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My dad has Alzheimer's. He's 91, but mostly kind of like a two-year-old now, or a puppy, wandering around the house asking where my mom is. Putting dishes away in the hall closet in an attempt to help out. Sweeping and sweeping things that don't need to be swept, out of reflex or instinct or just habit. He just wants to contribute.

Alzheimer's tend to pare a personality down to its basic core, and his basic core is this: sweetness. When all the veneer of the world is gone and all that's left is a confused kindness, you realize what was there at its core all along. He may be as happy now as he's ever been, at least when my mom's around. His disease affects her far more than him.

My dad was a career navy man. He started life as a merchant seaman, working as a navigator on tramp steamers across the world. Then one day his ship tied up in London. In 1941. And he saw the blitz firsthand, saw, in his words "A beautiful blonde-haired woman in the uniform of an air-raid warden, digging in the rubble of a destroyed building for survivors." And that image took root, and told him that things were coming our way, so he signed up for the navy in the days when King's Point graduates with navigational skills were at a high premium. A few months later Pearl Harbor entered our vocabulary. So he spent the war in the Pacific: Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, names that ring familiar. He left the navy after WWII, worked briefly for Pan Am, but jobs dried up and the navy signing bonus ensured that his family wouldn't be on the streets.

He was absent a lot for all of my older siblings. My mom was basically a single mom when he'd go on year-long deployments. I got a bit luckier, I had him longer when he had a desk job at CINCPAC.

Sometimes it seems like he was a kind of Forrest Gump, wandering through history bumping into larger-than-life characters. He worked for awhile with the soon-to-be first American in space, Al Shepard, and often commented approvingly that Al did all the ironing in his house because Al's wife didn't give his three daughters' dresses the appropriate attention and care that they deserved. Oh, those navy perfectionists. When they lived in Coronado they socialized regularly with another navy family, the Morrisons, who had a tousle-headed kid named Jim who would go on to stir things up a bit a few years later. He served under John McCain's father (my first childhood "girlfriend" was John McCain's niece). He was in Nagasaki six days after the atomic bomb, was monitored for radiation sickness for the rest of his life, and always said that anyone whose solution to any diplomatic issue was "Just nuke 'em" should be sent back in time to that place to see what that really meant. He only ever spoke about it once to me, after a few glasses of wine, and his eyes were haunted.

The radiation thing was part of our family lore, along with the DDT trucks that used to rumble through our swampy navy housing at Macgrew point near Pearl Harbor. My siblings and I would often follow them around and play in the cool DDT spray they laid down on the streets. No one has cancer, yet (knock wood).

And I've told this story before, but I can't resist because it's such a good one. On his last major command of his navy career, as commodore of an amphibious task force during the Vietnam War, his marines assembled one night and presented him with a gift: a captured North Vietnamese Army AK-47 Kalashnikov sub-machinegun. He thanked them profusely, there was a little ceremony, then dinner, and everyone retired to their cabins. Then, when everyone was asleep, he snuck down to the deck of his helicopter carrier and heaved the thing into the South China Sea.

My response as a child was always one of huge disappointment: it would be so cool to have an AK-47, why did you just throw it away?! He'd just smile and shrug, "That's a no-brainer. Your mother HATES guns. She'd have killed me if I tried to bring that thing into the house." And, of course, he was absolutely right. My mom hates guns, and her wishes always, always came first.

He was always utterly contemptible of that "Greatest Generation" stuff. "Our guys were as full of shit as any generation before or since," he'd say. And when they towed his old ship, the Missouri, back to Honolulu to serve as a floating museum and we asked "Dad, do you want to go see your old ship?" his response was "They used to pay me to work there. Do you ever feel like paying admission to visit the place you worked forty years ago?"

I talked to him tonight. He was confused, not making much sense. He may or may not have known who he was talking to. No matter.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.


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