One of the few acknowledgments of my existence to come from my father happened in the middle of a feud between the Darnells and the Watsons on the banks of the Mississippi in the 1840s. That is, in the description of such a feud in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. There, halfway down page 210, just as friends of the ferryman shoot old Darnell through and through—“filled him full of bullets, and ended him”—lies an X in the margin. At the page’s bottom, the X is explained:
Nov 20, 1941—1:40 AM. As I was reading this in French Hospital, N.Y., Dr. Heaton came into the waiting room and said: “You’ve got another boy.”—It was John.
I like my father’s handwriting. It’s in thick black pencil straight across the full width of both pages, sprawling and virile. The “B.” and the “D.”—for Byron Darnton—are full-bellied. No question about it: It is a declaration for history. Looking closely, I see the “20” after “November” is superimposed over a “19.” A natural mistake: It’s 1:40 a.m. Perhaps he’s sleepy and thinks it’s still the night before. Or maybe he’s so excited by the news that he wants to get it down and only a moment later, rereading, realizes his error. I picture the waiting room in my imagination. It’s a stuffy enclosure off the entrance to the maternity ward: two windows, grime-covered, a lineup of straight-backed metal chairs, a beaten-down couch, framed prints of British foxhunting scenes on the wall, a rack with ragged copies of Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, two stand-up ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, a radiator pumping away in the corner and worn linoleum on the floor—or maybe a thin carpet. I see my father waiting there, reading. He’s sitting comfortably, self-contained, right foot resting on his left knee. His eyes sparkle with amusement at a nervous young man walking in and out from the corridor. They’ve exchanged a few friendly words. He provides the comfort of an older man, an old hand at this. A smile is ready to break out under his bushy dark mustache. He’s wearing a tweed jacket around his broad shoulders, and his dark brown trousers are beginning to lose the sharpness of their crease. His overcoat and fedora are hanging from a coatrack. Is he smoking? Surely. But what? Luckies? Camels? Is he carrying his fancy leather-bound flask, and does he offer the young man a swig of whiskey? He goes back to reading, back to the Mississippi. The door swings open and the doctor comes in to tell him about me. He stands up to take the news, beams, and pumps the doctor’s hand.
But what is he feeling? Had he wanted a girl? Is he worried about his wife? Does he feel the rush of second fatherhood—another son to round out the family, another little body at the dining room table? Or is there just a smidgeon of uncertainty, regret even, the vague sensation of being trapped? Another mouth to feed on a reporter’s salary, another obligation. Now he will surely have to settle down.
He would be told to wait a few minutes before seeing his wife and baby. Does he, too, pace about now and look out the window at Eighth Avenue far below, yellow headlights penetrating what appears, perhaps, as a cold rain and billows of steam rising from the manholes? Or does he sit down again and jot the note in the margin and resume reading, lulled by the companionship of Twain, who goes on to describe the great flood of 1882, which broke down the levees, destroyed the crops, washed away the houses, and turned the mighty Mississippi into a scourge seventy miles wide?
The book resurfaced after forty-three years, hidden in plain sight in my brother’s bookshelf. He sent it to me with a note: “This isn’t really a present, because by rights it belongs to you. . . . Happy birthday!” It had moved houses many times without being opened, testament to the immutability of a moment of supreme consequence (as far as I’m concerned)—and also to its transience.
And so I was born.
Four days old, I was taken home to a cozy white clapboard house in the backwoods of Connecticut. According to family lore, I was carried across the threshold by a nurse, so that my brother, Bob, wouldn’t become instantly jealous. My mother carried a toy for him, a brand-new fire engine. But—and here the lore surely verges into the apocryphal—he pushed it aside and demanded, “Where’s my brudder?”
Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
My father heard the news over the car radio as he drove our family off on a long-awaited vacation. He immediately spun the car around, dropped the three of us off, and headed to the headquarters of The New York Times on West Forty-third Street. The vast third-floor newsroom, on what was to have been a quiet Sunday afternoon, was thrown into high gear. Copyboys rushed from the agency tickers with the latest bulletins, and the switchboard was jammed with calls from a frantic public. Reporters and editors streamed in from all corners to man the phones and take up assignments. My father headed for an enclave in the city room, where eight wooden desks had been pushed together for an enterprise that had begun only six days earlier and that he headed: news broadcasts over the radio station WMCA (the forerunner to WQXR). Until well after midnight a steady stream of copy flowed out through a Teletype operator to the station, which beamed it to the city.
My father, listed as Francis Byron Darnton on his birth certificate, was known to everyone simply as “Barney.” With a dry wit, cool composure, and an air of dependability and integrity, he was, at forty-four, an important figure at the Times. Gossiping reporters speculated he was on track to become managing editor. He had joined the paper in 1934, following a traditional stepladder of newspaper jobs that had long ago taken him from his hometown of Adrian, Michigan. At the Times, he had performed a number of high-level assignments, including setting up “The News of the Week in Review” section, but he had hungered for a closer contact with the news and so two years before had become a roving correspondent. Now, with war upon the country, he felt a new restlessness. For some time, he and “Tootie”—as our mother, Eleanor, was known to close friends—had taken the position that armed conflict with Adolf Hitler was inevitable. As debates raged in bars and around dinner tables, they had long since sided with the interventionists against the isolationists. After the Japanese attack, in late December or early January, as our mother told the story, our father became quietly moody. One morning, in bed with him, divining his secret, she turned to him and said, “So when do you leave for the war?” He wrapped her in his arms and replied, “Thank God. I was wondering how to tell you.”
Our father left to become a war correspondent on a cold winter’s day, striding purposefully down the front path of our country home in Westport. He and our mother had traveled hard and separate roads to end up together there, and in leaving the three of us, he was putting a dream on hold. Shortly before his departure, in the flurry of securing accreditations and buying uniforms and gear and getting inoculations, he had sat down to explain why in a letter to his older brother Robert, whose automobile factory back in Michigan had been converted for the manufacture of aircraft. Barney was the youngest of seven children—six boys and one girl. Most of them had stayed close to home, but when he was just out of high school, with World War I raging in 1917, he had enlisted in the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division and saw plenty of tough fighting in France. His wanderlust wasn’t entirely quashed by his time in the trenches. Now, somewhat defensively in writing to his brother, he set down his reasons for going to war again, “because my decision might seem lighthearted and irresponsible to anyone who knew only the exteriors.” Banging out the words quickly on a typewriter and copyediting them afterward with a black pencil, he wrote, in part:
In these times it is rather difficult to fix the order of one’s responsibilities. The first is, of course, to my family, but it seems to me that certain actions that would be unthinkable in ordinary times are not in these times. My absence may run to a couple of years. That certainly isn’t an ideal situation with a couple of young boys. But unless those boys can grow up into a decent sort of a world it won’t make any difference anyway—and it seems to me that I must do something toward the end that we all pray for. You are making airplanes. I’m no good in any such field, nor in active service. But I am trained for one job, and I think it’s an important job.
His family, he said, would be taken care of if anything happened to him and, through the generosity of the paper, would be “better provided for than they ever would be if, in other circumstances, I fell off a cliff.” Still, the decision to go would have been impossible if his wife had not been the woman she was:
Bob and Johnnie can safely be left to her. She isn’t the stuff that cracks under a bit of difficulty. She, too, wants the kids to grow up in the right kind of world, and she too believes that we can bring that about only if every one of us does his utmost. This is a joint, not individual, decision.
After a few sentences on the national need for sacrifices, he returned to the subject of his chosen profession:
And there is another motivation. I very much respect the business I am in, even though it falls far short of perfection in all its parts. But it is rightly given special status in the Constitution, for it is an indispensable force in the achievement of democracy. That special status must be justified by the service performed by the press. And that service can’t all be easy. It can’t all be privilege without any duty.
All this sounds like a sermon. And I don’t like preaching them any more than I do hearing them. But I’ll let it stand because I very much want you to understand. It would be most natural, in view of the different ways in which our lives have developed, for you to incline to the belief that I was going off half-cocked. Even if you disagree with my motives, I want you to respect them. And to stand advocate for me before the rest of the family. Middle life can easily be a time of the weakening of family ties. I hope that when this is over we can enjoy the strengthening of them.
I expect to start Monday. The best of things from us to you and yours, and for God’s sake turn out those airplanes.
Along with a contingent of other reporters and photographers, my father shipped out of San Francisco in February 1942, and reached Australia some three weeks later. It was a low point of the war: The Germans and Italians were dominant in Europe. In Asia, the Japanese were leaping southward in a stepping-stone series of lightning conquests and besieging American forces in the Philippines. By the time the correspondents arrived in Brisbane, Japanese soldiers were digging in along the northern coast of New Guinea, the huge island just to the north, and invasion fever had struck Australia. For months it was clear the enemy had the upper hand.
Barney was older than the other correspondents, the dean of the American press corps. His dispatches were notable for their clear-eyed humor and the admiration, dosed with affection, shown for the young men doing the fighting. But over seven months he was to grow increasingly frustrated. He had volunteered to cover the war, and he had lobbied hard for the assignment at the Times, but so far his coverage had been heavy on human-interest features. He had pieced together accounts of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June, but his war stories had been based on sources, not firsthand experience. Aside from an occasional bombing run by Japanese planes over Port Moresby, the key town on the Papuan peninsula of New Guinea, not once had he seen combat firsthand. All the major engagements so far had taken place in remote seas and skies, far from his eyes and ears. On top of that, he had had to contend with reams of red tape from the armies of both the United States and Australia and to fight tooth and nail with the U.S. Army censors. They cut any breath of news that departed from the vapid daily communiqués and excised color as if it were gristle on a steak. Worse, their main job seemed to be to burnish the warrior image of the vain supreme commander of the South West Pacific Area, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Then abruptly, in mid-October, things turned around. Barney was about to see some action. As luck would have it, the division he had served with in the Great War, the 32nd, had been chosen to dislodge the Japanese from their stronghold at Buna on Papua’s northern shore.* Barney rarely spoke of his wartime experience a quarter of a century before, even to close colleagues, but this time he had shamelessly exploited it to argue that he should be allowed to chronicle his old outfit’s exploits. He had buttonholed the division commander, Maj. Gen. Edwin F. Harding, a genial man with a soft side who composed poetry and stashed Kipling verse inside his army manual. Harding bought the argument and gave him permission to accompany the battle-green troops.
Excerpted from Almost a Family by John Darnton. Copyright © 2011 by John Darnton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, 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.