I was thinking, earlier, about writing an entry for my Alternating Currents blog, about Veterans Day. At first, I was contemplating a short piece about the veteran closest to me, my father, Jim Reeves (Sr.). As I thought about what I might write, and how I might talk about his time in the United States Air Force, it became increasingly difficult to find the “hook” I needed. Dad was in the Air Force for eight years, serving at bases in El Paso, Texas; Atwater, California; Tacoma, Washington; and South Korea. Serving after the Korean “police action”, but before the Vietnam war, the only “action” he saw was paperwork moving across his desk as he worked administrative duties in the Strategic Air Command’s efforts to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. How then to comment on his years of service without diminishing or inflating his contributions, or those of other veterans who sacrificed so much more than he did?
As I stared at this picture of my father, barely 19 years old, I started thinking how little I actually know about him. An ever present part of my life until his death in 2006, I find it remarkable how poorly I know him as a person.
As this picture is taken, Dwight Eisenhower is President. The Soviet Union is about to shock the world (or had just) by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, into Earth orbit. My Dad’s family did not have a telephone, and my Mother’s family was on a party line. I look at this picture, and I don’t know the young man looking into the distance.
I know some of the details of his life: where he was born, his family coming to California, his growing up in Woodlake, and from the time of his marriage to my mother, in a clinical, these-years-here, those-years-there, this-job and that-job kind of way, up to his death one unremarkable evening at home. I remember his hunting and fishing trips, his near-constant cigarette smoking (that ultimately killed him – mouth, throat, and lung cancer), and his alcoholism. But with all that, I don’t think I can say I knew him. I wonder if he felt he knew me?
I was a child in the 60’s. We did “drop and cover” drills at school, to train us to respond to the ever present danger of the Soviet atom bomb. I don’t know about anybody else, but I didn’t think deeply about what those drills might mean in reality, and I wonder know what he, as a young adult in his 20’s, felt about raising a family in such times. There was no Internet, no news delivered to a computer, no Tweets seen ’round the world then. News came by AM radio or on a black and white television (3, maybe 4 channels), and in the afternoon newspaper. Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines. Was he even very aware of what was going on outside of his little world? Did he worry about the future, more than the worry of paying bills and keeping his children fed and clothed? It was a very different world then, and even though I was there, it seems almost like looking at ancient history to me now.
I have a few pictures of him from his time in the Air Force, and I find I cannot connect with them, or the man in them.
This is the man I remember:
He’s this huge asterisk in my life, his presence molding me in ways certainly neither he nor I knew of or understood. At times I want to blame him for the things he didn’t do, or the things he didn’t say, along with the things he did do and did say. Other times I recall the fairly dysfunctional family he came from, and wonder if he was simply doing the best he could with what he had. I see traits in myself that remind me of him, and of course there are other traits of his I swore to myself never to allow into my life. Sometimes I wonder how well I’ve managed to keep to those oaths.
I don’t recall the last encounter I had with Dad before his death. I do recall one sometime after.
I was sitting in a Denny’s one morning about 2 am, waiting for an order I had called in for take-out. I was sitting on the bench near the register, when I looked out the window into the parking lot. For just a split second, between the lights outside and the glare on the window, I saw not my own reflection, but his, staring back at me. It was one of those eternity-in-a-split-second moments. It unnerved me at the time, and often brings tears to my eyes to think of it even all these years later.
It’s not that I miss him, or have him on a pedestal of selective memories. I did have a severe case of ‘daddy worship’ up until my mid-teens, but that faded as I learned to see him as a person. No, the emotions today are over what might-have-been-and-never-was. The father-son relationship we never had, the kind I saw between some of my friends and their fathers. I remember telling him once, a few years before his death, when something on the television, or a conversation he, my mother, and I were having, brought up the subject, that I was still waiting for “the talk”. He just looked at me and sort of half smiled, half smirked, and didn’t reply.
Some years after his death, my Mother told me he never knew, or at least never said anything to her about, that I was gay. I still don’t know if he was oblivious, waiting for me to say something, or just in denial. He had made a comment once, a few years before his death, upon coming into my house, that I “must have a little honey coming over to clean” for me. I just looked at him a bit funny, and said, “no, no little honey”. He didn’t say anything more about it.
That seems to sum up our relationship – the things never said. It has certainly affected my life, and the man I am today is due in no small part to the man he was, for better or worse. The things he never said to me will now remain forever unsaid. The things I might have said to him will remain forever unheard.
In other blogs here I’ve spoken of Space Cadet Jimmie Joe. He’s the 12 year old who peeks out from behind my eyes in the mirror from time to time. He can say what I never could as an adult, so I think I’ll let him take the keyboard now: “I love you, Daddy.”