"Dad's death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time."
- Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, p. 83 (2006)
I read Bechdel's observation in January 2008, shortly after attending my own father's funeral. It rang true... Dad's own slow catastrophe unfolded over many years, and had been doing so for decades even before I first wrote the words that appear here, in November 1997. I have amended and corrected a few things since then, but only a few.
* * *
My father was, among other things, a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He had been tremendously affected by the movie "Gone With the Wind," and modeled his behavior, appearance and diction closely after Clark Gable's Rhett Butler. Photographs of him during this period show this clearly. He did not look as ridiculous as this makes him sound, though. Some women, including my mother, having seen the same film, thought this was attractive.
During my childhood, my father spoke about his wartime experiences often and at great length, when he was drunk (which was often, and at great length). His most common refrain was, "I am the soldiers." At such times he gave every impression of having been broken by combat.
He had been stationed in Morocco and Spain during his tours overseas.
After the term of his last enlistment was over and he came back to the southern West Virginia town where he'd been born and raised, my father discovered that his first wife, a woman somehow able to outdrink him, had attempted to give away their child for the next bottle of booze. Or such was the story overheard at our holiday tables.
He divorced her, of course. Of course, nonetheless, she retained custody of their son. He eventually grew up to be a man, my brother, and joined the Air Force himself, although he managed to avoid going to Morocco.
My father trained as a commercial artist, building on his ample talent for drawing and eventually receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Marshall College (soon to become Marshall University) under the Montgomery G.I. Bill. He found himself unable to use his talent and degree, though, for more than occasional work. Sometime after that, he met and married my mother, who was not able or willing to outdrink him, and fathered two more children. He landed a job as a clerk in the large local nickel-processing plant, where he worked on weekdays and drank his weekends and annual two-week vacations away, until he was urged gently into an early retirement.
In November 1997, he was continuing to commit his slow suicide, unassisted by any physician in any way, by drinking more than twelve watery American beers a day.
In November 1997, he had just turned 71.
Not one syllable of this is bizarre. All of it, however, is true.
* * *
I used to think I despised the man. I was younger then, and less susceptible to error. Now that I'm older and have begun to reap the consequences of my own earlier perfection, I have also begun to see that much of his conduct was understandable. My father played the hands he was dealt, without panache, perhaps, but nevertheless with consistency. I still cannot find it in my heart to admire him, but I am beginning to understand.
©1997, 2008 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated January 25, 2008.