The Main Thing WWII Taught My Dad

Battleship Burning2

My father was a gifted storyteller. If I was good he would tell me one at bedtime. My favorite concerned a troop ship anchored in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. This is how it went.

He and his men were asleep; it was late at night and silent. (My dad fought through the entirety of WWII, he was a Major in the British Army and commanded the 2nd Parachute Squadron of Royal Engineers.) Suddenly they were awoken by a horrific explosion that caused the ship to burst into flames, throwing shrapnel in every direction.

He painted a picture of the madness in glowing detail, terrified men racing to get on deck before the ship sank, men torn open by flying bits of debris, screaming men whose clothes were ablaze, men leaping overboard into the cold water.

He described jumping into the sea and watching as the ship became engulfed in red, yellow, orange, blue, black and white until, in short minutes, everyone on it was dead. Then, he turned his gaze to the dark water around him, looking for anything he could use to stay afloat. Doing so he noticed a fellow soldier flailing his arms wildly and screaming for help. My dad swam to him and gripped his collar, hoping to keep the man’s mouth above water level.

But – (my dad always slowed down for this part and went sotto voce) – what he hadn’t counted on was that the man did not know how to swim and was in a state of irrational, hysterical fear. Madly, desperately, the man grabbed onto my father as if he were mere flotsam, and in so doing began pulling the both of them, by now entwined like doomed serpents, below the water.

At this point, my dad confessed, it was his turn to panic. He understood there was no saving this man, and attempting to do so would simply bump the body count from one to two. He described the complex moral soul searching that occurred in mere seconds before he bit the man’s fingers in order to break the death grip, finally separating the two of them. A few strong kicks got him far enough away to be safe; he watched the man’s hands churn water until at last he fell to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and into an unmarked grave.

Then my dad would gently brush the hair off my forehead and whisper, “The best way to help the dead is by not being one of them.”

Earth Day

Alan Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg – Beat Poet

When I think about Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau on April 22, 1970, I don’t think about thousands of stoned out hippies basking in the sun, reveling in the nation’s first Earth Day. I don’t think about Ralph Nader, Dune author Frank Herbert, Nobel Prize winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald, or Senator Ed Muskie.

What I do recall is an enthusiastic set by Native American rock group, Redbone; a bizarre, almost disturbing appearance by Beat Poet legend, Allen Ginsberg; and a characteristically inflammatory performance by my father, Ian McHarg. My dad, let it be said, cut a dashing figure and was at the very zenith of his popularity at the time. Ginsberg listened to every word like a man entranced. As my father stepped away from the podium, Ginsberg leaped from his chair, wrapped him in a bear hug and planted an enthusiastic, heartfelt kiss of appreciation right on his lips.

There, before God and thousands of witnesses, my father lived his worst nightmare. On the one hand, he was receiving adulation from a bona fide legend, and my dad was impressed by celebrity in a way that is, perhaps, unique to celebrities; people who dearly believe in the idea that being known has intrinsic value. So, feigning happiness was mandatory. On the other hand, he was a fearsome individual with a passion for intimidation – war hero, bully, tough guy – homophobia was woven into his tweed. Indeed, he once admitted that, if he had to choose, he would prefer a mentally retarded child to a gay one.

It would be many years before I came to understand that we hate what we fear and we build castles of rationalization around our fears to justify the hate. I can only speculate what there was lurking deep in my father’s subconscious that nurtured this very particular dread. He was not, as a rule, given to xenophobia; in general the rich contempt he felt for all humanity was spread equally across its sub-categories. I have also learned, painfully, that such disdain is always predicated on self-hatred.

My father’s shock was, at least, not incomprehensible. Ginsberg was almost certainly tripping on LSD that day, his eyes were the size of pie plates and I did not see him blink. Never a handsome man, Mr. Beat Poet was in the full-bearded phase of his career, an entire family of red-winged blackbirds might have broken it up into condos. He resembled nothing more closely than a wretched alcoholic living beneath a bridge.

Unlike the other speakers who, for the most part, were painfully cerebral and sincere to the point of tedium – even for hippies – Ginsberg was whacked. I have never been a fan of the Beats, who damaged American poetry so badly that its battered remains went to die on the lips of rappers; but even a tepid rendition of Howl would have been preferable to twenty minutes of chanting, harmonium squeezing and staring into the audience. I don’t think there was any part of my dad’s consciousness that could find common ground with that.

At his funeral I made the observation, “Wherever he is, he’s probably still trying to wipe that kiss off.”

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