My maternal grandfather served in both world wars, too young for the first, too old for the second. In the Pacific he contracted malaria, from which he never fully recovered. What killed him, though, was emphysema, the result of breathing leather dust (he was a glove cutter) and smoking cigarettes. In other words he was poisoned on the job and also poisoned himself. The last years of his life he spent hooked up to an oxygen tank, gasping, his chest convulsing violently, as if it contained a trip-hammer. When my mother and I moved to Arizona from upstate New York to begin what we imagined would be new lives, I think we both understood that we were absolving ourselves of the duty of being present when his abused heart finally gave out.
He’d bought the house we shared—my mother and I on the top floor, he and my grandmother on the bottom—so we’d have a place to live after my parents split up. Having himself grown up in a disorderly home, he prized order. Our lawn was mowed and edged in summer, our leaves raked and disposed of in autumn, our sidewalks shoveled in winter, our house repainted at the first sign of flaking. The clothes he wore were never expensive or showy, but they were always clean and, thanks to my grandmother, crisply ironed. He always hiked his trouser legs an inch or two at the knee before sitting down, the first human gesture I can recall imitating. Other gestures of his I’ve imitated my whole life and been the better man for it. I loved him with my whole heart and love him still.
That said, I don’t imitate everything about him. During the Civil Rights Movement, I remember him making fun of a young black mother on the news when she complained about “not even having enough money to feed my little babies!” A natural mimic, his impersonation was spot-on and devastating. Had he been asked to explain his lack of sympathy for the woman’s plight, her hungry kids, I doubt he would’ve mentioned her race, and in his defense he was equally merciless in his imitations of white southern lawmen and politicians. But there can be no question he was stereotyping her. There would’ve been no doubt in his mind that the kids in question all had different fathers and that producing more hungry kids was her only life skill. On the basis of this one anecdote, it would be hard to argue that the man I loved and love still was not racist. But I also remember the afternoon he ordered off his front porch a neighbor who was circulating a petition to keep a black family from buying a house on our street, explaining that this was America and we didn’t do things that way here. He must’ve seen how many names were already on the petition and known how many of his neighbors had accepted the man’s specious argument—that it wasn’t about these particular people and whether or not they were decent and hardworking, but rather a question of property values. If you let this family in, where do you draw the line?
Where my grandfather drew it was right there, on our front porch, just one short step from the top.
My father drew lines as well.
“Well,” he said, finally waking up and rubbing his eyes with his fists. “No need to tell me where we are.”
Out late the night before, he’d slept most of the way to Albany. I’d just returned home from the university and next week would start working road construction with him. Before that could happen, I had to check in at the union hall where he and I were members. At the moment we were stopped at a traffic light in a predominantly black section of the city.
“Please,” I begged him, because of course I knew where this was headed. “You’re telling me you can’t smell that?”
On more than one previous occasion my father had claimed he could smell black people. Their blackness. Whether they were clean or dirty made no difference. Race itself, he claimed, had an odor.
“You’re sure it isn’t poverty you’re smelling?” I ventured.
“Yep,” he said. “And so are you. You just won’t admit it.”
Mulignans, he called them, the Italian word for eggplant (“Ever see a white one?”). The irony was that by the end of August, after a summer of working in the hot sun, his own complexion would be darker than most light-skinned blacks. Certainly as dark as Calvin’s. When my father was spouting racist nonsense, I’d often remind him that one of his best friends was black, an incongruity that was not lost on Calvin either. Indeed, in a playful mood he would sometimes put his forearm up next to my father’s for comparison’s sake. “Except for the smell,” he’d say, grinning at me, if I happened to be around, “you can’t tell us apart.” One drunken night my father had apparently shared with Calvin his theory of smell.
“What I most want my daughters and grandchildren to understand is that it’s okay to love flawed people with your whole heart and soul because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a low opinion of yourself.”
Another story. It’s a few years later and my father and I are driving a U-Haul across country from Tucson, Arizona, to Altoona, Pennsylvania, to my first academic job at a branch campus of Penn State. I’m pushing 30, married, a father myself now, and broke. The plan is for my wife, who is pregnant with our second daughter, to join me later in the summer. My father is now in his fifties, but lean and strong from a lifetime of hard labor, his black Brillo Pad hair only just beginning to be flecked with gray. He’s a D-Day guy. Bronze star. A genuine war hero. That he’s not prospered in the peace, as so many returning vets have, doesn’t seem to trouble him. That he’s alive and kicking seems enough. I myself am soft by comparison, soft in so many ways. Thanks to a series of deferments and then a high draft number, I’ve managed to stay out of Vietnam. My father’s opinion of that clusterfuck war was pretty much the same as mine, but I know it troubles him that I stayed home when others of my generation served and came back, like him, profoundly changed. But the “conflict” is finally over and I’m alive and I know he’s glad about that.
His war we’ve never talked about, not due to any lack of interest on my part, but because men like my father and grandfather simply didn’t. Is it the realization that, with Vietnam over, I will probably never experience war firsthand that starts him talking today? Or just the fact that we’ve been cooped up in the cab of that U-Haul truck for so long? The worst was the Hedgerows, he begins, surprising me. (Not Normandy? Not the Hürtgen Forest?) Every time you turned around, there were more Germans stepping out from behind the hedges, hands in the air, wanting to surrender. (He slips unconsciously into present tense now, suddenly more in France than here in the cab of the truck.) We’re driving, going flat out, miles and hours ahead of our supply train. Maybe days, for all we know. Here come another seven Germans, hands in the air. Then nine more. Another mile up the road, more hedgerows, more surrendering Germans. A dozen this time, maybe two. Hands in the air and guns on the ground at their feet. What do you do with them? You can’t take them with you. You can’t leave them behind because who knows? Maybe they take up their weapons again, and now they’re behind you, these same guys that have been shooting at you since Utah Beach.
Did I ask the begged question? I don’t remember, but anyway, no need. He’s going to tell me. It’s the point of the story. And maybe the point of my not serving in Vietnam. In any company, he tells me, his voice thick, there’s always one who doesn’t mind taking these guys down the road.
Down the road?
Right, he says. Around the bend. Out of sight. If you don’t see it, it didn’t happen. None of your business. Your business is up ahead.
And that was pretty much all my father had to say about the second world war. And the one I managed to avoid.
“It occurs to me that I am America,” Allen Ginsberg wrote.
The same thing occurs to me. I’m proud, like my grandfather and father, but also ashamed. I write this the week after young white men waving Nazi flags and members of the KKK and conspiracy-theory-stoked militiamen converged on Charlottesville and were not unambiguously denounced by the president of the United States. Is this the country my father and grandfather fought for? I ask because the shame I felt seeing those swastikas on display in Charlottesville was deeply personal, a betrayal of two men I loved, who at their best were brave men and good Americans and at their worst were far, far better than these despicable, pathetic, deluded fuckwads.
My father and grandfather both believed, and not without justification, that America was the light and hope of the world. They also believed, with perhaps less justification, in me. Okay, not me, exactly, but the possibility inherent in my existence, in this time and this place, which, not coincidentally, is how I feel about my own children and grandchildren. Like my grandfather and father, I don’t demand or expect perfection in those I love. But I do hope that when their neighbor climbs the porch steps, petition in hand, my children and grandchildren will say, as my grandfather did, “That’s not the way we do things here. Not in America.” And I want them to know about the day when my father, in an uncharacteristically serious mood, took me aside and said, “Listen up, Dummy.” (Yeah, Dad?) “You’re ever in a tough spot? You need somebody you can trust? Go to Calvin.” I want them to understand that in the final analysis, as far as my father was concerned, Calvin wasn’t black. He was Calvin. I want them to understand that even though you couldn’t talk him out of the idea that black people had an odor and he held the entire race in low esteem, he made exceptions, as many as were necessary, in fact, and there were many. He preferred black men who worked hard to white men who didn’t. Like Whitman, he didn’t trouble himself about contradictions.
What I most want my daughters and grandchildren to understand is that it’s okay to love flawed people with your whole heart and soul because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a low opinion of yourself. I want them to understand that the world poisons you, but that most of us are to one degree or another complicit in that poisoning. Inherent in being an American is cherishing ideals that are impossible to live up to, that invite failure and self-loathing when we don’t. Why commit to the impossible? Because it’s the only way forward. Because the many paradoxes of democracy demand nothing less. Because timid people don’t find the courage to face their neighbors on that top step. Cowed, they sign the petition. And not knowing what else to do with their enemies when at last they surrender, they take them down the road.
From It Occurs to Me That I Am American, edited by Jonathan Santlofer. Used with permission of Touchstone. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Russo.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.
On May 14 at 7:00 at Print Bookstore in Portland, ME: John Freeman, Richard Russo, and Kerri Arsenault will talk about Maine and paper mills (see Empire Falls), what it’s like living in and leaving blue collar towns, how America is broken, and how to alleviate the suffering of our divided nation.