Sep 23 2012

Janey

Larry Jones

I found the old snapshot in a shoebox in the garage.

The girl is maybe 18 years old, adorable, still showing a little baby fat. Her skin is tanned, except for the pink in her cheeks. She is seated at a kitchen table in front of a window half-covered with dime-store curtains. Her luxurious dark brown hair is a couple of inches longer than shoulder length, parted a little to the right but not “done.” She is holding a spray can of Black Flag House & Garden. Not really holding it, but with her hand around it the way you might have your hand around a drink as it rests on the table, in between sips. She knows this is funny, and she is telling the camera this with a smile that lights her whole face, really the whole room, and still, after all this time, stops my heart.

She is wearing a little sleeveless thing, mostly green with a close white print on it, a little halter top and shorts all of one piece, that might have been called a sunsuit in earlier times. I know this garment. I know how short the shorts are. I know how it can come off with one zipper in the back.

I know this girl.

She dumped me decades ago. Shortly after we met she gave me this picture that had been taken a year or so earlier. I don’t know exactly how old it was or who snapped the shot, but this was before the days of digital cameras and cell phone photography, when you had to buy film and load it into the camera and then you could only take that many pictures and you couldn’t see any of them until you had shot the entire roll and had it developed, back in the days when you had to put some effort into it, when a photograph really meant something. We didn’t know each other very well at the time, and when she gave me this picture I didn’t know she was saying this is important, what I’m giving to you, and I have more to give, if you only ask. Eventually, I got the message.

We were together for — a year? Two? She lived 50 miles away from me and I thought nothing of making the drive in my rickety car, out to the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley. Once we drove together a thousand miles in that old sled, to another state, just to look at the trees and the mountains we found. I can’t think of any reason for that trip, except I wanted to be alone with her, away from everyone else, because I couldn’t get enough of her.

I didn’t do it right, of course. I broke our promise, the one we made to each other in her bedroom that first time in the Valley, and the other times that followed. We never spoke any words about it, but she knew, and I knew. At some point I began pretending that we were sophisticated grownups enjoying each other immensely, nothing more. Of course I didn’t tell her this, but she knew. Women always do, usually before they even have any evidence.

I thought I was getting away with my bad behavior until one night we left a party together, I thought to go outside and make out. I don’t know how long she’d planned it, or even if she’d planned it. But after we got in the car, and before any hanky panky got started, she told me calmly we were finished, that I wouldn’t be seeing her again. She’d come to the party in her own car, and she was going home without me. From then on, she would be going everywhere without me. She wasn’t angry or emotional, but there was nothing I could say to change her mind. I tried.

So it turned out right after all, I guess. I got what I deserved, tossed out with the trash. She got a fresh start, without me, when she still had all the time in the world. Vaguely, I knew there was a lesson to be learned from this episode. I didn’t learn it, but at least I got enrolled in the class.

I hope to graduate some day.


Sep 17 2012

The Edge

Larry Jones

When I was a small boy, I cut my hand with a double-edged razor blade.

It didn’t hurt — at least I don’t remember any pain — but the bright red blood shocked me. It was flowing out of my hand, I couldn’t even see the cut, and it wouldn’t stop. When I touched it, it got all over my other hand, and then all over my T-shirt when I tried to wipe it off. I was paralyzed with fear, and the blood kept pouring out of the invisible cut. I had two thoughts more or less simultaneously: I want my mother, and there is no way I can explain this to her.

I can’t even explain it to myself, looking back at it through the fog of many decades. What was I doing, that breezy Spring day, walking across a baseball field playing with a Gillette Blue Blade? I can see this blade now in my mind, and it was clean and blue and shiny. Not a rusty old blade that you might find under the bleachers, although why would it be under the bleachers at a municipal ballpark? How did I get my hands on it?I don’t remember, but it seems now that there must have been only two ways: Either I took it from my father’s shaving stuff in the bathroom, or somebody out on the baseball field gave it to me.

That type of blade came in a cool dispenser — a flat blue plastic box with a thumb hole on one side and a slot on one end. You could see the center of the top blade through the hole, and you’d put your thumb on that part of the blade, sliding it out through the slot at the end, Blue-Bladesdirectly into the razor. The next blade would then be visible in the hole, ready for the next change, but the main thing is your razor would be loaded and ready to go without you ever touching those dangerous sharp edges.

Maybe after seeing my father perform this procedure I just had to try it myself. Only of course I ended up with the blade in my hands, not in a razor. A safety razor, as they were called.

I remember thinking, out on the field, with the green grass stretching hundreds of yards in all directions and the warm sun and the pleasant breeze, there is no danger here. This blade is not so sinister. See how it bends and flexes, not at all like a dangerous knife. Why is everybody so nervous about these things? Why have I been kept away from them all this time?

I remember walking while I thought these thoughts, and it was somewhere in the bending and flexing and scoffing that the blood started pouring out of my hand. I had almost convinced myself that this was not even a real blade, that it was just a benign plastic replica, a prop. It couldn’t possibly have just cut me. I had felt nothing, and now there was all this blood. I was afraid and confused. Afraid of the frailty of my skin, confused over the treachery of the blade, shiny and blue and smiling and innocent, like the devil. This blade had fooled me, lulled me into carelessness. I’d been laughing at it, and then it had turned on me.

Of course I ran home. I was a small child, and I didn’t know what else to do. I sensed that I would be in some trouble over playing with razor blades, but also I knew my mother would clean the wound and bandage it, and maybe if I played my cards right I wouldn’t get spanked or yelled at.

In any case, I felt it was worth the gamble. Much later I would develop the resources to take care of my own wounds, the better to deceive not just my mother, but everyone.


Jul 12 2012

I Was Looking for a Job When I Started This One

Larry Jones

I didn’t know when I wrote the previous post that I would be fired just three weeks later.

I’d been working at the same place for 19 years, and it ended in a heartbeat. The business was the sale and service of new automobiles, mostly to individuals who didn’t need them or couldn’t afford them. About half way through my time there, the company was acquired by an out of state corporation, newly created for the express purpose of owning several hundred companies like the one I worked at. Since that acquisition, the new parent company (known on this blog as “HugeCorp”) has been calling the shots, growing more and more intrusive as the years passed, despite having no institutional knowledge of the industry it had bought its way into.Vacant Office

After the acquisition, for me, the biggest change was that I was no longer working for people I knew face to face. They were still there, but they were no longer in charge. We were all drones together, management was thousands of miles away, and the goal of HugeCorp was, plain and simple, to increase its stock value. Nothing was more important.

In late 2008, with the U.S. and world economy in a swoon, HugeCorp began laying off workers, a devastating process that struck like an epidemic of malaria. I had been thinking the epidemic was over, but evidently it is still going on. I have the pink slip to prove it. According to the general manager (the seventh one since HugeCorp took over) they had decided to eliminate my position. Naturally, he told me it was not his decision and he felt terrible about it.

That was on a Thursday afternoon. I started cleaning out my office. I kept the news to myself, but apparently the general manager put the word out, because throughout the day, as I tried to tie up all the loose ends that can accumulate in 19 years, coworkers kept calling and coming in and saying how shocked they were. I told all my colleagues I would be fine, although I really didn’t know if that were true. I warned the management types not to call me if they needed my help, unless they were ready to pay me. I said it with a smile, but they knew I meant it. None of them have the authority to authorize paying me, anyway, but I was going to charge them a lot.

I left there for the last time the next day, feeling strangely numb about the whole thing.

To put it mildly, I didn’t like my job. I didn’t like the bureaucracy, the stupid rules and the feeling that I had become a replaceable cog in a giant machine. I signed up to work at a place with a hundred employees, and by the time I left there were over 20,000 of us. The cog syndrome must have been rampant.

No question the operation was “well run.” Everything that happened was measured in terms of the bottom line. Productivity was improved, by firing many employees and shifting their work to those left behind. Those remaining workers didn’t get any more money for doing all the extra work, and it was understood that asking for more money was fruitless at best, dangerous at worst. Periodically another “expendable” employee was cut loose for no apparent reason, adding to the sense of dread.

I felt tainted by the casual cruelty, and guilty like a plane crash survivor who has lived while others died. I should have quit ten years earlier when I started to feel dirty, but I needed the money and the medical insurance. As for the sleazy business we were involved in, I tried to be in it, but not of it. I don’t know if I succeeded at that.

I don’t have to worry about it any more. My issues now involve survival and self image. I am not well prepared. Will anyone hire a cranky old dude like me? Will my money last until then, or until I die? If I accept unemployment benefits am I then a member of the “moocher class?” Is there an honest, decent way to earn enough to take care of myself and my wife?

My new job is finding answers. I have no experience. I hope I can figure things out.


Apr 5 2012

Uncertainty

Larry Jones

I posted this as a comment on Narya’s blog today, and since I rarely have the time to write anything new, I thought I’d use it here on my own blog:

In my whole long working life I have never seen as much uncertainty among workers as I see today. At my company, except for the sales staff, who by necessity lead lives of self-delusion, everyone around me is fearful for their jobs. Also, we have half as many people doing five times as much work.

This may not have been the conscious goal of all employers, but it is the end result of the politics of division, the destruction of the labor movement, the redistribution of wealth, economic globalization and the dumbing down of our people. Most of us have now learned to keep our heads down and our mouths shut and take whatever pay our employer wants to give us, along with whatever ration of shit comes our way on the job.

I have found a few things to do at my workplace that seem to be the right combination of “have-to-be-done” and “kind-of-hard-to-do.” In exchange for doing those tasks (and not ever, ever demanding more money) I get to keep my job and my 1976-level salary.

I really think the American worker is demoralized. We have seen our homes taken away, our pensions converted to “retirement accounts” and then wiped out, our friends fired from their jobs, our loved ones get sick and sometimes die for lack of medical insurance and our so-called leaders either clueless or collaborating, while the richest people and corporations continue to get richer and call all the shots, both in business and in public policy.

If you came here to visit me from Mars, you’d think I have a stable, secure life. It may look that way, but I am very uncertain about the future, and that includes tomorrow morning.

So, if you’re a little spooked these days, or going through the motions in a state of shock, you’re not alone.


Mar 30 2012

Health Care Act on Trial

Larry Jones

I was not happy about the Affordable Care Act when it was finally passed in 2010, after nearly two years of wrangling in Congress.

I thought President Obama had sold out, that he should have at least urged a discussion of single-payer or a public option. In the end I felt like the insurance companies had won a great victory, and I still think that. Since then I’ve tried to soothe my outrage by looking at the good points of the finished legislation: Insurance companies can’t refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions or drop you when you get sick; the “lifetime limit” on coverage is banned; kids can stay on the family health plan until age 26; seniors get help paying for their prescriptions. I told myself that, after a hundred years of inaction it was a start, and it could be improved over time.

I should have known better.

I still don’t know why there was a popular outcry against the bill. I assume it was uninformed cranks or people who just hated Obama. Why would you not want affordable health care for everybody? But then the state attorneys general got into the act, and now the Supreme Court is deliberating. Once the court challenges began I knew it would end up with the Supremes, and I was sure they would uphold it. I still think they will, but I’m no longer certain, and neither are most court watchers.

Here are two reasons why I think the law will be substantially upheld:

  • There are four right-wing extremists on the court, plus Justice Kennedy, who is pretty conservative. Their questioning during the arguments this week indicates that they are viewing this case through the most partisan of lenses. They seem to have made up their minds, and are looking for a way to strike down the law. But… like most extreme right wing politicians, they are controlled by rich people and corporate interests. They know their job: Make life better for Exxon, Halliburton and United Heath Care. Right now, this bill feeds 40 million new customers to the U.S. insurance industry. Strike down this bill and the industry would have to spend untold millions of dollars over several decades to gain that much new business, and it’s possible that they never would. I don’t think the corporatists on the court will let that happen.
  • The right wingers on the court are worried about the requirement in the bill that everyone must purchase insurance. They think it’s too much government intrusion. Fair enough, but if they invalidate the health care bill and put the nation right back where it was — near the bottom among developed nations in medical outcomes and near the top in medical spending — there will still be a health care crisis and a desperate need for reform. And version 2.0 of that reform will very likely be a single-payer system administered by the government and paid for with taxes. This would be unarguably constitutional, but a nightmare scenario for the right. I believe that someone will mention this to the conservatives on the court in the next few weeks, and that it will make them stop short of striking down the bill.

That’s what I think, anyway. But lately the right wing has become sort of unhinged. They do things based on a perceived ideological mandate rather than practical considerations of moving the nation forward. We can’t always predict what they will do. So they might shoot this down.

In the chaos that will ensue, I hope none of them sprains a wrist high-fiving each other, because there will be a long wait to get treatment at the emergency room.


Oct 9 2011

Love And Dice

Larry Jones

With the media frenzy surrounding the death of Steve Jobs, I have been contemplating life and death.

They are playing clips in heavy rotation on TV and radio from his commencement speech at Stanford a few years ago, after he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had already had a liver transplant. He must have known he didn’t have much more time, and he told the graduates something like this:

“Death is an important part of life, because it clears away the old to make way for the new. You are new today, but don’t forget that someday you’ll be old, and death will come to clear you away. Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Whatever you do, make sure you do what you love.”

I’ve heard this advice in various forms from various people my whole life, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s not the way the world works. It’s that “do what you love” thing that has caused an entire generation to believe they (we) are special, and that the world owes them (us) a living, that we are entitled to experiment all our lives, try this career, sample that lifestyle, and somehow everything will work out.

After many years of study, I can tell you that everything does not necessarily work out. Sometimes you lose your job, your wife, even your home. Sometimes there are powerful reasons why you have to stay in a dead-end job — for example, you need the paycheck, you have responsibilities, people who depend on you for food and health care. You “live someone else’s life” because that someone supplies the paycheck, and no matter how difficult or demeaning the work may be, you suck it up, because you have to. You don’t go chasing dreams, because you have to survive.

Here’s how I think life works: You roll the dice, and you see what happens. Whatever happens, you have to deal with it. You might become a billionaire, like Steve Jobs, or you might lose your shirt. The good news is you can roll the dice as many times as you want, chase various dreams, take many lovers, try different vocations. The bad news is, each roll takes something out of you: your money, your time, your heart. There’s no hard limit, but after a certain number of rolls, you will run out of resources to roll again. You may not have any more money, or enough time. In my case, I don’t have the heart any more.

I went through many years of confusion and denial about this, because I believed that if I followed my dreams, things would work out, and in that context it didn’t make sense that things weren’t working out, at least not the way I’d hoped. Now I know that life happens the way it happens, and you can bend the arc a little bit, but you can’t make it turn out exactly the way you envisioned it. Steve Jobs took a bunch of technology that had been invented by others, packaged it attractively and dropped it into a market that was ripe to take off. It was probably difficult for him, 25 years later, to think back and see it happening any other way, but of course it might have happened differently. How many millions were following their dreams at that same moment in time, and how many of them achieved phenomenal success?

Not very freakin’ many.

We don’t want to admit it, because we want to put Steve Jobs up on a pedestal and believe that he represents the inevitable result of perseverance, hard work, and doing what we love. If he can do it, so can we, because that’s the way it works, right? The more likely truth is that he was in the right place at the right time, and along with the love and the hard work and the perseverance, he was damned lucky.

The funny thing is, when I try to imagine what I would do with my life if I had it to do over, I think I would take pretty much the same path. I’d like to think I’d do it better, make better decisions at the important junctures, but maybe that’s just the experience talking, experience I wouldn’t have if I were really “starting over.” Maybe I’d be luckier the second time around, and maybe not. But if I had a second chance at my life, I guess that’s what I’d do: Do it over.


Sep 28 2011

Neither Snow Nor Sleet

Larry Jones

The Postal Service is one of the finest institutions we have.

Personally, I think forty-four cents to mail a letter to anyplace in the country is the bargain of the century. And they will take that letter to any address, no matter how far out in the sticks it happens to be.

But have you noticed lately all the talk about how the Post Office is a basket case, inefficient, poorly managed, and unable to pay its bills? According to this drumbeat they have to shut down a bunch of offices and lay off tens of thousands of workers, and even then they will have to reduce services to make ends meet. They just can’t compete with the leaner, smarter, market-driven private delivery services.

But did you know that beginning five years ago during the Bush Administration, a law was passed requiring the Postal Service to fully fund its pension plan 75 years into the future, and that they are required to accomplish this feat within the next five years? In other words they have to be 100% ready to pay a pension to workers who have not yet been born. And this at the same time that UPS and Federal Express are lobbying strongly to be allowed to use their pension funds today as operating money, claiming that it will enable them to be more profitable, thus “saving” their pension funds.

Meanwhile, the “bankrupt” U.S. Postal Service is sitting on 47 billion dollars, much of which won’t be needed for decades, and instead of being allowed to use it, they are told to sell off property and fire workers.

Put those facts together with the fact the the Postal Service is the second largest employer in the country, with by far the largest unionized work force, and I don’t know about you, but I smell something fishy. The drive to crush the labor movement and decimate the middle class would certainly count it as a major victory to see the Post Office dismantled, its workers laid off, its union shut down, its buildings and equipment sold off and private, anti-union, companies taking over the delivery of mail in the U.S. The nonsensical requirement that it overfund its pension and medical benefits plans so far into the future makes it little more than a large beautiful animal with broken legs, unable to defend itself as the hyenas of greed eat it, bite by bite.

Make no mistake — if we lose the Postal Service, we lose a precious American institution. The centuries have shown that the delivery of mail is a proper function of government. Privatization would put us at the mercy of delivery services which would no longer have to compete. Prices would rise, and with no mandate to deliver the mail, services would surely be reduced — except for those who could pay for them.

One step toward saving our Post Office (and the union, and all those jobs and all that tradition, and all those services) is House Bill 1351, which reverses the 2006 law mandating the benefits plan overfunding. You can read the bill here (PDF) and see some TV coverage of the subject here. If you care, consider contacting your member of Congress and asking them to support this bill.


Aug 17 2011

Spoils

Larry Jones

Jones’ Law Number 2: The superrich get their wealth in one of two ways. They steal it, or they inherit it from someone who stole it.

You can argue with the semantics, and you might even be able to point out an exception or two, but basically if you want to acquire great wealth in this world, you have to take it from someone who is weaker or stupider than you. This is what all the great wars and conquests of history have been about: the spoils.

So now in the 21st century, as the governments of the world morph into giant international corporation-states, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see that the pillaging continues. In the United States and around the world, elites live in regal opulence isolated in fortress-like security, many of them so rich they can’t remember how many homes they own. Bankers and hedge fund managers earn sums that are literally unimaginable. Corporate CEOs pay themselves hundreds of times what their average worker makes, often while the company tanks and jobs are moved overseas. Politicians have been “supported” by corporations for so long now that they have forgotten that they are being bribed, and they look the other way as corporate lawyers and lobbyists write bills legalizing the ongoing money grab. When this corruption occasionally brings down the house, as it did in 2007-08, the corporate-owned government uses taxpayer money to make whole the criminals who caused the crash, and when the bailout money runs out, severe austerity is imposed on the people, as in Britain, Greece, Argentina, and soon the United States. Meanwhile the superrich culprits skate.

Nor, it seems to me, should we be very surprised when people take to the streets in mindless rampage, trashing everything in their path and grabbing for themselves anything of value they can get away with. After all, isn’t this the example they have been seeing at the highest levels of society? When shady-but-legal Wall Street shenanigans have ruined the economy, taken the incomes and homes of tens of millions and wiped out retirement savings and college funds, what’s a few big-screen televisions or a whole boxcar full of tennis shoes? When the bankers have escaped to their mansions with all your money, why not torch the bank?

I am getting nervous about what seems to be developing in this country. Billionaires have usurped the government, leaving no force in its place to temper their greed. The economic and social distance between those at the very top and the rest of us has grown so great that there is no more communication. The story we tell ourselves of justice and equality for all is now mere myth. Some tea partiers have already shown up at Presidential events carrying guns. The violence in the human heart has been amply on display in past decades: the Watts Riots in 1965; in Detroit in 1967; back in Los Angeles in 1992; London just last week. Worldwide there have been literally hundreds of civil disturbances since the middle of the 20 century, with an increasing number of them in the United States.

Our government has not been effective in mitigating the current recession. Saying it’s over and things are getting better does nothing to calm the fear and anger of the common people, especially when unemployment and foreclosures are still at record levels while the upper echelons of society are clearly doing better than ever and seem completely unwilling to share in the burden of rebuilding the economy.

If your job is gone or you fear it might be; if your home has been taken away or you fear it might be; if your grown children are back living in your home because they are broke and unemployed after spending a hundred thousand dollars on a college degree; if you have sent out 500 job applications and got nothing back; if you are sick and can’t get medicine; if you are living in a shelter or a car; if your children are hungry; if your elected representatives bicker like children instead of working toward solutions — how much spark would it take to send you in a rage out into the street to take back what you thought was yours and to wreak vengeance on those who took it from you?

There are sparks every day in every city. At some point will the humiliated working class join the angry, armed tea partiers and the dispossessed Left and start to lash out blindly? I hope not. The people can’t win such a war, and neither can the elites.

As in all wars, there will only be losers.


May 30 2011

Endless War, Endless Con

Larry Jones

Memorial Day again.

Yesterday I saw a piece on TV about staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first U.S. soldier since Vietnam to get the Medal of Honor while he was still alive. You usually get that one when you’re dead. Sergeant Giunta did some insane heroic stuff in Afghanistan, rescued a couple of guys who were certain to be killed, got shot himself and made it out alive.

This morning I saw the President make a speech about our brave fighting men and women. Obama stood in front of a flag and intoned the same old cliches that must be intoned every year, how they willingly went and got killed to preserve our freedom, and how more people had to be ready to do the same, or else the last bunch would have died in vain. I had to stop watching and go to work, but I would bet that the rest of the television day was all patriotism all the time, except for the soaps and reruns of George Lopez.Battle-Scene

If you’re reading here you might already know what I think about all this. I think it’s bullshit. Sergeant Giunta will almost certainly now be against war. He will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s not a hero, that war is a brutal horror that does not lead to glory. And then in about 18 years, he will send his son off to fight, to kill, and maybe get killed.

I’m sad that it has taken me so long to recognize this pathetic truth, that we humans can’t get along, that our veneer of civility is so thin it barely hides the hatred and the violence in our hearts. That the bully always wins.

As I was growing up I watched my father relive the atrocities of World War 2, and I still shudder to think of what it did to him. As a young man I came to understand that the war in Vietnam was a sham, built on the ridiculous premise that somehow by destroying that beautiful little country and terrorizing its people we were stopping the international communist menace. It was laughable except for the real deaths and maimings that happened all day every day for years. When our protests finally forced the government to abandon that war, I thought we had won a lasting peace, that the nation had learned a lesson. Some joke.

Of course millions more have died and been injured since then. Every generation allows itself to be conned into believing that we must fight one more war, one more defense of our way of life. We know it is wrong and it will be horrible, we tell ourselves, but this time it is necessary, because our freedom is threatened, our honor is challenged, and we must not let the memory of our dead heroes be defiled. And so each generation repeats the stupidity.

The soldiers don’t realize it, but they are not fighting to protect our freedom. They are giving up their lives and their limbs and their brains to protect our oil companies and to enrich our arms dealers. I’m not saying they’re not brave or worthy of respect, or that they never accomplish anything good. I’m saying they’ve been conned, and they don’t know what they’re doing.

Moms and dads of America, how do you teach your little ones not to touch a hot stove? Do you let them touch it and burn themselves? Or do you advise them in the strongest possible way never, ever to put their precious little hands on the hot metal?

You know the danger, and they don’t. You should tell them.


May 4 2011

A Reminiscence

Larry Jones

My father was born on this day in 1913.

If he had lived, he would be 98 today. But he died a long time ago, exactly 19 years after I was born. He was rip snorting drunk a good portion of those 19 years, and just plain not around for a few of them, so I only knew him the way a child knows his parents. We never got to talk at a time when I was mature enough to ask the important questions, let alone understand the answers. A lot of what I think I know is pieced together from things he told me, or things I heard from others.

He came from a huge Catholic family. I am out of touch with almost all of them now, and I don’t remember most of them anyway, but he had something like five brothers and three or four sisters. By his own admission he was a troublemaker in grade school, and claimed to have quit altogether after 5th grade. I have no idea what he was into from then until his teens, but as a young man he joined the National Guard. I suspect that he had no particular patriotic motive, but just needed the cash during the depression of the 1930′s.

He was in the infantry in Europe during World War 2. I gather his mission was to lay communication wire. He said the Germans were jamming the radios, or maybe they were listening in, I don’t know, so the Allies resorted to laying telephone wire across the battlefields, for secure command and control. He got out of the Army in 1946.

I have come to think of the war years as the defining time of his life. Some of my earliest memories are of him getting liquored up and desperately trying to relive his days as a staff sergeant, gathering his little family and forcing us to listen to him describe mostly routine military stuff, like marching and saluting and polishing your boots and making your bed so a coin would bounce on the bedspread.

These topics didn’t come up when he wasn’t drinking, so I came to associate military talk with the angry, threatening drunk in our house. I don’t know if getting drunk made him think back to his Army days or if his experience in the Army made him want to get drunk. Once — only once — he told me of an actual combat incident, a time when he managed to blow up a German military vehicle, knowing that two soldiers were inside of it. I have no idea how he did it, or even if it really happened, but he wept in front of me when he told the story. I was confused at the time: Weren’t these Germans the enemy? What was wrong with incinerating them? Why would a grown man — a soldier — cry about it? Today I think I know.

I disappointed him. I wasn’t a brawler like him, or — during his lifetime — a drinker. I didn’t care to fish or hunt like he did with his brothers. I was a soft kid, a reader, a musician. I was in college during the last year of his life, and he had already written me off as an over educated oaf — his words exactly. I hope my memory is not playing tricks on me when I tell you that in his last few months I made my peace with him. Not directly face to face, because you can’t do that with an addict, but in my heart I forgave him, and I loved him, because he was my dad and he’d had it impossibly hard and he didn’t know how to deal with the whirlwind that was his life.

I don’t know if my father loved me, his firstborn. My parents had five children, and thinking back over those years it now seems to me that he — they — must have been scrambling like crazy to keep up with the life they had made for themselves. They survived the Depression, served in the War, then got married in a fever and before they knew it, had five kids. I’m sure it was all they could do to keep it together.

But I do know that I got an electric train for my fifth Christmas. A Lionel electric train. Just a small oval track, a locomotive and three cars, but it was a complete surprise and, to me, the best gift ever. It was set up and circling the base of the Christmas tree when I first saw it. Many years later my mother told me that he had bought it for me on the day I was born.

Happy birthday Pop, and thanks.