Wednesday, May 31, 2006
InstaPunk Senior -- fighter pilot, father, and backbone of America.
THE WORD. I like this picture. It's of the guy who sired InstaPunk before he did that. The date is indeterminate, circa 1942. It may have been before he joined the Army Air Corps, after, or the exact moment when he announced that he had to his parents. Regardless, you can see something of who he was when he started out. He was cocky and yet uncertain, insufferable and invincible but still oddly innocent. He hadn't yet learned what happens when a friend crash-lands with his face too close to the gunsight, or what fire can do to aluminum and flesh when it's fed by a thousand gallons of gasoline.
I have many later photographs. During and after the war. None exhibit this particular look in the eye, the attitude that accounts for the admonitory stories I used to hear about driving too fast, drinking too much, and observing too little. The kid in the picture is a punk. He became a good man, faithful, dutiful, serious, hardworking, and upright -- all to a fault.
All these years later, his son is still a punk, still paying for too much attitude and too little maturity.
Beat up, tired, and fed up. InstaPunk Senior was also fed up when he died at the age of 77. He'd retired 20 years before, after he discovered that his company's executives had taken up the practice of lying to each other and to him. His 37 years of corporate life hadn't included that -- till then.
InstaPunk in not-so-hot mode.
The remainder of his life represented more unhappy education. The veteran of 88 P-47 combat missions told me, days before he died, that everything he had gone to war for was gone. His country no longer cared for individual initiative, despised traditional virtue, and subsidized both weakness and failure. He was relieved to be out of action. He died of lung cancer in 1999, almost 40 years after he quit smoking cigarettes, as he'd been sermonized that he should, cold turkey, as no one but him in my experience has been able to do.
In today's terms, he was in many ways a bad man. That is, he excelled in the (now discredited) virtues of THEN, and he was an archetype of the evils we deplore NOW. He commuted 80 miles a day to work and back, he never phoned in sick, he regarded children as ancillary accessories that shouldn't end life as we know it, he refused to countenance rude or inappropriate behavior by kids or relatives, he loved dogs and hated cats (until Webster), he drafted the whole family into the mission of keeping the yard spotless, he thought tennis was God's personal sport, and he never cursed or tolerated cursing. He never forgave any transgressor of these arbitrary dicta ever.
He was a snob. He paid attention to only a handful of well-bred families in the town he (and I) was born in, he insisted that his children had to go away to secondary schools where they'd be trained as ladies and gentlemen, and long before it was the fashion he was resolute in his conviction that women should be as well educated and dutiful as men. To him, a college education meant the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters, as long as they weren't Harvard, which was a breeding ground for fools. He disliked Jews, whom he admired enormously for their intellect, because even though they worked tremendously hard, they tended to be under-dressed and obnoxious, both in school and in restaurants. The highest honor he conceived of in academe was to get better grades than the smartest Jew in the class -- while being better dressed. He himself never entered a restaurant without a coat and tie and never complained about anything he was served, no matter how offensively inedible it was.
He was also a racist. He believed that black people, at least American black people, were inferior, apart from all the obvious exceptions. For this reason, he was a tireless champion of hiring them during his working career, defending them from the attacks of others, and bending over backwards to make sure they got an even chance to prove themselves in every way -- because he refused to tolerate unfairness in himself and because he had utter contempt for all the people who were so prejudiced they couldn't recognize the fact that there are many exceptions to even the most self-evidently true generalizations.
He hated Democrats, especially FDR, JFK, and LBJ. He flew in FDR's funeral, 750 ft below the ordered 1,000-ft altitude, to protest the deaths of multiple friends who died in the fog during the spurious NY Harbor submarine scare that helped get Roosevelt reelected in 1944. While JFK was president, he insisted, with absolutely no evidence, that the man was a callow, drug-addicted, philandering hypocrite, bought into office by his Nazi-sympathizer bootlegger father, and that the whole Kennedy clan amounted to no more than the lowest of shanty Irish. He so despised LBJ that he counseled his son not to join up for the Vietnam War, "because there's no point fighting a war you're not allowed to win."
He had no understanding of, or sympathy for, the radical sixties that followed Kennedy's assassination.While he did not forbid the playing of music by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors in his house, he uniformly referred to them as "adenoidal, no-talent losers."
What he did like: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, Nat Cole, Ted Heath, and much (though not the personal life) of Frank Sinatra. He also liked sports cars. He had a Triumph TR3, TR4, and TR6, and a Fiat Spyder 124 (though he had no use for Italians since being stationed in Naples in 1943).
What else? He was a gifted portrait painter. He loved his wife devotedly and was faithful to her throughout 53 years of marriage. (How do I know? I know. That's who he was.)
But he was funny, too. The whole world was a word game to him. He had his own names for everyone and everything, and hardly ever were those names mean. He also put up with InstaPunk. We fought like dogs and loved each other nonetheless.
Well, who wouldn't be?
Why all this? Because I miss him. If he were here, we could grouse together about Nancy Pelosi, and Howard Dean, and global warming, and Hollywood, and rap music, and cartoon dudes, and Sean Hannity, and Enron, and Cindy Sheehan. Without him, I feel as if the world has taken a turn too many, so that now what's left is getting off the merry-go-round before it crushes us with its well-meaning safety standards and flatulent political correctness. You can live out in the country, in the remotest and most rural of counties, but they can still turn you into a criminal for smoking in a bar where half the patrons also want to smoke, and they can force you closer and closer to the new ideal of a life not lived as the only life worth living, where life itself is defined as not dying for a decade past consciousness, where nothing on earth is worth dying for, and where only self-proclaimed victims are regarded as wise enough to write the rules for everyone else -- and scream them at you as if they constituted an anthem. These days, it feels as if my father chose the exact right time to leave the U.S.A. for good.
I'd like, just once, to have the chance to congratulate him on a decision I have come to agree with. For that I'd be willing to take off the boot chain for a day and put on a proper four-in-hand tie -- you know, the kind with a small, perfect dimple just below the knot. The thing is, I've always known that what we had in common was the guy in the picture. Behind the tie and the stern face, the punk was in there somewhere, the one who could have understood the hair and the Harleys and the go-to-hell grin. He might even be grinning at me now.
A REMINDER. Chain Gang must have been right about what he said a few days ago.