Fifteen is a fitful age. It is a time when young men tend to be simultaneously uncouth, uncomfortable and uncharitable. I know I was all of these and more. The transformation from child to adult is neither easy nor quick and finding a place where we are comfortable with ourselves and our world takes time. Many of our cherished ideals are cast off as we shed our childish forms and replace them with our new, adult, harder, harsher reality. A nearly universal cast off is our child’s view that our parents represent a good and just world; that they are role models that we must try to emulate and strive to be like.
I know that this was certainly so for me. My parents, Art and Louisa, were as imperfect as the rest of humanity but as a young chid I was unable to see their flaws and grew with the unquestioned belief that my childhood and upbringing was both normal and quintessentially correct. My frame of reference was small, my parents large, and I tended to accept what they told me as, if not Gospel, then at least gospel.
This belief in parent as precept began to erode soon after I turned ten. The change started slowly but gained momentum and had reached a crescendo one, or perhaps two, years prior. Thirteen and fourteen were my most contrary and impotent years, a combination destined to result in misery. The more I rebelled the harder my parents strove to control, thus bringing to a slow roil the teeming cauldron that is teenage angst.
Gospel was one of the bedrocks of my upbringing and the one that I most noticed crumbling away. The thou shalts and shalt nots were pressing hard against my base hormonal teenage desires and attending Mass, going to confession and restricting myself from satisfying whatever pleasures my unholy libidinous desires that I could win or whine my way into likely played the largest part in my downward spiral away from the rock that was St. Peter and the Catholic faith. Doused with hormones, my granite rock of ages transmuted to one of shale and I found myself skidding down the slippery slope to self-absorption and worldly pleasure: Saints preserve us!
This movement away from mother church was a covert operation on my part rather than an open war. When I told my parents that I no longer wanted to attend Mass my father, after a few minutes of pinched mouth silence and slow nodding, responded that that would be fine, and that visiting other churches might be educational. “Just let us know which services you would like to attend instead,” was not the outcome for which I was hoping.
Thus the Sunday routine of my father’s voice bellowing up the stairway that we, “have ten minutes before we have to leave for church!” greeted my ears but did nothing to sweep away the heavy fog of a late spring morning that prevented me from seeing clearly the house across the street that sat a mere 100 feet away. When I did not reply he tartly added, “Gene? Did you hear me?”
“Yes, sir!” I responded loudly, the accompanying sigh at the end delivered sotto voce. I pulled on my slacks and polo shirt, brushed my teeth and then my unruly mop of hair and trounced down the stairwell where I joined my parents and two sisters. I slumped into a kitchen chair that looked out a front window. Gazing out the picture window served two functions. One was allowing me to again squint at the heavy fog that engulfed us and the other was to insure that no one saw my eyes roll up in response to what my parents were wearing.
The United States bicentennial celebration would occur in a little over two months and had created a fashion movement that relied heavily on red, blue and white colors that invariably incorporated stars and stripes as design features. Both of my parents looked like walking flags and the restraint that I exhibited in not commenting on their awful attire was little short of miraculous. “Here they are!” I thought, “America’s best dressed couple!” Not.
Hannah, my senior by two years, asked, “Why are we leaving so early? Mass doesn’t start for almost fifty minutes? Is it the fog?”
“Yes,” Dad answered, “it is the fog. I decided that we should go to Saint John’s rather than Saint Pete’s so Mass is at 10:30 rather than 11:00. It’s closer and the roads are safer.”
Anna, my younger sister by two years, and I exchanged looks but apparently both came to the same decision to remain mute. Saint Peter’s Church was about seven miles from our house and the roads that led to it were far more winding than multi-laned New Hampshire Avenue, the road that conected us to Saint John the Baptist’s church less than three miles away.
Saint Peter’s was a more conservative church than Saint John’s and it was chance that made Saint Pete’s our officially designated parish. Because of our address we went to Sherwood High School and Saint Peter’s Church, even though Springbrook High and Saint John’s were closer. Dad did not like going to Saint John’s. There were a lot of little reasons for this but the big one had been what we referred to as the August Incident.
Last August tenth the priest at Saint John’s had centered his homily around the thirtieth anniversary of atomic bombs being dropped on Japan during World War Two. The priest had used the bombings as an example of Man’s immorality. As a former POW of the Japanese Dad found the priest’s homily contemptible and idiotic and Mom had a devil of a time keeping him from confronting the priest after Mass.
Today marks our first time back to Saint John’s after the August Incident nine months ago. Anna and I both knew Dad had to think that driving in the velvety fog presented a huge safety risk if he was willingly returning to Saint John’s. No doubt he was facing a crisis of conscience with us taking the safe route to a church he detested but little did we know that Mass today would set him over the edge and that in a short time he would be compelled to confront the priest.
Looking at my parents in their American Flag clothes I thought about how much Dad’s military service had essentially shaped his life. He wasn’t one of those gung-ho, ex-soldiers who seemed to think they might be recalled any minute to again serve their country but his life had been molded by his service and especially by his time as a prisoner of war. He didn’t talk a lot about either but he willingly shared how the horrors and deprivations of being a POW made him the man that he was, how it shaped his life.
Languishing away as a prisoner in the Philippines Dad had made a promise to God that if he survived he would do his best to help Mankind. He’d promised that if he lived he’d become a doctor and he barely had a chance to make good on that promise. Once he was freed and taken to hospital to recoup he learned that because of his POW deprivations his continued existence was in question. Obviously he survived, but whether he became a doctor or not is debatable.
He tried, but somehow becoming an M.D. was more than he could manage. Organic chemistry was his nemesis, his Waterloo. Instead, he became a professor of traffic safety, someone who dedicated himself to saving lives by reducing deaths through automobile crashes. He had taught at various universities throughout his life and just under two years ago had accepted the position of director of traffic safety at AAA. He looked at his crusade to save lives by reducing traffic fatalities as one of those God closing a door but opening a window things. The biggest change I noticed with his new job at AAA was that he left earlier in the morning and come home later at night because his commute was now much longer.
In any case, after we were all buckled safely into our green Ford Pinto wagon we headed to Saint John’s with Dad driving slowly and carefully through the heavy fog. We got there safely, traffic was light and most people had sense enough to drive more slowly than usual. Dad shook his head when he saw oncoming cars driving without their lights on and had some choice words about one witless driver in particular who made a sudden left turn in front of us.
Once at church we took our customary seats on the side of the altar three rows back and half my mind listened to the service while the other half day dreamed about my girlfriend, Jenny. Mass was unexceptional but once it was over the priest commented about the fog and bade his congregation to be carefull while driving home in it. It was then that we heard him say, “I didn’t know this was true but I just learned that according to triple A you shouldn’t drive with your lights on in the fog.”
Even I knew this was nonsense but Dad’s moment of crisis was palpable to me, my sisters and Mom. Dad’s war-time promise to God to help Mankind had just been knocked down by a foolish statement made by a man in vestments and Dad had about two seconds to respond. The next few minutes made me realize about how right and wrong I was in dismissing my father as a role model. Now was the time to put faith into action and Dad did.
Saint John’s was pretty big and Mass fairly full. The priest, God’s representative on earth, had just urged about a thousand people to drive home in poor visibility without their lights on and hd used the American Automobile Association as his source. Dad was livid, he was scared for the congregation and for a split second he stood frozen in our pew. Then he sprang into action.
Dad dashed from his seat and all but ran to the altar. His eyes were ablaze and all six foot four of him was obviously in great consternation. He walked up to the priest just as the man was about to step down from the dais and put up his meaty paw and commanded the priest to stop. Words were exchanged, my father put his index and middle finger together and tapped the priest in his sternum uttering the words, “Damn it, I am the triple A!” loudly enough for me to hear him clearly 15 feet away. The priest smiled, backed away from Dad and walked down the center aisle out to Saint John’s main entrance. Dad stood by the altar slump shouldered and defeated. We walked to the parking lot, Dad shaking his head and muttering to himself the whole way, Mom patting him on he shoulder, saying, “It’s okay, Art, you did your best.”
At 15 it can be a little victory to see your father treated as though he were inconsequential, treated the same way I so often felt that he treated me. This wasn’t one of those times. I thought of Dad fighting in a terrible war, surviving the horrors of prolonged incarceration at the merciless hands of his Japanese tormentors and the uncertainty of his survival once released to US forces after the Japanese surrender. I thought of all these things and felt both comradeship and respect for my father. He was a man who, when faced with a moral crisis had tried to act with honor and duty, to keep his promise to the God that he loved, the God that was supposedly represented by the man whom he had just confronted.
I didn’t feel victory at Dad’s loss, I felt compassion. I try to remember those feelings and lessons as I bring up my own two sons, as I try to lead them down an honorable path, a path that is very different from the one I traveled. I hope that I did right by them when they were teens and that they can see in me a man worth believing in, just as I saw that in my father. Dad’s were big shoes to fill, but that’s always the case with each succeeding generation. I’ll follow Dad’s example and continue to pray for guidance from above; who knows, maybe there really is somebody up there listening and watching over us. If so, I hope I measure up, and even if not then I hope that I can be half the man Dad was.