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October 6, 2017


In 1942 my father, at 33, completely lost it. A civilian after a full 8 years in the Army Reserve Field Artillery Corps after participating in Reserved Officer Training Corps at Cornell, he was in a panic.

Pearl Harbor created a wartime frenzy – a record military sign-up and a huge draft was consuming America. Despite his honorable service, including playing polo, he was told he could not have his Army commission back – so being under 40, and not 4F, he would be drafted.

His life in the 10 years since law school was perfect. Working in a great firm, soon to be partner, married to a beautiful artist, every night and weekend either playing golf or going to jazz clubs, life in NYC was a redemption from a broken upbringing.

In 1910, his mother had died during an abortion gone bad when he was a year old, he was then shipped to his mother’s sisters in Toronto for 5 years. By dint of will, and blessed with ability, his first 18 years had been followed by 15 years of an exuberant life.

Until the war.

When the Army said “No.” to his request for a renewed commission, my father was desperate – he had lost all control in a life he had created for himself. He knew that he was not meant to die with the young volunteers and draftees on a beachhead somewhere. So he went a little nuts – shaking and in a cold sweat according to my mom – chain smoking desperate and searched for an option. A few months before he would have been drafted the Navy made him a Lieutenant with the Intelligence officers in their fleet.

Obvious ability and the connections of a white, male, Ivy lawyer worked, the panic subsided. He spent a year training and then two combat zone tours on aircraft carriers – one sunk by the Japanese after he left.

But he knew, well, many who died. He was in the belly of a wartime machine that ground up many young men among those who saved the world. It was unspeakably brutal and flooded with booze and cigarette smoke.

Because another young associate at his law firm had escaped the machine with a 4F condition, upon return he lost law firm partnership to him. So, the freakout returned, at the end of the world’s madness. But the common rejoicing at victory led to my parents to start a family – after their decade of fun and later than most, but in the wake of 3 years of hell.

Despite all mimicry and simulations by The Greatest Generation, it was a time of deep trauma. My father found a new job, then another, they had a stillborn first child, then had a healthy baby, then another, then woke up in 1952 to the the realization that the world was moving north to raise those babies.

But the world was also moving north because it offered a vision of control and peace for millions of war wrecked men and their families. You could mow your lawn. Your wife could have dinner waiting. Where you made money was a distinct world, your place. You could define and control your life up there, in the suburbs. It was quiet, it was made for you.

But therapy only works if you know you need it.

Everything was “fine” for my mother and father. Despite a health issue or too, they had another child, me, and had settled into a place that was lovely and worth the labors of restoration and joined a Country Club. They found a church, private schools for their kids and learned to Barbecue.

But although happiness was assumed, it did not come. The 6:30pm train, greeted by joking and smiling kids brought home a man to dine on a fine meal prepared by his snappy wife and the dozen ounces of scotch before he ate.

Despite the presumed rightness of the life after war, there was no therapy in suburbia. The golf course at the club was abandoned. The church was part of a social framework that was maintained. There was medication in drinking, calming in smoking, and expression of brokenness in screaming anger after the second 4 or 6 ounces of booze.

Like the lawn the children offered no solace for the wounds of a complicated life: in fact they offered a vehicle for its projection into anger and remorse.

We knew what was expected. We would dress well at church, clean our plate, and be quiet. But some could not get the A. Body types were an issue. We could not understand. My siblings were called “failures” early and often – and I watched.

No amount of black and white TV or ballroom dance lessons could render his children what he hoped for: better versions of him. The disppointments became expressions for his anger, damaging the growing minds of children in ways that take lifetimes to fully realize.

One of those children died two days ago, at 67. His life was a series of attempts. Just like my parents’ suburban therapy, those attempts did not work out. Two marriages, several career paths, a sex change operation all promised happiness, but his astrangement from anyone I knew or heard of marked a sad life, not a redemptive one.

For a while he was my bother, defending me when my drunken father wanted me to learn to mow the lawn at 9, picking me up from football games – but a constant self-medication by the familiar tools of drugs and alcohol ended that. He then became a young husband, with a younger wife, a photographer, a churchman married to the parish secretary, and then finally becoming a woman with a job as a bus dispatcher. The full transition to being a woman happened after both parents had passed and left him money for the many therapies.

Then, silence.

After he showed me his house over 15 years ago, I never heard from her again. I sent endless mailings and early on invitations, to no response, ever.

Until a call from Peekskill Police Department Detective Merritt on Wednesday, in my car. “Sir, I regret to inform you, your brother is dead.”

“But he had become my sister…”

“We have his name as Win Dickinson.”


“He – she – died in her sleep – he did not show up for work, and his boss called us and we went to check on him and went through his unlocked front door to find him dead in bed. Um, he was a hoarder, too.”

“I thought so.” I remember cleaning out his attic bedroom with my mother after he left for college in 1968 – amid the cigarette butts and Playboys, there was a full and hidden pile of animal poop, courtesy of his pet rabbit in one corner of his bedroom. 15 years without family or spouse meant there was no cleaning out. Of any kind. Ever again.

So ends a life. Now, again, a war casualty needs a measure of resolution. The remaining end up caring for the passed, not in understanding, or even faith, really, but the hope that the resolution of so much that is broken, can happen – or at least the unhappiness cease.

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