(February 28th, 2015)
He looked at life as if it were a gadget, something to be taken apart, examined, and tinkered with. His was the mindset of an engineer and he was completely incapable of deception almost to the point of being naive. He was uncomplicated and transparent. A decorated officer who won three bronze stars, he did his duty and never complained. In the thick of battle, he was unflinching. Right to the very end he had no fear of death; instead, he found it interesting.
This was my father, Captain Robert Neyman, United States Navy, USNA Class of 1936. Today would have been his 100th birthday. Yes, the man who loved novel and unusual things missed being a leap year baby by one day – so this is a good time to honor him. At his insistence, the family did not pay him the tribute he deserved at the time of his death. Personally, I felt cheated by that, and with these few inadequate words, I will attempt to correct some of it. I can’t possibly provide insights into all aspects of the man, but I can offer a few.
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Robert Leslie Neyman was born to Clinton Andrew Neyman and Lula Margaret Pound on February 28th, 1915 in Plano, Illinois. His family called him “Bobs;” his friends knew him as just “Bob;” my son called him “Bompo;” and for the first ten years of my life I called him “Father” or “Sir.” That’s telling about military life, but not about this man. I referred to him as “Pop” for quite some time but one day he angrily snapped back at me, saying that the nickname was disrespectful. After that, it was just “Dad.”
His childhood was colored by two gigantic worldwide calamities: The Great Depression and The Great War (WWI). He was not a large man, perhaps five-feet-ten in his prime, with a medium build. His blue-gray smiling eyes said as much as his words did. They were playful eyes. He had a habit of bumping his wiry eyebrows when mischief was in the air. Even as a teenage boy he had a high forehead, more apparent because he always combed his hair back with a hair oil. The male pattern baldness never seemed to make him self-conscious.
He pointed his fingers when he walked, as though he was taking note of something on the ground. When he was angry he often ran out of air and skipped a syllable or two.
He was the son and grandson of fairly significant Baptist preachers, but I never saw him kneel in church or read the Bible. Still, he was well versed in biblical history and occasionally quoted scripture. His father, a Navy chaplain, was one of the men who established the United States Naval Chaplain’s School.
The duty stations of a naval clergyman took the Neymans – Clint, Lu, Brother Ted, “Bobs” and baby sister Betty – to places near and far that added depth to his personality. He talked fondly of the stay in the Virgin Islands.
He was smart! I doubt he ever received a grade lower than an A in school, and he knew very early in life that the US Navy was his calling. He applied for a congressional appointment to the Naval Academy, was awarded it, and decided to take off for college early, despite the fact that he had not yet graduated from high school. There he was attending plebe year college courses, and the high school officials were warning him that if he did not come back to take a final exam, they wouldn’t award him a diploma. They finally relented and mailed him his sheepskin.
I can think of no better person to proofread a letter or English composition than Bob Neyman. Trouble was, he’d always find something to be corrected and mark the error in ink, which meant the whole darn thing had to be re-typed. He was brilliant in math, too, and tutored all six kids in that subject.
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There are family anecdotes that are telling of his clever nature. His Aunt Libus fondly recalled one time when the Neyman brothers, Ted and Bobs, were put on a train and shipped off to visit a relative. Ted, the older to the two, was given a few dollars for spending money. As the two youngsters climbed aboard, LIbus remarked, “Just watch—before you know it, Bob will have talked Ted out of that money.” And he did.
Besides achieving high rank in the high school military cadet corps, the two were hard working and goal-oriented. In the Great Depression, the simplest material object became a treasure and a dime was a small fortune. Needing better reference material for school work, they undertook the challenge of earning $30 to buy a set of encyclopedias. They delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, and did odd jobs at a feverish pace, buying the books after just six weeks. Thirty dollars was a month’s salary for some families in those days.
One of the family’s duty stations was Brooklyn, New York, where they rented a three-story house on a bustling city street. One Saturday morning Dad awoke to find nothing in the cupboard for breakfast. His mother, Lu, gave him a quarter and sent him to the grocery store to buy a box of Post Toasties. In Brooklyn then, and probably now, there was a corner market every third or fourth block, so the small, eight-ear-old boy set off, amid all sorts of cars and vehicles and vendors pushing carts. Somehow, Dad was run over by an electric trolley car, tearing his ear off. He was taken to the hospital where they sewed his ear back in place. After all the turmoil settled down, someone noticed that he was still clinging to that quarter, but it was bent! Here’s this young boy, holding on to his quarter so tightly that he bent it. He always regretted that the quarter wasn’t kept.
The entirety of his naval career is worthy of a much longer narrative, and I will only touch on one or two stories here. After graduating from the academy, he briefly went to sea on an antiquated four-stack destroyer, and immediately got to work trying to re-think some of the equipment. He noticed that the fire control system – the apparatus that aimed the guns – could be put to better use, wrote up a proposal for a change in procedure, and sent it off to the brass. That caught the attention of the bigwigs, and the Navy decided to give him advanced ordinance training, sending him to both MIT and RPI universities for postgraduate work. He studied mathematics, electrical engineering, and gunnery.
When World War II broke out he was still completing his studies, but also anxious to get into combat. He was eventually sent to the heavy cruiser, USS SALT LAKE CITY, where he was made gunnery officer and awarded bronze stars for his service at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
I once asked him, “How many Japanese soldiers do you think you killed?” His response was, “None. I just told the sailors where to aim the guns.” I always marveled how naval officers and bomber pilots could detach themselves from what was going on at the other end of the muzzle. He and I never completed that conversation.
Without a doubt, the most notable chapter in his naval career came during the Korean War, when he was captain of the Gearing-class destroyer, USS ERNEST G SMALL. The ship was attached to a small squadron off the eastern coastline in an area where the North Koreans had hidden a long range gun in a cave. Commander Neyman asked permission to engage the gun and was soon involved in a full blown firefight with various shore batteries. SMALL knocked out the enemy gun – Dad personally went down to the Fire Control Center and directed the guns – but in the process was struck by a mine.
Eight or nine men were killed instantly, and there was a huge hole in the side the ship where both the sonar and radio rooms once were. Confusion was rampant as men scrambled to put out fires and stabilize things – the first notion was that they had been struck by a torpedo – when suddenly Dad appeared bare-headed atop the Number Two gun mount looking down to assess the damage for himself. Many of the crew members later said that his appearance calmed them.
Unknown at the time was the fact that a huge piece of the ship’s keel had been blown away. He was instructed to go to a nearby port for repairs, but no sooner was he underway than a typhoon appeared, stressing the hull of the damaged ship more than ever. Eventually, one third of the bow section broke free. Through heavy seas, Dad backed the broken destroyer to port. For that, he was awarded his third bronze star. Photographs of the event were featured in LIFE and LOOK magazines.
He had at least four commands – two destroyers, a fleet tanker, and a naval ordnance plant – and ended his career as a captain. He retired in 1959.
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He married Rosalind Atwater Smith in 1943, She was ten years younger than he and from a storied Navy family, Her father, Capt Lybrand Palmer Smith, was a scientist and involved in the design of various secret technologies that helped win the war. One of those was the development of quieter propellers for our submarines. Capt Smith was also involved in the Manhattan Project, but not many details of his role in the atomic bomb were shared for obvious reasons. I have in my possession a letter from President Truman, thanking him for his contributions.
The newlyweds immediately began raising a family. For a decade and a half Roz was either pregnant or carrying a newborn, launching new lives every two years until there was a fleet of six—three boys and three girls: Connie, Kathy, Russell, Roger, Roy, and Shirley. The family followed Captain Neyman’s assignments to far-flung places including Norway, England, Georgia, New York, and multiple tours in the San Diego area. He also went off to the Far East, bringing heavy of those influences back to the homestead.
Upon retirement he moved the family to Southern California where he worked for various manufacturing companies. At some point the entrepreneurial spirit struck him, and he developed a film projection system, acquiring multiple patents and spending his entire life’s savings on taking it to market. If you grew up in the 1960’s before video cassettes you are familiar with the struggle the projector operator had in threading film through a serpentine system without damaging it. Dad’s invention solved that, feeding the film from reel to reel in a cartridge on its side. That gadget never took off, and Dad never went back into the invention business.
He eventually found his post-military career niche in the aerospace industry, working as a senior manager for McDonnell Douglas. At the time, the family lived in Woodland Hills, but Dad’s work lay sixty miles south on the far end of the Metropolitan Los Angeles Area. How he made that dreadful drive each day – two or three hours on a holiday weekend – is a marvel to me. Of course, until we reached driving age none of us understood the drudgery of his commute. He never, ever complained.
There is another telling anecdote about his personality that comes from those long drives through traffic. To pass the time, he “collected” interesting license plates and recorded his discoveries on one of his many charts. Mind you, this is in a time before personalized plates, so if you found one that actually made sense when you read it, that was quite a find. His favorite was SHE812. He also liked JIM007 at a time when the first James Bond movie was released.
He wasn’t athletic at all. Some of his academy classmates chided him because participating in a sport was required of all midshipmen, and Dad ended up being the manager of the tennis team, hardly the heroic athletic type role model. He loved to follow baseball, but his involvement with sports was mostly relegated to the statistical side of it. Every year he’s meticulously keep a graph of how every baseball team in the National League was doing, each team brightly colored, and you could see in an instant all the winning and losing streaks. He loved the system more than the game. Gadgets.
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I will move slightly aside from the storyline at this point to explain an observation I made earlier: his transparency.
He simply was not able to spin facts. It was not a matter of principle or a code of conduct; he was missing that part of the brain that allowed him to hold his tongue or sugarcoat a detail. This proved problematic throughout his personal and professional life, especially in his marriage. I’m sure that his lack of tact hindered his advancement in the military, too. A fact was a fact and that was that. That lack of sophistication – that’s the most accurate description I can come up with, but still not satisfactory – was balanced by his love of complicated mechanical things.
One of the stories I like to tell about him is, admittedly, embellished for effect. A new block fence was built between the neighbor’s lot and ours, requiring both families to build gates to the respective back yards. The other guy came out with five two-by-fours, some fence boards and two hinges and was done in two hours. Dad, with my brothers and I assisting him, spent two entire days building a monster gate that involved all manner of mechanical gizmos. To open the gate, he’d make the dog bark, which would startle a duck into laying an egg, which would roll down a chute to trip the lever, and…..you get the picture. Both gates worked, but Dad’s was much more complex.
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In his sixties his health faltered a bit. He was first plagued by a form of leukemia – an illness that he miraculously overcame – and later a mysterious condition that left the left side of his body weak and atrophied. After years of tests to rule out strokes and more typical ailments that might disconnect the brain from the muscles, it was discovered that the nerve channels along his spine were too narrow, and the resulting pinching action had effectively chewed away much of the nerves. His leg, in particular, wasn’t getting the message from the brain, and before they could go in and open things up, the muscles had withered away. He spent the remainder of his life dragging that limb, falling hundreds of times, frequently splitting his head open.
Difficult times lay ahead. The aerospace industry dumped him, forcing him into early retirement during one of the industry’s infamous down cycles. He applied for countless jobs — business manager, comptroller, sales — but got no offers. Being useless was the worst thing that could ever happen to Bob Neyman, and he became depressed, angry, and ill.
Now, here is where our lives began to come together in ways that have become special to me. I decided to open an advertising business and he supported me in that endeavor. But he, clearly, could not relate to the art of spinning a phrase required of ad advertising exec. We became partners. He’d run the office and pay the bills, and I’d be creative director and negotiate with the clients. That wasn’t enough.
Amid a room of artists and young people, he was bored and a duck out of water, We were speaking a language that he didn’t understand. One day he came me with a spin-off aspect of the advertising business called “specialty products.” These were goods imprinted with advertising – glassware and key tags and pens and everything else – that he thought we could add to our business. I wasn’t excited about it, but agreed to make a go of it. And, much to my surprise, he was right. Within a few years roughly half of our income was derived from the specialty products. I’d design a new marketing theme for Grumman Aerospace or Home Depot, and he’d put together a package of items on which that graphic would be printed.
The enterprise was so successful that, eventually, a second business was established, and Dad ran that office. The advertising partnership wound down as the business wore me down, and I really wasn’t that interested in the imprinted gadget business. I went off and got married and became a father, and he stayed busy with the specialty stuff.
It wasn’t until Mother passed away that we re-engaged. Sitting by her deathbed as she bobbed in and out of consciousness, he fell back on his engineering nature and began to analyze the situation. He took out his watch and counted her breaths, announcing when she passed the ten-per-minute mark, then six, then two. This was Dad being who he was, an analytical man capable of observing life from afar, as if he were looking through binoculars at Iwo Jima from the bridge of the SALT LAKE CITY. It wasn’t that he did not care or that he was not grieving. He found his center in the facts of the situation.
That day, when Mother left him, his life changed. “Damn!” he exclaimed, realizing that she countdown had ended. “I forgot to check the space above her body.” I did not understand. He was referencing the common account of people who, after being pronounced dead, return to life with tales of floating above their own bodies. “Promise me you’ll check for my spirit when I pass on. Promise me.” I kept that promise.
The man who once had a top-level security rating in the armed forces rapidly became fully enrolled in the paranormal and every conspiracy theory imaginable. He read books, attended conventions, and enrolled seminars, dragging me along when he could. His mind was flooded with flying saucers, yeti, little green men, and hidden passages into the deep earth. He was quick to subscribe to almost any UFO notion that was offered and more than once a relative or friend shunned him because they thought of him as a bit of a nut.
My own theory of this chapter of his life is that his grasp on the world was slipping away and he wanted to be an expert on something. Added to that was his failing health. He was relegated to a scooter, fell often, and was no longer allowed to drive a car, This was his way of being at the forefront of a cutting edge phenomena. He was completely confused by computers, frustrated by the television remote, and generally could not relate to technology, but now he could study and preach about spaceships and time warps. The paranormal became his normal.
Enter Lois. She’s worthy of an entire testimonial of her own, but in a word, she was a godsend. He met her at a UFO convention and she had a playful, carefree way about her. She lived at the other end of the country, so they talked on the phone and exchanged letters. A few months later Dad asked me what I thought about him getting married again. He was 80 at the time and needed company – I certainly was growing tired of being his wingman at the paranormal meetings – so I said, “Why not? What do you have to lose?”
They married a month or two later and spent ten good years together, snowbirding between her home in Minnesota and his in Southern California. She was tireless in her attendance to his needs, especially when he could no longer walk or dress himself. She passed away last fall.
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He never actually said it, but in the last months of his life he seemed to complete the spiritual circle, moving away from warp-speed alien spaceships driven by little big-eyed men toward thoughts of moving to a higher plane. Dad became more thoughtful and introspective, and I believe that he was eager to get past this life because he was excited about the next one.
That last night, as I sat on the bed beside him waiting for the ambulance to arrive, we had a conversation that will always remain. To be honest, I did not think he was dying. After all, I had been in a dozen emergency rooms with him through the years, every time preparing for the worst, pulling the dog-eared Living Will papers out of my glove compartment for the umpteenth time. Dealing with the eventuality of his death was part of our relationship, and we had talked about it often enough that I was prepared. This time I was pretty sure that he’d cheat death once again.
His mind was wandering, but I wanted to engage him in discussion I had pondered for some time. I had the notion that it would be a tribute to him if a tree were planted in his name. I tried to approach the subject obliquely.
“Dad, I’ve been thinking … when I pass on, I want my family to plant a tree in my name.”
“Oh?” he said, in a way that made me think I was interrupting his train of thought. I was trying to find his blue-grey eyes that I knew so well, to connect with him, but he was elusive.
“Yeah, I’d like that. And they should put it somewhere that suits me, like Catalina Island or Big Sur.” I said, with a thoughtful tone. There was an awkward pause. “So what about you? What’s your favorite place, Dad?”
“I don’t have one any more.”
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Father-to-son advice was rare, but there was some. He once advised me to take a close look at a woman’s mother before entering a relationship. “You’ll really be married to her mother,” he said. He also taught me to look deeply into another person’s eyes. “If you look deep, you can see their soul,” he counseled.
That deep-eye business can be tricky. You can, indeed, see into their heart through their eyes, but they can see back into yours, too. Dad and I did that often. Even when we were at odds and angry, we had that. He always knew I respected and loved him when we looked at each other.
There are snapshots of him that stick with me, a few seconds or minutes in a lifetime that give my experience of Robert Neyman texture. Here are a few:
I remember sitting on his lap as a small boy, smelling the mixture of mothballs and sweat that permeated his black Navy dress uniform. It was not an unpleasant sensation, just a military one. I must have been one or two, and the gold braid on his sleeves and shiny buttons fascinated me. He was gone most of the time then, so he was a stranger. I was pensive, too.
There were hundreds of days and evenings when he and I would listen to the Los Angeles Dodgers on any radio we could get our hands on. Mother didn’t like sports particularly (she said it dominated the conversation and took too long) so we’d sneak off someplace to listen to Vin Scully and Jerry Dogget paint wonderful pictures of that evening’s game. Often it would be on his bed, one of us tapping the other awake when we dozed off at a critical moment. If the bed was unavailable, we sit in the family wagon. More than once he’d say with a wink, “Hey, Russ, I need to run an errand, Want to go?”
I remember the day he asked me if he could go for a ride on my motorcycle, and what was I going to do—? Say NO? This very un-athletic 65-year-old man who fell over often rode off and left me standing in his driveway, scared to death that he’d kill himself. Forty-five minutes later he pulled in, tossed the helmet in my direction, and said, “OK, I can cross that off from my list.”
He and I went camping in Yosemite in the early 1970’s. That was my pot-smoking hippie era, and we pitched our tent in the snow. The campground was virtually empty, but about sundown twenty bandana-wearing motorcyclists in leather jackets came rumbling in. At some point they asked Dad and I to join them at the campfire, and someone began to pass a joint around the circle of men and women. I took a long drag, held my breath, and passed it to Dad. He took a puff, inhaled it, and passed it on. Only later did he ask, “Was that marijuana…?”
I also recall that he took me to work with him one day, and I observed all the other naval officers salute him and call him “Sir.” Pretty impressive. To help me pass the time he gave me some graph paper and colored pencils, encouraging me to color in the little squares to create a picture.
He had a stroke, which left him in a drooling stupor for several days. There was concern that his brain had been damaged, of course, so the doctor came to check on him, rousing him from a deep sleep with a nudge. “Captain Neyman–. do you know where you are?” Dad came to with a start, looked around at the crowd gathered at his bedside, and replied, “I was floating on the Nile in a barge with Cleopatra by my side … until you poked me!”
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I miss him. He left on his journey to that higher plane in 2005 just two weeks short of his 90th birthday. He promised me that he’d send me a message from the other side, but I haven’t been able to discern it if he did. I suppose he could be too busy tinkering. Yes, Robert Leslie Neyman was my father, but he was also my friend.
As a postscript to this piece, I’ll add the following essay written several years earlier, by my sister and fellow author, Katharine St Vincent. — RN.
Searching for Captain Kid
When Russ called from California, I knew right away it was about Dad. My brother had just left him at the hospital. Our eighty-three year old father had been having ominously oppressive headaches for almost a week. His wife, Lois, had called Russ that morning with the urgent message that now his left eye wouldn’t open. “It’s either a stroke…or a brain tumor,” my brother said. “We’ll know more tomorrow.”
“I’ll come as soon as I can get a flight,” I told him.
“Well…I think maybe you should wait a few days,” Russ answered.
“Wait a few days?”
“Wait till we hear something. If you drop everything to come out here, all the way from New York, you know Dad’ll get the message that it’s pretty grim…and maybe it’s not. Let’s see what the tests show.”
I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I knew he was right. “Okay, Russ. Let me know as soon as you hear.” I put down the phone and sank to the bed.
I can’t say for certain when I first noticed that other change in my father, the one that called into question who he was rather than how he was. That transformation has crept up on me over the past few years until one day the man that I had known all my life just wasn’t there any longer. It’s as though another creature has taken over his shell, the way hermit crabs do. He still has the appearance of the old familiar Dad, but inside there’s a person I don’t recognize.
How did this happen? The man who had once been Chief of Logistics for NATO is now totally consumed with government conspiracies and paranormal phenomena. He has a Masters’ Degree in Electrical Engineering, quotes the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelly and does the Sunday crossword in ink, but nowadays he spends a good chunk of his time trying to prove the existence of Big Foot and the Lost City of Atlantis. The same father who retired as a captain in the United States Navy and then as a Vice President for a major aerospace corporation is now on a crusade to convince his former colleagues that he eats lunch with aliens. He’s lost thousands of dollars in bets because his forecasts about extraterrestrial appearances haven’t come about as he predicted. His longtime friends laugh about him behind his back; lifetime friends have started to avoid him. I struggle with my desire to do the same.
My father’s arms were wide and warm when I was small. I was sure that they could reach me, wherever I was. His shoulders easily carried my weight; his hands always repaired my broken treasures. I knew that he knew everything. He knew how to have fun. He was a champion bridge player who never seemed to tire of “Go Fish.” I loved sitting by his side at night as he read me bedtime stories about magical worlds and beautiful princesses. Riddles, the same riddles, always made him laugh. He joked and I called him “Captain Kid.”
What’s more, I thought my father was very handsome. Though not an unusually tall or muscular man, he was fit, and his dark brown hair, always sleeked back military style, contrasted dramatically with his steel blue eyes. Yes, he was striking, especially in his Naval uniform, with all the gold braid on the sleeves and the colored ribbons just above the left breast pocket.
I had to share my dad with my mother, my three younger brothers and two sisters, one older, one younger. This didn’t come easily to me. Somehow, I felt I needed my father more; I tried to deserve him more. The last time he went away for a year of sea duty, leaving us with only the memory of what he looked like, I was ten. I wrote him letter after letter, and tried to be the first to the mailbox every afternoon, impatient for an answer. Letters did come, but they were always addressed to my mother, or to “Dear Family.” My fifth grade year was the longest in my life.
As I grew older, I became more clever at stealing my father’s time. Saturday mornings, I was up at five “to caddy for my Daddy.” I wheeled his golf bag, which I insisted was not too heavy, all the way to the eighteenth hole. I considered my high school struggles with algebra and trig very fortunate; I could claim Dad’s undivided attention, evening after evening, if just to balance equations. His math prowess was a source of amazement for me. He would come up with the answer to the problem in seconds, right out of his head, before I’d even finished the question. I got up to do my other homework early in the morning, when I knew only my father would be awake. He would sit on the sofa with the newspaper and his coffee while I sat on the floor, using the coffee table for a desk. Except for the leafing of the newspaper and my pencil scurrying along the page, the house was quiet. I cherished this rich silence between us.
I had always regarded my father as truly, believably brave. He had commanded ships in battle, in World War II and Korea. He would only tell us teasing tales about how he’d gotten the Japanese saber that decorated our mantel – “Well, I was driving along in my battleship one day when I saw this shiny thing sticking up out of the sand on the beach…” — so I made up my own stories of his outer and inner strength. But my fantasies were no match for the real-life encounter I had with his courage when I was seventeen. I was watching TV when he walked into the den from the garage, where he’d been making a stereo cabinet for my sister.
Speaking with measured calm, he asked, “Do you think you could drive me to the hospital?” His hand was in a fist, wrapped tightly in a cloth, and his face was slightly pale. The power saw had taken off two fingers halfway to the first knuckle.
“Dad? How are you feeling?” I asked hesitantly into the phone, the day after Russ’s call. I tried to picture my father lying under white sheets, propped up in a remote-controlled hospital bed. I tried not to imagine tubes and wires and machines with blips and beeps.
After a pause, he answered in a low, hoarse voice that seemed much further than a continent away. “I feel like going bowling.”
“You feel like going bowling?” I repeated. There was a long silence.
“Dad, are you there?” The silence on the other end of the line stretched until I was afraid it would snap. “Dad?…Dad!” I called, trying to make my voice reach all the way from New York to California. Finally, my brother Roger picked up the phone.
“He fell back to sleep,” Roger whispered. “The Demerol knocks him out. He’s had a really bad day.” Roger described my father, holding his head and moaning, his legs moving like scissors under the sheets, until finally a doctor had ordered more pain medication. “The MRI machine is down,” he told me. “They couldn’t do any tests today…so we still don’t know what’s wrong.”
I think my father’s new self began to emerge around the time of my mother’s death. My brothers and sisters and I knew the statistics. We had all worried and watched for the obvious and expected change — that our dad would slip, first soul and then body, into the grave beside her. After all, she had anchored him for more than fifty years. But he hadn’t done the predictable thing. He didn’t wither. Instead, he reinvented himself. It was as though, in her dying, my mother had freed him from the life she had defined for him, releasing him from his moorings.
Looking back, I can see that I might have missed early signs of Dad’s approaching conversion. He had always had a passing interest in past life experiences, extra sensory perception — and extra-terrestrials. He had a collection of books beside his bed written by “enlightened” authors like Edgar Cayce and Shirley McClain. As a teenager, I can remember sitting beside our pool with him one night, looking up at the stars. He was a Naval officer, a navigator, and he loved to instruct me on the constellations. But that night he said something that surprised and intrigued me.
“I bet,” he said, low in my ear, as if somebody else might be listening, “that somewhere up there, there’s another father sitting with his daughter, wondering if we are down here.” My dad doesn’t speculate about such things any longer. He knows. Mom’s passing had forced him, finally, to face his own mortality, and to search for solace he couldn’t find in conventional religions. He had long ago rejected the Baptist faith of his missionary parents and the Episcopal one of my mother, so he went about creating a creed of his own. His belief is based on the certainty that we are being watched over by benevolent beings from the Pleiades, a group of stars outside our solar system. When we Earthlings begin to self-destruct, as he’s sure we are soon to do, the Pleiadians will save those who trust in them. He’s desperate to have his children believe him — for the sake, he says, of our salvation.
Roger’s wife Leslie had called from the phone in Dad’s hospital room. She was trying to explain why the doctors still hadn’t done any tests. Russ was there, too, but Dad was sleeping.
Suddenly, Leslie said, “Dad just woke up and told a joke. He says he has a bridge he can sell us.”
“Where is it, Dad?” I overheard Russ ask.
“Ask him if it’s in his mouth,” I said. Leslie laughed and repeated the line, but Dad had slipped back under the Demerol by then.
When the Jehovah’s Witnesses used to knock on our door, my father always invited them to come in. Then he would debate them, verse for verse, to show them with irreverent glee that there was, in the very lines of the Bible, a contradiction for every sacred claim they made. He cannot stand to have the tables turned now. “Facts,” says he, “get in the way of the truth.” He doesn’t want to hear that the UFO he saw was a blimp or that the woman he says is from Venus was likely born in Cincinnati.
At the age of 80, and less than two years after my mother died, Dad married Lois, a widow from Minnesota. I was appalled. They’d met at the end of a UFO convention in Las Vegas. While examining a display of books on interplanetary travel and ET’s here on earth, Dad struck up a conversation with a petite, seventyish woman. They talked for two hours before saying good night. The next morning they got on different planes to separate destinations. Five months later, without ever having seen each other again — but with the alleged encouragement of their friend Mertel in the Pleiades and the blessing of my mother and Lois’s two deceased husbands — they were wed.
“It was a marriage made in heaven,” Dad winked.
The wedding took place in Sedona, Arizona, chosen by the couple because of the area’s supposed vortexes of spiraling, spiritual energy and frequent extraterrestrial visitations. After the ceremony, bride and groom flew to Florida. They wanted to see off Eddie Page, an acquaintance they had made at the UFO convention, who claims his mother is human but his father is Pleiadian. Eddie was going to be picked up off the Gulf Coast by a spaceship the size of a football field to take a visit to the Fatherland. He asked Dad to help fund the trip. When Russ met the returning newlyweds at the Los Angeles Airport a week later, they expressed their deep disappointment. Although Eddie had asked to keep Dad’s money “on loan,” he’d decided not to take the journey. They were sorely let down; we were far from surprised.
“Dad, how are you?” It had been three long days since his admittance to the hospital.
“Well…” His voice was still weak and far away. “ I really ought…I ought to record….” He stopped.
“Record what, Dad?”
“Umm… some of my sentiments.”
“What sentiments, Dad?” I steeled myself for his answer. Was I going to get another discourse on otherworld redemption?
Long pause. “Oh…how to…”
“How to…make a bed.” His voice was so faint that I pressed the receiver against my ear, trying to catch his words.
“How to make a bed? Is that what you said? How to make a bed?”
“Dad? Are you there? Why do you want to make a bed?”
“Well…you have to make your bed…
I waited. “Yes? You have to make your bed?”
“…so you can lie in it.”
I couldn’t tell if my father was trying to share some enlightenment resulting from a near death experience or attempting jokes through piles of pain killers. Lois got on the phone and said he was very tired and needed to sleep. They had finally done the MRI. It showed he had suffered a blockage in the blood vessels that feed the optic nerve. The doctor said that his headaches would gradually subside and that there was still a chance that, eventually, his full vision might be restored.
The Dad of long ago was a wonderful conversationalist. He had a gift for drawing people out of themselves and he showed genuine interest in their stories. When I was in high school and college, I rather enjoyed introducing my dates to him. He would sit down with them in the living room and “interview” them. They called him “Captain” and “Sir,” but they always left with the feeling that they had done a good job of entertaining him…and they had.
It hasn’t been easy to talk to my father since his transformation. He used to love the sport of a debate; now he proselytizes and accepts no rebuttals. The two brothers who live near him have the hardest time, but I get my turn when he comes to visit my family in New York. He piles us high with books to read and videos to watch, all designed to convert us to what my teenage sons call “The Gospel According to Grandpa.” They don’t feel my wrenching sense of loss. They just roll their eyes or exchange smirks each time the topic turns back to the particulars of their grandfather’s own personal, paranormal paradigm. Like a pit bull, he will not let go. He is a man on a mission.
“Hello, Dad. I hear you’re wearing an eye patch these days.” I tried to sound light. “You must look like a pirate.”
“Just call me Captain Kid.”
I laughed, remembering, then asked, “Is it difficult?”
“Well, aside from my permanent wink…I can’t see to read,” Dad complained. “I had just ordered some new material through the Internet…that I want to look at….” His voice trailed off.
I really didn’t want to hear about whatever new fanciful facts he had garnered on line. I grimaced, knowing that he couldn’t detect my expression over the phone, and looked for a way to change the subject. I considered suggesting “books on tape” but then I realized that they probably wouldn’t have any titles dealing with the Pleiades.
“Do you believe me yet?” My father’s voice carried like a boatswain’s across the dining room. He had come to see me a few months after Mom died. His question, repeated so often over those months, was always difficult to answer. I didn’t want to disparage or discourage his convictions — but he wouldn’t be appeased by my politely non-committal responses. “That sounds like it could be possible” was not enough for Dad. His anger – so unfamiliar to me in childhood — rose along with his frustration at not being unconditionally believed. “Just what will it take for you to be convinced?” he boomed, slamming the books, which I had skimmed the night before, back down on the table. I fought back tears as he yelled, “Your future is at stake here!”
Feigning conversion only ignites him further. Anyone he perceives to be a new believer is inundated with even more volumes and videos, which he’s eager to discuss into the thin hours of night. For Dad, the demands of family and career that were once so pivotal to his life are equally trifling, compared to an ongoing discussion of “The Truth.” His diatribes grow increasingly outrageous, his claims more and more outlandish. He raves on about the dangers of the Illuminati, the secret brotherhood of conspirators that control the planet, and he passes out the phone number at which he can be reached after his death. This would all be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Like body snatchers, my father’s newfound beliefs have consumed him, and he, in turn, is on a crusade to press them on all the people he knows. When I am with him, exasperation swells in me. I just can’t find a way to make us both happy at the same time.
As a child, I woke up early to steal moments with my dad. How can I admit that I feel such alienation from him now? I want to hold on to the man that I adored, but he keeps eluding me, like a chameleon against a changing background. I know he must be there, somewhere inside the father I have now, if I just look hard enough. There must be a way for me to cross the great divide that lies between us.
“Hi, Dad. It’s me.” I take a breath, trying to gather enthusiasm. “I’m coming out to see you next Saturday. Roger’s meeting me at the airport.”
“Well, good! I’ll tell Lois.”
“Russ tells me that you’re going home tomorrow. How do you feel?”
“How do I feel?” He chuckles. “How do I feel? I feel with my fingers.”
He has dug down, through all his layers, and has pulled out his familiar reply of long ago, the one that I remember from childhood. It’s such a simple, silly thing…but I find myself wanting both to laugh and to cry.
“Daddy?” I start, and then hesitate, searching for my question. There’s a pause on both ends of the phone line. And then — it’s just like the days when we solved math problems together. Before I’ve even found the question, he’s giving me the answer.
“I’m here,” he replies. “I’m still here.”