| As Always, Jack |
By Emma Sweeney
Genre: Non Fiction
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WHEN I WAS ABOUT TEN years old I was nosing around in some boxes in the basement of my family's house in Coronado, California, when I discovered a large manila envelope marked "Navy Department, Bureau of Naval Personnel: Official Business." Inside I found a photograph of my father, a certificate attesting to his death during active service to his country, and a letter. I had never seen a picture of my father before.
I felt as though I were looking in a mirror. Here were the same deeply set eyes as my own, and dark, wide eyebrows. My mother's own Scandinavian looksblonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skinwere more evident in my older brothers. Most important to me, however, was the typed letter, written days before his plane went down and addressed to my mother. I read the letter several times, looking for some clue in it that he knew about me. Did he know I existed?
I never told anyone of my discovery that day. We lived in a big house, and, with twelve brothers and sisters, my things had a way of disappearing. I put the letter and the photograph in the small cedar box I kept hidden under my bed. Every so often I would read the letter and look at his photograph. One night I fell asleep before putting it away and only remembered it when I was at school. I knew my mother would find it and I worried she would take it away. When I came home the photograph was missing. I found it in the top drawer of my dresser, facedown. I never left it out again.
Though I never knew my father, as a child I did know a few things about him. I knew that he had been a navy pilot and that he and my mother had met in the days just following the end of the Second World War. Before I was born, he and my mother and my four brothers had lived in Bermuda. At the time his plane went down, they had been married for ten years. Growing up, I was told that because no trace of his plane was ever found, he and his flight crew had disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.
Finally, I knew that my mother was pregnant with me when he died. I never came out and directly asked my mother if my father had known she was pregnant. What if he hadn't? So this was the sum of what I knew and didn't know. I spent much of my childhood wanting to know more.
My fantasies about my father were easily nurtured by the silence that surrounded his death. The mystical aspect of the Bermuda Triangle fueled my imagination. I pictured him alive and living in the underwater city of Atlantis with the other pilots and crewmen aboard ships and planes that had mysteriously vanished without a trace. In another scenario I saw him sucked up into the universe. Untethered to Earth and its gravitational forces, his plane had shot into the sky through one of the black holes I was always hearing about.
When Charles Berlitz's Bermuda Triangle was published in 1975, I bought a copy and read it eagerly but was disappointed when I didn't find my father's name. Two years later Berlitz followed up with Without a Trace, where I did find him mentioned. In a table listing planes and ships that had vanished in the Bermuda Triangle, I read that on November 9, 1956, a P5M with a crew of ten had disappeared 300 miles south of Bermuda. This bit of information, which seemed so factual, gave me solid proof of exactly where my father was on that day in November. Somehow it was comforting. It was as close as I had ever come to knowing where he died.
Like many children who have known their fathers, I created one, and he was perfect. He was funny and he laughed a lot. I used to imagine him walking me home from school, helping me pull up my socks when they slipped into my sneakers. He loved to watch me run and play softball. My father was the one person in the world who would never hurt me, never reject me. I pictured him bursting with pride at my achievements, great and small, real and imagined. The fact that he was gone did not mean he did not exist and certainly did not keep me from thinking about him.
My mother moved back to California to be with her family within weeks of receiving the news of my father's death. When I was four, she married a widower with seven children; a few years later they had a child together, making us a family of fifteen. Since I couldn't have two fathers, I was told to call my new father Daddy and my real father Jack. My mother took very seriously the idea of making a new life for herself and her children. We all knew other navy widows in town who seemed never to have moved on, never to have gotten over the loss of their husbands. My mother didn't want to be like them.
As I grew older I tried to get my mother to tell me about my father. She did not talk easily about the past, but I knew some of the memories were happy ones, and I liked seeing her remember those times. For instance, she liked that their house in Bermuda was called "Mimosa Cottage." When she was relaxed and working in the garden, I could ask her questions. She told me he had planned to retire early from the military and write, that his aspiration to become a sportswriter had been put on hold when he entered the Naval Academy in 1939. He had hoped, she said, with some good investments, to buy a small-town newspaper. They had talked of living in the north county of San Diego, close to the racetrack in Del Mar, so my father could bet on the horses.
Coronado is home to many military families. When I was a child, every year at Christmas, the children whose fathers had died in active service would attend a party at the naval base's movie theater. They called us war orphans. Why was I a war orphan? I wondered. I certainly didn't consider myself an orphanI had a mother and a man I called Daddy (or sir). My father's plane had merely disappeared on what I had been told was a simple milk run to Pensacola or Norfolk. He hadn't been killed in Vietnam or the Korean War or World War II. Yet we would be invited up onstage one at a time in alphabetical order and given a plastic red net stocking filled with candy. We would also get a present, and, as I remember, it was something impressivelike a bicycle. But even the prospect of getting a bicycle did not make getting on that stage any easier. None of us liked being in that room full of fatherless kids.
Because we were never told what actually happened, a veil of mystery seemed to hang about our lost fathers. You knew something had gone wrong somehow; they were gone and we were left behind. There was a kind of shame in it. We knew it wasn't supposed to be that way, but it was. When the Vietnam POWs were returning home in the early '70s several of my friends met fathers they didn't remember. Like me, they had grown up not knowing whether their fathers were alive or dead. Now they were meeting them. I clung a little to the hope that with the returning POWs my father would also return.
I remember once sitting on the beach in Coronado when I was about eleven with my best friend, Chris. He pointed across the ocean to a peninsula called Point Loma and said, "That's where my father is." I knew he meant the military cemetery located there. He asked me where my father was. Where was he? A father I'd never met in an ocean I'd never seen. I just mumbled, "Out there, too."
My mother only began to talk to me about my father when I was in my early twenties. I am sure she must have wanted to share him with me. One day beside the fig tree in our backyard that had been planted the day she was born, my mother described how she felt the March day I was born. Her hospital room was filled with flowers, and a nurse came in and exclaimed, "What beautiful flowers! Your husband must love you very much." She wept that day for the first time since receiving the news of my father's disappearance in November. Until I was born, she said, she focused on the tasks before her: packing up the family's belongings in Bermuda, closing the house and bank account, moving back to Coronado, settling the boys in school, and finding a new home.
Another time I asked her to tell me something about my father she didn't like. She thought about it awhile and said, "Everything he wore had to be ironed." "That's it?" I said. She nodded.
I remember being home from college on vacation once, lying on her bed and crying over my boyfriend, whom I missed terribly. My mother sat beside me, looking as pained as I felt. She didn't say anything except, "Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry." I thought, what could this middle-aged woman with thirteen children know about love? And suddenly it hit me. She had lost her husband, the love of her life, the father of her four sons, the father to her unborn daughter. I've never forgotten the look on her face that day.
While few people are prepared to deal with the kind of loss my mother suffered, she seemed particularly ill equipped to survive as a widow and the mother of five young children. Her childhood had been a charmed and sheltered one. Her father, nick-named "Mr. Coronado" because of his dedicated civic service, was a local merchant. Her grandfather, who arrived in Coronado in 1887, when it was mostly sand, sagebrush, and Mexican cactus, opened its first post office in his general store. Her phone number was 1. Coronado itselfcalled "the enchanted island"must have seemed at the time like an unreal place, a place where fairy tales are born and dreams come true. The Hotel del Coronado, which opened the year after my great-grandfather arrived, looks like the topping on a wedding cake, with its Victorian trelliswork and many gables. Like everyone else at that time, my mother believed that Thomas Edison himself installed the lights at the hotel, that Wallis Simpson met the Duke of Windsor there, and that Frank Baum was inspired to write The Wizard of Oz there. I've since learned these stories are just fanciful myths built around some small kernels of truth.
My mother and I often used to rummage together in the bottom drawer of her dresser. It was where she saved everything: heirloom jewelry, the ID bracelets her babies had worn in the hospital, family photographs, letters home from camp, report cards, that sort of thing. (She also saved plenty of unimportant things as well, like my driver's ed certificate and a partially filled-out application for the game show Password.) Once in a while she hid candy bars in there for me. Through the years she would explain the significance or history of a particular piece of jewelry that had belonged to her mother or father. Not long before she died we were looking through the drawer and she showed me a black-and-white photograph of her mother. On the back were the words "Mother in front of her favorite rose." I thought I was familiar with everything in that drawer.
In 1985 my mother died after a long struggle with heart disease. On the morning following her funeral service I discovered toward the back of that dresser drawer a bundle of letters I'd never seen before. Held together by a faded pink ribbon, the bundle looked like it had not been opened in many years.
I know she left those letters there for me.
The letters remained tied up with their pink ribbon for a year after I found them. Finally, one morning I sat down with the bundle and opened the first envelope. I unfolded the stiff sheaf of pages and met my father at last.
Excerpted from As Always, Jack , by Emma Sweeney . Copyright (c) 2002 by Emma Sweeney . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top