Family & Politics-Lessons from My Father

My father abandoned us when I was seventeen. Leaving my mother and two younger sisters, ages 12 and 4, he was suddenly gone, without warning, no note, nothing. His absence was noticed, but it was days later that we realized he wasn’t coming back. Whenever he slipped a coin into the jukebox in our restaurant bar area, and ‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Credence Clearwater Revival blasted out of chrome plated speakers, we tried shrinking ourselves into miniscule form, avoiding him. It was an ominous warning that he was on a heavy drinking binge, when beer or a Seven & Soda, couldn’t take the edge off his pain, switched to martinis to drown out the noise of invisible wounds in his head.

It often happened, more common than not, he would also disappear for a couple of days, not working, not home, just ‘somewhere’. The binge drinking, the domestic violence, and then disappearing, were the ‘coping skills’ of a three wars, highly decorated, veteran, and suffering from post-traumatic stress. Of course, no one connected his honorable military service to the Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde life – no one really knew about PTSD then, and many people don’t understand it now.

My mother and I couldn’t successfully manage the several businesses we owned, ending with losing all but one of four, as well as our home, within the year, to move into the ‘Black Lantern Tavern’, our restaurant situated near an ocean boardwalk, located on the first floor, with second floor apartment for us, and numerous ‘boarding rooms’ on the third floor and attic.

Mostly, though, I was glad he was gone, life without the emotional roller-coaster days, much better overall. Other times I would miss him so much, when I remembered who he was, before my 14th birthday, when transitioning out of the military, missing its order and stability, we all fell apart.

Almost two years later, we found out he was in Texas with my oldest ‘half-brother’ Rick, a Viet Nam veteran who enjoyed drinking, binging, playing cards—and wielding cue sticks as much as Dad did. They were best friends, and charged off to Texas in a hurry with my 3 year-old nephew Rick, Jr – the day my father had left us behind.

Dad and Rick had a special bond, the oldest son, only 19 years younger. They were a lot alike, my half-brother Jerry, also a Viet Nam veteran, had returned from duty, and had as much interest in forgetting war and escaping memories as they did. However, the difference was his wife, and her family, two small sons, and found a way to hope and healing through counseling and faith.

If father and son argued about anything, it was one thing, POLITICS. Dad’s love of America and the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and history dominated a lot of conversations around our dinner table for years. Even before they left, politics were energetic debates, one-upmanship on facts, figures and Who’s Who. Interesting enough, my father never professed a ‘political party affiliation’ until after his military retirement. Refusing to name one, out of respect for the President, as Commander-in-Chief, he’d sworn to serve – no matter Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or others recognized back in 1968, throughout the extended years of the Viet Nam war.

Nearly seventeen years after he left, after he sent letters, cards, a heart shaped locket gold necklace (returned to sender) trying to reach me several times to meet me, make amends and renew our relationship, I consistently refused. Then one day, I was sitting in a church, that I’d helped to build and was Chairman of Community Outreach Services, had to face my ‘Unforgiveness’, knelt on the alter and cried until there no more tears, bone dry.

I immediately contacted my aunt, his sister; asking if she could locate him, let him know I did want to see him. From San Padre Island Texas, he drove straight to Maryland’s shore, stopping only for naps at highway rest stops, and quick meals.

Reuniting with my Dad, starting over, was the best decision I ever made. It also brought my brother Rick into my life, and we had an additional seventeen years as a family, eventually my mother, sisters, and our children, were reconciled as well.

Until the 2008 Presidential Election, when Dad and Rick chose sides, the debates turned ugly, personal, critical, and hurtful. Often they would find themselves so alienated, refusing to talk daily on the phone, as before, when Rick called every day to check-in because my father’s health, now on full-time oxygen, with COPD, pneumonia, and old war wounds aching.

Dad’s voter registration ‘Republican’, Rick’s allegiance was sworn to the ‘Democratic Party’. It seemed to me that they couldn’t find any common ground, sometimes they had enough to drink, one or the other would raise a fist and shout; leave slamming doors, shaking the very foundation of the house.

Too often I’d try to mediate, fury would backlash and I remembered the old days of rage and fury, this intense destructive stubbornness not to accept the ‘freedom’ of each other’s opinions and beliefs.

On the night that Barrack Obama was elected, my brother stopped by my father’s house for a quick visit.

Dad was playing cards with several of his buddies when Rick walked in, but briefly looked up and asked “Did you vote?” Rick replied, “Just finished, on my way home now.” Dad had risen early to cast his ballot, so the next question was, “Did you vote Democratic?” The answer was a firm, tight ‘yes’.

“Get out of my house,” Dad replied, and don’t come back.” The men at the table all sat back in their chairs, quiet. Rick spoke a few words, trying to appease, that didn’t matter, no response. Turning on his heel, my brother headed out the door homeward bound.

My father refused all calls, cards, letters, and threatened to call the police if Rick ever showed up again. He disinherited him, and told every one of us, that Rick was no longer his son. I disagreed, defending, and took the brunt of his leftover anger toward my brother. I maintained my relationship with both of them, until they died.

My father died September 24, 2010, hospitalized, in a coma when his life support was turned off. My brother was in the hallway, hoping to have a last word that was never to be. Rick died suddenly of a heart attack in March, 2012. My comforting belief is that they are in heaven together, and left politics on planet Earth.


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