I Never Knew My Father
I never knew my father, but now I do; let me tell you the why.
Written by E. Calvin Beisner | Tuesday, June 20, 2017
My father went through all he did on Okinawa, and throughout World War II, and never showed the slightest hint of it to his son or daughters. He dealt death to others not happily but because it was his duty. He watched his closest friends and comrades die beside him. He spared me all that knowledge. He showed me only gentleness. I never knew my father. Now I do.
I never knew my father.
He was a very gentle man.
He was there when I was born at 5 lbs. 4 oz. and 24 inches long and the doctor held me up and said, “Jack, you better look down on him now. You won’t for long.”
He was there when in 1956 my mother and my three older sisters and I moved from quiet, semi-agrarian Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he’d taught journalism at the University of Alabama while managing the Alabama Press Association, to crowded, filthy, smelly, desperately poor Calcutta, India, where, working for the United States Information Service, a division of the State Department, he wholeheartedly served two purposes simultaneously—arranging vast shipments of grain to feed millions of starving Indians, and spreading the information about America and her ideals of freedom, constitutional republican democracy, and justice that he hoped would lead the 420 million Indians and their leaders to line up with her instead of with Soviet Russia and its communism and one-party dictatorship.
He was there when my mother contracted a tropical virus that attacked her spinal cord and paralyzed her, and he prayed, “God, you can take my son, just please give me back my wife.”
He was there when, early each morning, my aia (nurse, in Hindustani) arrived to take me by the hand to the Indian family where I spent the day, passing along the way a beautiful green tree with a red-flowering vine hanging from it in the courtyard of our apartment building (giving me a love for natural beauty) and then, on the streets outside, the bodies of those who had died overnight of starvation and disease (giving me hatred of poverty and a desire to protect the poor), and he was there again at night when my aia returned me home to his care after he’d worked all day at the USIS offices or meeting with Indian government officials.
And he was there when, to everyone’s surprise, my mother recovered fully before—to his sorrow for leaving a mission to which he was unreservedly committed—we had to return to America at the end of 1957 with no income and no savings and nowhere to go but the humble home in quiet Sparta, Illinois (home at the time of the world’s largest comic-book publishing plant), where his father the butcher (and faithful member of the Lions Club, collecting used eyeglasses to give to the poor around the world) and his mother the housewife had raised him and his uncle had taught him how to hunt for squirrels, rabbits, deer, and more to help feed his family through the Great Depression.
When we moved to a tiny, tar-paper-covered shack of a house on the wrong side of the tracks in small but historic Owego, New York, on the Susquehanna River, he was there to edit, simultaneously, two newspapers owned by business partners, one a liberal Democrat and the other (like my father) a conservative Republican, and to provide for his family.
There in Owego, the first place we stayed long enough for me to learn what “home” meant, my father (and mother) taught me English to replace the Hindustani that was my first language. And he taught me to play in the sprinkler from the hose in our side yard, how to ride a tricycle, and how to hide behind a bush by the side of the house to pee outside like any good little boy without anyone knowing. (Though he didn’t warn me not to pee into the wind!) And there, without my figuring it out until decades later, he taught me how a father provides for his family when, by his diligent work day and night, he earned enough to move us to a big new house in a new neighborhood high atop Bodle Hill outside Owego (past the IBM plant), where he taught me to play catch and hit a baseball, to climb trees and follow trails through the woods, to make spears and bows and arrows and play Daniel Boone and Mingo opening the frontier for early Americans to spread west across the Appalachians into mysterious Kentucky and Tennessee.
He taught me how to be a father to daughters when he cheered them on in everything they did at school—two of them 13 and 11 years ahead of me, grownups, they seemed, and both so beautiful and talented and sophisticated and so active in community affairs like American Field Service, through which he taught me to embrace people of many nationalities without prejudice.
He helped my mother teach me to read, and he taught me to type—on a Linotype in his newspaper office (like the one below, though that’s not he at the keyboard), the same one that once split the tip of his finger back to the knuckle and from time to time splashed drops of hot lead that made scars on his hands and forearms.
He taught me to fish—first with a cane pole and simple hook and worms, then with a spinning rod using Jitterbugs and Lucky 13’s and other lures, and then with a fly rod using poppers and flies. Once or twice a week in season, he took me to Mr. Ostrander’s pond, where Jake and Kate, the two beavers, made their home and big bass and bluegills lurked among the cattails and lily pads ready to strike suddenly and give a little boy the fight of his life and then become his dinner. He taught me proper knots to tie with fishing line so the line wouldn’t cut itself, and how to choose the right pound test line for the fish we were after, and how to tell from the kinds of insects buzzing around us and scooting across the surface of the water, or whether there were frogs or minnows around, what kinds of lures or flies to choose. He taught me patience when he unsnarled my “birds’ nests” of tangled fishing line that resulted from my impatience, and he taught me good humor when my fly hooked him in the back of the neck because I wasn’t watching carefully where he was when I did my back cast. (That happened several times—and once he hooked me instead!) He taught me to let the little fish go back to grow big, and how to clean the big ones for eating. And from time to time he took me to Mr. Ostrander’s home, where I got to see, even before they went into service, photos of the C-5 A Galaxies Mr. Ostrander had helped design to help American forces do their jobs preserving freedom around the world.
Sometimes he took our whole family to the Teeleys’ farm, where instead of bass we caught catfish and bluegills and he and Mr. Teeley cleaned them all and my mother and Kitty Teeley coated them in cornmeal or flour batter and fried them up to serve with hushpuppies and fresh sweet corn and big, vine-ripened tomatoes and squash, finishing off with watermelon and homemade ice cream.
He taught me to hunt in the winters—to be quiet so I didn’t scare the game, to follow in the tracks he broke through the snow so my little legs could get through, to shoot little stones from my slingshot at the squirrels’ nests high in trees to scare some out for him to shoot with his 12-gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot, or to notice the footprints of rabbits and where they led so they, too, could help feed our family. He taught me that the little ones should be left alone, and the mother squirrels, too, to care for the little ones—only the big, fat, lone ones were fair game.
He taught me respect for guns, and one day, finally giving in to my pleas, he taught me, at about age 7, to shoot his great big 12-gauge. He took me into a ravine, sat me down on the stump of a tree, helped me position the gun at my shoulder and point it at the opposite side of the ravine so we knew no stray birdshot could harm anyone, and then, slowly, slowly, squeeze, not yank, no, don’t pull, slowly, slowly, squeeze the trigger, little by little, until—my ears were ringing and I was flat on my back behind the stump and the branches and sky were swirling above me and my shoulder felt like it’d been run over by a truck. He taught me respect for guns, and for people, and for animals, and for how nature works.
He taught me the wonder of watching airplanes land and take off at Broome County Airport, built partly because of the public pressure he helped generate, over near Binghamton, NY, and how to daydream about where those planes might come from or go to.
He taught me to ice skate on the pond at the IBM plant at the bottom of Bodle Hill, where friends of his worked on top-secret defense-related research. He taught me how close I could come to the bonfire without getting burned, and how to cook s’mores and roast marshmallows over it on the end of long stick plucked from the side of the pond. He taught me that salt melts ice so cars can move despite heavy snow, and how to shovel a driveway so our car could get out, and how to install chains on tires, and how to build an igloo with blocks of dense snow after a blizzard that piled snow as high as our second-story windows, and how to dig tunnels my friends and I could crawl through, when we became Eskimos.
He taught me to care about soldiers’ safety when we watched Combat with Vic Morrow and 12 O’Clock High with Gregory Peck, and how to laugh when we watched The Dick van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show while enjoying my mother’s fresh-baked desserts downstairs in the rec room, and how to laugh even harder when my mother came back from the kitchen with fresh mugs of hot cocoa for my youngest sister and me and stood in front of us with a puzzled look on her face and said, “I remember Gretchen’s cup was in my left hand, but I can’t remember which hand Calvin’s was in.”
He taught me to ride my brand new bike, and how to share it with my sister when she wanted to ride it, and how to forgive her when she disobeyed my command not to try to turn on it and did anyway and fell and scratched up its paint. He taught me to endure pain when I spun out on my bike at the bottom of a hill on a gravel road and chewed up my left knee, and how to make peace and be reconciled with my friends when we got into fights—and how to wrestle and even box (a little bit) but also how to walk away from a fight.
He taught me to write the way a good reporter does, inverted pyramid style, with a strong lead that grabs the reader, and to tell a story straightforward, being fair to all sides and (not as in this piece) leaving my own opinion unwritten. And he taught me the courage of a good journalist when, after months of investigation, he wrote a story about a mafia family, put it on the front page of his newspaper, called his friend at the Binghamton FBI office and told him what he’d written, heard the agent say, “Jack, you can’t do that! They’ll kill you!” and he said, “Too late now, it’s on the press and hits the streets in an hour. I hope you can move fast.” The FBI moved and eventually arrested and got convictions on the mafia don and much of his “family,” but not quickly enough—not before they bombed my dad’s office that night (when no one was there). And he and the other newspapermen in the region taught me teamwork even among competitors when they let Dad’s staff use their shops, their equipment, and their presses to keep publishing the Tioga County Times & Gazette until his office was rebuilt. And he taught me that even children can make news when he reported in the paper that my two little friends and I, discovering a small fire in the nearby woods, put it out all by ourselves.
He taught me to be amazed at the bigness of our country when in the summer of 1966 he moved us from little Owego, New York, to Los Angeles, California, and we drove all the way in our 1963 Chevrolet Impala that we’d named Betsy, and we crossed the great plains, saw the Rocky Mountains growing slowly out of the horizon before us for the first time, drove through them, drove across the Painted Desert and saw the Grand Canyon, then drove across the California desert, with a canvas bag of water tied in front of the car’s grill to help prevent overheating, and arrived in the middle of downtown LA to stay at first in the Hilton, which we were sure was the most luxurious place in the world, and how to be content when his company moved us after a few days to a dumpy little place about eight blocks away.
He taught me to work hard at school even though the sophisticated big-suburban schools of Alhambra were way behind the backward little schools of Owego, leaving me bored beyond description, and how to play basketball and then tennis, at which he had excelled so much in high school and college that he’d been nicknamed “Bill Tilden,” one of the top pros of the day, for his rocket-fast serve. (He’d earned straight A’s all through college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus except in one physical education course. He’d arrived a couple of hours early the first day hoping to find someone to play a match. He did and beat him 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, only to learn he was the coach. At the end of the semester he beat him again, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, and the coach gave him a D for lack of improvement. Dad was more proud of that grade than all his A’s.) He took the family and me and out-of-town guests to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm over and over because his job as Administrative Executive of the California Newspaper Publishers Association gave him free tickets whenever he wanted them, and there we rode amazing rides and saw dazzling fireworks at night. He took my mother and youngest sister and me to a dinner put on by the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge at the Independence Hall replica at Knott’s, where I got to meet honorees John Wayne, Jimmy Durante, Kate Smith, and Lucille Ball. And he took me with him to his office at work from time to time, first in a downtown skyscraper, then in another out near Los Angeles International Airport, one of the world’s busiest then, making Broome County Airport seem piddling small by comparison.
He showed me how a father takes responsibility, despite high costs and a longer commute, to move his family out of heavy smog when one daughter reacts so badly to it that her life is threatened, and how a father gives his daughters away at their weddings, trusting but wondering, but never forgets that they’re always his little girls. He also showed me how a man controls himself when, having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for about 30 years, he simply quit, cold turkey, never mentioning it to anybody until my mother, still smoking (she quit later), said in shock, “Jack! I haven’t seen you smoke in three weeks!” and he responded simply, “No, I quit.” That was all.
He took me out to the Anza Borego Desert State Park to camp from time to time, where in the dry desert air we could see more stars than I’d ever dreamed existed. And when he took the family to the outdoor Ramona Pageant in Hemet, where he knew the newspaper publisher and his wife and lots of other people, and I watched Jose Ferrer as the villain (whose name I cannot recall) murder Victor Jory as the hero Alessandro and then we all attended the opening-night dinner and I saw Mr. Ferrer walking toward us and told Dad, “I hate him so much I want to spit in his face,” Dad walked me right up to him, shook his hand, and said, “Mr. Ferrer, my son wants you to know that he hates you so much he wants to spit in your face,” and Mr. Ferrer got down on my level and looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you! That’s a great compliment!” and I learned something of what it means to be an actor.
He had taken us to church all along, but it had never meant anything much to me, other than a time to learn to sing and read music in the children’s choir. It apparently hadn’t meant much to him, either, other than an opportunity to clip his fingernails, which he did faithfully during every sermon. Then one day in the spring of 1969, seeming to think it was kind of a social duty granted the fame of the affair, he took my mother and me to a Billy Graham Crusade at Anaheim Stadium, and there he and I both went down to the field and asked Jesus to come into our hearts and forgive our sins and make us His own. A couple of years later, as it became clear that God was calling me into lifelong ministry, he told me of his prayer when my mother had been paralyzed and that now he knew that God had answered it—He had taken his son, not, as my father had been willing, to die, but to serve Him.
He taught me hard work when he got me started on my first newspaper route, and then mowing neighbors’ lawns as well as our own. He encouraged me as I learned to play trumpet, cornet, and French horn, and then as I sang classical music in school choirs. He prodded me to sharpen my chess skills till I was one of the best on my high school team. And when it came time for college, he approved my saving money by starting at a junior college but after the first three semesters found a scholarship for me at the University of Southern California, where he’d hoped I’d major in journalism but didn’t object when I chose Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion and Philosophy instead. And he made sure that we got to lots of Trojan football games together, including some historic ones against Notre Dame, and to the Rose Bowl several times, too.
He taught me how a husband loves his wife when, after she’d fallen down our stairs in the middle of the night and broken multiple bones and nearly died, he nursed her for months during her recovery and never complained about the burdens he bore.
He showed me how a powerful and successful executive humbly refuses to protest or retaliate (even when encouraged to by board members who promise to back him if he does) when he’s elbowed out of a job by a rival and instead forges a new career, not once or twice or three times but four, among them starting the Western Newspaper Foundation to teach graduate journalism professors how to teach students to write objective news reports instead of advocacy pieces (WNF went bust when the Arab oil embargo caused a recession that dried up support from publishers) and teaching journalism as an adjunct at Pepperdine University in Malibu, then finally becoming executive director of a small Christian ministry whose finances he straightens out.
And then he taught me that money and power and fame in the rat race of southern California just don’t cut it. He sold all and moved himself and my mother to tiny but beautiful Pea Ridge, Arkansas, to fulfill a boyhood dream of owning and running a newspaper in the Ozarks. He bought and rebuilt a near-bankrupt weekly newspaper and within a few years won statewide awards for its outstanding news coverage and editorials.
He wrote me a few months after getting there and carefully visiting every church in the little town—many having split from each other because of family feuds—“This is the most over-churched and under-Christianed place I’ve ever seen.” But he loved the people there and served them with warmth and grace and genuine friendship for eight years, and he discovered more Christianity there than he first recognized.
That move pulled us apart for the first time in my 22 years, during which he taught me to stand on my own two feet by leaving me alone. He was there for advice when I asked it—which I should have done a whole lot more than the once or twice I did in the next two years. But he knew I needed self-discipline more than his guidance.
But he welcomed me with wide-open arms when I asked if I could come and work for him after I, too, got tired of the rat race of southern California—and got two weeks’ notice at work and an eviction notice from my landlord on the same day! So I moved in with him and my mother in Pea Ridge, and there he taught me what it is to be the father of a grown man by treating me as his equal, even though he was so much wiser than I. He gave me big responsibilities with the newspaper, but also made time for us to fish together again. We had our two most wonderful years together there before I went off to do my master’s degree—and met and got engaged to my wife at the start of that time, and he welcomed her, too, with his big arms and bushy eyebrows that made him look like a scarier version of Leonid Brezhnev, when I took her to meet him and my mother.
Four years later, he taught me how a man dies. After a massive heart attack while at my mother’s family reunion in Illinois, he struggled valiantly to recover for months though the doctors initially gave him little hope, and at last he chose the open-heart surgery that went so well that following it his surgeon said, “He’ll be teaching your son how to fish before you know it.”
He improved greatly, was soon up and around and even back to work a little bit, and during that time became more full of joy and peace and generosity than he’d ever been before—which is saying a lot.
Then, without explanation, his condition reversed, and within a week I was standing by his hospital bedside in the middle of the night holding my mother in my arms when he died and we both felt suddenly very, very alone.
The Benton County Quorum Court—Republicans and Democrats alike—honored him with a plaque signed by all its members, lauding his skill and fairness as a journalist whose work had served the whole county. We had a tall pine tree carved into his gravestone, with a shorter one beside it representing my mother under the shelter of his limbs. And when she died, almost 30 years later, my two surviving (oldest) sisters and I, and my wife, buried her ashes in his grave and had his gravestone updated to include her.
But I never knew my father.
He was a very gentle man.
He’d told me little about his service in World War II—mostly about how, because of his skill at mental math, he’d been the best poker player on his troop ship, enabling him to send home money to support my mother and their two little daughters, the second born just before he’d shipped out to the Pacific. And he’d told me that, because of his ability to do trigonometry quickly in his head, he’d been assigned to an anti-aircraft battery attached to his Army unit because he could help the crews by calculating azimuth for them, and that because of his experience as a journalist he’d also written his unit’s journals. (I so wish I could locate them now–them, and the letters between him and my mother during the War.) He’d also explained the origin of the Japanese sword he kept in his closet. “I picked it up on a battlefield on Okinawa.”
A couple of years ago I read Bill Sloan’s The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945—The Last Epic Struggle of World War II. It gave me my first close glimpse at what my father must have gone through. It drove me to tears over and over again. I wrote a brief tribute to my father then on Facebook, which one of my brothers-in-law read. He called and told me that when he’d been dating my sister between tours as a Marine in Vietnam, he and my father had talked at length of their combat experiences. He told me how my father really got that sword. His company was in a firefight, and both sides were nearly out of ammunition. The Japanese mounted a banzai charge, and a captain was rushing at him with sword held high to swing when Dad, with his last bullet, shot him dead. I wanted to learn more but wasn’t ready. I felt like I’d trespassed on holy ground.
Two weeks ago I finished watching for the first time Ken Burns’s The War, a documentary of seven two-hour-plus episodes about World War II. For a documentary about the world’s most horrible war, it is a quiet, even reverential series. But it also contains the most graphic, horrifying footage I’ve ever witnessed—all original—of battle scenes. (If you’re a man, watch it. If you’re a woman, don’t. Sorry, ladies, if that offends you, but you don’t belong in those scenes, and you should never see them.) Burns treats the Battle of Okinawa in the last two episodes, and as I watched I kept thinking, “Will I see my father’s face in one of these men?” I never did. I saw him in every one of them. I cried like a baby. No, no baby can cry like that.
When it was all over, I walked halfway down the stairs, stopped, sobbed, and told my wife, “I never knew my father.”
Now, two weeks later, I think I understand.
My father went through all he did on Okinawa, and throughout World War II, and never showed the slightest hint of it to his son or daughters. He dealt death to others not happily but because it was his duty. He watched his closest friends and comrades die beside him.
He spared me all that knowledge.
He showed me only gentleness.
I never knew my father. Now I do.
E. Calvin Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a former professor at Covenant College and Knox Theological Seminary.