The past few weeks have been the perfect storm. It started with Memorial Day. Then came the D-Day commemorations, and a slew of articles and remembrances. Then came Fathers’ Day.
My father didn’t participate in the D-Day invasion, but his unit—the 86th Infantry, known as the Black Hawks—was one of the few to see combat in both the European and Pacific theatres. They saw action in the Ruhr Pocket, were among the first American units to cross both the Rhine and then—after they were moved south to Bavaria—the Danube. The Black Hawks were also among the last American soldiers to see action in the Philippines, rounding up Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender up until October 1946, over a year after the Japanese government surrendered.
Dad passed away almost exactly a decade before my writing journey began, and just a few weeks short of his 75th birthday. On this year’s Father’s Day, he would’ve been 100.
All through the events of the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering and tinkering with a revised opening for my trilogy. One that heavily features my protagonist and his father, and their turbulent relationship.
So yeah, it’s been impossible to avoid thinking about him.
“It’s Not My Thing…”
My dad was a man’s man. It wasn’t just that he’d been in combat, he’d played fullback when helmets were leather and had no facemasks. He was an excellent golfer and participated in a half-dozen leagues. I was a kid who quit every sport I started, and who read Fantasy/SciFi novels and kept his comic books sorted by subgenre.
Although my dad never belittled my love of Fantasy/SciFi—in fact, he was always generous at the book store, pretty much buying us whatever we wanted—he was more of a non-fiction reader. You know—serious stuff.
I remember bugging him until he came along with me to see the first Star Wars in the theater (it may have been my third or fourth viewing). He laughed a few times during the picture, but I kept my hopes guarded. Sure enough, in the car on the way home, when I dared ask what he thought, he said something like, “It was all right. But you know that’s not my thing.” I did.
He was a man’s man, yes, but a kind man, too. And a gentleman. And he was outgoing. My dad seemed to know everyone in town, and everyone liked him. I thought the world of him, and always sought his approval. Until I didn’t.
It’s funny, looking back on the early going, how I didn’t see my father in my storytelling. I did recognize the effect he’d had on my writing life; his methodical approach to things, his dedication to getting the job done, and his insistence that a job worth doing was worth doing well–these were all ingrained lessons I have always credited to him (and have at least mostly aspired to). But within the stories? I didn’t really see his imprint.
Mothers, I had. My early work featured both a mother-son relationship and a mother-daughter one. The father of my male protagonist in my first trilogy was dead. My protagonist was too young at his death to remember him. But his father’s legacy looms large. The expectations, both good and bad, born of living up to that legacy weigh heavily upon him. And yet, at the time, I remained oblivious. In fact, in a 2011 piece about my father, I said only that I saw him in my protagonist’s kindly grandfather. Not that this wasn’t true, but sheesh. Talk about selective perception.
It took my current trilogy to actually get down to it. And it took all the years of writing books three through six to finally begin to clearly see it. My relationship with my father weighs heavily on my entire writing journey.
From Buddies to Betrayal
My parents split when I was fourteen. I’m the youngest of four, and when my mom left, I was the only one of his children who lived with my father in the house we’d grown up in. Through my teen years, my dad and I grew closer than ever—two buddies navigating bachelorhood. Even my friends loved my dad. During my late teens and early twenties, after Saturday night partying my buddies would stay at our house. On Sunday mornings, Dad would quietly attend church while the gang slept it off. He’d come home and cook a complete farmer’s Sunday dinner (traditionally served mid-afternoon) for one and all. My buddies and I would have roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed string beans, and biscuits for breakfast.
Soon after my parents split, my father and I learned of my mother’s boyfriend, who owned a wholesale lumberyard in town. Through those early years together it was us against them (anyone who had anything to do with the boyfriend). Though it had been strained, as the years went by, my relationship with my mother came around. I went to college, met my wife, and moved out of state. You know, the typical distance-making life-events that develop between parents and children.
In our mid-twenties, my mother’s beau came to my wife and me with an offer. He offered us not just jobs, but a chance to own a business. We accepted, and moved back to my home town.
The very first time I saw my father afterward, I knew. Though he didn’t say it, deep down he felt betrayed. I had gone over to the other side.
I’ll never forget the one and only time we broached the subject. My dad had a fence section that needed to be replaced. Over his objections, I insisted on supplying the lumber. The pieces were short enough to fit in my hatchback, so I delivered them after work. While we unloaded them, he asked, “So what’s the goal here?”
I immediately knew he was referring to more than fencing. I sort of lamely prattled on about how I was seizing the opportunity to own my own business. And that I wasn’t looking for a free ride—that my wife and I would have to work for it, stock from profit. He averted his eyes, nodded, and carried half the lumber off to the garage.
He lived long enough to glean that our ownership deal was going awry, and he never said, “I told you so.” Worse, he didn’t live long enough to see us actually earn our way to owning another lumberyard, and making it one of the most successful of its type in the nation.
On the day we unloaded the fencing, I was thirty years old. But reflected in my father’s eyes in that moment, I saw a ten year old boy. And not in a good way.
In my WIP, my protagonist Vahldan’s father is a legendary figure. Sort of like a WW2 combat vet who’d been a star football player. Vahldan’s father is exiled for a crime he didn’t commit. Sort of like a good husband and father who’s exiled from his own family.
In the early going of the story, Vahldan tries to live up to his father’s reputation, and fails. Because of his failure, Vahldan’s father is mortally wounded. His father asks Vahldan to grant him a warrior’s death. A request Vahldan honors. It’s a burden Vahldan carries his whole life.
It took creating a mercy-killing in a story for me to fully understand that, in some way, at some time, we all break our fathers’ hearts.
It took the writing of two trilogies to begin to see how the expectations that weighed upon me have never been my father’s but are my own.
It took an entire writing journey to realize that everything my father did, through his whole life, was for the next generation. For us. For me.
In His Eyes
Near the end of my father’s life he had an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). Like a pace-maker, it kept his heart going, even shocking him when his heartbeat became erratic. Due to my flexible schedule as an outside lumber salesman, I had the privilege of routinely driving him to the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor to have his ICD checked. We both came to enjoy the hours spent together on those trips. On one such routine visit to Ann Arbor, the doctors found an abnormality that required immediate emergency heart surgery.
It was late in the afternoon. We were a two-hour drive from home. The last thing my father said as they took his stretcher away was that I should just go on home, that he’d be fine. I’d never quite seen a look in his eyes like he had just then. He was afraid. Which frightened me.
I stayed. Very late that evening, the doctor came and told me all had gone well, and he had a surgical nurse take me to see Dad in recovery. The nurse told me he wasn’t quite awake yet, but that he should be shortly. She said it was okay to hold his hand. I did.
My dad opened his eyes and found focus on me. He was on a ventilator and couldn’t speak. I told him that he was doing great—that he’d come through like a champ. That everything was going to be all right. He squeezed my hand. Tight. A tear rolled down the man’s-man’s cheek.
Reflected in my father’s eyes in that moment, I saw a ten year old boy. In a good way.
I’ll never forget that moment. And I’ve only just realized how long I’ve sought the way to properly convey it as a storyteller.
It took twenty-five years and two trilogies to understand that I long to honor my father’s legacy. And that I’m grateful for it.
How about you? Do you see your parents’ imprint on your work? Do you feel beholden to legacy?