By bart plantenga
“while music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.” • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” • Anne Sexton
The last time I saw my father was June 2002, lying on a gurney in a kind of utility room/closet that my mother considered a nice bed in a nice room in a nice hospital in Lancaster, PA. The hospital had been so nice as to “save” his body until I could fly over and join the mourners, which included my brother and his ex-wife, his kids and my partner Nina and daughter Paloma.
I’d been DJing in the OCCII, in Amsterdam, when Nina called to give word that he was dead, finally dead, no longer holding out for others, finally letting go… I finished the song I was spinning, packed up and handed the controls over to Geert-Jan and for the next two days, while trying to arrange a flight, I attempted to affix significance to the songs I’d been playing just as Nina called. It is at vulnerable moments like these that your mind, in rummaging for explanations, may become susceptible to scenarios involving alternative universes or Jung’s notions of an alternative reality beyond space and time accessed via plotted points of meaningful coincidences that allow us to make something mystical out of serendipity, synchronicity temporarily passing for religion, offering consolation and exegesis. In recreating the sequence of events, I figured out I had played Lee Scratch Perry, Mossman, Twilight Circus around the time Nina called. Seek and ye shall be… disappointed because I just couldn’t forge any link between music, fortuity and event.
The TV was already on when we entered the hospital “room.” His head propped up so he could “watch” this new age video [like some nondenominational moving picture version of a Hallmark card]. His hand did not look that stiff and seemed poised to press the buzzer if he needed anything from the nursing staff – say a Benny Hill rerun or something. Your mind [well, mine at least] lost to the big stuff, indulging in the finer ironies and intricate incongruities.
My partner departed quickly with a daughter too young to understand. The rest of us, sagging shoulders, squeezed into this, this – OK, let’s call it a room for the sake of my mom. We all gazed at him from head to toe, but then, as is human nature, all eyes gravitated to the screen to watch – or not really – this new-age-meets-National Geographic video with swooping, sweeping scenes of mountains, wind whooshing through meadows of poppies and fields of waving grain with music that sounded like the Muzak you would hear in heaven if heaven were a mall. Everyone’s going to hear the piper some day, even if that means he’ll be blowing “El Condor Pasa” on pan pipes. Anyway, the more something like music is played anywhere to not offend anyone, the more precisely this very music will irritate me.
Was it just me who was offended, irritated and noticed the ironies? Had I had time to prepare I would have certainly come up with a more wake-like mix that would have included Herb Alpert and incidental music from the collected works of Benny Hill. [I guess that’s the radio show I ended up doing – see sidebar].
How long had he been “watching” this video? When you think about it, not an inappropriate “final activity” for someone whose last years of a living death were consoled only by moving images on a TV screen and the control he had over those images, which in this life was pretty much limited to his thumb on the various zappers that controlled the TV, VCR, Betamax and satellite dish. For a moment I imagined we were entering a wax museum diorama – remembering him as we last saw him, watching Laugh-In reruns or English soccer on TV in a pale blue-striped shirt, grey sweatpants, beer mug on the side table, a bit of the head clinging to the glass sides. They say that if the head looks like old-lady lace, it is a superb beer, usually of Belgian manufacture. My shabby stab at snobbery via expertise usually made him guffaw, not an ordinary guffaw but one like a jackdaw as sentinel – and BS detector – which to some was fairly chilling.
Pretty absurd, this hospital diorama if you think about it, but I didn’t say so until much later. I stayed behind after the rest had had enough, departing with well-meaning gestures that were probably more meant to “show” god that they really had done their best to take care of him [not]… Yea, well, in any case, he looked pretty peaceful for the first time in years. All that was missing there in that closet was a nice glass of generic whiskey or can of cheap beer in his stiffened hand and some generic laugh track that could trigger his jackdaw cackle, expressing his utter bemusement [lostness in mirth serving as meditation] with the absurdities encountered in the course of his life. Wasn’t his only lesson really that life is laughable so you better laugh along with the joke or you will perish. And I thought, god, don’t I have his laugh somewhere on cassette? Do I have to go down to the basement and look through 1494 cassettes? Then figure out precisely why this cackle embarrassed me and my brother so much during our tender teen years when any parental tic, birthmark, varicose vein, or accent could cause cringing he-is-not-exactly-like-Americans shame. Where does that intense need to fit in come from? Innate? When did it actually dissolve into the nothingness it should have been all along? This shame is something I am now ashamed of. And, its here in the parking lot, in the Corolla, that I began to value his “difference” [and mine]. How would you even begin to tell someone something like that?
I couldn’t get over the fact-ness of his death, that last period at the end of the last sentence – who in this situation ever can? I again noticed the way the “room” had been arranged and despite whatever makeshift idyll the hospital staff had tried to create, there within easy reach for him or me was a broad selection of cleaning fluids and hospital equipment and just behind his head, propped up in a corner, was a mop. I should’ve taken a picture, then you’d believe me.
I didn’t hang back to talk to him like some scene out of Last Tango in Paris, when Marlon Brando breaks down over the body of his dead wife. Or apologize on my knees for ruining his middle years when I was a terror teen. No, I was there to allow my racing brain to adjust to the peace that I saw there. He seemed at peace. The staff had managed to sculpt a tenuous little smile like a knife slit across his face. Who did this? How’d they get the smile this close to right? Did they use an old photo? Or did he just expire this way? A smile that always revealed volumes in how little it revealed and there he lay still not revealing all that much. A really smart guy who just never got the hang of taking any advantage of the really dumb life situations we find ourselves in. And is that still considered smart? Or is it dumb to not be able to take advantage of your smartness?
I didn’t really talk to him in there; my mind just kept babbling away like there was no tomorrow – and indeed there wasn’t – and was. Finally, after 11 years of pain, lost dignity, self-esteem and independence – he had somehow ironically wrested back control at that final instant, deciding he was going to die and when – and then managing to pull it off. I was convinced of it, still am. And my conviction was only further reinforced by what we found later that day. To me it seemed obvious; he had been sending “signals” for years that this was what he wanted. Although it seems I was the only one getting those signals or at least admitting it – or, worst case scenario, imagining it to suit my own warped world view of how dignity needs to be expressed. Anyway, it’s safe to trust my assessment that he had pulled one over on fate – and us. But it’s not something I would call a suicide. Closer to euthanasia, which is illegal in the US [and ironically, not in the Netherlands, his homeland] and nobody would have assisted him anyway for whatever reasons ranging from cowardice to moral qualms to not taking his “signals” seriously.
And then my eyes wandered, flitting around like butterflies upon his hand – his wedding ring still on his ring finger [I considered nicking it] – the folds of the sheets, a mirror … I looked away and then back to him and suddenly I thought I saw him move, but it was only lack of sleep, jet lag, trailers, those sleep-deprived hallucinations where you see dark little things moving in the corner of your eye.
No one had every really understood him; he remained a closed book, a book that refused to open or one we were afraid to open and that we never took the time to read him was something he never complained about. Humility and his general disappointment in other people eventually became difficult to separate. Despite his hearty laugh, he just seemed disappointed, disheartened, existentially downtrodden. [For instance, no matter how big or glossy or high-paying the publication, my writing never seemed to matter to him – at least he never said so.] Maybe it was his lingering thoughts about himself having never really made it in the US or his war experiences still wreaking their havoc with his psyche… Naa, everybody else was right on this one, couldn’t be that. It could’ve been the car accident and the fact that he probably was involved in causing the accident, which he kept from us to protect us from having to contemplate him as guilty of something approaching a crime [of negligence?] and to not lose face. But as time went by we did not witness the losing of face so much as the disappearance of stomach, guts, will, stamina, spirit, raison d’etre.
I did snicker a bit at one point because, somehow, I did have a deeper or other kind of understanding of him, and his ability to laugh at the absurdities of life was something we shared. Without ever coming on prescriptive or pedagogical, his ephemeral signals given off by his laugh, various tics and movements evoked a kind of Tao approach to things, which concisely described is “a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life… the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness” [Benjamin Hoff. The Tao of Pooh. p. 5].
For instance, he could laugh at the fact that during immigration processing, in late 1960, in that big hall in Lower Manhattan, they suggested he change his name from “Foppe” – too close to “fop,” a vain dandy, which in turn is code for homosexual – to something less suggestive and of the names suggested he chose “William,” [in Dutch, “Willem”] and “William,” of course, became “Bill” or – to me and my friends – “Wild Bill” because, despite his exterior calm, that Frisian stiff upper lip, he had a wild streak, which included – I’m only guessing here – gestures meant to recoup a carefree childhood stolen from him by WWII. So, there was some room in the definition of sense for some nonsense after all. Despite Calvinism’s cultural legacy of his formative years, which insisted that everybody toils in the service of sin, he was quite capable of a very askew and sometimes challenging sense of playfulness that was missing from my friends’ fathers. He was capable of pulling some crazy maneuvers in our Rambler Classic, a regular Evel Knievel of the unexpected. Which, of course, can be pretty cool except when you’re a teen and none of your father’s antics that smack of alien eccentricity can ever be considered cool.
He was able to do surprisingly fortuitous things like kick a soccer ball over the roof of our house, like singing at the top of his lungs from inside a camping tent during a raging thunderstorm as my mom gathered me and my brother under a blanket, fleeing from the tent to seek shelter in our 1965 Red Rambler Classic station wagon [the details of which read as soothingly as a William Carlos Williams poem] or do a screeching turn in a shopping center parking lot to the utter glee of me and my friends or say something obscene to an authority figure in Dutch or throw our pet cat up in the air – just like that – not concerned in the least with how the cat would land.
I was not altogether uncomfortable with the fact that kids called my father “Wild Bill.” My self-esteem or ragingly vague cultural identity at the time was probably a little more compromised by the fact that my mother was called “Crazy Tina” by some of the neighbors and their kids. They even taunted her from a safe distance down Winslow Road in Edison, NJ, site of our first suburban home, a split level with a fake electric fireplace. Indeed “crazy” does leave a slightly deeper dent than “wild.” What made them crazy and wild probably had as much to do with my friends’ parents almost total abhorrence for presence or character or interest as my parents’ eccentricities [which were probably further wrapped and unwrapped in perceived details of their utter foreignness. Like the agonizing mispronunciations of simple American words like “encyclopedia” or pronouncing a “D” like a “T.”]
It’s strange to think that of all of the phenomena that mark one’s family, thunderstorms are among the most vivid markers, serving as audio Post-It notes with a scribbled dark cloud and a bolt of lightning spewing out of it. My father would regularly face thunderstorms head-on to not only deal with his lingering angst induced by the horrors of WWII [a guess] – but also to tease my mother and all of her accumulated fears, the most graphic of which saw her panic-stricken, descending the stairs, clutching a Woman’s Day to sit out a thunderstorm in our dank basement with one light on.
But all of that’s an entirely different story that probably ends up getting backed into a spot right in the middle of Amsterdam’s famous “Hunger Winter” of 1944, when houses in my mother’s [and father’s!] old Amsterdam neighborhood were being bombed and Nazi-sympathizers were busy showing their cowardly loyalty to the occupiers by ratting on their fellow neighbors or getting extra rations for doing the Nazis’ dirty work. Locals burned furniture and floorboards for heat and ate roots and tulip bulbs [and periodic loaves of bread the resistance baker clandestinely delivered to neighbors] … But all that’s another bifurcated rotten-glorious story that older people hold onto for dear life, nonetheless, as if it were some key that might someday unlock some big secret.
I always think you can carry that key around your neck from now until you die, but if you don’t use the key, you’re not going to unlock anything. Oh, yes, the punch line to my father’s name change: In Dutch, the word “bil” [pronounced “Bill”] means buttock cheek. So you see, had he ever returned to Amsterdam he would likely have been called “butt cheek”!
Whatever you find to respect in your father you should make a big deal out of it: He could laugh at the irony and absurdity of life. Try to put that down succinctly in a résumé somewhere. He was also able to conceal adult family troubles relating to money, taxes, broken down secondhand cars, and the worrisome decline of his field [metallurgy] in the US. Although, as you get older, the more your father tried to protect you from life’s anxieties the more you develop radar to sense these very attempts to hide what you are looking for – the intriguing delicacies of human suffering. It’s in these moments exposed in their abstruseness that we find the raw gems we need to polish over and over with our emotional organs until they are satisfactorily bleeding. Call it the old poking at the scab phenomenon.
At some point after his car accident, my mother no longer let him out of her sight ever for fear he would abandon her by dying. But sometimes he was allowed, upon my negotiation, a small reprieve, where he could in his lonesome cobble together a few instants of privacy and return to his beloved hobbies: shortwave radio or cross-breeding roses and lilies or reading about WWII. There, in his den were his notebooks filled with readings, calculations, measurements, evidence of systematic record-keeping of his flower hybridization efforts – it was like poetry.
I pointed out to him that there were things like medical marihuana and yes, he nodded, I was right, and he had over time softened his opinions about this particular drug. And, yes, if he had been younger, of another era, he would have tried it – maybe [his famous smirk at confession time]. But, in the end, he was Old World and he chose the easier, more conventional pain killer – alcohol. Alcohol sat at the crux of my parents’ arguments – that and his inability to make it clear that he wanted his privacy back. There were dramatic mood swings no doubt exacerbated by my mom’s suffocating concern and his regularly taking or not taking his medicine and mixing it with beer and/or clandestine harder stuff. He just wanted his recreational drug, beginning slowly in late afternoon and continuing until all pain was forgotten and all TV seemed extremely hilarious. My mom refused to buy his “poison” any more, so I’d periodically purchase – proudly, although not without some trepidation – some modestly priced bottles of hard liquor that he could stash in his den.
His clandestine imbibing might lead to sudden evocative glimmers of a former self, singing warped lyrics to a popular tune, cackling at ridiculous comedies on TV, a reprieve that might last mere minutes.
If discovered – more like when – my mom would smash the bottles in a fashion reminiscent of Temperance Union actions from an earlier century and invoke the warnings of the doctor whom, she claimed, said alcohol was dangerous for my father’s health. It became a game this hiding-and-seeking of bottles. My mom’s no-exceptions policy fed into the entire zero-tolerance moral superiority mania of the late-20th-century teetotalers and Lancaster is full of them. How my father despised these rigid souls addicted to surviving into a very old age so that when asked by the local newspaper of the secret to their longevity they can say “never having taken a drink.” And then they die with that micro-second of moral superiority tucked into their deathbeds.
My father’s counter-argument remained consistent: who cares if he only lived another 6 months drunk – it was preferable to 8 months sober and in pain. That she could not accept – refused to understand – this I could understand, although I did find it a touch intolerant and, dare I say, selfish on her part. Prolonging a painful life to ensure that she had someone to keep her company for an extra couple of months was preferable to letting him get some dulled-pain jollies if it in any way sped up his abandonment of her. A kind of lose-lose situation. All very understandable on all sides – really! – and so, ultimately, the only solution was makeshift ecstasy via collusion.
I sometimes extricated him from his easy chair and took him out alone in the car to turn him on to strange music on cassettes [usually girl singers, female vocalists, even Diamanda Galas] – and there, sitting next to me in the Corolla’s passenger seat, he’d to come to life – if only for half an hour. I considered it my little triumph in a big heaving sense of defeat.
There was always something slightly off-kilter about my parents and this was evident from the moment we moved from outside Amsterdam to outside New York City, to Hawthorne, NJ and later Edison and then about 12 other suburban nonplaces [which seem like havens of be-lawned, exotic banality to me now].
There were the telltale, ever-so-slight details like the choice of pants for me [rust-colored fake corduroy – come on!], weird cuffs, non-sweatshirt tops with odd collars, just slightly different patterns or combinations of colors, a European inseam, the Dutch way to comb your hair, those accents and the fact I had absolutely no – as in not at all – knowledge of Christianity, Christ, praying, or anything remotely to do with religion – all of which seemed to stamp me as an alien with an Alien Registration Card.
Some of this has to do with manifestations of being foreign, alien and Dutch and being proud of that but not quite knowing how to express this pride. I went to extremes to “become American” as I read not only the entire history of America but the entire World Book Encyclopedia, letter by letter. I knew everything about the US. It’s world-leading production of almost everything – making, producing, mining, inventing, singing, performing in the Olympics, crops, you name it.
Meanwhile, my father held onto an Old World pre-rockabilly haircut, combed up and back in a time when most of the fathers had crewcuts or weird, planed haircuts that seemed to careen severely sideways like a broken airplane wing. But my father was the weirdo alien, with a European laugh … And, worse yet, whenever my mother spoke, my friends would gaze back at me with that stupefied stare of what-the-fuck-is-she talkin’-about.
Despite a modest salary – for a professional engineer – and because my mother sometimes worked as a cleaning lady, my parents were able to save up for a new split-level home in a period of less than 5 years [no bank loans!] in Edison, NJ, at the crux of Highways 1 and 9 and Interstate 287, near the then-largest bowling alley in the world, the first shopping mall, a Ford assembly plant, Pittsburgh Paints, Allied Chemical, and several other chemical giants.
On weekends we’d monitor progress on the construction of our soon-to-be home, arriving in our 1953 grey Rambler station wagon with fake wood paneling, a car my father had purchased in 1961 for $250 and sold 4 years later for $300, a fact he was immensely proud of and amused by for years and years – anything was possible in the US of A.
Weeks went by and nobody was working on our house. We’d wander around its skeletal frame, my father cursing in Dutch, passing through the virtual walls, as I swept up the sawdust to try to hasten the construction. So you can just imagine what the carpenters must have thought on Monday morning arriving to work, seeing a perfectly spic and span site – scraps of wood piled neatly and symmetrically, dropped nails in a neat pile, sawdust in a paper bag – what a weird family, they come here from across the ocean and clean up every weekend…
In 1965, my parents paid cash for their first new car – that red Rambler 550 Classic [Rambler-Nash became American Motors, although most Americans never fell for this ploy and never bought one]. My father, on the other hand, always for the underdog, bought a total of five American Motors cars, which were like nothing else in our neighborhood. The Classic didn’t even have white walls and represented everything just a little weird and off-kilter about my family. Why not just buy a Ford Fairlane or a Chevy Chevelle – what’s wrong with white-walls or hubcaps, forchrissake!? Didn’t I, in my bedroom, pray to a god I was pretty sure did not exist for my father to see the light of day and actually buy a Chevy Impala? So much for the efficacy of prayer.
I wrote the obituary for my father for the Lancaster newspaper, wanting to emphasize his ephemeral light, almost imperceptible, character. Recount those poetic instants and not just list his accomplishments, which, if listed, had mostly to do with metallurgy, gardening, and his Mr. Fix-It reputation.
His chosen field of metallurgical engineering had been his choice alright, although throughout his life he made it clear to me on occasion – and this was an unusual trait for a father for sure – that he had not really chosen this career but that destiny [he was good in math and science], some vague circumstances around 1940-41, had laid the groundwork and – boom! – you’re on a career path, getting jobs, building up a résumé and working in a foundry. Having myself worked in several iron foundries, I can honestly say it is like working in a coal mine without having to descend into the earth.
Anyway, this was his not-bleak but also not totally upbeat assessment of the world of careers and he never ever said or even implied that there was some clichéd “more to life” thing somewhere out there. And yet, somehow, from what he did not say, I managed to harvest precisely that notion. He said simply: “after all this time, I’m still not sure what I want to be, so…” As if we spend our entire lives being in contrast to what we never end up knowing what it is we actually want to make of that being. I think it shows character and unheralded strength to admit doubt and not fake one’s can-do manliness.
When I switched majors in my junior year of high school from a civil engineering path [with a small scholarship at RPI] to poetry he never showed any pain or anger – or bewilderment. The long hair or my attempts at finagling a way to let it grow, however, irritated my mother so much that it also got to him. It was an agreed-to sign of disrespect by one and all. I mean, he even defended Nixon precisely because I despised him so much. In a rare moment of outrage, no doubt tweaked by something I’d said, one morning he burst into my room full of protest collages, surfing and rock posters, Abbie Hoffman books, peace symbols, and just hauled off and punched me in the arm real hard; broke, I believe, a Grand Funk Railroad Live album over his knee and tore down every bit of protest adornment. That same Saturday, he shuffled into my room and sheepishly apologized – mumble, mumble – and gave me $20 so I could go out and buy some new hippie protest products including a new day-glo Endless Summer poster.
Although he was known to seethe in a manner not unlike Archie Bunker, I can’t remember another incident like it. It may have been cowardice or empathy, or preferences for a fragile peace held together by brittle misconceptions and half-truths that were only further exacerbated by the times to reveal how fortuitous and full of synchronicity and zeitgeist our decisions really are.
In the early evening of the day before my father became a heap of ash [some metal and plastic bits mixed in], over dinner at the Airport Restaurant, which did not have a liquor license yet, is when I told everyone. Oh dead man, I really, really needed a 6-pak of your favorite beer – Yuengling or Milwaukee’s Best, whatever is on sale. I forged recklessly ahead. Yes, “Wild Bill” to the very end, just wanted to die, plotted it out and made it happen. Dignified and by his own volition. This would later be corroborated by certain evidence – you’ll see.
After we retrieved his ashes in Harrisburg, I suggested to my mother that we gather up all of his garden seeds from various half-used, taped-shut seed packets of Big Boy tomatoes, flowers, beans and toss them all together into a box. We drove to his favorite places – not including the Beverage Corral and Wal-Mart, of course. There along a hiking trail in the nature preserve, we tossed handfuls of the mixed seeds. The idea was to go back each summer to see what the dispersal of his legacy had left behind. We have yet to do that.
The strange realization is that what both united us and tore us apart was music… It is through hearing certain songs, more than looking at particular photos, that I recall this fertile area known as musical taste. For all of our passions in denouncing the musical taste of the other [especially during my emerging hippiedom] when what I liked was what my father denounced as “geen muziek,” not music in Dutch, because Dutch was still a better language with which to express the nuances of this kind of investigative grievance. In fact, whenever my parents got really pissed off they’d revert to Dutch, which they considered a more creative language in which to curse.
There was music my father considered so confrontational – imagine a swastika forged from a hammer and sickle – as to be a total affront to his every lifestyle choice – and what could be more delightful than this? I liked the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Animals and later Grand Funk Railroad and he with his Sinatra [Nancy, Frank and probably Junior too] or even more annoying, André Kostelanetz. I, in my turn, made a list of all the products I would later be loyal to: he smoked Camels, so I would smoke Winstons; he bought Ramblers and I would later drive a Chevrolet, etc. Conformity inside nonconformity; or was it the other way around? These contrary consumerisms, twitches of honed contentiousness were usually determined by the heat of the moment, at that referred to as the Generation Gap.
Funny thing is, the music he listened to, say, Peggy Lee, I now consider pretty cool; I can even tolerate Al Hirt’s “Java.” My mom was tortured by all music, except George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” for some strange reason. I bought her the single, which I then recorded so she could sing along to it phonetically on a cheap cassette deck my father lent her. Maybe music distracted her already fragile thinking processes, and so she denounced it all unequivocally as noise – lawaai, in Dutch; nearly rhymes with Hawaii. And it is my father who, across a long learning curve of post-car-accident-enforced music video watching, learned to love performers like Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles, Men With Hats, the Pretenders, some new wave, Björk, even techno and house, among others, especially if the videos had comely babes showing off their pumped up, epidermal-exposing stuff.
So, by the end of his life we had come around and around way beyond 360 degrees and had a lot of common musical ground but absolutely no opportunity to share that except in those tiny respites whenever I took him for a ride. And to extend our time away from the total obsessive vigilance of my mother, we would just park somewhere in a parking lot overlooking whatever sprawl was encroaching upon whatever empty pastures and corn fields that were left. Then I’d shove in a tape and say “listen”: Ann Magnuson, Miles Davis, Anita O’Day, This Mortal Coil, Björk… and wilder stuff I liked that I thought he might at least tolerate or draw out that cackle of a crow with a frog in its throat, all without compromising my own taste. It’s not simple, this father-son thing.
God, the bare wet dark trees looked gruesome, forlorn but somehow comforting! The song and then us just sitting there barely saying a word – bare, unadorned silence – just staring out into space, which seemed at once hopelessly limitless and hopelessly cramped and there came that little inexplicable, barely detected moment of bonding without so much as a raised eyebrow or a nod.
I suddenly remembered when we lived in Hawthorne; he took the train to Harrison where he worked for Campbell Foundry where they made sewer grates. I’d walk him to the station and we’d put a penny on the track and watch the express train squash it. I’d pick up the penny off the track and my father would ask if it was warm and indeed it was. As I put the flattened penny into my pocket I wondered how he knew that.
My family’s narrative of the many decampments and migrations from here to there and plenty in between has always been a mystery and that has never bothered me or even intrigued me very much and now I wonder why it never interested me until… now. My uncle Jan in Zaandam [suburb of Amsterdam] some time ago hinted that my father’s desire to emigrate may have had something to do with emerging fears and paranoia regarding then then-escalating Cold War [The Bay of Pigs invasion occurred just 5 months after our “escape”.] Although, he isn’t sure and has, instead, asked me to explain why my father would leave a good job and a promising housing future in Amsterdam. He seemed to remember my father being spooked by Russian barbarities he witnessed during the Liberation of Berlin. Could be. Or maybe one of the many girlfriends he may have left behind.
A theory about why he was never the same after the war – if that is indeed the case – involves more than the shocking war images, time done as a forced laborer who happened to survive while others did not – guilt, confusion, shock, muted angst… There was also the mysterious head-on collision in early 1991. Physical debilitation, the near-death experiences – bugs of light crawling in a squiggly line across the ceiling, disappearing into a dark vent – which he confessed to me [and no one else] and the loss of pride-independence as a result… The accident complicated the entire notion of living with dignity and I have this nagging belief that he did not want to talk about the accident because he may have actually caused it – and this ate away at his soul. This is my take. That plus the physical pain, decreased mobility, nausea, his incontinence, and his inability to perform everyday tasks like changing his socks all added up to: “What am I living for?”
When we were clearing out his personal effects, his accumulated collectibles, papers, stained sweatpants, wires, cords… we found a drawer where he kept a small margarine container in which we found 126 Cumedin pills [blood thinner] – I counted them, 126 winks or nudges or I-told-you-sos. I pictured him with his sly smile placing pill in his cheek at the dinner table, then hobbling off to spit it out in the bathroom, but rather than flush it down the toilet, he conscientiously saved them. We were stunned. I counted them again – 126. You want to force me to live? I’ll show you! Ultimately he regained control over one thing, his destiny. I had to laugh. The plastic container was like an art object dedicated to spite and pride. I should have photographed it, called his doctors although they wouldn’t have appreciated the joke. In fact, his house doctor, had actually just flown the coop [every revelation enhancing the mystery]…
And what about his modest stack of old pornography; should we have donated it to some library? Don’t worry, I will never tell my mother about this almost charming collection of nudie, nudist, B&W art porn and “man’s magazines” [you know the ones that combine adventure, fighting Nazism and buxom babes]. I was especially fascinated by this law textbook-like state-by-state survey of illegal sexual practices – with graphic pics in the name of jurisprudence. By the way, did you know that oral sex is illegal in Georgia and 17 other states? Did you know that an erection that is revealed by a man’s clothing is illegal in Arizona, NY and 17 other states? Well, I do, and I’ve been able to amaze friends with facts like these for years.
I remember him still shuffling out into the morning dew in his special anti-slip slippers to check his lilies. Thereafter, he might reread sections of some WWII book, especially the fall of Berlin, which makes you believe that people to a certain degree do seek out the intense turning points of their lives – no matter how painful – as a source of some spiritual sustenance. There are many of my parents’ generation who look “fondly” back upon the WWII years, all noting the camaraderie, the intense friendships, appreciation for a crust of bread.
He also watched soccer matches, old BBC comedies and gardening programs. His absorption into escape [loud, ubiquitous TV] seemed egotistical, mirroring the kind of infantile preoccupation with the emerging self a child undergoes.
In his wake, he managed to leave numerous unresolved mysteries behind. Because for every moment he was killing the pain or the self-revulsion or regret, he was turning up the volume on the TV to not have to converse. You sometimes got the feeling he considered his decision to move to the US a mistake after all, especially considering that he never really “made” it, was forced to move like a white-shirt-wearing migrant worker in search of employment, undergo humiliating job interviews and existential questions about the value of one’s employment.
He may have harbored various other regrets, revealing them only in his last year or so, when he began remembering how he was preparing to study engineering, when he was called up by the Germans to serve as a dwangarbeider [forced laborer] in a factory owned by Siemens. And then, taking out a cigar box that I never knew even existed, showing me the IDs, food ration stamps, notepads and photos and negatives of [German?] girlfriends who were obviously not my mother and rummaging around, he pulled out some naked photos he had taken of some of them, including my mother.
It’s not like I’m surprised; his personal calculus basically being: the more he tried to hide what you sensed he wasn’t going to tell you because he didn’t know how, the more he hid, the more his efforts revealed about what he was trying to hide. Or something like that.
My father had many secrets – the cigar box – oh, and then there was that pair of panties from the strip-o-gram stripper hired for his surprise 65th birthday party at the foundry. He took me down to the basement to show me how she sat on his lap and how she gave him the panties afterward. “Shsh,” his finger to his lips, mischievous grin. “Don’t tell your mother.” I’m not sure why. But I never did. Don’t intend to.
Ideally, my father would still be alive today had it not been for the car accident. Although it wouldn’t be ideal unless we could both agree that we agreed about a lot, especially music. But, otherwise, as back up, I’ll sit in some comfortable chair with a 6-pak of cheap beer, probably Milwaukee’s Best. I’d have his heavy Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder set up to play old tapes he made of TV shows or sounds in the house or the tapes of when he’d allow me to record the Top 40 countdown off the radio. Their sequence to this day have a certain locked-in and essential narrative logic all their own so that the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” must precede the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon,” which will allow the proper editing of the film so that it will run seamlessly across the insides of my eyelids, triggered by a series of mnemonically ignited phosphenes at a rate considerably faster than the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second.
bart plantenga is the eclectic author of two internationally acclaimed books on yodeling: Yodel In HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, produced the Rough Guide to Yodel CD compilation & the YODEL IN HIFI Top 50+ Youtube channel.
He’s also a fiction author of: BEER MYSTIC, Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man (Autonomedia) and Wiggling Wishbone (Autonomedia); and creative memoir – Paris Scratch, NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor (Barncott Press, London). He has been a DJ since 1986 in NY (WFMU), Paris (Radio Libertaire), Amsterdam (100 & Patapoe) & online (Wreck This Mess). He writes, edits, bikes, produces his radio show and lives in Amsterdam with his partner and daughter.