EDITOR’S PICK
JUNE 15, 2011 12:32PM

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camping snake river

My father and I on the Snake River in 1980 

Seven years ago early in the morning of June 1st, my father’s nurse woke me to say,  “Your father has passed.” I sat vigil, alone, at the foot of his bed, periodically glancing at his face, then away, because it was hard to look at. His mouth hung open, perhaps from trying for a last breath that never came.

 I finally got a glimpse of him as a person, though that person had departed an hour ago. His face was etched with disappointment – despite his walls plastered with awards, numerous bestsellers, bushels of adoring fan mail and the company of great men, he had died without ever doing what he really wanted, which was to touch another human being.

 Some of the obstacles to seeing my father as a person were in me. As a boy my vision was occluded by physical fear. Even when I was grown he was bigger than me. Young all I saw was a giant, one who periodically struck me, and in the striking unleashed his rage.

 Just as I became a man myself my father rocketed to international fame. Now he towered over me in the world. All I saw when I looked at him was how much he had achieved and how little I had in comparison.

 Just as my father reached the age I am now, 60, the mask of the famous author slipped and I saw a very different face, that of his shadow. It had been stalking him, one step behind the public man all those years.

 As all the sordid skeletons clattered from our family closet – my father’s secret lifetime of self-destructive habits, his marriage that was something out of a horror movie – I could only blink with incredulity. How could these two men, these two lives, coexist in one body?

 After he died I spent 6 years trying to see him clearly, using his craft, writing. Yet every picture I conjured of him became immediately blurred by its opposite.

 Was he the a writer of tireless discipline, who another writer called “a writing machine,” who could work around the clock, who published 18 books, some 1000 pages long? Or the man who was powerless in controlling his addictions?

 Was he the man who’d met four presidents, who’d fought Bobby and Jackie Kennedy and won?  Or the husband whose wife wouldn’t let him finish a single sentence without interrupting, who finally cowered silent in his chair? Who sat alone in his house because she wouldn’t allow his friends inside, not ever his brother?

Was he the intellectual who assured me as a kid that klutzes like us were better than those football players, who’d end up pumping gas when we went on to better things? Or the guy who wrote his last novel imagining himself that glorious captain of the team.  The guy who took me to football games where he cheered the very guys he’d denigrated?

 The most jarring question – was he the Marine who received a Navy Cross for grabbing a machine gun and running up a hill into an enemy position? Or was he the person who cowered before his dentist, who was afraid to fire secretaries, who could barely bare to enter a room of strangers?

 Eight years before he died his heart was within days of giving out on him. I drove him to the hospital for a quadrupal bypass, keenly aware that these might be our last moments together. I asked him how he felt – to offer comfort, to selfishly get a glimpse of where I’d be headed some day, above all to try to touch that heart just once while it still ticked. He said, “I’m not afraid. I stared death in the face on Okinawa and said, ‘fuck you!’”  We rode silently the rest of the way. I thought – Whether he dies today or not, I’m never going to touch him, never see who he really is.

 It’s the tough Marine whose picture stares, pipe clenched in his teeth, from the cover of his 1980 memoir of combat, Goodbye Darkness. After he died I found a carrousel of slides a series of outtakes from that photo shoot. It was creepy. He mugs for the camera, donning mask after mask, a range from comic to serious. What stuck with me was the one of him grinning, saturnine, all powerful. But not one of them was really him.

When the mother of my best friend from childhood died, a woman who was dear to everyone in my family, my father delivered the eulogy. He was overcome by tears and could barely finish speaking. I was already close to tears myself, yet sad as the occasion was felt hope surge in me. I had never seen my father cry. Maybe the real person was appearing.  But in the car after the funeral he said, “I disgraced myself.”

 

He was a frail boy, terrible at the sports required to be a member of the tribe of boys.  His father beat him, demanding, “Don’t cry.”  The jeers of his peers and blows of his father rained down on a person of extraordinary sensitivity. That sensitivity would later prove a valuable asset to the writer he became. But as a youth he could only cover it in thick armor. That armor served him well in literal combat. It also encased his heart so that he couldn’t feel fear or loneliness.

 

 What he felt instead were the highs and low of the vacillations of his self esteem. He’d always suffered those mood swings, but fame and chemicals turned them into a giant roller coaster.  He was either on top of the world or at the bottom of the deepest pit, never in between. 

 

 I spoke with one of his few surviving Marine buddies, who offered the simple wisdom, “Your father was just a man. A good man, but just a man.”

 

 And there’s the real person that I could never see, that he could never see. Just a man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

This was amazing, Luminous Muse. You leave me speechless so often. My one thought is how strong and talented and caring YOU are.
That's what it all comes down to, isn't it? We're all really just men, no matter how our kids may see us. This is a very nice piece, thank you for sharing.
I hope this makes EP. This was most wonderful..
HUGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG
You are indeed luminous. As was your father. Beautiful piece.
Wow. What an all encompassing piece of writing. These father essays are fascinating and I commend you. A difficult subject, you delve into a complicated man and do it so well. Enjoyed the photo and the raw and elegant way you depict your father.
I can't help as I grow older but to realize and accept that we all are full of contradictions, yins & yangs , peaceful or forced coexistence of pendulum swings in our bodies. Your father, with more than some, same as many. Your growth in understanding him is in your writing. Really moving, LM.
What a thoughtful and compassionate look at this man, 
his yin and his yang
not clouded 
but open and honest
a tribute 
a memory
a great piece of writing
rated with love
I could feel your pain at just wanting to be let in or get a peek at what he was really like. I think part of that could be the generation and the other a mental health issue- depression??
Enjoyed your well written post!
R
Wow, this should be an EP. The masks you describe are such a great depiction of how we view our parents. We know their secrets more than anyone, we have seen how pleasant they can be out in the world then how depressive and miserable they are when they get home, like a flick of the switch, great commentary
I will echo the fact that this is definitly EP worthy. You covered such a complicated subject that most of us (on some level) can relate to. Great insights. Great writing.
I too am left speechless, just sitting here taking it all in wth no words coming back out...
Luminous, This was an excellent read. I had the same hope during the eulogy that a turn around may be impending but no-go. The men of our father's generation had a tough road but they are all tough roads, including ours. While we learn to forgive (sometimes) we don't forget. I suspect despite the pain, the lessons from your father, shaped the man you are today. May you have a good father's day.
Just wanted to congratulate you on the well-deserved EP.
An beautiful, eloquent piece about man who obviously set the bar very high for you; and you certainly honor him in your writing and accomplishments. 
♥R
Just getting to this now Luminous. Powerfully and artfully written. What came through for me is that no simple summary captures your dad, nor does with any of us if you look closely. "I contain multitudes" applies to us all. Tougher no doubt to take that perspective when it's someone so close. Great post.
Luminous, you have done a little masterpiece here. Words fail me in expressing how good this is, Luminous.

The thing that you have done so well is lay out the extraordinary contradictions in this human being. Then layered on top of that you have captured the complications inherent in assessing that human being from the point of view of a son.

I like to thing that I am able to recognize the good stuff when I see it. It is one thing that I am good at. And I am telling you that this is some of the good stuff.
A very well written piece, describing an obviously complicated father. Beautiful.
So sad and haunting. Beautiful.
I understand.
Come by my place perhaps and see my re-post.
I only tell one aspect.
Reading this after starting my morning reading Martin Buber's I and Thou, I understand the breath of both you and Buber's insights. You long to touch the man who was your father, and he long to be in touch with another. To be a Man, just a man, maybe the hardest thing anyone male can be.
Your words washed over me with this piece. Truly a beautiful gift to the legacy of your father, and your relationship with him. Thank you for sharing.

It occurs to me that your father's past traumas prevented him from fully feeling, and that maybe you carried the emotion for him. And for that, I am sure he was grateful in whatever way he could be. In you, he most likely saw the man he could never allow himself to be ~ present, vulnerable and exquisitely aware.
You should read Hamby's biography of Truman. I don't care if you like Truman or not, but Hamby believed that Truman suffered problems like you described, to be a "real man." He was really much more complex than that; he could never display anger to people's faces and yet there was a whole corpus of angry letters he never mailed. The famous Hume letter that he sent to a critic who disliked his daughter's singing was sent on the day of his best friend's death. Yet he was devoted to his wife and daughter. Now, for the record, not even I know if using the Atomic bomb was really justified. I just think... well, your father might be like Truman.
This reminds me of Christopher Dickey's memoir of life with his father, Summer of Deliverance. In fact, there were so many similarities I started wondering if you were in fact Christopher Dickey. Then I saw your tag and remembered you are William Manchester's son. I admire your father's work, as I admire James Dickey's, and I'm fascinated by these glimpses of the men behind their public personae. You've inherited much of your father's talent, but I hope he kept the demons to himself. That's a telling photo of you two, reflecting some of the manly demeanor you reveal in this portrait of your father, as well as a sense of the distance that existed between you.
To grow up in the shadow of such a famous man, such a towering intellect, such a public person...and to know he led a very different private life must have been a terrifying experience. Yet you write about it with supreme lyricism and eloquence. In gaining whatever insight you have through your writings, you have clearly created luminous musings that are wholly yours.
Beautiful and sad, brave of you to be so intimate. I struggle to read about fathers but I'm glad I read this. Thank you.
Very fine! I wonder what my son will write about me?
I saw this on Salon's Front page.
I remembered my Father. Thanks.
I had my hand on his beating heart.
Dads heart stopped, and beat again.
I spent private time with Dad. Sigh.
I relate. You noticed Dads jawbone.
I gently placed my hand there. Sigh.
Memorable. Jawbone needs to shut.
It was my experience to close his jaw.
Dad died at home. He cheered folks.
Hospice nurses came and went. Sigh.
My Father was Gift. I Remember Dad.
Given.
I ask Dad to be my Best Man when I wed.
No bridesmaids stole silverware that day.
I spent the Last Day with Dad. I Love Him.
My Father who art in ...
I am gonna sit on the front porch. Thanks.
Honor thy Father and thy Mother. Thanks.
Understanding is a deeply felt Great Love.
Appreciation.
Thanks again.
We know now.
We know in part.
Love covers us up.
You know. Envelopes.
Love is all there is.
Love always, ay ah!
Muse, this was excellent. The writing and the sentiment. I thought my father could walk on water, but as you say, in the long run, like us all he was just a man. But a special man I think, like yours.
“Just” a man? A poignant story and deceptively complex. I understand the point of view but perhaps the same could be said about all great men. One could argue that William Manchester was a propagandist - albeit a very fine one. Should anyone be miffed that a propagandist conceals certain intimate fears or keeps certain vulnerabilities sequestered only to express ‘disgrace’ when self-revealed? 

Frankly, one can make that same propaganda accusation of all writers. But when propagandists turn to unvarnished truth, ‘warts and all’, they can be savaged - as your father was. He was a complicated man in complicated world. I haven’t read his ‘big books’ but “A World Lite Only by Fire” (written, as I recall, for something to while recovering between bigger tasks), was one of the most memorable reads of my life. I’ve read it three times and still recommend it to friends. I have two copies: a dog-eared soft cover for marking up and a pristine hard cover to read afresh. Come to think of it I’m going to read it again even though some regard it as “colonialist propaganda.”

The scope of his knowledge and the thrill of his pen have always amazed me. But “just” a man? Perhaps... but if so he was a man who certainly transcended being ‘just’ a man. 

How many sons can tell the same story of our fathers? Sealed off, inaccessible, untouchable. Intimacy can be terrifying to many men especially when it comes to the poignancy of their own lives and when it’s literally beaten into you. He was, of course, a man of a certain generation and if there was a certain part of themselves they felt compelled to withhold from others (perhaps even themselves) I understand and respect that - then again, I’m not the one who, perhaps justifiably, feels a bit ripped-off. 

I think there is that part of all of us that we don’t want others to know and see – who we think (or fear) we really are - so we edit and censor our lives as we live them. For all they give, for all they contribute, are they not entitled to still withhold something? But, from *whom* it’s withheld is the complaint isn’t it? 

There is a bit of irony in my defense for in “Eminent Churchillians,” Andrew Roberts presents an image of Churchill (‘just a man’) that I wonder if your father might have included had he the strength to complete his herculean project. And he clearly did not feel certain aspects of Kennedy or Johnson (both ‘just men’) should be withheld? And yet, ironically, while not too hesitant to peel the onion-skinned layers off of the Kennedy and Johnson images, William Manchester kept a part of himself walled off even from his son. *Just* a man? Seems a bit unfair. All-too-human? Definitely. Than again, it was not my ox that was gored so-to-speak.

That Robert Kennedy obstructed your father (and perhaps influenced Jackie to do the same) should be no surprise to those who knew RK. In old friend of mine (who knew them all) once said (hearsay, of course, but from a reliable source) that Robert was a nasty, sometimes mean-spirited, bully with dangerous, Irish temper and, if you said something that offended him, he could literally come flying across the table with clenched fists - “Come at you swinging” was the phrase I recall, “Go for the jugular. He and Jack never did their homework as senators. Ted, ironically, was the best of the bunch.” So it’s no surprise that the tribe would litigate to protect the propagandistic image of men who were really ‘just men.’ After all, they thought they were ‘authorizing’ propaganda but intellectual integrity was a bit more than they bargained for wasn’t it? Why is his best seller “Controversy” so hard to find? Will we ever see the Kennedy/Johnson truths your father was bullied into censoring out? 

Just mortal? Just human? Yes. But if William Manchester was ‘just a man’ his immense body of work is certainly a testament that no man need regard himself, or be regarded by posterity, as ‘just a man’. Human, all-to-human. If he was ‘just a man’ he was a very complicated, driven, colossal one.
Francoise, baby: If you have not read Manchester's 'big books', as you call them, then why are you expending 500 words on tormenting us with your patently worthless opinion? Read the 'big books', then, speak. Geez Louise. This is a fine tribute, son to father. End of story.
Considering the multiple and duplicate inappropriate harassive comments of the very troubled and "tormented" troll BadScott which had to be deleted from my own blog I'd advise people to steer clear of this creep who suffers serious problems with reading comprehension - no to mention other serious personality disorders.
Francoisy baby; you kill me. My comments "had to be deleted" from your blog? Strunk and White frown on such passive verbs. "Had to be deleted" by...who...you? My point here was, you admit to not reading Manchester's books, but you opine at length about Manchester, the man,. Can't be done. OK? Got that? (And the duplicate comment on your blog was a function of OS being slow, happens all the time). John Manchester wrote an honest blog, and you, Francoisy, added zip to it. But remarkably, you took 706 words to add ZIP to the discussion. A new world record for saying so little in so many words.
BadScot wipe the toxic foam off your mouth. You don’t know a discussion from a street fight. Your ad hominem attacks demonstrate a disgraceful disrespect for the civility and noblesse oblige of the great man who is the subject of this dubious "tribute " that you disingenuously use as vehicle to parade your rancour and spew your venom on others. You have the manners of a barnyard animal and you seethe with bitter resentment. 

Out of work and single I presume. What a perfect example of the truism that some people go through life just looking for a reason to take offense and insult others - and witness the royal ‘we’ presuming to speak for others. 

And how superbly you make my case for me. Again, serious reading comprehension problems. But actually counting words you clearly have not even read? How telling. Which is it: in your cups or off your meds and out of therapy? I guess this is where I'm supposed to say you live with your mother and are slamming your keyboard in your pajamas from a corner her basement. You demonstrate all the social skills of a Jared Loughner. 

And yes, your toxic comments “had to be removed” for when you go about *hitting in somebody else’s space they have little choice but to clean it up.

I am new to Open Salon and like it precisely for some of the poignant personal statements displayed in this particular post and which invite genuine comments that demonstrate a respect for the ‘marketplace of free ideas’ the late William Manchester so revered. But there is something disturbing about how anonymity brings out the worst in deeply troubled trolls. Using a phoney defense of one as an excuse and means to heap toxic and resentful abuse another reveals either a deeply troubled adolescent or a socially retarded adult intoxicated by his own venom. Now off to bed with you little one.
I know that is going to happen to me sooner than later and will I be sorry? Considering I was sucker punched by my Dad I am not sure.
Great post, powerful, sad and spare. Rated.
francoisy wrote of my comment: "witness the royal ‘we’ presuming to speak for others." WTF? Did I say 'we'? 

Again, this was a poignant post, son to father, then comes Francy with his pontification on the Kennedys--third party hearsay--and William Manchester, whose books but for one he has not read. It pollutes the original post. I give up.
Yes, your dad was just a man, same as all of our parents. But how he lived and what you experienced, whether good or bad, you still loved him. He was and always will be your dad. No other bond can break that my friend. I am glad I found you. I'll be back. Just Jali smiling and rating of course.
Thank you for posting this wonderful, open-hearted essay. Though our experiences are different, there was much in here that spoke to me about my own life and I bet many others might feel the same, some universal frustration in not knowing the people who are most powerful in our lives, not understanding them, as deeply as we would wish. I wonder if it is even possible, or something we can only strive to do. And in that striving a relationship, such as it is, evolves. 

Last summer, my 89-yr-old mom and I returned to the place where I grew up, and where she grew up. This included 4 homes where my father and mother had lived and in each one there were enormous trees, trees that my father had planted decades ago. Trees that sheltered other families; that will live longer than I. Writing about that visit, which included a visit to the cemetery and hearing my mother comment, as if she'd been a child yesterday, that the house of the family she babysat for no longer existed on the street, and that "I was allowed to ride my bike to this stop sign, no farther," gave me a sense that time is not the linear thing I fear but the surrounding, encompassing thing I can write my way into learning.

I look forward to reading more of your posts and am so glad to have found your work here on Open Salon.
My old man said the same thing about football players and gas stations. Then I pumped gas during my freshman year of college. Never got an endorsement deal though. I hear Joan Crawford was a tough cookie. Rated for good writing.

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