By Patty Wiseman
[This article is also available as a podcast on several channels.]
Do you ever wonder how your personality developed? Why you have some of the beliefs you have? What makes you so rigid in thought and deed? What makes you a softy with a big heart? I certainly do. I often wonder how I came to write the books I do. But, really, I do know where it comes from. My past, my childhood, and events that changed my life forever. I understand what shaped me into the person and writer I am. We all have a story and I want to share one of mine. Got your coffee?
My father. In my eyes, he stood seven feet tall, with curly black hair & piercing blue eyes. I feared him when I was small. He had the look of a pirate. He was fierce, unyielding. My child eyes saw him larger than life, but he was just 5 feet 11. As I look back on it now, I realize certain things are magnified in childhood. I did have the inflexible part correct, though.
I’m talking about this today because my husband and I went to see the movie Midway about a week ago. I highly recommend it. The movie opened with the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was thrown into an emotional upheaval. Tears streamed down my face during the 1st quarter of that movie. Why? My father was on the U.S.S. Raleigh during the attack. He survived it, but I really don’t know how he did.
He was a gunners mate. He was 17. His mother had to sign him into the Navy because he wasn’t of age. But that’s not all. When they arrived at the recruiter’s office they turned him down because his last name didn’t match what was on his Social Security Card. His mom stood beside him. He questioned her. She had to admit to him the father who raised him was not his real father. Think of how that made him reel in shock. He was never formally adopted by his step-father. She thought she got away with changing his name.
Long story short, they fixed the problem and my dad entered the Navy, but never resolved the issue with his paternity. Then, Pearl Harbor happened. I grew up hearing the horror stories of that day over and over again. I truly believe the war and my dad’s confusion over his identity changed him forever. This was back in the day before anyone knew or understood what PTSD was. He stayed in the Navy for 6 years. Married while in the service and started a family. I was second born. The war was long over. But a lifetime of pain festered in my dad all his life, spilling over on me and my siblings. Now, some of them have different memories of our childhood. I can’t speak for them, all I can do is share the pain I suffered as a result of my dad being bombed at Pearl Harbor.
Second born, I remained the runt of the litter of four siblings and the youngest girl.
By the time dad left the Navy, he’d tired of the water, the ocean. So he retreated to the mountains. Backpacking in particular. I was tiny and a little sickly, but a twenty-pound backpack rested on my skinny shoulders, anyway. He told me it was good for my health. Maybe it was, cause here I am healthy and happy. My father led the troop of six with a swagger up the mountain trail. The only thing missing was the eye-patch and cutlass. Seven long miles up hill. Dad’s version of summer vacation. I hated every minute of it. Mt. Rainier was cold, slippery, and forbidding.
But up we went.
The trail was treacherous. We walked along the edge of the switchback mountain. One slip and you could go over the edge. No one spoke. We held our place in line. Seven and a half miles we marched.
We didn’t complain, didn’t let tears come to the surface, we knew it was useless.
There’s no crying in camping.
I remember the hollow vacuum in the pit of my stomach, the raw emotion searching for a place to go. Instead, agony and despair found the entrance to the black hole and disappeared inside. Nothing existed now except determination to focus on the trail, and the weight on my back.
Long ago I learned not to ask why father ran the family like a military operation. Mother was no help, she stayed in survival mode; her own. Father remained an enigma – his Navy experience at Pearl Harbor forever changed him.
It’s painful to look back at my eight-year-old self and realize, in that short time, I’d developed a sophisticated method of survival. Alone within a family of six, the only thing TO do was endure.
Eventually, we arrived at the lake tired, hungry. The trip had ended. Tents to erect, fires to build; no one eats until camp is set up. My job was to hold the tent pole while dad pounded the stakes into the ground.
Weariness and hunger took their toll on my undersized body, and I let the pole lean too far to the right.
“Hold that pole!” he yelled. It’s a memory I will never forget. He didn’t care about my tired body, only that stupid pole.
Father stopped the hammer in midair when the smell of pancakes drifted into our range. Darkness fell, and father delivered the last blow to the plastic spike. “Time to eat,” he announced.
Grateful for the warm fire my brothers assembled, we surrounded the flames and ate in silence. The pancakes tasted like Thanksgiving dinner. Tomorrow – a raft to build, and fish to catch and clean. Mother cooked, my sister cleaned the trout, and the rest of us took our watch at the fishing poles.
Father taught us to brandish a pole, and fortunately for me, I’d learned my lesson well. I could cast like a pro and usually brought in as much as my dad. But time enough to worry about fish tomorrow. His orders sent us scrambling to our tents and a night’s sleep on the cold, hard ground.
Finally, in the dark camp, I snuggled into the warm, downy sleeping bag, and drifted off into my dream world. Disney Land, a cruise, perhaps, or a road trip to grandma’s farm. Riding horses, swimming in the lake, carefree and joyful. Anything but this.
I’m not sure what time I woke up, but the sound of the crackling fire alarmed me. I saw the shadow of a man at the tall flames through the tent canvass. Still numb from sleep, I couldn’t tell who it was. I crawled out of my cocoon and inched on my stomach to the door of the tent to peek through the hole at the zippered entryway.
The fire raged high, and I could feel the heat from inside the tent.
Why isn’t he asleep? He must be exhausted.
He sat down on a stump near the fire and cupped a steaming tin cup with both hands.
I watched him. He looked sad, forlorn, and tortured. The shadows danced across his face in the firelight. This candid look at my father stirred something deep within the neglected regions of my hardened heart.
Why is he so sad? He loves camping . . .
I had a sudden shot of courage. I put my shoes and jacket on, unzipped the tent, and ventured out.
He looked surprised, and then a miracle happened. He smiled.
“What’s the matter, girl? Can’t sleep?” he asked.
I…I heard the fire roar. I guess it woke me. What are you doing up?”
“Someone’s got to make sure the fire stays lit. The flames keep the animals away, AND mother needs it to cook breakfast in the morning. Won’t do to have a cold breakfast to start our first day of fishing. It gets breezy on the lake.”
I looked at him square in the face for the first time. “Oh, I guess I never thought about it.”
“Time you did. Camp doesn’t make itself. Want some cocoa? I’ve got hot water boiling. You’re shivering.”
“Sure, cocoa sounds good. Is that coffee you’re drinking?”
He reached for the pot and mixed the dry powder mix into the tin cup, all the while, shooting glances at me and smiling. “Here ya go. That’ll warm you up. No, not coffee. I like cocoa, too.”
I was stunned. Dad drinks cocoa. I thought he’d be too tough for anything but coffee.
We fell into silence, staring at the fire, and sipping our hot liquid. The cocoa warmed more than my body. Something akin to life filtered into my long forsaken heart.
“So, how do you like it out here in the wilderness in the middle of the night? Peaceful isn’t it,” he said.
“It’s different, but yeah, I guess it is peaceful.”
“You can smile. I won’t bite you.”
I looked at him and forced my lips to curve into a smile. When he grinned back, my lips parted and a full-blown laugh exploded from my body. It felt good.
“That’s more like it. I wondered which of my kids would be the first.”
“The first what?”
“The first to want to get to know me.”
So many things impact our lives. For me, it was my dad. For better or not, he is still the main character in my childhood. Was he a model dad after that? No way. I continued to have a love/hate relationship with him. Well, maybe not hate, but surely fear.
It wasn’t until I was grown & had kids of my own that I decided to know him better. We lived states away by this time. I called, asked him why he raised us so coldly. His answer reminded me of the time camping when I saw into the window of his pain. We talked about his own childhood and how the pain of never knowing his real father affected him. We cried, laughed, cried some more.
I had my dad for 2 more years and then his heart gave out. He was gone. The last time I saw him, he hugged me so tight before we left their house. He didn’t want to let me go. The first real affection I got from him. 6 months later he was gone.
That was 25 years ago and I still cry at movies about Pearl Harbor, trying to put myself in his shoes, trying to understand the emotional pain he must have endured his whole life. Betrayed by his mother, shoved into war. How could it not affect him and then affect me? I have 2 beautiful memories to hang on to. My eight year old self having cocoa by the fire and my adult self, savoring that long awaited hug.
I always put something of myself into the books I write. In my book That One Moment, I take my character to the mountains of a survival camp after a devastating break up. I draw from my experiences in the mountains to give a sense of reality to the scenes. All my books are on Amazon and you can see them on my website, www.pattywiseman.com.
I’ve enjoyed talking with you today. I hope this gives you a little insight into my soul. Remember, someone said, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Don’t let the past rob you. Use those experiences to shape the life you want. I never understood all the facets of my father’s complex personality, but I can use my experiences with him to understand me.
Connect with the author: Patty Wiseman
CleanWIP Magazine has obtained from the author non-exclusive right to publish or republish this content. The author retains copyright.