, Barbara June, and one from his Aunt Myrtle. But they add nothing to my meager knowledge. I shouldn’t be disappointed at this I suppose; I had never requested any information about my father, never shown any curiosity, and so there was no reason for them to address it. I shouldn’t be disappointed, but I am.

1940

Feb 1 – Interlocutory divorce decree

 

            Another astonishing piece of information – my father was divorced at the age of twenty-four! Who was this woman? Why did he marry her, whoever she may be, to begin with? Why did they divorce? My father left no clue. My own divorce resulted in two years’ worth of journal entries, detailing my pain, my determination, my recovery. For example, the two A.M. trip I made to my wife’s lover’s apartment, where she was spending the night, to place a basket of her belongings in her car, parked outside. And, to give myself the illusion of control over things, I wrote down the license number of his motorcycle. But as for my father, I’m learning facts about his life but I’m learning nothing about him.

1940

Sept. 13

I moved to Hollywood

 

Sept. 26

I’m back in S.F., Barclay Hotel

235 O’Farrell St.

 

Oct. 2

Forgive me Jeannie darling

 

            The questions raised in these three entries are obvious and they plague me like an itch that can’t be scratched. Why did he move to Hollywood, only to move back (and into a hotel) two weeks later? Did a job possibility not pan out? Is his plea for forgiveness a clue? Did he have an affair with someone else that my mother, his fiancé, discovered? The October 2 entry is the first time my father has expressed any emotion, confided anything other than methodical, organized, ledger-entry life-facts to his journal.

In June of 1945, two years after I was born, we moved to Hollywood, presumably because there were more radio and film opportunities there. Once again his journal is silent as to the reason, but he does note the new address, and the writing once again changes, this time to all caps:

1945

JULY 13

ARRIVE IN HOLLYWOOD

NEW ADDRESS:

1225 N. SERRANO AVE.

Two months later he started working at KNX in Hollywood. But then, unexpectedly,

JUNE 7, 1946

EVICTED FROM OUR HOUSE AT 1225 N. SERRANO AVE.

STORE OUR FURNITURE AND MOVE IN WITH CLYDE AND

JANE DESTATTE AT 1146 W 24TH ST.

 

            I put the journal down. I’ve read through twelve years of my father’s life and I know little more now than from the twelve years I knew him. I look at him over the gap of five-plus decades and I wonder why he shielded himself with this unrelenting veneer of ordinariness, as if tragedies, grief, joy, emotions, opinions, beliefs were part of other people’s lives but not his. I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw. A teacher, concerned about the short attention span of his students, says to his class, “1492, three ships, Christopher Columbus. Test on Monday.” My father, like this teacher, has given me facts with no context.

A memory slides into place. My father was addicted to barbiturates and painkillers, particularly codeine. He was getting prescriptions from his doctor and there was always a bottle of Empirin with codeine in our medicine chest. My mother once called him a “codeine-head.” I came into the kitchen one morning, I must have been ten or eleven, and found him collapsed on the white-speckled-with-red-and-blue linoleum of the kitchen floor. My mother was on the floor next to him, cradling his head in her lap, dabbing at his brow with a wet cloth.

I froze. “What happened to Dad?” My voice quivered.

“He took too many pills.” She glared at me. “Don’t you ever say anything to the neighbors about this! If anyone ever mentions it, he was picking up something from the floor, stood up and banged his head into an open cabinet door, knocking him out. Understand?” I nodded. I knew why she wanted me to do this but I was vaguely uneasy about telling the lie. I also wondered how anyone would ever find out. Now I wonder about something else: why didn’t she tell me that lie? Was she trying to shock me with the harsh truth about my father? Was this an effort to alienate me from him? Or was she just angry and didn’t much care what she said at that point?

The memory brings with it a question: why was he addicted? How did that happen? Was it related to his earlier bouts of TB? I do some quick research on the Internet and discover that TB is accompanied by pain and prolonged coughing. That would explain the codeine. He also probably experienced fever, chills, and night sweats, making sleep difficult. He took barbiturates in order to sleep. Then:

 

1948

MAY 25

DISCOVERED I HAD T.B. AGAIN

DOCTOR IS BERNARD E. MCGOVERN OF

4418 VINELAND, N. HOLLYWOOD

 

JUNE 7

I TAKE A 6-MONTH LEAVE OF ABSENCE

FROM WORK (KLAC). AM TAKING THE

HOME REST TREATMENT WITH PNEUMOPERITONEUM

AT DR’S OFFICE ONCE A WEEK

 

JUNE 10

JEANNIE STARTS TO WORK

AT SEARS-ROEBUCK AND CO.

 

JUNE 2O, SUNDAY

PHRENIC CRUSH PERFORMED BY

DR. JOHN R. PAXTON AT THE

GLENDALE SANITARIUM. CAME HOME SAME DAY.

Here, again, some quick Internet research tells me that pneumoperitoneum was the introduction of air so as to collapse the affected lung, a procedure that had to be repeated every few weeks; a phrenic nerve crush paralyzed the diaphragm on the affected side. (Both treatments, state of the art at the time, are now considered obsolete.)

Did his TB go into remission after the treatments? Was it cured? Did it ever return? There is no further mention of the disease or treatments. Did his drug use increase after all this? If so, was it due to increased pain and inability to sleep? Or was it due to his addiction? Or was it both? He doesn’t tell me. He mentions nothing about pain or sleeplessness. The addiction, though, would lead to serious problems.

 

1949

JULY 2

AL WARNER PASSED AWAY.

I WAS MADE CHIEF ANNOUNCER AT KLAC

EFFECTIVE AUG 1

 

My father’s radio/TV work must have picked up considerably after moving to Hollywood. In addition to being promoted to chief announcer, he landed roles on “I Led Three Lives” and “Medic,” two popular TV programs of the time, as well as in the movie “The Private War of Major Benson.” Three years after moving to Hollywood, we bought a new house in Sherman Oaks at 4900 Stern Avenue. Four years after that came his big break:

1952

JUNE 30th MON

START ALKA-SELTZER NEWSPAPER OF THE AIR

ON TV – KHJ

 

This was L.A.’s top-rated newscast, airing for fifteen minutes twice nightly. Competition for this job must have been fierce and for my father to have landed it should have opened the door to a bright future, as far ahead as he might care to look. Twenty-one months later he was fired:

1954

FRI MAR 19

MY LAST NITE AS NEWSCASTER ON

NEWSPAPER OF THE AIR ON TV

 

            This is treated as distantly, as dispassionately, as virtually every other entry in his journal. It’s treated in the same way as the next day’s entry:

SAT MAR 20

DAVID’S 11TH BIRTHDAY

BOYS WENT TO A MOVIE IN VAN NUYS. WE

GAVE DAVE A BASKETBALL, HOOP & NET

I BUILT A BACKSTOP OVER GARAGE

 

            This is followed by a list of the seven boys who attended my party.

For twenty years, everything in my father’s life appeared to run on an even keel, with no ups or downs, highs or lows. But to me it’s a long, lonely song with only one note. The final entry in his journal, the one that begins this essay, is as devoid of insights and emotions, heart and soul, as all the others.

No one’s life is a completely open book. A journal, however, should be a supplemental book to a life, one that reveals things otherwise lost or hidden. My father has left me a book with nothing but the table of contents.


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. NRJ permalink
    May 1, 2011 10:42 pm

    Strange, how as we get older we begin focusing on the beginning instead of the middle (most of us are not inclined to focus on the end). Your mother did tell me that your father was in several episodes of Wagon Train, and also somehow (never explained) that Rod Serling knew both of your parents. About all I can add to this mystery.

    NJ

    • May 2, 2011 2:16 pm

      I did not know of the Wagon Train episodes. I do remember watching TV while pulling overnight CQ duty one night in the Air Force many years ago and I saw my Dad in an episode of Death Valley Days. Never heard Mom say anything about Rod Serling, either.

  2. Bob Seidensticker permalink
    May 2, 2011 5:06 am

    Hearing about your father’s enigmatic first marriage, I wonder if that could be tracked down to find information about his first wife. Maybe she (or her family) could shed light on things.

    Truly a fascinating set of clues. Still, I can imagine that someone might write cryptically to keep the information private–a brief clue is enough to bring up the memory. Still, I would think that he’d regret not leaving more information, seeing things from your vantage point.

    • May 2, 2011 2:17 pm

      I wouldn’t know where to begin looking for any records of Dad’s first marriage, unless they’re all filed on microfiche somewhere in state files. I think I’ll see what Google unveils for me.

  3. NRJ permalink
    May 2, 2011 4:13 pm

    You have refreshed my feeble old memory. It was Death Valley Days, not Wagon Train, that your mother mentioned. She said that she had gotten some residuals from a few shows that were rebroadcast later. She did not mention Ronald Reagan though…

    The Rod Serling thing came up in a conversation about writing, since I was still trying to put words to paper at that time, and she seemed to think she could write him if I had anything up his alley – which I didn’t, so never pursued it.

    You might try “ancestors.com”. It has worked for finding some of my mother-in law’s relatives. They are pricey, but do offer a free trial period which we have used.

  4. May 9, 2011 3:17 pm

    You got great points there, that’s why I always love checking out your blog.

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