My Old Man was a Bastard. Oh, he didn’t start out that way. He started out as a sweet-faced, quiet farm boy from Bard, New Mexico, a flyspeck collection of adobe and frame houses just off the Caprock on the northern New Mexico plains, about midway between Santa Fe – where I was born – and Amarillo, where he is buried. Most of the boys who grew up alongside Route 66, the tar-scarred ribbon of road that ran through that country, didn’t ever go very far from home. My great uncle, Frankie Flint, used to be proud of the fact that he’d never been farther away than Tucumcari, about 35 miles west of Bard. My Old Man went a little farther.
He was good with his hands, and although I was a bookish, introspective kid, he was determined to make me as adept with a hammer as he was. And so I worked unhappily alongside him, never able to please, always the wrong tool for the job. He hardly ever spoke. I once told a friend that the Old Man’s daily average was about ten words, most of them single syllables, and that anything more was cause for astonishment. His thoughts, when he did articulate them, were almost always expressed in clichés. “A good man always has his tools.” “Ain’t no problem can’t be unstuck with elbow grease and sweat.” Words he lived by, even as I was searching for my own truths in Steinbeck, and Twain, and Hemingway.
Occasionally, out of the blue, he would intone his favorite piece of doggerel. “We’re the Battling Bastards of Bataan. No mama. No papa. No Uncle Sam.” I came much later to realize that this was his credo, not just a rueful little ditty celebrating a word I wasn’t allowed to use yet. But I was ten years old in 1957, too young to grasp the epic pain hidden in that homely little verse. I was a man myself before I understood that I was a child of Bataan.
He was twenty-four when he was captured in April, 1942, starving and exhausted after four months of fierce fighting in the jungle. Harried and beaten along the road to Camp O’Donnell and the infamous Cabanatuan, marching under a tropical sun without food, medical attention, or water, where laggards were shot or beheaded, he lived to tell the tale, although he never did. His folks didn’t know for two years whether he was alive or not. I still have the telegram they got from Washington. I imagine their relief - and then their fear - hearing that their boy is a prisoner of the Imperial Japanese Army.
From Cabanatuan, he was shipped as cargo to Japan to be used as slave labor. When the bomb dropped in ’45, he was “safe” below ground working a coalmine at Fukuoka Camp # 7. Their Japanese guards just walked away. The Americans didn’t arrive for a few months yet. The prisoners lingered in purgatory.
He came back slowly, by way of Manila and San Francisco, finally to Bruns Army Hospital in Santa Fe. He weighed 87 pounds. He suffered from malaria, beriberi, tropical ulcers, malnutrition, and untreated wounds. Still, a WAC nurse had a crush on him and they were soon married. He regained his strength and went to work as a photographer for the National Park Service. I was born soon after.
As I kid, I was mystified by him, and a little afraid. He never showed pain or pleasure. Seldom spoke. Didn’t think to put on a coat when it was freezing outside, or duck his head in the rain. I once watched him ripping a plank on a table saw. I stood, covering my little ears against the scream of the saw, and thought,” If he cuts his hand off, he won’t even flinch.” I remember reaching up to touch his face once, as any boy might to feel his dad’s stubbled cheek, but he jerked his face away from me violently and a look of shame came into his eyes.
Only much later did I learn that they had been made to stand in long rows, facing one another for hours in the sun, repeatedly slapping the face of the man opposite until they fainted and fell. Their captors knew a thing or two about humiliation. I could still see it written on his grizzled face all those years later.
The Old Man was never still for long and couldn’t stand to be in a room with more than a few people. Each of his few friends had been in the camps with him. They drank together and fished together and sat in silence together. They had lived, though none had survived. Not even their wives could break into that circle. Everyone was alone. Everyone was lonely. My mom began a lifetime struggle with depression, taking refuge from time-to-time in a sanitarium.
Now and then the Old Man would wake up screaming, which was to me a terrifying departure from his daytime stoicism. It was the malaria, mostly. Those terrors became less frequent as the venom in his system weakened over the years, but I don’t think the nightmares ever stopped. Whatever the images were inside his head, he never showed them to me. As a young man, I began to ask, but I was past middle age before I realized how instructive his answers actually were.
“Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?” The ones who thought they wouldn’t, didn’t. “How come you made it and so many others didn’t?” I came off a dust bowl farm. I didn’t have as far to fall as some boys. “Do you hate them now?” No. Some were decent to me. Some were bastards. It’s just the way it was. I hate MacArthur. He left us to rot. “Do you think of yourself as a hero?” No. I did too many things I’m ashamed of. And that was about all he ever said.
When the Sixties came along I went off to college and soon became a strident foot-soldier in the antiwar movement. My long hair, beard, headband, granny glasses, and attitude didn’t sit well at home and so, after a few screaming matches, I seldom went there. Our brief and infrequent conversations declined into silence. We lost touch for long stretches.
I can see now that all the while I was trying to free myself from a grim role model. The nectar I brewed from rebellion, rock music, outrageous celebration, and good dope was necessary to point me toward the possibility of joy and expressiveness. Becoming a man was an almost insurmountable challenge though, since men wore hats, smoked cigarettes, worked with their hands, and were the taciturn tribunes of The Greatest Generation. I was still locked in the playroom with the other kids, getting better at sharing our toys, but not ready to take over for the Old Men.
We finally declared a truce and went along that way for twenty years. He retired. Mom was still in and out of the booby hatch with regularity. I got married and had kids. Divorced and remarried. Started smoking and stopped. Did well in my work. Traveled. Moved to New York City and visited the family in Texas every few years. I started to read everything I could find about Bataan, and the Death March, and the camps. I started to understand. One day I came across a picture of him that was taken just before he left for the Philippines in 1940. A handsome boy, he was. In some way I still can’t explain, he was my boy, and I wept, knowing what was in store for him.
And then he turned yellow. One day, just like that, the Old Man turned a hideous shade of yellow. The jaundice alarmed him and he came home early from a fishing trip and checked into the VA hospital in Amarillo. The shy, young Korean doctor couldn’t bring himself to tell the Old Man the truth, so he punted. Me, he told. Pancreatic cancer. A couple of months is all. I had to tell him.
We sat and talked for hours. I don’t remember now what was said, but I know that we forgave one another. He was still smoking and tried again, without success, to teach me how to flip the Zippo open against my jeans and light the thing and bring it up to the cigarette in one smooth, cool move, even though I’d long since stopped smoking. He was never able to teach me his glass-shattering two-fingered whistle, either. I guess I was a disappointment, but I put my arms around him and he told me for the first time that he loved me. The next day he stopped eating, stopped talking, rolled over to face the wall, and shut down. Like an old dog. He was dead in a week. And I was finally a grown up.
Now I am an old man. I still use his pocketknife when I have something to whittle on. He speaks to me through his tools, more patiently now. I think about him every day and I realize that I learned everything I needed to either from him or because of him. Doing your duty doesn’t make you a hero, just a man. Compassion trumps belief. Decency and Civilization are pretty much the same thing. Sometimes, just hanging on is the best you can do. And that’s OK.
Causes John Haynes Supports
World Wildlife Fund