Monday, October 20, 2014
This NY Times article said basically the same thing as this Washington Post article.
Before it actually happened, I'd have thought that when the time came, I'd blog about my father - who he was to us, what he represented, and his passing. Now that it's happened, I realize it's too personal and I don't want to share it. How could I have once thought I could do an acceptable job of it without baring my soul in a way not suited for the internet?
An interview that well-represents Dad's perspective on his experience. The interview has to do with the documentary "Return with Honor" that was released around the time.
I do, though, want to mark this most profound occasion and honor his remarkable life in some way.
There was a gratifying amount of media recognition. Gratifying, because it indicated that people still recognize that the qualities of men like my Dad are valuable and that his were qualities for which to strive.
ABC Person of the Week ... I like this clip although I'd like to point out that though the blinking in morse code grabs the attention, the fact that he's most proud of, the declaration with which he absolutely risked his life were the words used to respond to the interviewer's question about how he felt about the bombing of Vietnam. He replied that he didn't know what was happening in the war, but whatever was the position of his government, he supported it, fully, and would as long as he lived. That, after having been tortured for days beforehand. That, knowing, fully, that he would be further tortured for having said it. As my eldest brother, Jerry, pointed out in Dad's eulogy, Dad took that stand, risked his life for what he believed, not for personal aggrandizement or expectation of praise or respect. He had no idea anyone would ever see that video. He took that stand, because that's what he was about. Just look at him walk in that room for the interview - subdued, but anger, determination, and defiance running just below the surface.
I quote Shone, a childhood family friend, who wrote me a nice message after my dad died.:
"...but the thing is... your Dad was a stud. Seriously. Pre-Vietnam, Vietnam, post... He was a player, a guy who rode the bull to the end, a gangster (which is what my urban students say in respect...) ..."
My parents would've been enjoyed seeing the family gathered at Jerry's house the night Dad died - telling stories, crying, laughing, talking. They'd have especially have appreciated their descendants' very loud 3:00 a.m. renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America. Jane and Jerry left a legacy that we embrace.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
My father, collaborating with Ed Brandt, a Virginian-Pilot reporter, wrote a book, When Hell was in Session, not long after he returned from Vietnam. (Available at Amazon, by clicking right here.) It was made into a TV movie starring Hal Holbrook and Eva Marie Saint. Had I not read it, and newspaper articles, I'd know little about my father's experience as a POW in Vietnam. It wasn't a topic explored around the dinner table at home. I always wanted to talk to my father about it, but it wasn't easy. He referred to it now and then, but not in a way that invited a heart to heart.
Thank God for Alvin Townley. I'd been the family member most reluctant to share my mother's diaries with him when he wanted to use them for research, but my siblings, most of whom had met and been won over by his sincerity, talked me into it, thank goodness. His research and ever so well-written account of the Alcatraz Gang, of which my father was a member, illuminated my father's trials and triumphs and provided me with a big(ger) picture understanding. The timing of the book's release, a month before his passing, was fitting, and though Dad and I didn't talk about it in anything more than a fleeting way, I'm glad I was able to learn details of the story before he was gone.
What meant the most to me, in reading the book, was that it enabled me to put his experience in context with that of the other men and that I was able to gain a perspective of what the other families went through. The most meaningful aspects of attending the reception was being able to be in the presence of my father's comrades and to meet Ron Storz' son and daughter and Jim Stockdale's son. Kindred spirits, linked by a shared experience. Plus Micah and I got to be with several of my brothers, my sister-in-law, a few of my nieces and nephews.
In April, the Texas delegation in Congress hosted a reception for Alvin Townley to introduce the book and to honor the eleven men who "endured Vietnam's most infamous prison, the women who fought for them and the one who never returned." My daughter, Micah, and I joined other family members who were able to attend.
My brother, Jim, pictured at the podium, is Editor of World Affairs Journal which partnered with the Congressmen in sponsoring the event. Texas Congressman Sam Johnson is another of the Alcatraz Gang and pictured to Jim's left.
Jim visited Vietnam a year ago and shared his insight in this article in World Affairs Journal.
Also, in World Affairs Journal, James S. Robbins wrote this review of Defiant.
George Coker, Bob Shumaker, and Sam Johnson, former Alcatraz prison mates - Though I've hardly met them in person, these men are strands in the fabric of my life.
Friday, October 10, 2014
There may be more appropriate pictures of my Dad, but this is one of my favorites. That's a pretty intense gaze. I have a 10 x 12 of it in my house and it's kind of like the Mona Lisa the way he seems to be looking at me where ever I go. The man with him is Capt. James Mulligan, his beloved friend and Alcatraz mate. Jim Mulligan's presence at Dad's funeral gave me perhaps more comfort than anyone else who attended.
I wish I could return to July 22 and experience Dad's burial at Arlington National Cemetery again. I'd like to have been more in the moment, more spiritually-minded, more in tune with my father. As it was, in retrospect, I realize that I was somewhat caught up in the pageantry, the awareness of family and long-time friends, the presence of Dad's fellow POWs, the import of his military history, to settle my thoughts and feel a full connection with the man, my father, who was being honored. It was to my detriment. You know, I take that back. I'm glad my thoughts were open to being acutely aware of the whole experience. There were special people there, in a special place, and to have focused entirely on my memories of him would've shut that experience out. Heaven knows, the amount of deep thought I devote to him and my birth family teeters right on the edge of Unhealthy as it is.
This Washington Post article describes the day. I prefer to save my most personal observations and feelings about the day for a scrapbook where I can truly let loose.
My father's widow, Mary Belle, accepting the burial flag at gravesite, after being escorted on the mile walk from the Old Chapel. The lei, on the casket, was placed there by a woman who had worn Dad's POW bracelet as a child and travelled from Hawaii to attend his funeral.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I met my siblings in Virginia to divide my parents' estate. Despite the fact that there are strong and divergent personalities among us, and whether or not the occasion is a somber or a festive one, when we get together, it's a reunion of like souls. Too much exposure to each other could be our undoing, but we haven't pushed our luck with more than a few days at a time and we always leave - at least I do - wanting more. I want to live in a commune with them.
Our estate division weekend was a lovefest of tears, laughter, stories, singing. We each ended up with items of immense sentimental value and the satisfaction of knowing that, even if we loved an item, but didn't get to take it home with us, our mother's and father's possessions went to someone who understands what they have. I don't want a single piece of recycled tin foil or partially melted tupperware to end up in the trash or the home of someone who doesn't understand the value, the intrinsic beauty in that crumpled tin foil.
A day that started out feeling like Christmas and a family reunion rolled up in one, ended as a grateful, but bittersweet one. Each item told stories and held reminders of my parents who are gone.
I photographed pictures in my parents' wedding album.
It was especially touching to see my dad's name preceded by a junior officer rank on the back of a couple of things I brought home. I can picture he and Mom packing up their few things as a young married couple, not long after he graduated from the Naval Academy, and setting off on their new life. Little did they know how many children they'd accumulate along the way nor where that twisted path would lead. This is the back of my parents' first bed. Now it's mine.
This passel of ragamuffins, sitting on my newly acquired bed while it lived in Virginia Beach, is part Kirkpatrick and part Denton.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
When I saw this little girl's picture on a rack of old pictures at an antique mall a few years ago, I couldn't bear to just leave her there. Taped to the back of the picture is a yellowed newspaper obituary, flowery in tone, describing the grief of her family and friends when little Annie died at sixteen.
"Died at her home in this city, Saturday, December 28, Anne Lenihan, only daughter or Mr. and Mrs. Lenihan, age sixteen years, ten months and twenty days.
The sad news of Miss Anna's death, cast a shadow of gloom over the entire community, for their life had been spent here, having been born in Cheyenne Wells, February 8, 1892.
She died at 7:30 o'clock a.m. just after the awakening life of a new day she went to sleep like a tired child. It was as the birds carolled the coming of the morning and just after the rosy fingers of the orb of day tinted the eastern sky with a sheen of glory. Surely a most fitting time for a pure spirit to take its flight heavenward. With the eye of faith one could see at the dawn of this memorable December day, an invisible hand wave a signal and a voice in softest accent on the morning breeze, announce that the gates were open and the God's angels were waiting to escort her in.
Born and raised to sweet girlhood in Cheyenne Wells, she was loved by all. She was the light of the eyes of a great company of relatives and friends, and the light has now gone out. To them, she was what the sunshine was to the world and this eclipse to them brings both darkness and chill. She was a member of the graduating class of 1907, and her classmates are bowed down with grief."
Passing judgment on her family members, I couldn't understand how little Annie's photograph and obituary could end up stacked on a wire spinning display with other unidentified people, probably long dead, in Texas. Did they not care about her enough to keep her in a place of honor?
Having recently met my siblings to divide my father's estate, now I get it. Family letters, photographs old and new, newspaper clippings, treasures untold, were stored in boxes, uncatalogued and disorganized. My siblings and I are sentimental fools all and recognize the importance of such things, yet I don't feel at all confident that a valuable family photograph won't unintentionally end up in an antique mall in Wyoming. Not if I can help it, though. I spent last weekend reorganizing files. I love to organize. It's in my personality profile and we all know the credence I place on the almighty personality profile. Staying organized is another matter. Not good at that.