For the first 29 years of my life I had a picture of my father in my head. It was not a picture based on memories so much as stories told to me by my mother. That was all, I had one primary source. He died when I was three, and I remember that. Beyond that, it’s been a story.
And the man I knew from her words was a man who was impossible not to love. He was strong, masculine, and brave. He was sensitive and respected life, despite having served in the Army during Vietnam. He was always giving of himself to neighbors and those in need. He was a man a boy could look up to. He was perfect.
It never struck me as truly odd that my aunts, uncles, and cousins would offer nothing more than empty, greeting-card fare.
He was a good man.
You would have loved him.
He loved you.
He was a great man.
According to my mother, he served as a door gunner on a Huey during Vietnam. I had no way to confirm this, as all traces of my father were destroyed by my stepfather. But I took it as gospel my whole life.
But then I got an itch. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything, but I had already distanced myself from any family who would have any answers. I am a proud man, even when I am woefully wrong; and I would not go crawling back to those people, begging for answers. So I set out on my own to find some answers.
So I went to archives.gov and requested copies of his military records. Very few things survived my stepfather’s purge. A Zippo lighter. A digital watch. A beaten-up wallet. And a Social Security Card. With just those 9 digits, I was able to receive the information.
When it finally arrived in the mail, it offered me a tantalizing, if not small, glimpse into his life. I was, well, surprised.
After joining the U.S. Army in 1971, he served the majority of his career state-side. North Carolina/Virginia to be exact. He did serve 6 months in Vietnam, though, as part of a helicopter maintenance group. Learning this destroyed my mother’s claims that all his time spent in Vietnam, breathing in Agent Orange, is what caused his lung cancer, and his death.
I also learned that toward the end of his time in the military, he became a bit of a slack-ass. There were several write-ups, almost all of them for disobeying orders to wake up in the morning, or going AWOL for a week or so. A new picture of my father was beginning to form, and it was not the noble hero I grew up with.
But there was a comfort in this. He was slowly becoming more human. I found that the more bad things I learned about him, the more accessible he became.
Enter Ancestry.com, and a slew of high hopes.
I signed up for Ancestry when they offered a free 2 week trial. With his military records spread out across my bed, I began my search. On my mother’s side I found information stretching back to pre-civil war Tennessee, and turn of the century Northern Italy. On my father’s side? Nothing.
Well, almost nothing. I found my older brothers, one of whom I hadn’t spoken to in over two decades. Through them, I learned a little more about my father, and his somewhat severe (but period appropriate) approach to discipline. Other than that, they not much to offer (they were 13 and 6) when he died.
But it was through them that I met their mother, and I learned the most devastating truth about my father.
He had beat her. He was controlling, abusive, and obsessively jealous. He was everything I hated about my step-father(and the men who followed in his footsteps). He was the picture of the type of man I hate most.
I grew up watching my mother get knocked around, bloodied up, and slapped down (but that all is a tale for another day), and I have developed a nose for the type. I can sniff them out with just a few minutes of observing their behavior, or by reading behind the lines of a woman’s words (“He was drunk…”). How had I not known this about my own father? Because the truth was hidden from me. But now I know.
And it changes nothing. He’s still my father, and I still love him. This, now much more complete, picture of the man is exactly what I’ve wanted my whole life. He was a man with flaws, and serious issues, and he died too young.
Let this be a lesson to you, my dear reader. Never fear the truth, no matter how ugly. It may hurt at first, it may sting your heart and steal your breath, but in the end…please forgive me, but I love a good cliche…the truth will set you free.