A dad’s arms

Richard Hugo, the celebrated Seattle poet, said, “Our words come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn’t.”

Hugo House, named in his honor, is “a place for writers” in Seattle, offering classes, workshops and literary speakers. I’d never taken a writing class before, but having only recently discovered this wonderful resource, I didn’t want to wait forty years to be exploring my story. Here’s the working draft that came out of Christine Hemp’s excellent essay workshop.

A dad’s arms  

Four little girls raced to a well-used Chevy station wagon. I was among them, scrambling into the back. My father laid down the seats and covered them with unrolled sleeping bags and blankets, to give us some space for the long trip to the Sierra Nevada foothills. We each claimed a corner, the youngest ending up right behind the driver’s seat, within Dad’s swatting reach when we’d get to arguing. But he was always in a good mood for summer vacation, handing out Hershey bars for every tree we could name along the way—to this day I can point out a Digger Pine.

In each corner fiefdom, our feet meeting in the center, we could sit up our baby dolls and stack our books and crayons, paper and coloring books. Remember, this was five years before seat belts were invented, 20 years before they were mandatory. 

Sun warming the road ahead of us, my dad loved to drive east through the agricultural soul of California, the San Joaquin valley, stopping by the roadside for fruit just picked. Like his own father before, he’d wade into some farmer’s vines and cut one fat, sun-kissed tomato. We’d line up on the tailgate and he’d lay a slice onto each salami sandwich. For dessert we’d stop at a peach orchard, buying a flat of the golden fruit while those four small girls, blonde hair straying out of braids, clustered around a bucket out back, eating as many too-ripe-to-sell Freestone Peaches as we wanted. Juice ran down our arms, turning us happily sticky.

When we weren’t on vacation, my dad wore a short sleeved white shirt and skinny tie to work every day. Later they became a joke, but he actually wore a plastic pocket protector for his mechanical pencils and his fountain pen. He clipped a little square of red plastic to his belt each day before he left the house, and off he’d go to “the radlab.” Then Mom walked us over to East Avenue School. My kindergarten teacher, she of the frizzy hair, the glasses on a chain around her neck, a warm toothy smile; her name was Mrs. Good. (I wouldn’t make that up!) One day a week Mom would drive Dad to work so she could go to the grocery store. He worked hard, but I’ll bet Mom worked harder. 

At some point, I started having nightmares. After spending the day jumping into Rinconada Pool with my friends, I dreamt of huge, fur-hatted men coming to the pool’s edge and shooting at us while we tried to dive deeper into the pool. They called it the Cold War, but I’d wake up sweating and crying. I couldn’t believe my Dad wouldn’t build us a hole in the ground like my friend Nancy Copenhagen’s, so we could escape the Russian bombs. I had those occasional nightmares well into adulthood, remembering the cold sweat these many decades later. 

But my sister-filled California childhood was enviable. Who wouldn’t relish that sunshine, the best climate in the world? Who wouldn’t treasure roller skating under the broad Magnolia trees, putting on pageants under the spreading Oak in back. My dad, a former paratrooper, would hoist his huge white silk parachute under a branch of that tree, creating a billowing tent we could sleep under in the summer. Easter portraits in front of the holly tree; at some point my baby brother appeared in those photos, a late addition. I found a place to hide from everyone in the basement, clearing books off the shelves to make a Barbie apartment building, upside-down Kleenex boxes for beds. 

My dad’s 91 now, living a mile or two from the house I grew up in. I fly down to visit a couple of times a year. The last couple of years, we talk about family stories—about his life growing up in the Oakland hills, his many siblings. He’s losing memory, inch by inch (and I regret not hearing more from Mom before she died, too young). Engineer that he is, Dad’s organized all of his photos into binders, so we peruse them to share what he remembers. There’s one for the Danville house we lived in until mom had too many kids to fit. One for the elegant house where he grew up on Trestle Glen Road. One more for their 1944 cross-country trip in a ’42 Cadillac, grandma, grandpa, and the oldest five; I think Dad was just out of high school. And another binder of photos from his work; a few of those pages are devoted to Dad and his shirtless buddies enjoying some beery R&R time on Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls, after a long, hot, sticky day, testing atomic bombs. So that’s how I learned he worked on atomic bomb testing when I was young.

There’s my smiling dad, crouched down with his arms corralling a few squirming, tow-headed daughters in matching dresses, while Mom takes a picture. My smiling dad, helping develop weapons intended to incinerate untold thousands of little boys and girls. This was the mid-1950’s—they knew what they were building. Was it all about how breathtakingly cool the science was? Was it getting to work with the elite engineers and scientists under Edward Teller? Was it the paranoid, win-at-all-costs mindset of that decade?

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Since the day I learned that my father helped build atomic bombs, I am struggling to function, to understand that this smiling man, this flawed man, was caught up in the moment of his time. It’s so easy for us to think: the past is past, the paranoia that fueled the post-war arms race is behind us and we’re smarter now. We’re too rational to provoke our way into another world-annihilating arms race, are we not?

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