Chasing a Ghost: Portrait of My Father

YOU DO NOT CHASE A GHOST BY LOOKING DIRECTLY BUT BY CATCHING HIS REFLECTION IN THE MIRROR. YOU LOOK BEHIND.

 

My father Thomas is long gone, and this year I have outlived his fifty-five years. In the forty years since he left this earth, he has grown as I have grown, his life continuing, open-ended.

In my first attempts to reconstruct him, Thomas was a man of diffuse themes bundled by character, a tumble of duets with me, constrained by the name “Father.” Later Thomas became a subject, just like me, and in that regard, a human being beset by anxieties, desires, and ambition, but just as furiously scrutinized as before for his flaws—that is, never fully fleshed out independent of his family.

As more time has passed, Thomas became a man in history, suspended in a frame, comparable to others, like my stepfather, who was around the same age and, like him, a black veteran shaped by the Depression era and World War II. Thomas joins my conversation summoned by this or that gesture, a male body worn out by wage labor and weariness, who sits down on the couch to talk with me now, the brother I never had.

 

I liked the easy way we kept company, his penchant for bringing the quiet with him, a second garment. I’m like him in that way. Even as a child, I would absorb the mood around me and fit myself into it. I would sit silently with him on a park bench, content to observe the world pass by. On another occasion, with the springtime snow piling lightly and instantly vanishing around us, he let me ride the carousel for the forever of an hour or more. He never got on the carousel himself, but his gaze seemed never to leave me and we were, again, wordlessly connected: whenever I went round I saw him, a fixed star in a brown wool tweed cap. We traveled home happy and full on treed paths as twilight ascended from the ground toward a still light sky. I never noticed anything amiss.

My mother once described me as a “docile infant,” though the description unsettled me, with its implication of passivity. Was I as agreeable, as content as she described? Or had I, a quick study, learned to bring my desires in check; the adults in my house had their hands full. He basted himself in red wine, sipping stealthily through the day. The wine might be in a flask or coffee cup, or a juice glass, but he never was far from its steadying warmth.

He and I were the tranquil observer types to the excited tempers in our house. There was friction between my mother and my older sister, who was timber to her silk. My sister had a Jesuitical side, legalistic, she argued the truth, nothing but the truth, God help you, often marshalling her evidence patiently, or impatiently, convinced of the hard, indisputable fact. My mother trafficked in symbols: to her custom, precedent and appearance trumped circumstantial detail, in which facts were an annoyance, a distraction from good order. My sister liked to challenge; my mother liked everyone to look good (so that she could look good). My sister awaited the fulfillment of an atomic age daydream where she would find the triumph her social world withheld, an idealized trailer to the scientist she would become. My mother lived for classic beauty as she imagined it, but was unable to see it with her own eyes, as she was legally blind. She adored everything with provenance, refinement, and as was true of many other black classical musicians, her devotion had the heat of the recently acquitted; she did not let white contempt separate her from the love of Debussy, Chopin, or Beethoven. She placed herself among equals in the ranks of the cultured, undeterred by the inference that her own culture produced nothing comparable. She had a way of smiling, her head slightly cocked and her face animated by amusement at middle-brow ignorance, before she laid out her full house: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Errol Garner, Art Tatum, and W. C. Handy, black royalty of swing and elegance.

There is no guarantee of a match in temperament between family members or of compatibility coincident with birth; understanding in a family is hard-won and sometimes not won at all. Yet, for all of their differences, my mother and sister found they could understand each other if they spoke to each other in music, in playing the piano: a place where the lush harmonies favored by my mother met with number theory in ratios and sevenths.

My mother’s low vision did not keep her from a full life. As a child, I accepted her disability without feeling its disadvantage, because the world she presented to me was rich with expressiveness and purpose. She worked as a transcribing typist, producing more than 120 words per minute from dictation tapes, and practiced piano, twinned activities. She made a home for us, modest and cultured—we purchased the everyday plates with bonus green stamps from the grocers, but we also had a few “nice” things, handed down or scrimped for on installment for special occasions.

He was a man whose steady attendance at work gave him a shape to us, as if he had taken the shape of his work clothes, as if the clothes propelled him out somewhere and cloaked him with dignity.

At home, the narrow bookshelves contained worn hand-me-down volumes in theology, W.C. Handy’s Unsung Americans, a copy of Faust printed in gothic German (from high school), and a copy of De Maupassant (translated), a few novels (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), books on child rearing, and a Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia, suggesting the erudition of a library just outside household economy.

My father’s and mother’s taste for objects were compatible. He liked a few good things, too: the piano, a small phonograph and records, those books and the Audubon prints on the wall, through which all the household thrift and pinching could be overlooked.

My mother told me that she liked men “tall, dark, and handsome.” I laughed, recognizing the formula from ’30s and ’40s movies. My father was tall, dark, and handsome, though the word tall might be disputed. He was no more than five foot ten, and he was very handsome. He had a smooth, unlined face of rich dark chocolate. A face where every feature was in balance, almond-shaped eyes, broad nose not too large or small, well-defined lips he often tucked inside his mouth as if holding back his words. He was trim, broad shouldered, well proportioned. His hands were wide and warm, with smoothed callouses; he was no stranger to manual labor.

Work gave fiber and form to his masculinity, what it was to be a man. In the company of his family of females, he was most legible as the man who went to work. Every day. Often leaving at dark. Two jobs, most of the time. Returning at dusk, the sun setting with him, as I would sometimes see him, coming behind him, both of us headed west. He’d place his duffle bag in the closet, remove his shoes, and put on his slippers before dinner. He was a man whose steady attendance at work gave him a shape to us, as if he had taken the shape of his work clothes, as if the clothes propelled him out somewhere and cloaked him with dignity.

He knew the statement your shoes make about you. He kept his shoes shined and polished, would never leave the house with them dusty; he maintained your shoes told more about you faster than words. Only later did I realize that the elaborate shoe-shine kit (two color waxes, black and brown; two brushes, one for applying, a second for buffing; a toothbrush for getting at the crevices; a clear sealant to cover it all) kept in the kitchen over the broom closet was complete in a meticulous, professional sense by a person who had spent some portion of his working life at the feet of strangers coaxing shine from old leather.

For many years, he worked at the Thirty-fourth Street post office, the main branch, at a job he got shortly after I was born in the mid-1950s. A magnet for literate black people from the Civil War on, a post office job was considered a prize, and had status even though it often came with a fight. But it was a fight you could win, an attainable position because the post office used civil service exams, not patronage ties, to fill the majority of the vacancies.

As unions grew in strength, so did the National Alliance of Railway Clerks, founded as an association of African American mail train workers in 1913. Working for the post office was a step into the black middle class, though low paying. Job security, the steady wage, test-and merit-based promotion made it attractive, though many workers found it necessary to moonlight at another job or run a business. In spite of the wages, then, post office jobs were one place where black men could escape the brutalities of the private labor market where custom and color prejudice killed hope for job advancement.

At the post office, or during one of his several stints working for the MTA, my father followed the trade of a porter, tending to the transport of people or goods at the crossroads of serious business, in the bowels of the shrine, conducting the movement of large objects, the freighting of things from one place to another in the physical world.

Later, when he worked at the MTA, I sometimes expected to see him at one of the stations because, like most New Yorkers, I used the subway every day. But I never did see him. When I asked him what he did for the MTA, he told me that he cleaned and repaired track. So while I never saw him directly, I saw what he did by watching the crews. I was able to know when I saw others like him working in a five man crew. Combing the stations and tunnels all night for rubbish and gathering it up, the men traveled in dust and grime amid a constant trash storm, Bedouins of the subway tunnels.

On summer nights, when the air outside and in the station was heavy as if condensed to a solid mass, the crews worked in the accumulated heat, two in front and two behind an enormous stalking diesel dumpster, while the driver rode on top. The trash diesel’s long body snaked through the tunnel, the men kept pace, performed their jobs with few wasted gestures, in bright orange vests, occasionally gasping, an occupationally induced asthma, waiting for the appointed time to stop.

When they stopped, the tail crew might climb up to the platform, sit down to drink tepid water from Thermoses or walk to the end of the platform to smoke a cigarette in the brackish but thinner air near the exit. Sometimes, it was just to put on the radio, to see what was going on above ground, the earth’s surface; they snatched fragments through the grates, the pattern of traffic, the summer rain pouring in spray from an opening overhead. The radio tuned in the night imperfectly, full of static and language wrenched from the stream of above-ground patter.

Then it would be time to move again, signaled by the clamorous wheeze of the diesel, the radio turned up louder—AM this time, as they dragged dumpsters back to their places on the subway platform to await another day’s overfilling. The rail crew would amble back, faithful retainers to this beast. Moving from lit platform back into the night tunnel, red eyed, dispersing the rustling rats, the unnamed in the shadows of its shuddering path.

Once home, my father made straight for the bathroom, where he would go through a bar of soap trying to remove the grime that coated him, even the places that were covered, like the soles of his feet. Out of the bathroom, he drank copious amounts of fluid: water, punch, iced teas that he made to quench his thirst, draining half the giant glass pitcher before stopping. The job produced an unslakeable thirst in him. He didn’t drink on the job at first, but later he did begin to drink alcohol, and he drank that fast and then in a slow, sipping way all the time.

On paydays, my father brought home cash in his wallet. My mother deposited her check on payday and kept only enough cash to get through a tightly budgeted week. My father’s cash had more mojo, his billfold thick with numerous bills of various denominations. We all went to him for cash for everything: to shop for groceries, to do the laundry, for carfare, for dry cleaning. He placed his cash in envelopes labeled for various purposes—rent, lights, food, insurance, church, clothes—envelopes marked with dates and goals and then laid them aside in his top dresser drawer with his cufflinks, tie clips, ironed handkerchiefs, and letters.

On the weekends, my father seldom slept in but instead pitched in around the house in the morning, washing the kitchen floor (sprinkling soap powder on the floor and taking a wet mop, once to pick up dirt, a second time to rinse) or his other favorite chore: washing windows. Busy without being nervous, he was industrious, listening to the radio while shining shoes, clearing out his closets—the tool cabinet, the deep storage closet, repairing a toy or screwing a loose door onto its hinge. He wore slippers, easy khaki pants around the house and a short-sleeve button shirt, seldom the clothes he wore to work when he was at home.

In the afternoon, he’d stop to listen to the baseball game on the radio or to walk outside, if the weather was fine. “Going out!” he’d call. “Be right back.”

My father also would go to the Bronx every other Saturday to see Dolores, the daughter of his beloved deceased sister Evelyn, and his mother, Henrietta. He took the train, a civilian with groceries and cash, as he remained their sole steady source of support.

Often there seemed to be something he was studying inside himself, an internal landscape we could not see.

What happened? One day my father hurt his back on his MTA job. A dumpster shifted the wrong way, there was no one holding it properly on his side. The injury was unmistakable, deep and instantaneous trouble.

There were disability benefits to which he was entitled that allowed him to stay at home and recuperate. He was in tremendous pain, and he was prescribed codeine. Lying down was uncomfortable. He couldn’t stand either for very long. He wore one of those great big truss belts that make you think of a harness, riding high around his waist and rising to his midriff.

My father’s drinking steadily increased, a self-administered pain relief. He seemed only partially present, dissolving in front of us. Often there seemed to be something he was studying inside himself, an internal landscape we could not see. The landscape such as we could read on him was a terrifying place. In that place, a secondhand marionette given to me as a toy was an object of menace and manipulation. He threw it away. He threw away several of my dolls, the pet turtles we had bought together, certain objects, jewelry and clothes. And we, the two girls, were made to stay home and close by.

Family parties, never very frequent, became even more rare and we stopped having visitors. Instead, we went to church, usually without him, but it was an acceptable destination in a world in which he read lethal intent. It was probably a relief to my mother to get out of his way, his wordless rages, his nighttime panics.

Particular foods became freighted with association. Once when my sister and I got too rowdy, he asked my mother, “Do you think we are feeding the girls too much meat?” He showed us how to dispose of the hair in our hairbrushes and to be careful with our nail clippings.

Things escalated from there: the trash was sorted even after discarded paper had mingled with the food scraps. Letters were burned in the kitchen sink. Even as his vigilance became more frenetic, we lived as if there was nothing unusual going on. That is, we went to school, we did homework, we watched Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, the fairy tales of white America, without envy but also with the clarity that it was make-believe.

Yet my father held on to his steady habits of work. He returned to his job, still in pain, and came back soused and fuzzy. He fussed with my mother about domestic routines that had grown stringent and precise, but otherwise slept, a great deal. Keeping appearances became even more important at home. We would, for instance, attempt to go out as a family, a Sunday outing, and we would dress formally or informally as suited the occasion, but we would never get out the door.

There would always be a need for some kind of last-minute adjustment, and so we kids would sit on the sofa, pressed clothes, hair in barrettes, knees and elbows Vaselined, waiting for hours on the nondeparture time of our parents.

We finally did leave the house. We moved to another part of Manhattan— Washington Heights—into a new apartment. Close to the subway he needed to take to his work, back now at the post office. Within three years, my father had a complete nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.

This is how it happened: He could not stop himself from following my mother to her place of work, convinced that she was in cahoots with some malignant figure against him. Sometimes he stalked them and sometimes they were stalking him— war’s inerasable shadows: Nazis, southern colonels, the FBI.

 

I know my sister doesn’t remember this, but I do. It was a late fall evening, the time of year when we are surprised by how early it gets dark—it’s just that degree in the hairpin turn from one season to another.

We were at home: my mother in a nap, and my sister and me in post-school languor, thoroughly absorbed in our books. The doorbell rang and I was closest, so I answered it. I must have been around eleven and in sixth grade, riding high on the alpha curve of elementary-school mastery, because I answered the door, tall enough to look through the peephole, grown enough to trust my judgment to open the door for the official-looking men.

I didn’t recognize them. I did not realize who they were: white, with an unvoiced twoness about them, dressed in bureaucratic khaki, khaki trench coats, nondescript suits, the felt hats like my father’s.

They wore, I see now, uniforms, updated for mid-century, an official bureaucratic attire that allowed them to meld into whatever circumstance. They emphatically did not stand out. They stood ready to do their job with absolute tact.

“Is your father home?” the one assigned to speak asked.

“No,” I said. “Not yet, but he will be home soon,” I added brightly, happy to know the answer and provide information.

My sister came to the door, drawn by the unfamiliar voices. She took a look at them and immediately knew who they were. But how? We had no name for them until many hours after the event.

She placed herself in front of me at the door and as she took them in, she pushed me a little so that she blocked the view.

She probably didn’t notice this gesture, but in that one motion she became my parent that night and for a long time after—for better or worse—shielding me. She sent me to our shared bedroom as she let them wait, standing in the foyer.

I sat on my bed and memorized the shades of blue and green on the paisley bedspread. I left the light off and it gave the floor the illusion of treacherous depths, a place where you might be swallowed if you didn’t watch out.

I listened. From my room, I heard my father come through the front door. He said, “Good, you’re here. I’ve been expecting you. You’ve come for her? She’s here somewhere.”

But of course, they had come for him. They had come for him just as he had always expected, and they took him to an institution. He was gone for months, and only returned when he was well enough to work or to be used for that wringing, hammering, scourging, wrenching, piling, endless work again, holding his tongue, inexhaustibly patient, blindingly patient, work he unmercifully performed for the love of us.

My father, Thomas, never told stories about the war, but others say he returned a “different man.” When pressed about what he did during World War II, Thomas would say that he drove a truck. Just another porter job, this time overseas, we would think; we wanted to place him bloodlessly in the back of the stage. Vaguely noirish, like Sam the piano player, depending on the film we watched together; we saw him usually as glamorous or patriotic or heroic, and more often than not all three, to mark the feel-good war that the Second World War was supposed to be. In that cinematic war, Death was singular, one person dead at a time. No boatloads. And certainly not by the truckload.

Did Thomas respond to the invitation to African American soldiers issued by General John C. H. Lee to end the rigid segregation of the Armed Forces by seizing “the privilege of joining our veteran units at the front to deliver the knockout blow,” in a speech given after the bloody battle of the Bulge, when 19,000 American troops had been lost in the space of six days?

He did not go into detail; it was not his habit to go into subjects he felt best left in silence. He mentioned that he’d been in Britain for a time, then France, and that he had been part of the great multinational force that crossed into Central Europe. He had hauled his share of supplies.

How did Thomas feel about driving a truck through the shaken tablecloth that was the landscape of war? I look for him among the bare, creased writing of sixty-year-old documents with little more than a serial number. The official records, census, date of birth, entry into the Army, discharge papers position the dots on the graph but are mute.

What is clear, after looking back into accounts of that time, are that black enlisted men were not offered the opportunity to fight until late in the war, when there was a shortage of human fodder.

During the war, the United States military concentrated basic training in the South, exploiting the convenience of climate for year-round training programs. For black servicemen like Thomas, who was sent to Georgia and then North Carolina and had never directly experienced Jim Crow, the base communities came as a cultural shock. Black soldiers were thrown, northern habits and all, into an especially volatile mix of an official Army policy of nondiscrimination, rigid command structures, and local white paranoia about the sight of armed black soldiers. In basic training, men like my father fought the war before the war for the “Double V,” the war against “Jim Crow and Hitler,” as Langston Hughes memorably called it.

Assigned white commanding officers, the product of southern schooling and mores, who were said to be “accustomed to managing Negroes,” and who imposed a bellicose racist order on northern black troops, there were dozens of riots on bases, and open warfare between military police and black soldiers. In most cases, black servicemen were presumed guilty and received dishonorable discharges, severe prison sentences. Their white combatants were not.

Thomas’s base, at Fort Benning, Georgia, regularly erupted. A black soldier was found outside the base, hanging from a tree with his hands tied behind his back. The soldier’s murder was ruled a suicide by the base commander. In town, a northern black soldier could meet with violence for walking on the sidewalk instead of the gutter or for buying a movie ticket at the only ticket window in the front of the theater. In any altercation, and they were frequent (so tightly Jim Crow held the line), the black soldier was presumed to be the guilty party, and was punished with extra duty or sentenced to military prison by military courts. And yet despite the black press reports on the bloodshed, injustice, trials, and hangings, black enlistment continued to surge; there were repeated calls for blacks to be involved in combat duty, and there was significant participation at home in the war effort.

Thomas never spoke directly about any of these experiences.

The branches slowly added all-black units to conventional combat units. The majority of African Americans were assigned to the Quartermaster and Engineer Battalions, where they worked in logistics and operations to supply combat forces. But war is confusion; just because the unit wasn’t called a combat unit didn’t mean the soldiers never experienced battle. Even viewed from the relative tranquility of distant history, the order of war is an array of moving pieces, some of which never find locked location. Battalions changed attachments. Logistics failed as divisions trailed and dwindled. Regiments reformed, merged as they lost members, and redirected along the paths of battle. Just because a battalion was quartermaster bakery, or quartermaster fumigation, or engineer general service or engineer graves, didn’t mean the unit didn’t experience battle. Often, all it meant was that they were not prepared.

Thomas was in the 356th Engineers (“Fortune and Labor” their motto), which most likely formed the chain of 6,000 trucks carrying vitally needed supplies to the Third Army traveling east after D-Day. They moved with urgency, not even stopping to cook, but warming C-rations on the engines of their perpetually moving vehicles.

On the return trip, they carried the dead, sometimes the wounded, but mostly the American dead.

Thomas did not speak of the charnel house of temporary cemeteries and Graves Division facilities.

A man of twenty-seven at the time, he was still growing out into his man’s body, so he was slim and polite and given to quiet. A quiet man for a quiet task that no General even wants to entirely acknowledge; the “outlandish forms of death” passed over in squeamish silence, the fact that when the dismembered limb is scavenged from the slags of an old battlefield, there is no uniform left to tell you one side from the other, at most there is skin color. Jim Crow done in at last—black and white shared a common grave.

War sifts mayhem and binds us to its norms: the suburban neighbors of Buchenwald claimed to have noticed nothing, no evidence of the death that GIs could smell when they were fifteen miles away. How did Thomas endure that? Seasoned soldiers learned to suppress their reaction to death, to the smell, the bone picking, and even the violence and disrespect in the name of maintaining the good order and the “chain of command.”

Thomas learned to hold himself in check as he stacked and filed the bodies felled in the war, the bodies that were other and the bodies not entirely other. He and his fellow soldiers in the 356th General Service Regiment buried them in queues, graves open and shut that gridded the countryside in the lightning speed that marked the final weeks of the advance into central Europe. When you look at such landscapes now, you see the extraordinary tranquility of the green field; the files of crosses made to Army specifications following the slope.

For years I have gathered such evidence as I may, opportunistic, speculative, lying in wait at a family dinner or breakfast, during car rides, and at family reunions, and not infrequently hit a wall. To write about one’s parents, sometimes you have to work sideways, a crab mounting a dune only to slide back down. I have waited for the ultimate disclosure, the Rosetta Stone that would open Thomas’s life, circa B.E., Before Erica, that would illuminate the life we lived together, but no such grand clue arrived. In the face of such limited information, I understand the biographer’s modesty. Even with an abundance of historical information, what can anyone know about another’s state of mind?

Perhaps limitation can be turned into an asset. The passage of time has finally changed my father into Thomas, a brother, a peer. The very skimpiness of evidence gives me a different path to address him, to imagine how he would describe his life. There’s so much still Thomas won’t say to me. Omission, a mute and constant companion, hovers around him. Yet from blood-soaked Omission, I can manage to draw this point: the people we send to war do not come back to us, they are not the same person.

Maybe it is more truthful to leave the missing lost. The essayist Paul Fussell observed of war photography in the nineteenth and twentieth century that the bodies of the dead are always displayed with no missing limbs or parts; the whole stands in for the incomplete because patriotic decorum demands such deception. The dead are always shot cleanly, a bullet wound to the chest.

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Flight front cover
Erica Hunt is a poet, essayist, and author of Local History and Arcade, as well as three chapbooks: Piece Logic, Time Flies Right Before the Eyes, and A Day and Its Approximates. Her poems and non-fiction have appeared in BOMB, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Conjunctions, and her essays on poetics, feminism, and politics have been collected in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, The Politics of Poetic Form, The World, and other anthologies.

“Chasing a Ghost” was originally published in Flight (TLR, Winter 2015).