My father died on the day my first grandchild was born. His death and her birth are all of a piece.
He had always been in my life, but I didn’t know him well, at least not as a son should know a father. Throughout most of my adult life I more or less ignored him. Of course, I did the obligatory things that one does, but with little interest or feeling. His gentle nature and lack of apparent drive or ambition had caused me to conclude that he was, at his core, a weak person. I, on the other hand, had already achieved things that he could never understand (or so I thought). We had no basis to relate, except that biology and my mother had conspired to create me as his son, and we had, for a relatively short time, shared the same roof. We had no common language or frame of reference, thus no basis for real understanding.
It was not always so. I remember him teaching me to tie a fishing knot. He could build a fire, set a trot line, and clean the fish we caught. We shared his Saturday tradition of sardines and crackers, cheese and salami, and pickled sausages. He taught me a proper batting stance and how to put topspin on my ping-pong serve. He coached my Little League teams, and cheered my wins and losses on the basketball court. He gave my friend Hollis a spare pair of football cleats when he showed up for practice in cowboy boots. He integrated our youth baseball team when integration was not “appropriate.”
I admired his Army Air Force uniform with all its stripes. I played with his service medals and wondered how he got them. I asked how much money he made. He said, “I take home a little over $100.00 a week.” Wow, I thought. So much money. The world and a father seen through the eyes of a child.
It didn’t last. I began to notice other things. Our house was a lot smaller than those of my friends. We had one car that had clearly seen better days. Dad worked weekends and some nights as a fill-in butcher at the local supermarket. He no longer came to my games. He had given up, I think, trying to hold my mother in check. Her reach always exceeded his grasp. Sometime during my second year in college, he called me. I was surprised, because at that point we hardly ever talked. He said that he and my mother were “having problems” and probably they wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t entirely clear on what he meant, but I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t care.
I graduated college, married, started a career, and ultimately a family while my dad searched for a way forward. He tried insurance for a while; then he was a handy man for an apartment complex. He sold mattresses but couldn’t pay his bills. I became a corporate executive. How could I, I mused, have come from his seed?
He became ill. Another sign of weakness, perhaps. Glaucoma. Colon cancer. He was not going to make it much longer. I visited him in the nursing care section of the assisted living center that I paid for. I tried to think of something to say that would make a difference to him now. I said, “ Dad, you have lived a good and full life; you should have no regrets. You have remained true to your wife of more than fifty years. You have raised three children to be able to live on their own. You should have no regrets.” He said, with the emotion that can only come near death, “I should have done more for my children.”
I went to New York the next day to be with my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter to be, and he died. I returned for the funeral and, in fact, gave a eulogy to the small audience that attended. I sketched in the basic facts of his life, mentioned his service career, about which I knew little, and made the point that everyone who knew him thought that him to be a “very nice” man. It wasn’t my best effort, and he deserved better from me. Some years after his death, and with my mother’s health in further decline, she gave me a box of materials. She said, “I want you to have these things of your father’s. They are all that is left of him.” I took them without reply, not knowing what to say. At home, in a quiet moment, I shuffled through the papers and other odds and ends, and picked out his flight wings, thinking to have them framed for my office. Having done that, I lost interest again. Perhaps I thought my duty of remembrance complete.
From time to time, I was drawn back to the box of my father’s memorabilia. I visited my mother just before her death, and she gave me an old photo album which contained faded photos from before their marriage and the war years until about my second birthday. Among these photos were some of him with other airmen in various flight uniforms. Beneath the photos were hand-lettered captions, “Corsica, Sardinia, France.” It was, finally, these few photos that ignited my curiosity and caused me to resolve to learn more about this man, my father, about whom I knew so little.
He was the youngest son in a family of six siblings composed of two older brothers and three older sisters. His father died of a heart attack when he was 9, and subsequently he was nurtured by his mother and older sisters who doted on their baby brother. His mother was of the genre of mothers that required lace doilies on every overstuffed chair in the very formal living room, demanded that everyone eat oatmeal every morning, and insisted that her sons wear short pants to school long beyond the time at in which they were comfortable doing so. My father, and presumably all his siblings, were inculcated with a moral code rooted in the Catholic church, but based on the view that “what people thought of you” was, in fact, your reality. Behavior was certainly based, in part, on what was right and wrong, but was more heavily influenced on what others might think of you.
Dad’s next older brother, Al, was two years ahead of him in school and set a high (maybe impossibly so) standard by which his siblings naturally compared themselves. Al was a school hero in sports; basketball and baseball in particular. He averaged over twenty points a game in an era when the team total rarely exceeded thirty points. Dad, however, evidently did not shy away from the comparison. He also played basketball, baseball and was a pole-vaulter on the track team. Little of the emerging profile that I uncovered by digging through old newspaper archives squared with my knowledge or perception of my father. Pole-vaulting? My father?
In his senior year (1939/1940) he was listed on the team roster at five feet seven inches. It didn’t list his weight, but he couldn’t have been much north of a hundred pounds. In fact, the local sportswriters had a tendency to refer to him in their colorful game accounts as the “tiny” Arthur Fernandez, and more than once as Arthur Fernandez, the “little guard” with a good set shot. I don’t know how many points he averaged per game, but I found more than one account of his propensity to shoot and score. Wow, my father, the basketball gunner. I also found one of his report cards from high school and noted that he was an average but inconsistent student. He received straight A’s in citizenship though. Not surprising. So I had added a bit more to an emerging profile. The youngest in a large family with no father. Mothered excessively by the women in his family. Required to “keep up appearances” in the community. An older brother that he idolized and who cast a long shadow by his achievements. From all of this, my father seemed to emerge largely unscathed as his own person. I imagine him as a smallish youngster who had enough grit enough to want to make it on his own, and after a fashion, he succeeded.
He graduated high school in May and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in June of 1940. He and his brother Al enlisted together. His oldest brother, Joe, was already in the Army where he would spend much of his service in Burma. Although Dad had only just removed his graduation robes, Al already had two years of junior college playing basketball and professional baseball. I don’t know if they were motivated by patriotism and the darkening war clouds in Europe, if he couldn’t figure out what to do next, or if he merely wanted to get away from home and all the doting. He received his early training at several camps in Texas, winding up assigned to Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas. It was there he met, and after a courtship expedited by the war, married my mother, Mattie Lee Williams. He completed his flight engineer and gunnery training in Harlingen, Texas and left for Avon Park, Florida for his final crew training on the relatively new medium tactical bomber, the B26 Marauder. He suffered one training crash which critically injured two of his fellow crew members, but the crash did not delay his assignment to the 441st Squadron of the 320th Bombardment Group in Decimomannu, Sardinia. All of this must have been a steep learning curve for a young man who had never been out of Texas until he zipped up a flight suit for crew training in Florida for a couple of months before.
Over the next eleven months and twenty days he slept and shivered in tents pitched in the remote villages in Sardinia and France while waiting for his next mission. When he first arrived with the 320th, the protocol was that any crew member completing twenty five missions would rotate back to the United States. When he reached twenty five, they raised it to thirty. When he reached thirty, they raised it again. He began to think he would never make it home. While the casualty/loss rates were not as high for the B26 units as they were for the large strategic bombers, it was not unusual to lose a plane or two on a mission. He flew sixty four missions before his unit was deactivated. He was awarded five Air Medals (more correctly one Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters) for his conduct during combat and two unit citations for his unit’s contribution to the Allied war effort. I read the actual mission reports of the five missions for which he received Air Medals. They were written in a language that I could understand but couldn’t relate to.
I’ve tried to imagine a twenty two year old version of my father suited up in a bulky fleece-lined flight suit, cradling a .50 caliber Browning M2 machine gun that fired seven hundred fifty rounds per minute and weighed more than he did, waiting to mount his B26 and assume his position as a waist gunner for another mission from which he might not return. I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine it even in the face of the evidence.
My mental picture of my father is of a smallish man who didn’t smile very much. He was overly concerned (to my way of thinking) of what others thought of him and those he loved. He was a diligent and reliable worker who was depended on by his superiors but never received the recognition or rewards that he probably deserved. He avoided confrontation to a fault, even with my mother, who wore him down over the years. He was a sensitive man who wore his feelings on his sleeves, yet he was always willing to do for others what he could not or would not do for himself. He would never put himself before others. At least that was what I thought I knew of him. Now I know more, and it doesn’t describe the whole man. Yes he was physically small, but he had grit that I didn’t know about. He escaped the clutches of a household dominated by his mother and older sisters and succeeded in the classroom and in athletics. He could have huddled safely in the shadow of his older brother, but he did not. He succeeded on his own as a basketball player, on the baseball field, and even as a pole-vaulter on the track field. He left home as soon as he could by joining the Army Air Force to see the world and serve his country. He met, wooed and married a beautiful young girl, and he drank and danced at the local honky-tonks while he trained to fight in the war. He fought in the war as others of his generation did. He did his duty and he did it with honor and courage. He saw friends die, and he killed an enemy who was trying to kill him. At last, he came home to safety, but to an uncertain future with the responsibilities of a father and a husband. Fifty-one years later, he died wishing only that he could have done more for his family.
I don’t know why I didn’t know these things about him when he was alive. I don’t know why I never talked to him about his life. If I could talk to him now, with what I now know, I would ask him to tell me his war stories, and I would ask him if he was ever afraid of getting shot down. I would ask him if he and his brother Al were ever on the same team and how many points he averaged his senior year and what his batting average was. I would question him on why he didn’t go to college and why he got married knowing that he was going to a war from which he might not return. I would ask him how difficult it was growing up without a father and with a mother and three sisters always looking over his shoulder. I would ask him why he joined the Army Air Force and not the Navy or the Marines. I would let him tell me what it was like in Victoria, Texas in the 30’s.
Of course, I cannot now know the answers to these questions. I will not have the benefit of the conversations we never had, but, at least, I see him more clearly now. I think I would really have liked him.
First published January 15, 2011