The Man From Far Away
While clearing out his closet on the day he was to leave his home forever, my father, momentarily alert, unyieldingly stoic, and eighty-eight years at it, offers me an ancient brown leather satchel. “Do you want it?”
My smooth fingers trace the cracked, brittle edges, hesitating while my memories catch up. In the kitchen I slide the contents out onto the old oak table, sorting them gently, the net sum of an ordinary man’s life. A stack of old photographs. A small jeweler’s box. A key. His journals.
My mind reaches back to a time when I was just beginning to understand the nature of things. I was eight. My mother, a quiet woman who saw things squarely — as they were — was explaining to me, and my brother and sister, that Father was fine, that the changes we noticed came from his wrestling with demons from the past. Things he had to work out on his own. But, she assured us, on balance the changes were promising.
Up until then my father was a solitary, distant figure who seemingly lived far away. He was taciturn, undemonstrative; I hardly knew him at all. A writer, he needed his space, free of intrusion or responsibility. So he sat alone in his special room, alone with his thoughts, his demons, and the growing mound of rejection slips Mother quietly slipped under the locked door. Then, he began to change.
First, we saw him more. Father became open, outward looking, spontaneously engaging in animated conversations while the family cast questioning glances at each other. He appeared more alive, as if finally participating in life itself. He began reading and quoting poetry, sometimes even singing under his breath. He spent considerable time in the county library, lugging home stacks of books each night. Father seemed at peace, yet strangely restless at the same time. Perhaps only I noticed.
The family welcomed the changes, but I recall a vague uneasiness, for even at that age I recognized the terrible power of strange forces that could rise up and push a man over the precipice, alter a man’s entire personality, the essence of what he was. I saw, too, that some part of my father stood forever apart.
Father became increasingly possessed of a love of nature, which inexorably waxed and mounted like a rising tempest, like the hurricanes which occasionally thrashed our homestead. Even simple things of a natural order, such as the serene beauty of a blue winter moon reflecting on a still, cattail-fringed otter pond, could suddenly move him to tears. With an earnest, perhaps manic, compulsion to meticulously record everything he encountered, Father began writing in his spiral-bound journals. Only later did I understand that his focused power of scientific observation was rooted in an essential isolation. My father’s passion for nature grew, flourished, multiplied, until one day it burst forth when, like a divine revelation, he stated that it would be his life’s greatest misfortune to die without having seen the whole earth. The next day he was gone.
Four days later I place the satchel in the passenger seat of my new convertible, put the top down and start southward, away from my soft world of investment banking, towards the old homestead, a place in my heart as much as on the map. Panama City. Apalachicola. Tallahassee. I am traveling into Old Florida, the big bend area wrapping around the Gulf of Mexico, a place of tall, knobby pines, palmetto bushes and shaded live oaks luxuriously draped in Spanish moss. I settle onto Highway 98, a backward country road really, more two-lane than four, watching the familiar signs and sights slip by. Wakulla Springs. Adams Beach. Jug Island. Time appears slower here, life according to a deeper rhythm, a more measured pace. Fish Creek. Steinhatchee. Manatee Springs. The names resonate, striking chords stained with the residue of uncertain shadows. My meandering mind docks at the banks of an unrealized Eden doused with memories of homemade turtle traps, hog killings, tobacco barns and fresh roasted corn.
I reflect on the contents of the satchel. The photographs, I know, are from Father’s decades-long travels throughout the world. The Gobi Desert. Sumatra. New Zealand. Venezuela. The Congo. Iceland. Father preferred the edges of the world, traveling until he finally faced the limits of his talents and he became an exile from his own mind. To me the photographs bear witness, framing the pathos underpinning his peripatetic wanderings.
One day, as suddenly as he vanished, Father reappeared, carrying only his tattered leather satchel, insisting with a stolid stubbornness on entering our lives again. It was clear that his mind was not well, strained by his uncertainty of his place in the universe. He had been declared legally dead. Mother was remarried. Angela, my sister, had died. The homestead lay forlorn, abandoned. Father moved back into the homestead, thereby becoming the family Gordian knot. And though, in my quiet moments, I sought him out to interrogate his solitary abstruseness, I was unable to put Alexander’s sword to the knot, and it remains a riddle still.
I cross the Suwannee River, passing Manatee Springs State Park, where frigid, crystal-clear water boils up from limestone bedrock. I speed past the turnoff to Yankeetown, then cross the Withlacoochee River. On impulse I pull over, nose my car through some fern-covered scrubland and pull up to the water’s edge. It is a land of great stillness and beauty. Elemental. Fruitful earth and generous water. The river unravels through the landscape like a lime peel, hemmed in by dense thickets of greenest trees. From my car I watch mossy-backed alligators glide across the surface like tokens on a cretaceous pinball machine. White herons patrol the river bank, while turtles sun themselves on logs. The rich, fecund smell of organic matter weighs upon my senses. A pensive quail whistles out its lonesome bob-white call against a backdrop of buzzing insects. A curious squirrel inspects me from a tree top. The very air seems heavy with promise, laden with life. I am no longer a visitor, but a resident once again.
From the leather satchel I remove the jeweler’s box, idly stroking its velvety surface. Inside, I know, lie father’s war medals. A purple heart. A bronze star. A silver star. Some campaign ribbons. A large, ornate medal from the Philippine government. I drop them onto my palm, feel their weight, the coolness of the metal. Another object catches my attention. I study it, prod it with a fingertip until I realize it is a large caliber bullet, spent and disfigured from impact upon flesh and bone. A machine gun bullet.
A sudden noise makes me look up, and after a moment a mother manatee and her baby calf come into view, bobbing on the surface, gently frolicking. I recall as a boy swimming with the gentle giants, which seemingly possessed a sad wisdom far beyond my ken. My father dearly loved manatees. I remember the tickle of their stiff whiskers, their curious, snuffling snouts, the feel of their thick hide which they so enjoyed having stroked. These two are at peace. The mother munches on water grasses while the calf rolls and sports in its slow, clumsy way. After a while the mother turns slightly at the calf’s nudging, allowing it to feed at her teat. I feel the powerful universal bond of mother and child, a love grounded in the very genes. I think of my own mother. Then, I see the deep, wicked propeller marks across the mother manatee’s back, vicious scars that make me wince. I feel amazement that she survived.
I know the basic facts behind the medals, having learned them not from Mother or Father, but from old newspaper accounts dug from the basement of the St. Petersburg Times, and from the Freedom of Information Act requests I filed in Washington, D.C. In early 1942, Father was trapped in the Philippines with Generals MacArthur and Wainwright. The jungle fighting was brutal, savage. Badly outnumbered, forced to retreat down the Bataan peninsula, then onto the island fortress tunnels of Corregidor, the men fought, alone, the world seemingly oblivious to the drama, dying mightily, until they exhausted all ammunition, medicine and food. They shot and ate their mules and horses. The aerial bombardments and artillery barrages were constant, pitiless, day and night. Some wounded were evacuated by submarine, and a few of the starving, trapped men found ways to be wounded, praying for that sub rendezvous. When Washington, D.C., ordered MacArthur and his staff to be evacuated on the last submarine the fate of the troops was sealed. It was left to General Wainwright to arrange for the surrender of his diseased, starving men, his ragtag army. Father, though, refused to surrender. Perhaps it was his first indication of mental instability. Considering what followed perhaps he was the smart one.
Father escaped into the jungles, living off the land. He followed the notorious Bataan Death March as the Japanese relentlessly marched Wainwright’ s gaunt troops and haggard civilians, mostly American army nurses and Filipino orderlies, back up the jungle peninsula, raping, shooting and bayoneting any wounded or stragglers. From the forests, paralleling the march, Father watched. It must have been horrible. I try to imagine myself watching the brutal, arbitrary executions, hearing the screams. Did Father watch as friends were murdered before his eyes? I wonder if I, with my soft hands, would have had — what? — the courage to do what he did . . . Father fought alone, picking off occasional Japanese stragglers. He joined up with Filipino resistance fighters, organized raids. Was wounded. Captured. Somehow escaped. Survived the war. He returned home to Mother a silent, stoic, one-armed man. They moved into the Florida wilderness, built the homestead. Raised children.
I remember back to when I was six or seven, how I had secretly memorized a little ditty I found in a history book of the war. I comb my memory for the words, and they come:
We‘re the battling bastards of Bataan
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces
No pills, no planes or artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn!
I recall how I had planted my little feet and proudly recited it to my father, expecting his praise. I can still see his stunned look, still feel the sting from his slap to my face. He looked around wildly, then broke down and wept before me.
I look back to the river, searching for the manatees. The mother, a survivor, has vanished with her child. I glance at the journals in the satchel, then start my engine and return to the road. I take 345, then 24, down to the coast, where pine trees and palmetto give way to needle weed, cypress and salt marsh, into Cedar Key, a somewhat quaint fishing village, unlike the tough, working man’s fishing town of Steinhatchee. I suddenly recollect an old, decrepit billboard which once hung near the county line, warning any and all Negroes, in no uncertain terms, not to be caught in the county after sundown. Only, the words were not so polite. I remember asking Father about it, trying to understand, and how he told me that, well, some men are just born with hate in their hearts. But, he said, most are taught. Shortly afterward someone burned that sign up and it never reappeared.
I nose the car around, drinking in familiar sights, breathing in the salt air. I’m reluctant, I know, to proceed. Back on 98 I pass through Homosassa Springs, then continue on until I see the familiar turnoff, still marked by the red reflectors I nailed to the Australian pines decades ago. They’re a lot higher up now. With twice-burned hesitation I look down our rutted road, feeling a brooding, inchoate pressure bear down on me. Gunning the engine, I turn the wheel and proceed.
In due time the homestead appears, old and neglected, but more or less as it should be. It is late and darkness comes quickly out here. As if to confirm my thought, an owl hoots nearby. Taking the key out of the satchel, I bundle the journals under my arm. The key finally opens the lock but the door, warped in its frame, refuses to budge, so I force it, hard, splintering the jamb. There is no electricity so I gather firewood. With a fire blazing in the big fieldstone fireplace I lie back to read the journals.
The journals recount my father’s travels and adventures. Some volumes are apparently missing. Carefully pressed between some pages I find strange leaves and flowers, along with meticulous hand-drawn renderings of exotic insects, reptiles and mammals, followed by detailed descriptions of anatomy and behavior. Other parts contain musings on religion, philosophy and the larger questions of life. No mention of his wife or children. The writing is sometimes trenchant, incisive, powerful. Other times it is beautiful, poetic, transcending. The balance reflects a seriously deluded mind, paranoid, borderline psychotic, torn with psychic trauma a reader can only guess at. At some point I fall asleep, seduced by the crackling fire.
I awake with a start, instantly alert, covered in darkness, the silence like a blanket. The owl hoots again, as if to reassure me. I get the fire going again, open a warm beer and stare into the distance. The owl hoots again, three times. Something makes me look at the stack of journals and I pull one to me, one that appears somehow different. I open it up and read.
This journal is different. It recounts my father’s war years, the parts not found in the official reports. Written after the fact in a concise, clinical style, it leaves to the reader’s imagination the most horrid parts. Much of it I am familiar with, but the parts I am not grip my heart. He describes being shot in the jungle, hunted, eventually captured. His right arm amputated—his writing arm. Tortured horribly by the Japanese in a Manila prison for many months. Then, herded onto a rusting transport ship with over two thousand other prisoners. Americans. British. South Africans. Australians. New Zealanders. I read of the voyage south, across the Coral Sea towards an island concentration camp. I learn of the air attacks on the convoy by American navy warplanes. The ship explodes, breaks into pieces, sinks. Men scream, cry, burn, die. My father, with one arm, hangs onto refuse in shark-infested waters for two days and nights until washing up on a small island off New Guinea. He knows cannibals, real cannibals, inhabit these parts. I read how father explores the island, finding little wildlife and less fresh water. He is starving. He comes across three surviving Japanese sailors, stalks them, kills them, one by one. He eats them.
I close the journal, trying to make my mind wrap around what I have read, the images in my mind. I consider my father, whose earnest persistence to write was compromised by a spirit marked by sighs. I think of the private silence in which he lived, enduring his own solitude, writing by the light of his own quiet spark of courage, while shackled by memories too dark to illuminate. I think of the father I knew, and the one I never knew. After a very long time I fall into a fitful sleep.
The next morning I’m out the door wearing only shorts and sunglasses. I pad out to the end of the old cypress wood dock, sit down and dangle my bare feet, skimming the water. An osprey soars overhead. My mind frames difficult questions but provides few answers. Perhaps my questions say more about me than about my father.
I hear a soft chugging sound, then see, coming slowly around the river bend, an ancient glass-bottomed boat with a bright canvas awning top. I recognize Rainy, an odd, eccentric, red-headed woman who lives upstream. I want to be alone, but it’s too late to hide. She sees me, so I wave. She peers at me, then turns the old boat towards the dock. As a youth I once had a wild crush on Rainy, though she was like an aunt to me. She had always possessed an instinctive insight into my father, too. Decades ago, Rainy had appeared with Lloyd Bridges in one of his “Sea Hunt” television episodes, shot at Silver Springs, and she came away from it with one of their glass-bottomed tourist boats. Rainy cuts the old, single-cylinder diesel and expertly glides up to the dock.
“Hi, back,” I reply. I feel shy, like a boy again, embarrassed at not having seen her in so long. I never wrote.
“Whatchya doing?” She looks around pleasantly.
“Father died,” I explain after a moment’s hesitation.
“Oh.” Rainy watches me. “Did he –“ “ She stops, looks away. “How did he die?”
“Just died.” It was true. “On top of everything else, he had Alzheimer’s. I kept him as long as I could. Then I had to put him in a home. I had to. It was a nice home. The next day he was dead. That was five days ago.”
“Wasn’t your fault,” Rainy assures me.
We talk. I tell her about the journals, though she does not seem that surprised. I tell her about the sea cows I saw the day before, the mother and baby.
“There’s a herd of ‘em up there,” she says, jerking her thumb backwards. “Your dad sure loved those old suckers. He saw something special in them.” Rainy smiles.
An idea creeps up to me. Sometimes we do things that don’t seem particularly appropriate until we actually do them, and then you just know it’s right.
I go down to the creek bank and gather up handfuls of water hyacinths, then carry them into the house. I return in five minutes, the wet, bulbous lily plants bundled in a stuffed T-shirt.
“Let’s go see the sea cows.”
We climb into the mahogany-framed boat, then chug our way back upstream at a leisurely pace. When Rainy cuts the engine we drift placidly over a platoon of manatees, some of which seem to grin up at us through the glass bottom. I close my eyes, say a simple prayer, then quietly slip over the side.
I dive down, play and frolic among the trusting beasts, a small boy again. I look up through the glass at Rainy, blowing bubbles up at her. Then I surface. Hanging on the side of the boat I tell Rainy that I have sprinkled my father’s cremated remains among the water hyacinths. She smiles, then hands me the stuffed T-shirt. Underwater, I feed the grazing cows, again feeling their whiskers tickle my hands. They crowd around, nuzzling me with curiosity, but asking no questions, demanding no answers. I hand out the last of the plants, pat the last snout, rub the last belly. When I climb back on board Rainy laughs like a little girl, claps her hands, and I, too, laugh, for the first time in weeks. Then, I ask Rainy to take me home.