Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Father's Army Wallet

My father was a towering figure to me when I was a small fry. My perception of him changed over the years as I grew older; circumstances and reality ultimately prevailing. But when I was about 5 years old this pigskin wallet; which my father carried for 3 years while serving out his time at Fort Dix during the Korean War waiting for a Hardship Discharge; was to me the epitome of manhood. It was kept in his dresser drawer. As far as I was concerned, if only I could be a grown man and have a wallet like that I would never want for anything else in the way of self-esteem. The wallet was always promised to me. It was to be mine “when I grew up.”

So, when my father passed away in December of 2001 I came into possession of this treasured and revered shrine. I received it by mail from my father’s second wife; he remarried after my mother’s death in 1984. She was a loving companion to him for 16 years until he passed away, and I appreciated the gesture honoring this age old pact concerning the wallet.

Some things never live up to the memories attached thereof; but not so with this wallet. Rather, it contained all that I had remembered; plus some unexpected surprises, all of which left me even more confused than I already was about my relationship with my father; which, to say the least, was strained. In fact we had not spoken for almost a decade before he died. We never made that transition and put the past behind us. Neither one of us was capable of taking the first step towards reconciliation, I suppose, but that’s the truth. And that lack of a reconciliation made this wallet even more important. It serves as the only real "link" to my father.

Now, holding the wallet in my hand for the first time in over 40 years; since 1969 give or take; I opened the shrine and relived the excitement of being a child again, looking into my father’s world. The problem was, now I was older than he was when he had promised the wallet to me. Maybe this was going to be anti-climactic as the wallet had been in his dresser drawer for decades since I’d last seen it. So, I thought,what could be new?

Apparently; along with all of the things I remembered as having been in the wallet; my father had been adding stuff to it since I’d seen it last. I remember the Reserve ID card; I now even have one myself; and the crucifix and the penny were always like Sacred Relics to me. The crucifix comes from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Oak Park, Michigan. It was a gift to my father from his older brother Roy, who had served in the Navy during the Second World War. He used to go around the country while on leave, visiting all of the Catholic Shrines. The penny; dated 1950, the year in which my parents were wed; is the one my Mom carried in her shoe on their wedding day. I know this story to be true because I used to hold it in my hand and ask her about it. I never got tired of hearing that story.  

There are other things in the wallet which I remember well; the draft status cards, which run from 5-A to 3-R. The first indicates that he was eligible to be called for Korea, while the second one shows he is no longer available. There were also a few things which my Dad had added to the wallet; things which I found puzzling; given the nature of our non-relationship.

The first was an old Buffalo nickel with his birth year on it; 1931. I’d sent that to him in 1981 for his 50th birthday. At the time I was already out of the Navy and working for Military Sealift Command. We were so polarized that I never even stayed with my parents when in New York; about once or twice a year. Instead I stayed with my friends Mark and Lois in Belle Harbor. But yet I still sent the old man a birthday gift; one which he obviously treasured, though he never said a word to me about it. I ad even wondered if he ever received it; but never asked. Finding that nickel was quite a surprise for me; did he keep it because I’d sent it? Or was it simply because it was a nickel? 

But the real showstopper was this letter; the contents of which were not extraordinary in any way; I had written many letters home which far outdid this one. It was one of the few not addressed to my Mom and maybe that’s why he kept it. I’ll never know. We hadn’t spoken to one another in a civil manner for years before we finally broke off contact altogether in the early 1990’s. The one exception was when he called to tell me that Nana; my grandmother; had passed away. He said he was calling out of obligation. I thanked him and we hung up. I never saw or spoke to him again after that.

Time is a funny thing. Sometimes we forgive; and maybe even forget. I don’t know whether or not I will ever reach that point in connection with my relationship to my father. It’s simply too complicated. Besides, he’s gone and the conversation would be kind of one sided. But I have to believe he must have liked something about me. Or else why would he have carried that letter?

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