Like most Baby Boomers, World War II had a significant impact on my father’s life. Although shortly before he died my father confided in me that, as Chemical Officer on the Air Force base, he dreaded the weekly lists of war dead because he’d always find the names of recruits whom he had trained to use gas masks, and even visited in the “enlisted men’s mess” because officers
felt a true camaraderie with their fellow soldiers . . . irregardless of this, I think in many ways these were the best years of his life. He married soon after graduating from officer training school (and I think he ended up there because he had a B.A. from Harvard), and the bases were full of young couples, who, in spite or because of what was going on overseas, had a lot of fun. Like many, he made some life-long friends.
My favorite “air force” story about my dad has to do with the afternoon a black sedan with blacked-out windows drove up to the door of his Quonset Hut office, and two rather dour looking military men with no insignias on their uniforms escorted him quickly into the back seat of the waiting auto, where he was blindfolded and lost all sense of time and direction. He was able to get a message to my mother through another officer — to think
that my parents didn’t even have a phone in their quarters! — and a couple with whom my parents were close immediately took her to stay at their place. (To think that she wouldn’t have stayed in her own place! To think that my young dad was so protective of my young mom! This is all such a different world.) As it turned out, someone had told what could be none other than Army Intelligence that my dad spoke German just like they did in a particular area of Germany.
What my dad spoke was Yiddish. He was driven back to the base after a couple of days.
I know this story is true because I heard it from my mom, my grandparents, my uncle, my dad’s army friends.
But there is this other story, also great, that, well, I’m not so sure. Yes, my dad did help develop gas masks and oxygen masks. And it is plausible that he made special ones for special people. He had the rank and the expertise. So supposedly when the Americans needed to get Neils Bohr out of the Carlsbad Brewery and were planning quite a wild dash that would involve flying a plane way above the radar, they asked my dad to make him a special oxygen mask. Because Neils Bohr had such a big head (confirmed in any picture you see; I’m sure it was filled with physics), my dad converted a horse mask to fit the famed scientist.
Yes, this could all be true, but last night when my husband repeated the story to friends of ours, I cringed. It may all be a myth.
That’s the way it is with stories about our parents. I’m sure all parents ply their kids with some real whoppers. I’m not a psychologist, but life experience tells me they do so to make themselves look a little better in their kids eyes. Then the story sticks, and what may have once had a kernel of truth takes on a life of its own.
My father was truly heroic. After his younger brother died of meningitis, my dad came home from Harvard for a semester (it may have been a whole year) to be there for his grieving parents and to help out in the family business — a neighborhood grocery store and property, which my dad and uncle tended to, even to the point of receiving calls from locked-out tenants in the middle of the night, until my cousins and I put our collective feet down and made them sell it in 2000. I’m sure my dad would have loved to have gone on to receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry. But there he was: the war, his brother’s death, his marriage. My dad worked every day of his life so that he was able to accrue a significant savings that accounts for how a philosophy professor (my husband) and a writer (me) manage to have a weekend house. My dad truly hated driving to New York City. So he looked at a map and figured that the New York Berkshires were equidistant from their home and ours, bought property and paid for a house. It meant that the whole time my kids were growing up they spent nearly ever summer weekend with their grandparents. During the winter, if it wasn’t too snowy, they’d come visit too. A hero. My dad was a hero.
But what about the truly outrageous stories, not ones about tipping cows, but that sing of great deeds? I think particularly of friends of mine whose parents survived the holocaust, something unimaginable that will float out of our consciousness as that generation dies off. Most of these friends have stories about how a parent (usually the father) saving lives in the concentration camp by doing things like giving out jobs in the camp laundry to a guy with one arm. Yup, I’ve actually heard that story. I saw the movie The Counterfeiters and I’m sure there were skilled people who managed to share their semi-safety with others. But I also know from reading history that many who survived did things like shovel ashes out of ovens or beat up their fellow Jews. They were not heroes. They were survivors. When it’s a matter of life and death, especially in indescribably horrible places such as the German concentration camps, the Japanese POW camps, the Soviet Gulags, I think that the Ayn Rand in us may overtake all our impulses of tikkun olam — saving the world. If you look at the numbers, if there had been so many opportunities for saving lives, more would have been saved.
Admitting that you were a kapo in a concentration camp — I would expect no one to do that. Making up a cover story, totally understandable. Making up stories about our parents so we have something to tell people — you know, there’s always the scene where someone comes and thanks the grown child because his or her father had saved his life — I guess that’s human nature too. But still, it’s not right to perpetrate lies and falsehoods, and, even more so, it desecrates their memories — because if you look at their lives, they probably did something heroic, even if it amounted to going into work sick one day out of a feeling of obligation to the family.
But for those of us who repeat a perhaps embellished tale we heard from our dad’s lips — I guess it’s a form of honoring them to keep on telling. They are, in the end, just stories. When Moses brought the tablets with the ten commandments down from Mt. Sinai, the fifth one told us to honor our parents. (If you’re Christian, you number these differently. Sorry.) Yes, there are horrible, horrible parents. Children suffer, and sometimes these sufferings ruin a person’s life. But those of us who feel good about honoring our parents should do so all the time, not just on Father’s Day, even long after they’re dead. If the stories are true, make sure they’re passed down. If they’re not true, well, we can laugh and say, “according to the story.”
If you’re the one who made up the story . . . well, it’s your responsibility to your own kids to cut it out now. That’s how I feel. And I don’t tell the Neils Bohr story anymore, though there’s a chance it’s true. It’s not fair to my dad, who did great things, or to the generations to come whom I want to love and respect a real man and real deeds.
As always, I leave you with some questions. I’d love for you to comment here, but, you know, you can find me on FB and Twitter and even Google+.
1. What is the favorite story your dad told you about his young years?
2. If you have a WWII story, please, please share it.
3. Have you ever doubted a story your parents told you? If so, why, and how did you deal.
4. If someone tells you a story about his or her parents that you know isn’t true, how do you deal? Just nod politely? Point out the inconsistencies? Unfriend them on FB?