Sunday, June 22, 2014

Important and Unread.

Running renders more universal the consciousness of very different people—traversing without prejudice occupations and political inclinations, age and gender. That's the most enjoyable social aspect of what is primarily an individual sport: running requires but one player, and yet it unites countless souls in the shared cadence of footsteps and breath, the rhythm of minutes, seconds and hours.  

Lately my running companions have included a postal worker, a librarian, a yoga teacher, a humanitarian aid researcher (who also happens to be my partner), a few college professors, a banker, a press agent, a physiatrist and two surgeons. One of the surgeons is the same age as me, transplanting kidneys and other vital organs for a living. When I am with him I think about how distinctly different our perceptions of the world must be. He has not only seen the inside of a living body—heart quivering, innards churning away—he has come to know intimately that secret world, slicing, sponging, suturing. I have not. If ever I have the occasion to cut into a human body, I am sure I will be a changed man. An invisible infrastructure of intertwined channels of swishing blood and densely packed organs and bones is animated beneath the skin, while we go about our business: sleeping, washing dishes, reading a book. This realm of knowledge and experience joins three others which seem inexhaustibly vast to me: the study of physics, the conundrum of educating of our children and the complex structures of philosophical thought.

*   *   *

I first saw a dead man on Memorial Day. It was a profound experience. I had spent the weekend in Boston with my partner and our three dogs, and was driving home to Rhode Island in the late afternoon on route 93. The dogs were in the back seat, piled on top of one another and sleeping off the weekend play. The traffic wasn't particularly heavy, but—typical of New England highways—there were plenty of us on the road, hundreds of people lamenting the return to work the next day, after a day of cookouts and badminton, woven lawn chairs and mosquitoes.

Cars were all around me, driving 60-80 miles an hour, when a motorcycle came racing up from behind on my left. He hot-dogged it a little, but not too much—weaving in and out poetically, enjoying the lyrical movement of the bike. The motorcycle was bright red, and the man driving it was well-covered in dark, thick clothing, because May can be cold up here. I said aloud, as I always do, "that guy's going to kill himself."  He disappeared quickly beyond the cars in front of me. 

Two minutes later traffic slowed abruptly, with everyone braking to a crawl. That's when I saw him. He was on his stomach in the middle of the highway, one arm stretched over head, and the other wrapped beneath, crossing his chest. The red bike peppered the asphalt in dozens of pieces. There was no blood. Several cars had pulled over only seconds earlier, and dozens of people were running toward the oncoming traffic. One man was in sandals and tee-shirt, suntanned and chubby. He was running as fast as he could, trying to steer clear of cars. His barrel chest jiggled beneath his horrified face. I had arrived only seconds after the crash, and the poor man was clearly dead, a whole life and world unknown to me had come to an end. I could only continue moving, because to stop would have caused even more pandemonium with three dogs in the back of the car. There were already many, many people on the scene, trying to know what to do. Several were on their phones with panicked expressions on their faces. A woman was crying.

The dead man's helmet was on, completely obscuring his identity. Mercifully spared a glimpse of his face, I nevertheless thought repeatedly about this awful moment over the next several hours, and into the next day. I began to scour the internet, googling succinct phrases: "motorcycle accident, dead, 93, memorial day, crash." Almost immediately I found a very brief report, which described little more than the superficial facts: a man had lost control of his motorcycle on Memorial Day on route 93 near Canton at around 3:30 in the afternoon. He was pronounced dead at Boston Medical Center. It was a red Yamaha. He was 33. I checked every day for a week, and learned no more. The police were withholding his name.

I sent an email to myself with links to the scant information I found. I labeled it "important" and left it "unread" to remind me to continue the search.

A little time passed and I stopped checking, going about my business. I forgot about him for a while but was reminded one day to continue the search. I found out his name was Maxim. I learned his last name too. He was from Kazakhstan. He must have been well-liked because a fund had been established in his name and thousands of dollars had already been collected. I found pictures of him with his buddies, posing in front of statues, sitting on a horse, sitting on his red motorcycle. Short-cropped hair, with a monkey on a beach. Thumbs up with a snowman in winter, and shirtless with a surfboard. Always smiling. Slightly crooked teeth, solid build. Happy.

I don't know why it felt so important to find him, to put a name and face on the heap of muscle and bone in the middle of the highway. It wasn't morbid curiosity and yet it had less to do with preserving his dignity or as an expression of sympathy than it did with longing to be connected to one another through the human condition. I first saw him in a moment of violent, chaotic death, and that alone wouldn't do. Our shared experience—his and mine—felt incomplete without learning who he was, what kind of life he'd lived and the unknown world he left behind.

Inferno I: The Purgatorial Mountain at Dawn

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day: A Melancholy, Heroic Life.

My father was born 17 July, 1918 and died 7 April, 2000 at age 81. He himself was raised fatherless, his own father having died in 1922 when my dad was only four years old. He remembered nothing of his own father, with the exception of the constant coughing fits in a German apartment, which were a precursor to his death from pneumonia and gangrene of the lungs in 1922 in Bonn. This was after the great flu pandemic of 1918, but I do wonder if that's what did him in. 

In doing some genealogical research last winter I uncovered (online, of all places, and quite randomly)  the passport applications of my grandparents, my uncle and my father—eerie snapshots of a young family about to embark on a new life in Europe, not knowing that the man of the house would be dead within months. My father was 3 years old. He's the small child in the center of the third photograph. 

My dad had a long and challenging life. He grew up in decadent, mob-infested Atlantic City in the 1920's and 30s. He told the story from time-to-time of watching from his window as Dutch Shultz' men shot from the bushes of the house next door at windows on the second floor. When I was about ten, I found a photo of him at the same age.  If not for the uber-masculine, defiant expression on his face, I was looking in a mirror. There he was on an Atlantic City sidewalk, dressed in a shirt and tie and sitting on a pony: chin thrust forward, scowling brow, piercing blue eyes.  I remember having the uneasy feeling that he would have been my nemesis if we had been boyhood neighbors. He scared me.

Dad learned to swim when he was thrown off a bridge by his bully of a brother (five years his senior, aided by a bunch of neighborhood toughs). With his father dead and his brother a juvenile delinquent who spent most of his time carousing with other punks from the neighborhood, my dad was left to wait on a house full of spinsters and widows. His mother returned from Germany to Atlantic City to be with her sisters and mother for many protracted years of mourning (I have seen photos of her in black dress and veil in bright sunlight on the Boardwalk—a frail, inky specter of grief who couldn't let go of loss). My father lived in the big, old, tudor house at 4710 Theresa Place with his grandmother, mother and four maiden aunts, all psychically exhausting women who knew nothing of responsibility, having been pampered all their lives by their father, a wealthy railroad man who had long since left behind life on earth and a comfortable salary. But there were stories of fun (or, at least, funny) times too. My dad bragged about having broken too many bones to count with stunts like jumping from balconies with his neighbor and boyhood pal Billy Fox. He loved hanging out on the beach all day to idolize the legendary Atlantic City lifeguards, and he told me stories about beating sand sharks to death on the shore, just for the hell of it, of sun poisoning, and of cutting open his palm while trying to skim slate over the ocean waves.  One of the brightest moments of his life occurred in October 1927, when Charles Lindbergh landed his plane at Bader Field in Atlantic City, following his earth-shifting, heroic transatlantic flight. My father had laid in the grass all day, his nine-year-old eyes scanning every inch of the sky for the wings of the Spirit of St. Louis, inscribed with large block letters: NX-211. He saw the plane fly right overhead and rushed to the airport. What a thrill that must have been.

Having left for the University of Virginia, where he was president of his fraternity and captain of the swim team (but unhappy in both roles because, as he said, his main responsibility was to keep drunk college boys out of trouble), my father enlisted post-college on 13 December 1941 and was shipped off to Europe to join the allied forces. Twenty-three years old, he indicated on his enlistment form (which I also, miraculously, found online) that his occupation was "actor." This puzzled and amused me; my mom explained that he and Billy Fox, unsure of what their lots in life would be, had planned to leave for Hollywood and make it in show business. "We're both good-looking fellas" Billy had said. 

My dad was (tragically) on board the Queen Mary on 27 September 1942, when it cut through the much smaller British cruiser, HMS Curaçao, killing 329 of the 430 men on board. On his way to join the allied forces of the War, he was sleeping in his bunk after a night of duty (in what was once the cocktail lounge of the luxury liner during its non-military years) when the Queen Mary rammed the Curaçao. I have some articles about that too—one with a photocopy of the Queen Mary marked up with his meticulous handwriting, noting the position of his quarters on the ship.

My mom became a voice for whatever war narratives he would allow to unravel. The most harrowing of these experiences may have been his involvement in the battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach on D-Day, exactly 70 years ago today. Undoubtedly, he experienced both grief and intense fear, and while news media contacted him many times over the years to tell his story, he always declined. I've learned over the years that many of those men were reluctant to discuss the experience. It must have been horrible. I feel fortunate that he did relate the facts to my mom, who is now 94. She shared this brief account of his experience in 1998:

Hank Brinkerhoff was with the famed 29th Division. The 111th Field Artillery (his outfit) followed the 116th Infantry Regiment, the first to arrive on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The 11th were to be the infantry simultaneous back-up but the DUC upon which the 111th loaded their artillery, equipment and men, sank almost immediately. Hank and others in his battery remained afloat until rescued one hour later by an LST. Taken aboard, they were given the only dry uniforms available, U.S. Navy, and the only protective helmet for Hank was one with a corpsmen's red cross (a badge he sadly remembers he could not honor with expertise as he later, on the beach, made his way among the many fallen).

Leaving the LST, the then only replacement to the sunken DUC were makeshift rafts, pontoon type, strung together, upon which they set out to get to the beach, this time with no artillery, not even a rifle or slightest defense. The description of landing on the the beach, Hank has always avoided except to say, "it was utter chaos and everyone was running like hell." He made it to the seawall, picked up a bayonet, punched a hole in this too-big Navy pants and tied them together. Then, along with a couple of buddies, went back to the water's edge to bring back a wounded member of the battery. Someone had morphine and after administering it to the suffering fellow, and marking his forehead with "M," they carried him back to the seawall. There they remained until dark when they made it up the rocky slope which their sacrificial 116th Infantry colleagues has cleared early a.m. Staying there until other ships and supplies landed, they sought out survivors of their 11th artillery, regrouped and went on to St. Lo, all through France, part of Holland and on to the Ruhr River in Germany.

His war experience rendered him eternally grim during his later years as a family man. By the time I was born in 1962, my father was 44 years old. Personally, having fathered my own three children while relatively young, between the ages of 25 and 30, I can't imagine trying to muster up the enthusiasm and love necessary to raise three tiny children, especially withstanding for so many years such compounding agents of sorrow and anxiety. When I was growing up, he was an impatient, cool, detached man. He almost never looked at me when he spoke. Habitually, he clicked his tongue in disgust, and heaved tremendous sighs (something my sisters and I have all inherited, unfortunately). By the time I came along as the last of three children he was pretty miserable. He simply didn't know how to play, but that's hardly surprising. Only after he retired in 1980, when his health began its inexorable decline, did he soften so graciously and tell me that he loved me. Coincidentally, 1980 is the year I started college, so my departure also did something to lighten his step, I'm sure. I am so grateful that he and I laughed quite a bit in his last twenty years, and that he and my children knew each other. He was extremely funny and one of the most generous and heroic people who ever walked the planet, and I was grateful for those glimpses of levity, kindness and courage.