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Our Fathers


Harry Buschman

Gordon Mulloy stood in his stocking feet at his living room window overlooking the street. He was 62 years old, unmarried, and due to retire next year with absolutely no plans what to do with the rest of his life. He wore a short unkempt beard which he grew to compensate for his baldness. He held a notebook in his hand and tapped it rhythmically against the side of his leg. On the cover, written in magic marker, was the title “D-Day 1944 (12)”.

Inside the notebook was the twelfth chapter of Gordon Mulloy’s chronicle of the invasion of the Normandy coast in World War II. His father died that day at Omaha Beach. It was Gordon’s first birthday.

He never saw his father and he grew up wondering what his life might have been like if he had a father like his friends did. Although his mother married again and his stepfather had been a kind man, understanding; even kinder and more generous than some of the fathers his friends had, he longed for the special blood relationship his stepfather couldn’t give him. The result was a lifelong fixation on his father’s last day of life on Omaha Beach.
It had taken him nearly ten years to work his way up to chapter 12. The first five or six went quickly but the going was slowing down now and he often thought he would never get the damn thing done. As he stood at the window, he considered the possibility that maybe he didn’t want to finish the book, maybe there couldn’t be an ending to such a story, perhaps it was too vast, too monumental, like something that begins and ends long after it happens.

The feeling was not new to him. It had been growing inside him for years. Gordon was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam - he had been conceived out of synchronization, so to speak, with the rhythmic cadence of war. It left him feeling guilty, he was the son of a dead war hero and he was unfortunate enough to be unfit for duty by reason of age. He bore himself like a servant -- in an obsequious manner, slightly twisted as though avoiding a blow. Some people thought he looked devious ... was he hiding something behind his back; well, indeed he was -- it was himself of course. Women didn’t trust him. His mother, while she was alive, always told him how much he looked like his father.

He needed a place to think. There were too many distractions here. Out the window he could see people coming and going, trucks, buses ... and the sound of voices filtering up the air shaft from the delicatessen downstairs. He couldn’t think here. He needed a place where nature would be the only distraction. The beach would be good -- Queer Beach.

Out east of the umbrella line and blankets that marked the limit of Lot 9 at Jones Beach stretched an endless expanse of white sand and dunes known as Queer Beach. There were no life guards out there, no noisy three generation families sitting under rented umbrellas. Queer Beach was much the same as it might have looked to the Dutch settlers 400 years ago.

It was kelp lined along the high water mark and back from the water, hidden from view, were softly undulating sand dunes capped with beach grass. It was a place where fishermen with ten foot poles, and a north wind behind them, could cast out beyond the breaker line and patiently reel their elaborate lures in again, hoping against hope to have hooked something edible.

It was also a place where middle management men of advanced age sometimes took their starry eyed secretaries for serious discussions concerning their future with the company. It was also a place where gays of both genders would seek to hook up and talk of Proust and Kafka. Back in the grass fringed dunes the rites of love were practiced in all their variations in the glare of the sun to the raucous accompaniment of nesting gulls.

But on the whole it was a quiet place, no life guard whistles, no ball playing children and no hot dog stands. Gordon Mulloy, in the middle of his third draft of chapter 12 detailing the invasion of Normandy in 1944, thought he could avoid interruptions by spending an afternoon at Queer Beach.

That was why we find Gordon at Queer Beach this afternoon. To finish this long and detailed account of a story that had been told by better writers than he many times before. What could he add to the history of D-Day? He never saw the place, but his father died there - and that’s what kept him going.

Gordon was trying to establish the modus operandi of the gliders sent up the night before the invasion to prevent a counter attack by German troops stationed at Merville. But even here he found it difficult to concentrate this afternoon. Even without the distractions back home in his apartment, nature out here was a distraction in itself.

The fishermen distracted him. Their frantic heaves to cast their lines out beyond the white water. The sudden spasmodic jerks of the pole, hoping to set the hook and their inevitable chagrin when they realized there was nothing on the line. The birds distracted him by their endless burrowing through the kelp lined shore and their graceful avoidance of the incoming waves and by their constant territorial bickering.

There was the added distraction of the wind. Gordon had three notebooks with him and to keep them open to the pages he wanted, he kept his foot on one of them, a piece of driftwood on another and the third one on his lap. Everything, it seemed, was a distraction, and it was difficult to concentrate on his notes.

The distractions back home over Leo’s Delicatessen were different. The deliveries every morning before six a.m., the sour salami smell that seemed to lodge itself in his bedroom and Leo’s commanding voice bursting through the ventilator, up the air shaft and in the window where he did his writing. Life above a delicatessen was a great distraction - but, then again ... so was Queer Beach.

He decided to close his books for a while. He stuffed them in the tote bag he brought with him and stood up. He kicked off his shoes and dropped them in the bag with his notes. The sand was hot so he walked down to the water’s edge. There, it was cooler, firmer and as smooth as a billiard table. He slung the tote bag over his shoulder and began walking eastward. There was nothing to distract him now and he began to wonder if the book he was writing was the source of his trouble. Perhaps it was a distraction to life itself. He had no incentive to finish this piece on the Normandy invasion. It was an old story now - personal accounts - movies - official documentation. Everything was known, so why pick through the bones of it? Nothing would change. The dead were long dead and life had gone on without them.

It seemed self-serving to stir it all up again. What cheek! A writer who had never been there wanting to add his two cents to the conversation. There was something addictive about D-Day, and that troubled him. He looked out to sea and noticed a family of dolphins breaking the surface beyond the line of breakers. “Probably feeding on the striped bass the surf caster couldn’t reach.” He began to talk to himself.

“Were there dolphins out beyond the line of breakers at Normandy -- and did they feed that morning? Was the sand as silky as this and was there a line of grass capped dunes extending along the beach as far as my eye can see? Were there fishermen and lovers there? Dumb question ... who can answer such foolish questions? I’ve been alone too long with this book, I’m making things up ... things that didn’t happen. There were 10,000 casualties that day. Isn’t that enough for me?”

He let his tote bag slip from his shoulder to the sand and reached inside. He withdrew his three notebooks and flung them one by one into the breaking surf. Immediately, he felt a weight lifted from his shoulders, as though he could go anywhere and start something new -- he was sick of war, of the facts and figures of war, of its body counts and its dead and missing. The notebooks drifted from east to west and at the same time moved outwards with the tide. In five minutes they would be out of sight and he would be free of them forever.

He began walking west, keeping pace with his notebooks bobbing in the surf. He could barely see them now and when they were gone it would be a good idea, he thought, to go home and get all those other chapters -- from one to eleven, all his notes, his research. Bring them out here on a windy afternoon like this with the tide ebbing out ... the war was over.

He hurried back to his car and opened the windows. Then he turned the fan on full to get rid of the heat that had built up inside. The urge to destroy the manuscript was strong within him and he was impatient to get started - he knew he made the right decision, and during the ride back he considered just how much of a job it might be - he had been working on the project nearly twenty years. He thought he might get some boxes from Leo at the delicatessen, he would need about three good sized ones, and then wait for a windy day and launch the whole kit and kaboodle out to sea one box at a time.

When he drove into the parking lot next to the delicatessen, he found Leo sitting on a box tilted back against the side door of his delicatessen. Both men were within a year or two of each other but from vastly different backgrounds. Leo was German, the son of a corporal crew member of a Tiger tank. When Leo found out Gordon was writing a book on the D-Day invasion, he began to tell him what life was like in Germany when he was a boy ... “Too good I don’t remember. But my father rode a tank into Russia and had to walk back -- on one leg he walked back, He left his other leg back in his tank.”

“He was with the wehrmacht?”

“A fanatic ... but his leg broke his heart. You can’t do the goose-step on a wooden leg.”

Leo’s mother eventually divorced his father and came to the USA to work in her uncle’s delicatessen. She often said to Leo in a sad tiny voice ... “Ach, little Leo. What a waste of a man, it would have been better to lose his life instead of his leg.” She was an excellent German short-order cook and eventually built up a clientele at her uncle’s delicatessen. “Mrs. Scharnhorst you should really have a store of your own, this potato salad is delicious!”

Her potato salad recipe was passed down to Leo, and he was one of the very few delicatessen owners who still made his own. Whenever Gordon bought some he would say, “Leo, you should bottle it, or can it, or whatever they do to it. It’s precious! It should be available everywhere.”

Gordon rolled his window down and leaned out to Leo half asleep by his back door. “I need some boxes, Leo.”

“You’re, God forbid, not moving ... don’t tell me.”

“I need to get rid of some junk, Leo. Everything comes in, nothing goes out. Eventually a person gets snowed under.”

Leo stood up and stretched. “I been up since three o’clock in the morning. This time of the day I get a little peace and somebody who should know better wants boxes.”

“How is Mrs. Scharnhorst?”

“About the same,” Leo answered.

“Oh, is she ill? I didn’t know.”

“Ill? No she’s okay -- she’s about the same, that’s all. She’s always the same.” Leo tilted forward on his box and stretched slowly and luxuriously like a cat. “Well, come on inside, let’s see what we have for boxes. Where have you been all day, your car’s been gone?”

“I made a big decision today, Leo.”

‘You’re not getting married. Make no promises - talk to me first, it’s a big step at your age Mr. Mulloy. Ask the advice of a man who knows you well.”

“No, I’m not getting married, Leo. It’s a little late for me ... as a matter
of fact ... “ Gordon shook his head sadly. “My whole life ... isn’t it
amazing? I never realized it ... I have been married to my father.”

“For this you need boxes?” The two men entered the hallway that led to the back door of the store. Cardboard boxes were stacked along one wall.

“I’m chucking it, Leo. I’m throwing out everything I’ve ever written about D-Day.”

Leo’s mouth dropped. “How is this? As long as I’ve known you ... it’s been D-Day this and D-Day that. Now, suddenly it’s over?”

Gordon rooted through the boxes piled in the hall and picked out three sturdy prune juice cartons. “These will be fine, Leo ... yes, suddenly the writing’s over. The whole thing was a waste of time. The war was a waste of time -- the money and the people. Writing about it is an even greater waste of time.”

“Well, maybe you should of come to me twenty years ago. I could have told you that.” Leo lowered his head and his voice was very low. “Our fathers,” he said. “Never had the chance to be fathers.”

“It used to bother me about our fathers, you know -- being on different sides of the war and all that,” Gordon said. “I think I’ve lost track of the sides ... it’s all the same to me now.”

The bell rang in the delicatessen. Leo sighed and retied his apron. “Sides ... who knows from sides? There’s only one side now. We all got screwed, Mr. Mulloy, you and me, our mothers and our fathers. All I’m sure about is the potato salad.” As he opened the rear door of the delicatessen, he turned back to Gordon ... “Fill up the boxes,” he said.

©Harry Buschman 2005

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