Friday, November 09, 2007

November Always Drags Me Down

I think I can honestly say that November is the one month of the year, that I have to struggle the hardest in keeping the light on inside. It is a beautiful month here on the far south side of Chicago. I live in what used to be out in the country, but sadly no longer is. But all the areas around where I live all have names that end in Wood, so yes I live in a magnificiently forested area, that used to cover everything until all the new strip malls and parking lots, and new housing. It used to be a quiet sleepy little area with hardly even any traffic controls, mostly just stop signs, but now it is a crowded, traffic gridlocked, stressful, impersonal kind of town. But I still have the trees.

The trees are alive with color, and some very beautiful specimens that I pass each day on my way back and forth to work, I feel I have a personal relationship thing going with, each day they have changed to a more brilliant color than the previous day. I always thank them as I drive by and I feel this wonderful little tingle of joy inside of me. Am I crazy? Probably, but hell it’s a nice kind of crazy.

On November 9th, 1990 my father died. My Dad was a WWII Marine veteran. He saw action on each of the islands in the later Pacific campaign, Tarrawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan. He was a flamethrower and his job was to burn people alive. He was never wounded in this War but did catch some horrible skin fungus thing that he suffered with for the rest of his life. He came home from the war when I was 2 years old. I don’t remember much of anything then. Only a very few years later, the war in Korea began. I can remember our TV always being on the news with war pictures on it. He told my Mom that his buddies needed him and re-enlisted. He ended up at the Chosin Reservoir. He was wounded twice this time. A hand grenade was thrown into his foxhole with him and all his buddies, and he grabbed it and threw it out. As he was throwing it out, he got shot through the shoulder and then got shrapnel all through his lower back and legs. I can’t remember how old I was this time when he came home, this part of my life remains a blur. The Marines gave him two purple hearts and a Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster for bravery and made him a hero for saving his buddies.

The government gave him a check for $55 a month for the rest of his life. Pretty cheap cost to steal someone’s life, because my DAD was never my DAD again. He suffered terrible nightmares, strange bizarre fits of anger, I learned to just keep out of his line of sight. And he drank, a lot. And I learned how to time the predictable stages of his drinking. After the first couple of drinks, he loved me, sat me on his lap and told me how beautiful I was, how proud he was of me and how glad he was that I was his daughter. Then a couple more drinks and the fights with my Mother would begin, and with each drink he grew angrier and angrier. On several occasions I remember hiding in a closet or behind our couch because he had a gun in his hand.

He was just so damn mad at everyone.

One November day when I was eleven, he volunteered to go pay my Aunt’s gas bill. He was once again jobless and moody as hell. I will never forget that day. It was snowing in Arkansas in November. The kids were all delighted, cause we all got to stay home from school. I remember watching him walk out the front door and noticed that he had a hole in the back of his jeans. For some reason the picture of that hole in the back of his jeans haunts me to this day. I don’t know why, sort of like a hole in your heart metaphor or something.

He never came back. He never paid my Aunt’s gas bill, he just took her money and left. I remember everyone being in a high anxiety over his whereabouts for days and weeks. But he was just gone.

Times got really bad then for my Mother and trying to take care of five kids, with no money, no job, and now no husband. She was a very proud woman, and we were literally starving to death. We had no heat, no electricity, I did my homework by kerosene lamps and we cooked on an old wood burning stove. At first we did ok, one of the most horrifying events of my childhood, was coming home one day to discover that my Mother had sold all our chickens to the store across the dusty street from our house. And I just happened to walk by the back of the store as the owner was killing all our chickens. On an old tree stump, he was chopping their heads off, blood was everywhere. And the chickens were still alive, running around headless with blood spewing out of this gory stump. Those chickens were my best friends. I talked to them every day, in that damp, dark chicken house, they gave me their eggs and snuffled on my cheek. Just writing this now, the tears are rolling down my cheeks. I loved those chickens. One of my life long dreams was to have my own house out in the country somewhere and have my own chickens, that I WOULD NEVER KILL, and would just love them. I still don’t have any chickens and I doubt I ever will. At one point we were surviving on pancakes made from corn meal and water and used this homemade sourghum syrup that to this day if I smell it, I grow nauseous.

Funny, how your mind works, I had to stop writing this cause I couldn’t stop crying over those chickens. All the sadness, anger, would have beens, should have beens, and those damn chickens still break my heart. Because that’s when it all fell apart for me, I couldn’t be a child ever again.

No one would help us. Not the church, not the government.

One day a Marine showed up at our front door. I still don’t know how they found out about our situation, I’ve wondered if my Dad told them, or got word to someone to look after us, but they came. They filled our house with food, they gave my Mother money, they took all five kids and bought us new shoes and new winter coats. They brought us lots of things that Christmas, but I remember a wonderful chocolate cake with chocolate icing. It tasted like heaven. Every time I see a picture of a Marine I remember those guys as my heroes and my saviours. I could never, ever think bad thoughts about the Marines. They saved our lives.

Of course Marines are a big part of our family tradition. My brothers all became Marines and went to Viet Nam. A ship carries my family’s name –

Here is a brief history of the ship’s namesake -
Major Henry T. Elrod
United States Marine Corps.
Major Henry T. Elrod was born on 27 September 1905, in Turner County, Georgia. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in December 1927, and was appointed a Marine second lieutenant in February 1931. He attended the University of Georgia and Yale University prior to his entry into the Marine Corps.
Following over a year at the Marine Corps Basic School in Philadelphia as a student aviator, Lieutenant Elrod was ordered to the Naval Station at Pensacola. Here he served as a company officer and as student aviator. In February 1935 he earned his wings and was transferred to Quantico, where he served as a Marine Aviator until January 1938. In addition to his other duties, he was the squadron’s school, personnel, and welfare officer.
In July 1938, Elrod was ordered to a squadron in San Diego and served as their material, parachute, and personnel officer until January 1941, when he was detached to the Hawaiian area.
He arrived at Wake Island a short time before the hostilities commenced and was one of the twelve pilots who flew the Marine planes onto the island. He was killed in action defending Wake Island against the invading Japanese on 23 December 1941.
During the defense of Wake, Major Elrod repeatedly displayed conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty. On the 12th of December he single-handedly attacked a flight of 22 enemy planes and shot down two. On several flights he executed low altitude bombing and strafing runs on enemy ships, and became the first man to sink a major warship with small caliber bombs delivered from a fighter-type aircraft.
When his plane was destroyed by hostile fire he organized a unit of ground troops into a beach defense and repulsed repeated Japanese attacks until he fell mortally wounded.
On 8 November 1946, his widow was presented with the Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded to her husband for his heroic actions during the last bitter days of the defense of Wake

There is even an entire town in North Carolina, named Elrod. I still hope to visit there someday and find out more about my family history.

Average family income in 2005 was $16,100. Sounds like the story of my life. We shed the blood of heroes, but then throw them away.

My Dad bounced back in and out of our lives for many years after this. He came back one Christmas loaded with money and presents for all of us. I think he loved us, but it just wasn’t enough. He never stayed long and my Mother always took him back. And then he’d be gone again.

Went on like this for years till I was about sixteen and he left for good. Never heard from him again.

I got married, moved to Chicago with my husband, had three beautiful daughters, our house in the wonderful wooded suburb and we lived our lives.

Then out of the blue, my Dad showed up. He had been living in Washington state, had remarried, and was coming to visit! My husband and I went downtown to Union Station to pick him up. His new wife Antoinette, “Nettie”, was pushing him in a wheelchair. My heart jumped in my throat, there was my Dad, a beautiful man, in a wheelchair, looking old, tired, and sick as hell.

He had cancer and he was dying. He had traveled in misery and pain over thousands of miles, to come and say goodbye. I guess it was his way of telling me that he loved me, or wanted my forgiveness. He died about seven days later and it took me years and years and years till I could give him that forgiveness.

I fought with a burning, hot anger for years. How like you I thought to myself, to break my heart all these years, and then come back into my life and break my heart again. Oh I was so angry at him.

He bonded with my husband, that he had never got to know, and they watched hours and hours of war movies together, and talked of history and politics and sports. I kept my distance. My heart felt like a stone, hard, cold mountain in my chest.

The last thing I remember was him looking at me, telling me he loved me, and this strange light in his eyes, he had beautiful eyes, saying that he had talked it all over with God, and God told him it was all OK. All was forgiven.

Years and years later, I now understand. He wasn’t talking about me. He had been talking about all those people he had killed, for honor, duty and country. All those people he had burned alive.

He had finally forgiven himself and God told him it was all going to be OK.

And I’ve forgiven you too, Dad. And I love you.

And maybe someday I will still get those chickens and live happily ever after.

My last visit with my Dad.


Sarah said...

That was the most beautiful thing I've ever read, Mom.

CuriosityShop said...

Thank you babe, I cried the whole time I wrote it.