Visions Of My Father

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Behind the plate my father called them as he saw them. The fans, of course, frequently disagreed. One day at the Happy Nines a particularly obnoxious spectator cast every imaginable aspersion on my father’s ancestry and honesty. For the first and last time in his umpiring career, he answered back. The man leaped over the railing and came at him with a carving knife. The batter and the catcher fled. My father sidestepped the fan’s slash and knocked him flat. Two cops dragged the fan away.

That was the day my father decided to quit umpiring. My mother was in the stands and was terrified by the episode. He pretended to give it up for her sake. But I don’t think he was fazed in the least by his brush with death. He had had a hundred closer calls in the Argonne. The assault made him realize umpiring did not fit his growing political career. In baseballcrazed Jersey City an umpire was not a popular figure.

Turning in his spikes and chest protector was a hard thing for him to do. He kept his white rectangular ballsand-strikes counter in his bureau drawer all his life. Now it is in my bureau. I often finger it when I am looking for a clean handkerchief. I can see now that umpiring was my father’s way of clinging to that boyhood dream of baseball fame. He was almost forty years old before he let go of it.

We boys look disconsolate in the photo—probably just the sun in our eyes. But my father seems troubled on a deeper level.

Another vision of my father is attached to a battered compass in my bureau drawer. He carried it in his pocket throughout World War I. It still points to true north. In 1968 I took this compass with me when I wrote an article on the Argonne. It was the fiftieth anniversary of what is still the greatest battle in American history. The article was my idea. I thought I was going to recapture—or even capture for the first time—a sense of closeness with my father.

In 1917 he thought he was tough enough to handle the German army and survive without working up a sweat. When the chaplain urged him to take out the full ten thousand dollars’ worth of life insurance the government was selling, he scornfully settled for three. Buying the full amount made it seem as if you were scared of the krauts!

On his first night in the lines, the Germans shelled his unit for six hours. My father crawled through the whizzing shrapnel to the chaplain’s foxhole near the close of the bombardment and told the priest he had changed his mind. He wanted the full ten thousand. He did not expect to come out of the war alive.

He never bragged about killing Germans. Mostly he talked about his close calls. Once under heavy shelling his best friend, lying only a foot away, called to him, “Teddy—my leg. I’m hit.” My father groped to him in the dark and felt for the leg to put on a tourniquet. There was no leg. The man died minutes later. My father used to say that after the Argonne he regarded himself as living on borrowed time. I have often thought about that remark.

In my research I found my father’s regimental diary, and I was able to follow the 312th Infantry almost step by step across the vast valley of the Argonne, where more than a million Americans hurled themselves at Germany’s Hindenburg Line. I visited La Ferme Rouge, which the regiment attacked late in October 1918. It was still red, and the owner remembered les américains ; he had been sixteen years old in 1918. I prowled the Bois de Loges, where the 312th took heavy casualties attacking German machine guns. The owner of the red farmhouse, who often hunted in the bois , broke out a bottle of M’f6et et Chandon and toasted “the son of the man who freed the Bois de Loges.”

 

I felt tremendously close to my father for a moment. But a curious thing happened the next day. Exploring the site where the 77th Division’s Lost Battalion had held out against surrounding Germans, I slid down a steep hill into a gully in the Argonne forest. On my finger was a gold ring my father had given me with his name engraved inside. It had been given to him by Frank Hague after one of their electoral victories. The ring slipped off my hand and vanished into the shale. An hour of frantic digging failed to recover it. Alone in the still woods my father had prowled with his compass in hand, I suddenly felt separated from him in a new, more radical way.

When I returned from the Argonne, I talked to several surviving members of his regiment. One man told me, “He was the toughest sergeant in the regiment. We were all afraid of him.” As they marched toward the rumbling guns, one of the men in his company started giving my father a hard time. He was a wise guy who never obeyed an order without a bitch or disagreement. My father knocked him cold with a single punch.

When I wrote the article, I concluded there were two Argonnes, one the battle I had researched, whose strategy and tactics and random incidents could be recovered with the tools of the historian, and another one that was lost with the men who fought there. Part of the reason I reached this conclusion was the vanished ring—and my inability to understand the dangerous, angry man who knocked out that backtalking soldier.