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Reconstructing My Father

by Diane Dees Tobiason

Transition by Mary Ann Brandt
"Transition" by Mary Ann Brandt

Most of the memories I have of my father are bad. He was a withdrawn binge alcoholic, sometimes given to violent episodes in which he physically assaulted my mother. He never took us anywhere, and he rarely spoke to us, although sometimes, late at night, he would play cards with me or we would watch an old movie together. He loved Barbara Stanwyck.

When I was a small child, Eddie (his actual name, though his relatives called him “Lec”) did help me with my school projects. A knowledgeable outdoorsman, he taught me the names of all of the trees, took me fishing in a boat he built himself, and showed me how to till the worm bed in the back yard. But as I grew older, my needs changed. If my car broke down, I needed a ride. If there was a special trip or project at school, I needed money. He not only refused to help me with these things, but he refused belligerently, which led to more fights with my mother.

My father's past was somewhat of a mystery. I knew he'd grown up in northwest Louisiana, that he had a brother who had died and two sisters, and that he had served in the Army during World War II. His father died before I was old enough to meet him, possibly before I was born, and his mother, who lived with us for a brief period, was a bloodless, stone-faced woman who was frightening in her lack of warmth. I saw one of my aunts only once or twice, and the other one was so grim that I preferred to avoid her.

When I was twenty-four, an aneurysm burst in Eddie's brain; he was in a coma for three days, and then he died. He was sixty-two, and at the time of his death, had more physical strength than some men half his age.

I have often wanted to fill in the blanks about Eddie's life, to try to get a better idea of who he was. A carpenter by trade, he wore heavy khaki pants and shirts every day of his life, and he smelled of sawdust, sweat, bourbon and pipe tobacco, not necessarily in that order. He was an avid fisherman, and once fell off of the neighbor's pier into the lake when he was drinking and trying to land a bass at the same time.

One summer, a group of neighbors talked him into going with them to a lake in east Texas so they could water ski. My father had never skied in his life, but he was agile and athletic, and he stayed up the first time he put the skis on. The neighbors asked him if he would come back the next weekend, and he agreed to, only first he had to build a pair of water skis. This was typical of Eddie. When he wanted to fish, he had to first build a boat. I am just like him in this regard. I can't just do something; I have to go to the most primitive source of the project and begin there.

For years, the water ski story was the only really good story I had about my father, and I didn't know how to recast him as a person who was perhaps more than an alcoholic and failed husband and father. Then, twenty-four years later, my mother died, and a wealth of photos and papers fell into my lap. Shortly after her death, I went to London to see her side of the family, and my cousin gave me a letter written to his father, my mother's brother, from my father. In the letter, he tells Norm that Hilda, my mother, isn't feeling well, that something is wrong with her, and he asks Norm to contact her, to try to cheer her up, lift her spirits. This may sound like an ordinary piece of family correspondence, but to me, it was shocking.

I tried to imagine Eddie -- the lean, hostile north Louisiana school dropout -- taking pen to paper to ask a favor of Normie, the Jewish fashion designer in London, and the image was absurd. “Maybe we shouldn't have shown it to her,” my cousin's wife said, as my cousin thoughtfully handed me a glass of whiskey. It was, indeed, a revelation.

When I got home, I went through the boxes of things I took from my mother's house. I found very old photos of my father and me, and I looked like a happy little girl. I found a picture of my father standing in front of a shack, showing my mother how to shoot a shotgun. There was a letter written to Eddie from his father, who had moved to Alabama, and who told his son he missed “good old Louisiana.” I retrieved the American flag that draped Eddie's casket. And I found his Army stripes and bars, as well as the startling information that he had run an Army canteen in Europe. Who was this man, anyway?

A few weeks ago, I went through one of the boxes again, and this time I found a pamphlet my father had mailed to my mother: Engineering the Victory, The Story of the Corps of Engineers. There is an inscription on the front inside cover stating that my father enlisted in the Army on April 9, 1942, and on April 23, he was assigned to the Corps. He trained at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, and at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and saw action in southern France and in the Battle of Germany. He received four bronze stars.

Further investigation of the pamphlet taught me that Eddie was part of the crew who built the docks at Cherbourg, and who paved the way for the infantry to advance through La Haye du Puits and St. Lo. On the morning of August 13, 1944, General Patton asked the Engineers to have the railroad leading from St. Lo into Le Mans and Laval, ready to receive ammunition trains -- on August 15. The men had to rebuild seven railway bridges, repair and lay new main lines in three marshalling yards, lay miles of track, and provide service and water facilities along the lines. They did it.

“The engineers can go under, over or through anything, or get it out of the way,” the pamphlet states. That is a phrase that certainly suits my father, a tough, stubborn man who could build and who could destroy. I wish he were alive because there are a lot of things I would like to tell him, and even more that I would like to ask him. But at least now I have a better idea not only of who he was, but who he might have been. The Eddie who has emerged since my mother's death four years ago is still a shadow, but I can at least see his outline.

Diane Dees Tobiason is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her essays and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including: The Raven Chronicles, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, The Melic Review, The Dead Mule and The Louisiana Review. Diane and her husband are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant. You can contact Ms. Tobiason at deestob@aol.com



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Reconstructing My Father ]
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