- Historic Sites
Visions Of My Father
You can rise fast and far in America, but sometimes the cost of the journey is hard to tally
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Now I am not so sure about my father’s readiness to escape his IrishAmerican world. Another thing he never talked about was his career as a salesman—only one fragment, which has left me with another vision of my father at the Happy Nines. A few years before World War I began, my father participated in an attempt to organize the debit men, as the insurance agents were called. The company retaliated by firing the strikers and bringing in scabs, who soon discovered it was dangerous work.
The debit men went from door to door, collecting a few cents a week from the families of the poor, who seldom bought more than enough insurance to be buried decently. My father saw one of these scabs working in his neighborhood. The man bolted down the railroad tracks. My father caught up with him at the Happy Nines and slugged him around until he promised to collect no more.
Other than that episode, which he mentioned without relish, along with the rueful admission that the company had broken the strike, my father never said a word about his salesman’s career. I suspect he hated it or at least found nothing in it to recall with pride. A watch salesman has to do a certain amount of groveling, and he was not the type. Insurance agents were not popular figures. They wanted money people often could not spare. Moreover, muckrakers early in the century had revealed that many of them kept collecting after the policies were paid up, cheating poor people of millions.
That vision of my father battering a scab at the Happy Nines is connected to another one. We are out on Lake Louise, a small tidal pond near our summer house on the Jersey shore. He is trying to start the outboard motor on our boat. It is a hot July day. He pulls and pulls, and the motor won’t start. My brother and I sit watching. From the shore of the lake comes a yell: “Hey, Fleming! Get a canoe!”
It is August Packer, a big, wealthy German-American jewelry manufacturer from Brooklyn. He is a born loudmouth who specializes in putting people down. He is renting a house on the lake. For an hour my father tries to start the motor while Packer yells derision and his guests sit on the terrace, laughing at us. Cursing under his breath, my father rows back to shore.
“Don’t say a word about this to your mother,” he snarls.
A week later Mr. and Mrs. Packer appeared at our door for a Sunday afternoon social call. My mother was thrilled. Mrs. Packer was very different from her husband. She was genteel, with a sweet, delicate face and dignified, reserved manner. She was the kind of woman my mother always wanted to associate with, instead of the ungrammatical lower-class types politics required her to ingratiate in Jersey City.
My father was taking a nap. My mother sent me rushing into his bedroom to tell him the Packers were here. She sat on the porch, conversing eagerly with them. Finally footsteps announced my father’s arrival. My mother’s face fell. My father was wearing the same dirty tan slacks he had worn at breakfast. Above them was his white tank-top underwear. He had not even bothered to put on a shirt. His hair was uncombed. Two buttons on his fly were open.
He conversed genially enough, laughing away more taunts about the outboard motor. But the Packers stayed only a few minutes and never called again. My mother talked about it for weeks. The following year she announced she was tired of the Jersey shore and pestered my father into selling the house.
What was my father doing when he refused to get dressed for the Packers? In his closet he had a half-dozen expensive sports coats. Was he saying, “Treat me like a mick and you get a mick?” It was a vivid display of the limits of his self-transformation.
All these visions coalesced in the vision in the subway car. It occurred at a rather crucial period in my life. After struggling to succeed as a writer with only modest success for ten years, I had been offered a job as an editor on a national magazine. I had been executive editor of another magazine before I quit to write, and I knew I could do the job well. Darkening my feelings was a recent encounter with one of the rats of the publishing world, who had contemptuously rejected a novel on which I had worked for two years.
As I wrestled with the job offer, I thought of the dismay with which my father had greeted my decision to become a writer. It was totally outside his experience. But he did not oppose it. He seemed to sense almost instinctively that an American father cannot control his son’s life.
Within the limitations of his political world, he even tried to help. “I’ll get you on the fire department,” he said. “You can write in the daytime, work at night. They spend most nights in bed.” I often joked about that in later years. Now I saw the love at the heart of the offer.
By the time my father died of heart disease, he had lost a good deal of weight. Relatives remarked how much the figure in the coffin reminded them of the man they had known before World War I. They told stories of his recklessness in those years.
One hot summer day a bunch of them had gone swimming in the Kill van KuIl, the swift-running stream that separates Bayonne, New Jersey, from Staten Island. My father did not want to admit he could not swim. He jumped in with the rest of them and sank like a stone. A friend pulled him out, half-drowned.