The Sum of My Father’s Life

The Sum of My Father’s Life

I always knew my father left home sometime after high school –maybe 1959 or 1960 — and joined the army. A silence surrounded my father and his life was a hidden mystery. Like everything else he didn’t have a version of his experiences in the army. So I have to piece together his military years with scant evidence.

Since there was still a military draft until Nixon ended it in 1968 and my father didn’t attend college after high school (that I know of) then he was likely drafted into the military. He never shared any stories about his experiences in the army except a little joke he would tell me when I sat on his lap as a young girl. He had a chicken pock scar on his forehead. I would touch it and ask him what it was. It was a clean edged pinhole. He said he was shot in the army. I knew it was a joke.

I was surprised to read my father’s obituary in 1994 —penned by his second wife after my siblings and I were written out of my dad’s will and barred from attending the funeral by my stepmother and my nana. In his wife’s version, my father was a war hero. A war hero?

This last biography of my father was a question mark to me, an irony, a contradiction. The father I knew was left winged, liked protest music of the 1960s. Later he idealized vigilantes and by the 1970s loved the monkey wrench gang. It was one of his identifications that were most salient to me, so different from my take on things. He loved the idea of dismantling telephone and electric poles, bringing down large looming institutions. Perhaps my dad dreamed of a version of himself as one of the misfits turned saboteurs: a monkey wrench gang member want to be.

Once we’d moved to New Bedford Massachusetts, he settled into the job he would hold until he died in 1994 (a chemist with Titlest golf company), my father talked about encouraging the factory workers into revolt. Whether he actually ignited rebellious passions in the line workers I didn’t know but it seemed cowardly to me. I regretted feeling he was weak because he himself wouldn’t stand up for his beliefs. Instead he set up the vulnerable ones with the most to lose.

He set up practical jokes and left me to take the heat. One time my born-again Christian cousins had given me a cassette tape of religious music they thought I would like. Really they knew I wouldn’t like it but perhaps they hoped that some of the Holy Spirit’s power would seep out of the lyrics and whip me into shape. Submissiveness or subservience or what ever they thought would save the soul of a girl like me. There we sat my father and I. I was nineteen at the time and he was laughing so hard he could hardly contain it. He knew how to fix a cassette so you could dub in other music. He taped over parts of the cassette with Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young “You didn’t count on me, when you were counting on your rosary.” I didn’t think it was as funny as he did. Particularly since I would be the one blamed. Either they would think I dubbed it myself just to mock them or they would think somehow the tape was infected by the demons they were trying to exorcise from me.

I don’t know where I got this idea or this feeling that my dad was a coward. Perhaps it was years of being bullied by his father. Maybe he carried that fear with him. My whole life my father seemed seething and repressed. Unless he was intoxicated in someway, he was sheepish, not wanting to be seen. He cringed when he had to ask for assistance in a department store. Yet at home his feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, held in over days or weeks erupted in violence. Sometimes destruction of property: holes in our doors when we had locked ourselves in the bathroom or bedrooms to keep him out. Fist holes my mother had my sister cover with drawings or felt decorations, glued to the wall. Conspicuous flowers or stars covering the evidence of my father’s rage. How childish those must have looked.

So I wondered about the army. How had my father come to join the army? But, as I write this I can see that he wouldn’t have joined. He would have been drafted. The selective service was still active in the late 1950s. I can’t imagine him as a skinny teenager in a uniform. There isn’t one photograph of him as an enlisted man. I am weaving together pieces of his time in the army as I would imagine them and based on the little information I have, mostly from my mother. It would have been 1958 or 1959. Once drafted, men had a 2 year commitment to serve their country. This was after the Korean war and just before the Vietnam war. So, my father lucked out. He was called to serve his time in that safe reprieve. He would never have survived Vietnam. If anyone was ill equipped to deal with that sort of psychological and physical trauma I can say it was not my father. Very often he hid from things, cowered. Often when he and I were alone together he would weep. I was his confidant and many times I comforted him through tears.

I learned more about my father than he ever told me in his obituary. I didn’t write it. His second wife Maria did with the help of my father’s bitter mother. The man Maria described was a stranger to me. It occurred to me that she constructed a story for him, his life story. Maybe she was trying to erase the weakness he couldn’t conceal. According to Maria:

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 9.55.18 PMPaul Alan Barrow 54, died Saturday Feb. 5, 1994, after a long battle with brain cancer. He was the husband of Maria (Escobar) Barrow and son of Mary (Sharpe) Barrow of New Bedford and the son of the late William Barrow. He was born in New Bedford and was a resident of Fairhaven for the past eight years. He was employed at Titlist and Foot-Joy World-wide as a Senior Process Engineer for 21 years. Mr. Barrow served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962, where he earned the Marksman Badge, the Sharpshooter Badge and the Driver-W Badge. He graduated from Dartmouth High School and Southeastern Mass. University, now UMass Dartmouth. He taught science at Case High School in Swansea, prior to joining Titlest.Survivors include his widow; his mother, a son P. Scott Barrow of San Francisco; two daughters Donna Barrow and Teresa Barrow both of San Francisco; a stepson, William Mitchell of Rochester; two brothers Robert Barrow of Falmouth and Raymond Barrow of Greenville R.I.; a sister Judith Ladino of New Bedford and several nieces and nephews. Arrangements are by the Fairlawn Mortuary, 180 Washington St. Fairhaven.

I knew my father had served in the army but I — for some reason (likely from my mother) — thought it had been for a year not two. Likely he enlisted after his eighteenth birthday on November 23, 1957. He was likely called to serve sometime in 1958. Maybe he went through basic training. Then he was stationed in the south. My mother said she and my father met in TexArkana. There was a military base 18 miles west of TexArkana, the Red River Army Depot. In her memoir Farrago, Diana Roberts describes living near the base:

The U.S. Army placed the apartment complex just outside TexArkana Proper which I understand is a very proper town. Everywhere there was dust and dry wind. No grass grew outside our apartment. Just dried mud. And when it rained which was not often my feet sank heavily into the mud…and there were tornados…and swarms of locusts in the summer…

The Red River Army Depot was established during world war II as an ammunition depot and expanded after the war to warehouse general military supplies. It also had a combat vehicle repair complex, a training center. By the late 1950s when my father was stationed there it became a major guided missile maintenance and assembly center. Perhaps my father was sent to Red River Depot because of his affinity for engineering and science or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe his military work gave him the experience he would later use as a chemical engineer for Titlest.

I have conflicting stories about my father the army man. My mother always told me that she met my father in a bar outside the military base where he was stationed. My mother’s account was that my father hated the army and was kicked out for being drunk, he received a dishonorable discharge –according to my mother.

My account was, or rather my impression was that my father disliked authority and the government in particular. He was not necessarily disciplined or orderly. He wasn’t messy but he didn’t strike me as having the tendency towards order and routine that a military man would. My father woke up late, angry. He was particularly irritable in the mornings when my sister and I had school, waking us up shouting “get the Fuck up or you’ll miss the bus!” He was a fumer and mornings were particularly bad. My father also leaned towards hippie. He drank, smoked pot, and did a lot of drugs during my adolescent years. In sum, I never got the impression he was a military man and so my mother’s version of his career in the army went unquestioned until I read the obituary my father’s wife Maria wrote. The man she described in the obituary I had never met. I’d never once heard of any of the badges she mentioned. I was certain that my father would not have wanted to memorialized as dedicated employee of a corporation, and a loyal soldier. I believe my father would have wanted something more in line with Vonnegut or maybe even be memorialized through a story like Jonny Got his Gun, one of my father’s favorites. When my father was in his forties he discovered Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly the poet, anti-Vietnam activist, and founder of the mythopoet men’s movement. My father’s obituary would have been his last chance to release the sardonic alter self that he seemed to hide so well. If his wife was going to lie why didn’t she create the man he wanted to be rather than the man she wished she’d married. But maybe by then, by 9:40 on Saturday February 5, 1994, the moment he died he was so sick and so tired that there was nothing left.

What are these badges his wife spoke of in his obituary? Certainly they might tell me something about what he did while in the military. I did a little research and found out the Marksman Badge is a badge a soldier receives for successful completion of a weapons qualification course or a weapons competition. The Sharp Shooter Badge is qualification for using weapons at a more proficient level. The army weapon badge grades range from lowest to highest (marksman, sharpshooter, and expert). The Driver –W badge is awarded for a high degree of skill in the operation and maintenance of wheeled motor vehicles. Wheeled military vehicles include jeeps, trucks, armored trucks, ambulance, wrecker, amphibious vehicles, and motorcycle. The Driver-W badge would not have qualified my father to work on tracked vehicles like tanks, artillery vehicles, or on airplanes.

Am I cruel to feel pity for my father because his obituary highlighted that he was simply trained how to use a weapon and repair a truck in the army in 1958? Instead of medals he had badges that described training, some of which a civilian could have earned (Marksman). Twenty four of those 179 words that summarized his life in his obituary — the last word on who my father was — recounted facts he’d never told me my entire life? If my father had been so proud of his work in the military why had he never spoken of it? Instead of building war machines he reveled in the fantasy of dismantling the establishment’s infrastructure. He dreamed of being Edward Abbey not a veteran like his father.

I feel bad looking at the photograph of my father associated with the obituary. The only thing I can say is “Dad why didn’t you ever tell anyone who you were? Now it’s too late. Now you are dead and everyone thinks either you felt pride over these inconsequential badges or maybe they think your wife is stupid for believing they were medals.” Or maybe the badges meant something to my dad. Some secret his wife kept and together they decided to put it up front and center. If you analyzed his obituary according to things of importance to him it would go like this (1) Husband to Maria would be first. (2) Then son to his mother Mary. (3) Next would be his position as process engineer at Titlest Golf Ball. (4) Then his military experience and the badges he won. (5) His education follows. (5) Then right down below at the bottom, almost as insignificant as can be are his three children. They are listed as survivors. And we were.

_____________________

The Sum of My Father’s Life is an excerpted chapter from the forthcoming memoir Dad written by Donna Barrow-Green (Rose Gluck). You can find more of Donna Barrow-Green’s work on donnabarrowgreen.com

2 thoughts on “The Sum of My Father’s Life

  1. It can be so hard to make sense of the past and its effect on us, who live in the present. Every family member analyzing a relative will see a slightly different view, based in part on their own views. You may never know the truth of who your father was, and, more importantly, why? One thing I think you can hope in is that he did his best, as must we.

    Liked by 1 person

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