Thursday, October 23, 2014

Books in the Blood

I want to tell you a little about my dad.

He died very suddenly last month (official cause flu, unofficial cause heavy and unapologetic smoking and fanatical avoidance of doctors). Anyway, Andy was a voracious reader, everything from Stephen King to Hilary Mantel. He carried a bunch of plastic shopping bags wherever he went, and these bags were filled with scribbled-in notebooks, tabloid newspapers, books of all shapes and sizes. He read with a sharpened pencil to keep the words from flying off the page because of his dyslexia. I remember getting stabbed by that pencil (kept in breast pocket, point up, when not in use) repeatedly as a kid.

My dad was a writer too, although he only published one book. It was called Up Against the Brass (Simon & Schuster, 1970) and it recounts his Quixotic mission to unionize the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. It is chock full of little gems, like this from the day he was inducted in 1966:

It was, I imagine, a typical swearing-in ceremony. The lieutenant told us that if anyone went AWOL he would probably be shot, because there was a war on. Apparently, quite a few before us had already gone over the hill, but I didn't think the lieutenant's absurd threat was going to deter many people.

It didn't. As our train pulled out for the long, hot ride to South Carolina, we saw one of the guys who had been inducted with us.

He was on the train going the other way. He was AWOL.

When my dad would tell this bit, he would do the classic double-take. Like, "Hey, guys, isn’t that…?"

Born and raised in Philly, Andy ended up stationed at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, described thusly:

Lawton is a typical Oklahoma town. It has sixty thousand citizens, and in the summer the temperature goes to 105 degrees and stays there…Lawton's sole swimming pool is white-only. When twenty-three black Gis and civilians tried to use it, they were arrested, and General Critz, the Post Commandant, refused the NAACP request to put it off limits for all Fort Sill soldiers.

Most bars in Lawton feature weak beer and juke boxes that blare recordings distributed by a southern outfit called Rebel Records. Rebel Records uses a confederate flag as its label and the racism its songs encourage is typified by titles like "Cajun KKK" and "Lookin' for a Handout."

During the summer of 1967 news of a record burning in Lawton got our hopes up that enlightened citizens had destroyed some of the Rebel Records. But no; it was the week after the Beatles had announced they were more popular than Jesus Christ, and a group of ministers had persuaded their followers to burn Beatle records in the public square.

Incidentally, the fire got out of control and almost burned down a city-owned building…

My dad was one of my best early manuscript readers. When my first publisher imploded, I think he was actually more devastated than I was. Then, when I was offered a new contract, he proceeded to call or text me nearly every day asking if I'd signed it yet. Due to a number of reasons (which I patiently explained anew every time we spoke), it took a few months for this to happen. It was apparently the same time that he was losing huge amounts of weight and getting really sick without telling anyone, but he still found the energy to drive me half crazy (the other half I managed on my own). It makes me happy that I was able to tell him I signed it a week before he died.

Now, when I read aloud to my daughter, I think of all the bedtime reading he did with me when I was little, including stuff that was obviously way over my five- or six-year-old head, like Darwin's Descent of Man. That didn't really matter though. Being read to is a magical thing you never forget.

He was also not above buying the most blatantly tear-jerking children's books as birthday presents, like Robert Munsch's I Love You Forever, which we both agreed kind of crossed the line into creepy and stalker-ish but which still gets me at the end every single time.

His tiny Manhattan apartment had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, almost entirely devoted to Greek and Roman history and the ancient world. He was an expert on all that. They live on my shelves now, and remind me why I still love tangible paper books so much.

Anyway, I bet lots of us have parents that read and write and talked about books and took us to the library all the time, and always gave books as presents. Who made them living, breathing things. I think that if we give our own kids just one single thing…well, that’s the thing.

Thank you, dad.

p.s. The New York Times did a really nice obit on him too, you can see it here.


  1. This is such a beautiful tribute to your father, and I am incredibly sorry for your loss. Such an important reminder to be grateful that our parents encouraged reading and writing, and that when I think I cannot possibly read one more "Berenstain Bears" book to my daughter, that it's truly a blessing to be able to do so. Your father sounds like an amazing man.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Kat. Your father--both the writer and the human being--lives on in you.