The Beretta in the Nightstand
My father hated war stories. He was a soldier with a code, a brave man who wouldn't talk about World War II. For a long time after the war, he could bring himself to tell only one story, and that one happened to him on the day he got home. He was crossing the Rockies in a troop train, safely out of the Apennines, glad to be alive. When his train reached Helper, Utah, it stopped to pick up a booster locomotive for the steep haul over the mountains to Salt Lake City. The sun was just coming up, and hundreds of soldiers were still dozing in their seats. Suddenly, just beyond the windows, the dawn erupted in rifle shots, shotgun blasts, and pistol fire. The Japanese had surrendered, and every man in Helper was shooting up the sky.
No one had bothered to tell the soldiers. Aboard the train, every man in uniform hit the floor. If you were a civilian, you might actually believe that World War II was over; if you had seen combat, it would never be over: You would carry it for the rest of your life, wired into your soul and central nervous system. Within Lt. Thomas Richard Mathews, every synapse was still sparking that day as a Union Pacific Challenger coupled itself to the troop train and started to roll, shoving its load of stouthearted men up the last grade and over Soldier Summit, delivering them home to be fathers.
Now, on this hot August day in 1945, it's a few hours later.
On the far side of the mountains, Thomas Richard Mathews Jr. is getting ready for inspection. It's the afternoon before my second birthday. Dressed for a double celebration in clean white shirt, short pants, and scuffed Buster Brown shoes, I am perched on the roof of a garage behind a small brick house on Mill Creek, the safe holding lie where my mother and I have spent the final months of the war. The idea is to get a good look at my father without getting too close too soon. My observation post isn't really a garage, but I don't know that yet. Topping out at about three feet tall, I'm still short on inches and nouns: To me, if a building has a front door and it isn't a house, it must be a garage. I'm also a little vague about the nature of this inspection, not quite sure which of us is on display. All I know is that the war, whatever that is, has ended; a uniform, whatever one looks like, will be on my father; and my father, whatever a father might be, is just about to appear.
"Today's the day, Tommy Two! Today's the day!"
Just a few minutes earlier, my mother had sung her small fanfare as she picked me up and waltzed me across the kitchen of our dark basement apartment. Her joy made me frown. My father and I both have the same name; we are both first sons, alphas to the max; and although I'm still working on my milk teeth, sharing my mother with anyone bigger than me isn't part of my master plan. None of this I can put into words, of course, but what I am feeling obviously shows on my face.
"Don't you worry, Tee-Two," my mother says gaily, kissing my forehead. "You are my golden-haired boy."
I don't know what she's talking about--my hair is not blond; it's dark brown--and now, more than a little suspicious, I'm on top of the garage waiting to get a good look at her soldier. I don't remember anything about the young rock climber and skier who shipped out with the 10th Mountain Division to fight the Germans in northern Italy. He left a few months after my first birthday. I never think about him. To tell the truth, the only thing that piques my curiosity now is his uniform.
From the roof, I have a commanding view of our weedy backyard. Suddenly the door to our subterranean apartment flies open and my father steps out, blinking in the bright August sun. My first impression is this: He is huge. My second impression is that he is a man without a stomach, quite different from my grandfather, whose web suspenders strain against his friendly girth when he hauls himself into his Chrysler. My father is flat and hard where my grandfather is round and soft, and he is moving toward me at a very fast clip. Pulling up in front of the garage, he opens his arms.
I hesitate, study the distance between us. It is transcontinental. The drop to the ground appears to be fifteen hundred feet. Bottom of the Grand Canyon. Certain death.
Not possible. No, no, no, no, no.
"I said jump." The voice is harder now. But then, for just an instant, he appears to soften.
"It's okay, Tommy," he says. "I'm your father."
Am I supposed to fly? Does he think I'm a bird? Recoiling, I freeze to the roof.
The tanned face flushes. Then the soldier wheels abruptly and storms across the yard, plunging into the basement. For the rest of my life I will hear the screen door's sharp bang and the last thing he said before he turned his back and walked away.
"No son of mine is a coward."
In memory, this first scene always plays out in the present tense, arriving through an odd quantum leap that makes the collision from the past and its impact today coincide in time. I wanted my father's love, he longed for mine; but from the day he came home, the kinetic energy of World War II struck at our center of gravity. To what might otherwise have been the normal, primordial course of battle between fathers and sons, the war added its own peculiar convolutions. In our case, from that first day, my father thought--not without reason--that he was looking at a soft little pain in the neck, and I thought, on balance, that my life would be off to a better start if only the Germans had killed him.
The issue between us wasn't a simple one of who was boss. It was more a question of who was who. I could never quite figure out where he left off and I began. World War II may have been the last war where young men actually sang as they were bound for combat: in their barracks, on the troopship, in the trucks moving them up to the front line. The 10th Mountain Division had a ballad called "Ninety Pounds of Rucksack" about a barmaid who jumped into a skier's bed to keep him warm and wound up with "a bastard in the mountain infantry." The chorus was "Ninety pounds of rucksack, a pound of grub or two. He'll schuss the mountains like his daddy used to do." The big bastard was my father, and the little bastard was me. When I was a small boy, we both thought it was my destiny and duty to follow his smooth, shining track on the hill.
The problem was that the tracks were clear only in light powder snow. The war and what came after made him a hard man to understand. He had grown up during the Great Depression feeling like a boy with empty pockets standing outside a candy store window. After the war, you could never be sure how he felt. My sister once sent me his photograph from Officer Candidate School. In this formal portrait, shot in a studio somewhere near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he is twenty-one years old. Sewn to his shoulder is a 10th Mountain Division patch: two red bayonets crossed on a field of blue. The stitches on the patch are large, as if he has done the sewing himself. Mercifully, someone with an airbrush has erased the acne that scarred his adolescence. For the first time, he is actually good-looking: hair dark and brushed up in an unmilitary wave, a faint smile, lady-killer eyes.
Before the war swept him into the United States Army, he was a climber on Mount Olympus, Lone Peak, Timpanogos, and Mount Nebo, the craggiest summits of the Wasatch Range. He scrambled aloft from the University of Utah, the first man in his family to go to college and rise so high. Long before the days of Gore-Tex and chairlifts, he was recklessly at ease on rock faces and avalanche slopes, spending his winters on skis and the rest of the year on subversive ideas. From the Arlberg school he got stem christies and his Tyrolean hat; from Ernest Hemingway he developed his sense of style as the grand gesture; from F. Scott Fitzgerald he acquired martinis along with a hangover as big as The Ritz.
As a young man, he once told me, he felt torn between two forces, one physical, the other dreamy: Within the husk of the athlete breathed the soul of a troubadour. He was born in Salt Lake City in 1922, a son of Utah pioneers entitled to full standing in the Mormon Church. But the Mormons had hermetically sealed the Valley of the Saints against troubadours, so he had to reinvent himself. By the time he entered his twenties, he had become a Deseret original, an apostate Jack Mormon sitting behind the wheel of a Model A Ford in Jay Gatsby's suit and shoes. One afternoon in the summer of 1942, he pulled into Fred & Kelly's Drive-In, where a tiny brunette carhop in a bright red uniform took his order. Her name was Bonnie Johnson. When she wasn't hustling burgers and shakes, she was reading Elizabethan plays at the university. Her eyes were brown and piercing, and her intentions were radical. Dodging the advances of the drive-in's owner, hanging up the uniform at the end of the shift, she would light a cigarette and consider the future. "I'd join the Communist Party," she told the other carhops. "But you can't find a cell around this hole."
The troubadour and the revolutionary felt an instant affinity. For their first date, she once told me, my father changed into rough pants and a T-shirt, crammed a loaf of bread and a jug of wine into his rucksack, and took my mother on a hike up Bell's Canyon. Given the choice, she would have preferred a long session with Das Kapital. But as she watched my father loping up the trail ahead of her, yodeling to the pines, so young and full of high spirits, she fell in love. At the end of the day they stopped at the A&W to chase the jug of wine with a root beer. When the waiter brought the bill, my father grandly tossed all the loose change to a kid in the next booth. Then he put his head on Bonnie's shoulder and said, "I like you, Johnson."
It was the summer after Pearl Harbor when they started their romance. To save gas he would park the Ford in the garage behind the Fairmount Apartments, where he lived with his parents, and the young couple would neck in the back seat. He didn't know the first thing about sex, she told me. After one particularly clumsy grope, she sent him packing. But the next day he turned up at her door with an armful of flowers and a face so sad, she took him back. Piling into the Ford, they drove to Liberty Park, and there, in the darkness next to the tennis courts, she rendered unto Gatsby what Gatsby always wanted from Daisy. The issue of this shot heard 'round the backcourt was me. When she missed her next period, she spent a few days jumping off a tall chest of drawers in her bedroom, hoping to induce a miscarriage. It didn't work. Then, saying why the hell not, she and my father found a Unitarian minister and got married.
The wedding took place on December 27, 1942. The groom was in an ROTC program at the University of Utah. The following summer, seven months' pregnant, my mother didn't make an appearance at his graduation, but before he left for basic training, the two of them wandered through the old municipal cemetery overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, looking for a boy's name. My mother thought Christopher would be nice--after Marlowe. When they proposed it to my grandmother, a strong-minded Swede, she said, "Christopher--isn't that what Greeks call their sons?" Swedes worked on the railroads. Greeks washed dishes in diners behind the Union Pacific depot. This proposal confirmed my grandmother's darkest fear that her son had married a tramp. To mollify her, my parents decided to name me after my father. Two weeks later he left for basic training.
I have another old photograph commemorating this moment. Out in the backyard, my father, rail thin, his khaki tie knotted and crammed into the blouse of his uniform, his hand on his hip, is standing next to my grandfather, who is wearing a straw boater, a white shirt open at the throat, and a belt that would fit around a beer barrel. The young soldier is still so green that he has no insignia on his uniform. The picture was taken just before he set off for Fort Sill. On arrival, according to the form that recorded the results of his Army physical, the doctors found his posture good and his eyes normal; his ears, nose, and throat clear, his bones, joints, muscles, and abdominal viscera all combat ready. He was good to go.
So was I, but in quite a different direction. On the morning of August 16, 1943, just after reveille in Fort Sill, my grandfather came to Holy Cross Hospital in Salt Lake City with an armload of gladiolus for my mother. He was also trailing a fragrant bouquet of Old Crow. In Oklahoma later that afternoon, Cpl. Thomas Richard Mathews, serial number 0-534107, burst out of his barracks waving a telegram. Running down the dusty street between a long line of identical buildings covered in tar paper, he shouted at the top of his lungs:
"I have a son!"
Fast-forward fifty years.
Fruitland, Utah, at three in the morning is probably as close as any son and father can get to the end of the earth. Sailing above the sagebrush, only a full moon illuminates the pay phone on the wall of the locked grocery next to a ghostly filling station. Seventeen miles back up the dirt road along Strawberry Creek, my father and I have lost the jeep, our fly rods, our fishing vests, and an Igloo cooler full of brown trout.
It is very cold. Shifting from foot to foot in my soggy waders, I watch my father bend over the phone box, muttering to himself. Steam plumes into the Utah darkness as he plugs quarters into the slot. We've been missing in action for twelve hours. Shortly before sunup, my mother pulls into Fruitland. One or two steps ahead of hypothermia, we jump into her car and sit there shivering. Shaking her head, she jacks up the heater and throws the car into reverse. "My God," she says. "What a pair."
Rewind twelve hours.
Excerpted from Our Fathers' War by Tom Mathews. Copyright © 2005 by Tom Mathews. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.