“‘I killed the monsters. That’s what fathers do.’” • Fiona Wallace
We lived outside Paterson in Hawthorne, NJ those early years and on VERY early Saturday mornings my parents, would head with me and my brother in the backseat to a market in Paterson just a few miles down the road. Here you could get heaps of damaged or unattractive vegetables for next to nothing and a 50-pound bag of potatoes for a dollar – staring back at the silvery, depthless fish eyes was free. Although my father was an engineer, my parents were poor – and frugal.
I remember one such morning, so early it was still dark, my father pressing the gas pedal of our 1953 grey Rambler Nash station wagon to the floor on a hill in the rainy dark and the more gas he gave, the more sluggishly the wipers swished to and fro. And then suddenly the wipers froze mid-windshield. I can still see my father hunkered anxiously over the wheel, gripping it tighter than he had ever gripped anything in his life, trying to peer through the raindrops into the dark, with a loose headlamp casting a wiggly lightbeam onto the roadway; my mother next to him screaming, demanding he do something. He responded meekly, calmly: “I can’t do anything about it [in Dutch]; it’s not me – it’s the car.”
That afternoon he took the wiper mechanism apart and after much swearing [in Dutch] with his rosy, sweaty head tucked under the hood, he had to conclude that he could not fix everything and that Rambler engineers needed to seriously address this defect. Years later, he’d sometimes boast – in an ironic, self-deprecating manner – about how he could fix “anything,” now with an amendment: “except the wipers of a Rambler Nash.” This usually got a laugh from at least me and certainly him because he, like ALL fathers, laughed at his own jokes. My mother didn’t see the joke, not even 20 years later, describing it in the same tone as she described the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam.
This was maybe the first mind-break moment when his image as infallible began to crack – or become more human. Of all the millions of minutes of events – many more significant than this seemingly forgettable wiper incident – this particular trip into Paterson remains indelibly etched in my mind and whenever I see Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters,” for instance, I think back to that moment.
My father rarely offered unedited glimpses of weakness and that is part of the “job” of a father as defined by the function of family: hide the wounds, the soft spots, the tear-jerk moments, and protect your children from the undue, adverse effects of life on their ability to move on with a reasonably positive outlook into their own mistake-landmined futures. The immoveable force, the one with the map, the way out and the stone to toss at the cruel idiot kids at school who always managed to taunt you just long and deep enough to get you crying with the bullies swaggering in victory, fists raised, chanting their hooligan war cries down the windy lane named after a flower.
Did I inherit this wimpy sensitivity, this inability to fight back and did I nicely spin cowardice as Gandhian pacifism-courage over time? Maybe. However, at the age of 9, I possessed a profound ignorance of the depths of human depravity and how the bored [lacking the wherewithal to entertain themselves] can be so cruel in efforts to kill the very boredom they fear will otherwise kill them.
My father, being Frisian, endured a million indignities stoically, silently. He might console me in those snickering post-bully moments with a quick whisk of his hand through my hair, mumbling only: “klootzakken en stommelingen” [fuckers and fuckheads], followed by a sly laugh to imbue life with a moment of wu wei lightness, a hint that, like some Taoist, he knew events turned how they must – no matter how ridiculous or unfair.
The day he saw me bleeding in the General Foundry in Flint, MI, where I worked for some time and he for years, him escorting me from the hazardous area where molten iron is poured into sand cast molds to the first aid nook, patiently cleaning the cut and then calmly, silently wrapping a bandage around the wound. I said it was nothing, don’t bother, and he said it wasn’t a bother and it was something that may not be a big deal now but an infection could make it big later. It is magical when the curtains to a dark stage – his deepest thoughts – split open ever so slightly so that you could treasure it the way you do when you find a rare shell on a beach.
I am recalling all this legacy and father stuff right now around his birthday as I face annoyingly incomprehensible forces linked to greed in commerce, enabled by obfuscatory Kafka-like conditions, as I again and again am forced to enter the absurd theatre of bureaucracies where the masquerade that service reps engage in – the providing of service to customers – is just a genuflect for a pay check in the service of stockholding pocket-stuffers. But we all contribute our part to the charade of the cage in search of the bird, to paraphrase Kafka. My part involves quibbling with various reps who employ labyrinthine protocols, ad slogans and website platforms to ultimately plausibly ignore your case-complaint. Grrr. My conflagrations last year involved Comcast, Verizon, and PPL [my mother’s old electric company], some years ago with KPN [NL telecom provider] and THIS year with the BB&T bank and Enterprise Car Rental. I mention this as a footnote to show what a perpetual distraction everyday annoyances are to those seeking to put pen to paper and mind to word and word to mind. Double GRRR. I do not tell my daughter about these skirmishes fought on the “tundra of pulverizing boredom” [Christopher Hitchens] – and think of my father and his concealed vulnerability and the necessary dynamic of its denial…
Recently, lying on an air mattress in my brother’s extra bedroom, I was browsing through a photo album lovingly and deliriously scrapbooked together by my mom [is it genetic? I too do scrapbooks]. I say lovingly because she would scrawl nice notes next to certain photos; I say deliriously because her chronology means something else to her, something impressionistic and I guess that makes her experimental or demented or spiritual as events shift tectonically based on the gravitational pull between memories and photos.
I found myself staring at the Dunes of Schoorl photo [top photo] taken by my mother of me and my brother standing with my father in Schoorl, a 50s–60s vacation destination for Amsterdammers who could not afford to travel far but still wanted the feeling they were somewhere else for a week. My father, all of 33 here, looks awkwardly innocent but already quite capable of hiding anxieties that inhabit any and every future we know of.
Only a few months later, in fact, he announced that we were moving faraway, taking advantage of a Dutch post-war government program that encouraged citizens to migrate with financial inducements – in other words, we were helped financially to leave. I assumed my mother was in on the decision making but she even to this day vehemently disputes this, claiming it was a unilateral decision, that she was kept in the dark, denying all this in such a way as to dodge blame for any adverse after-effects we incurred as a result of our migration to the US of A in November of 1960.
I was at age 6 totally oblivous to what was happening – events just seemed to occur without purpose or design. But as I grew older, I thought we must have been moving TOWARD something like greener pastures, where my father thought the prospects for a metallurgical engineer would be decidedly improved. That he was perhaps wrong or at least naively optimistic did not become clear until much later in life. It also never occurred to me until not that long ago that maybe he was running AWAY from something – girl friends, a damaged personal history, post-war despair, family issues, the Russians, dubious associations …
In my hormonally imbalanced and rebellious teen years when personal dissatisfaction, hormones, and my moral gps fused seamlessly with that of the counterculture – as if DNA and revolt were somehow mutual attractors. So Yippies, the Weather Underground, hippies, Kesey, Hendrix, Vonnegut, Dylan, Joseph Heller, and poetic contrariness all effortlessly accented, trumpeted and expressed my basic qualms and desires. This hormonal haze prevented me from seeing my father as sensitive or vulnerable, and more as a symbol of squares enforcing conformity to values they couldn’t even define but needed to enforce to make obedient citizens of us.
Another landmark moment of vulnerability involved a show of uncharacteristic brutality. He was generally a mild, unhampered-by-testosterone male, but one day he had simply had enough. He stormed into my room and tore down all of my anti-war posters, rock clippings, glo-in-the-dark Endless Summer poster and the counterculture photo collage comprised of pics clipped from weeklies like Newsweek and Look and then punched me with great pent-up force in the arm because he was going crazy with all this anti-establishment contrariness at every meal and he wasn’t even a fan of Nixon – or war. He may have been egged on by my mother who often railed at my loutish behavior, lashing out – scratching, hitting, yelling, slamming kitchen cabinet doors. She once reacted to loud music I was playing on my Monkey Wards stereo that looked like a real stereo but cost only $39.99 by fitfully scattering all 10 of my albums all over my room. I only made her madder by simply not tidying up this crime scene for weeks.
Anyway, the next day, a Saturday, he walked contritely into my room, head down, opened his wallet and calmly slid out $10 and, handing it to me, said: “This is for some new posters.”
That he never wholeheartedly bought into this generation-gap hype is not something he made clear to me as a teen. I was probably wrong in rejecting something I wasn’t even sure he represented, but it seemed like a necessary distantiation tactic back then. I regretted this and I told him so just before he died. He, in turn, confessed in his own oblique Frisian manner that I was right about the Vietnam War and unions because he had – now looking back at it – been so badly treated as a white-collar worker, fired without reason or recourse, without a union to back him, that he eventually became very pro-union. He also struggled to understand why he, a nice company man, unpaid overtime, the winner of countless company awards, praise, and [ever-so-slight] raises would be so summarily fired by companies like GE. Figuring it had something to do with being an alien, he eventually, in the 1980s, decided with my mother to trade in their Green Cards to become American citizens. But, in the long run, this strategy did not siginificantly improve his lot – if at all: he remained an admired engineer with no job security and the feeling no one wants to feel, that of utter expendability.
The cumulative data of my father’s American employment history boils down to not a whole lot of highlights, plenty that scraped bottom and we never really learned WHY he had decided to emigrate in the first place. My uncle, his brother, Jan, up to the time of his own death, never stopped asking me WHY we moved. Because, you see, right up until we moved in 1960 he had had a good job as a metallurgical engineer, had job security, was on the list for company-arranged housing, etc.
And then, 2 years before he died, he described how he had been snatched from the streets of Amsterdam in 1943 as a teenager and forced to work in a plant producing I think armaments for the Nazis in a Siemens factory in Germany not far from Berlin. He experienced privation, hunger, witnessed death and lost [girl?] friends but admitted that the Nazis treated the Dutch better than most because they were seen as possible Aryan converts – and that’s maybe why he survived. He also witnessed the brutal liberation of Berlin by the not-pleased Russians [some 22 million Russians died during the war] and they took their revenge out on the Berlin survivors in a manner he could not even describe, being of the meeker-stomached sort.
Maybe we moved in response to escalating Cold War rhetoric and an ascending Soviet Union. Is that cowardice or simply a natural instinct to protect one’s family from potential harm based on available information at that moment? We’ll never know and that’s OK too.
In any case, in the nearly 42 years he lived in the US he never once returned to Amsterdam and never mentioned any desire to do so. Maybe his return would not have been triumphant enough and any lingering tales of hard times would have been easy meat for the I-told-you-so members of the family. Because, after all of those years working in American foundries – one step above the horrors of a coal mine – he was still only earning a lower-middle-class salary. While cleaning out my mom’s house I found some old pay stubs and calculated – times 12 – that he was earning under $30,000 annually at his last job in Lancaster, PA, which is where they finally settled and lived the longest in their lives after an odd suburban Rust Bowl migratory trail à la the Dust Bowl 30s – moving some 16 times in 20 years, before finally settling down in Lancaster.
“Watch my daddy in bed a-dyin’ / Watched his hair been turnin’ grey / He’s been workin’ and slavin’ his life away / Oh yes I know it”
• The Animals, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
My father got into a car accident on his way to work in Lancaster one winter day in 1991. He recovered [somewhat] but I began noticing his deep woeful stare into an existential emptiness from position 2 of his 3-position easy chair that his inability to go for walks and his handfuls of pills did not fully explain. He did once hobble down to the basement where he showed me a souvenir G-string he’d saved from when the company ordered a stripper for his 70th birthday. That got us both laughing. That he wasn’t anywhere near retirement – until the accident – wasn’t something you could so easily laugh about, however.
He pulled me aside down in the basement and made me promise not to squawk about what he was about to tell me: He almost died on the operating table that fateful day. He described a beautiful hallucination, so beautiful he actually longed to rejoin it – that’s how enchanting and peaceful it was. On the table he swears he heard the surgeon saying it was hopeless – “he’s dead” – and just then his body began to feel lighter, float and his thoughts and dreams transformed into a marching column of illuminated ants that slowly wound their way up and out a small dark hole in the ceiling on the other side of which was a warm, bright field. He grew pensive for a minute and then smiled: “Crazy.” “‘Break on through to the other side’.” His quizzical look. “It’s from a song from back then … It reminds me of an LSD experience.” His response was odd as if he were trespassing on some terre incognita: “If I was young today I’d smoke marijuana.” Wow. Alas he did not die that day in 1991 and he never got to smoke weed [should I have arranged it?] and so he ended up condemned to living on a kind of medical death row for 11 years, swallowing a broad spectrum of pills to dilute his blood, regulate his heart and keep him lucid and upright in his easy chair so he could watch endless TV – “World at War” reruns were his faves.
As he seemed to be making his way to his last day, not with any grand obvious gesture or profound insight, but like a balloon with a small puncture imperceptibly deflating, I started collecting quotes about what we’d discussed in the basement encounter [which probably clocked in at 3.5 minutes tops].
“There is lucidity inspired by the nearness of the grave: to be close to death is to see clearly.”
• Victor Hugo
I want a busy life, a just mind and a timely death.”
• Zora Neale Hurston
“I’ve been very near death. And you can’t imagine the wild elation of those moments – it’s the sudden glimpse of the absurdity of life that brings it.”
• André Malraux
“Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe, old age flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.”
• Edith Wharton
Further nosing around revealed that non-ordinary states of consciousness like near-death involving luminosity, approaching a warm, blissful, white light are sometimes explained away as merely subjective hysteria or events triggered by biological or medical phenomena gone awry. Or that the brain is flooded with endorphins during fear-inducing, life-threatening events thereby causing hallucinations. Or visual impairment due to oxygen loss and yet this does not explain the vivid home movies projected on the private screen inside the survivor’s forehead.
Some near-death studies, however, propose the existence of a metaphysical “umbilical cord” that connects the physical body with the spirit body and if severed a “point of no return” is crossed and death occurs. This helped some, but his silent stare that disintegrated any charade of acting like he was enjoying TV still haunts me to this day. Maybe I misread the woe and it was actually regret or the shame of some deep, dark secret that he needed to withhold from us as if not-knowing was the essence of family, of camaraderie. Did it involve him and his cavalier, looking-out-the-side-window driving style that may have caused that fateful accident? Is this what he needed but could not say: I am guilty; I caused the accident through negligence.
Periodically, under the pretext of getting some fresh air and giving my mom a break from lording her style of neurotic care over him, we’d drive around and end up going to the state-run liquor store and getting a few bottles of whatever hard stuff was on sale. We’d drive around and end up sitting on the far edge of a shopping plaza talking about stupid crap like baseball, the Go-Gos vs Spice Girls, weather, and making questionable fun of some of the loonies wandering around the shopping plaza parking lot. Thanks to Reagan’s disastrous policy of deinstitutionalizing the nation’s mentally ill, moving them from the hospitals and onto the streets, we reaped it’s miniscule positive aspects: one could say that at least we’re not as bad off as these characters. Uplifting right? But, like a cola’s wide-eyed sugar rush, a very temporary and laconic high, indeed.
Did I mind if he took another sip of his whatever-was-on-sale whiskey in the car? No. Why not, it’s your whiskey. And did I have the Lifesavers that would save his life from my mother who could smell the dream of a whiskey sour a mile away? She had already discovered earlier stashes of his booze and glossy softcore mags. I had watched my mom take the bottles by the neck and in a moment of triumphant rage reserved for only the most evangelical or demented members of The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and pour their contents down the kitchen drain all the time ranting about how mixing drink and drugs leads to death.
So when we got home we agreed he’d distract her by asking for a glass of water while I ducked with bottles in my bag into his den where he still sometimes spent a few quiet moments to tend to his lily and rose hybrids, various calculations, the layout on graph paper of next year’s flower plantings. Here I hid the bottles in a drawer that my mom would never get into because he now kept it locked with a key he hid in a clandestine spot, which was amusing enough for us to share a modest conquering laugh, like those who glory in small triumphs on Friday nights.
One day he handed me a cigar box of negatives, discolored notepads, meal coupons and other memorabilia saved from the war and he told me with a sincerity that only deep regret can manufacture: that if he could live his life over again he would have chosen something along the lines of my seeming carefree, hippie lifestyle of writing, travel, art and girl friends. It was not the right moment to correct him: life had not been a picnic but I could see what he meant. Browsing through Delmore Schwartz, I spotted this in “Father & Son”: “Son: But I thought time was full of promises … / Father: That is the first of all its menaces, / The lure of a future different from today…”
But perhaps his ultimate triumph in a long life of modest defeats – if I pretend to look at it from his point of view – beyond the small victories of evading my mother’s detection with his liquor, was his abstaining from taking 2 essential pills, having acted for some time at the dinner table as if he was dutifully taking them twice a day but really hiding them under his tongue, spitting them out in his den and placing them in a secret jar.
So that by the time he died while weeding his flower patch, tending his hybrid lilies and roses [none have thus far been named after him] he had saved some 150+ untaken pills.
Hypothesis: It was an obvious message that he had wrested control of his fate of living a foggy, medicated half-death away from the doctors and had got out on his own terms and, as fate would have it, while doing one of the only things he still enjoyed doing, especially after a few shots of clandestine whiskey, which could sill set him to humming a tune I still cannot name, which in certain circles is seen as a triumph of human will over a fate worse than death – a living death.
If the poetics of circumstance and synchronicity can add some splendid essence to someone’s passing, why not! But my mother was not someone given to this kind of poetics. She continued to blame me for not being there for him or her immediately post-crash and post-mortem. But her dementia has allowed her to forget all of this – a small upside to the big downside of dementia.
Looking through papers about to be discarded while cleaning out my mom’s house, I ran across a copy of the police report of the car accident, which was so poorly written by the reporting officer – both handwriting and English grammar-wise – that even after reading it 10 times it was still not clear whether my father was being given a traffic citation for swerving into to the opposing lane or that he was actually the victim of this head-on. And it may even be possible that it was written ambivalently/messily so as to not cast blame on either driver – that perhaps it just happened.
Related: Live Radio – Dead Father, earlier memoir + soundtrack in Paraphilia Magazine Wreck Dead Father 1185, radio show dedicated to my father’s favorite songs/sounds + essay bart plantenga is the author of BEER MYSTIC, Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man & Wiggling Wishbone (Autonomedia); & creative memoirs: Paris Scratch & NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. He is a co-founder of the seminal NYC-based writing group, The Unbearables & co-edited the anthology The Unbearables. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Evergreen Review, The Times, American Heritage, Exquisite Corpse, Paris Passion, Mississippi Review, Sensitive Skin, Smoke Signals, Public Illumination, Urban Graffiti & many anthologies including Waiting for a Train: Jimmie Rodgers’s America, Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, Nation-KGB Reader, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub, Sonic Geography Imagined and Remembered & Semiotext(e) SF ... He is also the author of two internationally acclaimed yodel books: Yodel In HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, the producer of the Rough Guide to Yodel CD & the YODEL IN HIFI Top 50+ Youtube channel. He is a DJ-radiomaker & has produced Wreck This Mess since 1986 in NYC (WFMU), Paris (Radio Libertaire) & Amsterdam (Radio 100/Radio Patapoe/Mixcloud) where he now lives with partner Nina & daughter Paloma Jet.