Pity on passing faces, like I’m dumb for doing what smart guys avoid.
Females at first smile on seeing a spiffy young male standing tall alongside the ramp up to a west-bound highway. Short hair parted left and combed flat with white sidewalls. Pale Oxford shirt tucked in, belted dark chinos, thin black necktie, shined boots.
Clean-cut, like a TV son of Ward and June Cleaver.
Hitching NJ to CA but it’s summer so I don’t need more than a ditty bag. Right arm not angled like hobo’s but arrow-straight parallel to deck, thumb out at eye level and max-readable sign held high in left hand. Smiles droop as passersby grasp my fate.
Boldface caps spaced wide on thick gray poster board that won’t bend in wind, backed by a flat board long enough to hoist sign higher than head. Legible for eyes approaching fast, or stopped at a traffic light with me standing half a football field ahead on right.
I don’t smile, wave thumb or beg. Just deadpan, staring at their windshield, implying I know drivers realize they should stop. They have seconds to decide.
Oncoming eyes glance me head to toe, then up to sign, then down to face: cannon fodder.
“That poor kid,” I imagine elders saying.
If they’re against the war they’d abet it by aiding me. Or abet my death by helping deliver me to meat-grinder. If hubby is a military vet he’d wanna stop and might when alone, but wife may be antiwar. Or wary of hitchers, which is why I’m squeaky clean-cut.
I read more detail when vehicles approach slowly, like after a stoplight goes green, than when they pass at 60 mph on open highways. Such as, driver comments to passenger after reading my sign. Saying what?
Males my age pass stone-faced, looking ahead rather than at me. Years later I’d learn why: the war to which I’m bound spiked the college entry rate for males from 54% in 1963 to 62% in 1968 (peak year of the draft).
* * *
“You stand out like snow in July, marine. The whitewall’s a dead giveaway.”
“Yes, sir,” I say on entering his 1950 Nash Statesman, a bulbous torpedo on skirted wheels.
He’s thick shouldered, grizzled, smells of pipe tobacco, and wears a peaked wool cap like John Wayne’s in The Quiet Man. The two-tone Nash matches his green-check flannel shirt, draped with black suspenders. He informs he can take me only nine miles west, where he’ll exit.
I’m a guest in samaritans’ vehicles, so our talks go where they choose. Wouldn’t think of questioning my benefactors but am road-ready to answer theirs.
“Why aren’t you hitching in uniform?” he says. “Get more rides that way.”
“Drill instructors said we shouldn’t wear it casually. I’m on the road for a week and may sleep outside.”
“You don’t have enough for motels?”
“I do but I aim to travel nights.”
“Eager to fight?” he says.
“Uh, not really, sir. I’m due at a California base in eleven days. . .Camp Pendleton.”
I add what best explains my logic for hitching, “I wanna see the land.”
“Hitch day and night and it’ll take less than a week,” he says. “I hitched and rode the rails when I was your age, looking for work during the depression. Met some interesting characters. Also some mean sonsabitches.”
He grinds gears going from second to third, double-clutching as though pumping air. His hand on the shift lever is thick and hairy.
“You join or get drafted?”
“Joined,” I say, “but the draft board was after me.”
“If drafted you’d be Army, right?”
“Probably. The Marines aren’t supposed to draft but I saw otherwise.”
“Like what?” he asks as though knowing how I’ll reply.
“Recruiters in Camden bused us across the river to Philly for processing, then south all night to Parris Island.
“Bend-over-and-spread-’em processing, eh?” he says.
“Uh, right. A dozen of us came from Camden but the building in Philly was jammed with hundreds more. . .
“Like a snowball rolling,” he interrupts, his eyes on the road ahead but narrowed since I began answering his questions.
“In a crowded hallway,” I continue, “an Army sergeant asked for ten volunteers for the Marines. To fill a quota, he said. I was in a line of Marine enlistees, next to a line of Army enlistees. A third line was all draftees and the sarge looked at them when he asked for volunteers.”
“Did the sarge have rockers under his chevrons?”
“That rank doesn’t ‘ask’ recruits for anything, least of all draftees.”
The Nash man knows where this is going.
“After five seconds the sarge pointed to the front of the draftee line and said, ‘You ten just volunteered’.”
“Shit! War is hell,” he says, like I’d confirmed the obvious.
He speaks like a military veteran, but maybe not a lifer. He seems over seventy and would’ve been draft age during WWI. He switches off the radio.
“Why the Marines, son?”
“They were the only branch offering a chance to fly even though I don’t have college. Recruiter said if I did well in tests at Parris Island, they’d send me to flight school at Pensacola.”
“Bait and switch,” he declares more than asks.
“What’s that?” I say.
“Did they send you to Pensacola after PI?”
“No, I didn’t do well enough in the testing, I suppose. They didn’t explain.”
“So now you’re infantry and on your way to the trenches.”
“I’m going but not with the infantry. I enlisted for four years instead of two. It got me what the Marines call an ‘aviation guarantee’. Means I’ll work on aircraft.”
“But you’re required to do just one year in Vietnam, right?”
“Right, although Marines do 13 months.”
“To avoid the trenches they require twice the enlistment. Why am I not surprised big government rigged a win-win deal for itself?”
I have no response. All I know is what society taught during my twenty years: young males enlist or get drafted, and more so when there’s a war on. My no-account father was a draft dodger during World War II, and it’s bad enough I resemble him.
“Did your dad want you to enlist?” the Nash man says.
“Uh, no. . . .He’s dead,” I lie, a venial sin rather than detail Dad’s mortal ones.
“How about your mom?” he says, bringing relief the topic has changed from Dad.
“Before the war got hot, she was keen I enlist. ‘You can retire when you’re 40 with a pension’, she said.”
“She got a note from a doctor saying I have a heart murmur.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “His exam was quick and I’ve never been sick. Mom didn’t explain much. She works in a restaurant near Camden’s city hall and serves many lawyers, judges, doctors, government clerks. . .also recruiters.”
“It didn’t work, obviously.”
“Guess not,” I say. “She took me before the draft board and also said I was the sole-surviving son, which was hard to figure because I’m her only son.”
“How’d they react?” he asks like he knows.
“They didn’t say much. As we left the room, two guys in suits at the end of their table were grinning, like they’ve heard better spiels. I guess they do ’cause the hallway was crowded with others waiting their turn.”
“So,” the Nash man says, “your mom came to regret having urged you to make a career of the military.”
“Probably. But at least her friend who clerks in the draft board’s office called the day they mailed my call-up notice. I’d already met with recruiters and had time to enlist.”
“To thwart the Army you joined the Marines,” he says, smiling.
“Yep. I showed ’em.”
* * *
Dad’s desertions were his most reliable trait.
They conditioned Mom to expect she’d be a waitress till she dropped, and her three kids to the need to lie about Dad. Guilt that came with lies could be absolved at weekly confession; having a treacherous dad was permanent.
He’d leave our flat to buy a pack of Camels, and be gone for days or months. Dad was raised Catholic but I can’t recall him ever attending Sunday mass, much less Saturday confession. Yet in bed he’d remind Mom the church forbids birth control. “Come on, kid” he’d say, “loosen up.” His brother Patty had seven kids so Dad felt paltry with only three.
I know such because our flat didn’t allow the luxury of me having a room of my own. My cot was near flush against the foot of their bed. Close enough to smell the sour on Dad’s unwashed feet, and hear things I wish I hadn’t.
He was irreligious yet Dad exploited Catholic taboos to his advantage, knowing Mom would endure periodic desertions rather than wear permanent stigma—divorce. That plus her zealous mother (she’d mailed scapulars to Hitler during WWII) opposed divorce more than desertions. Spouse, clergy, and kin had Mom trussed like Gulliver.
A sin I never confessed was hope Dad would not return. I didn’t quite want him to go because it would violate the Fourth Commandment. But when he did leave, increasingly I wanted him to stay gone.
My logic was simple: he didn’t want be with us plus we four were happier absent Dad. Tension arrived with him, so I hoped he’d not come back. I couldn’t reconcile it with Honor Thy Father and Mother, so I told no one, least of all a priest.
When we had a car (always a heap; only Dad had a license) he’d take it but return broke, heap sold to stay away longer. With Mom at work we’d return from school and there he’d be: pillow-propped in bed reading a horserace rag in his thin man’s saggy briefs, an arm looped over head, fingering top of opposite ear.
From there he’d watch through spokes of internal stairwell’s railing as my head then torso reached the top of stairs leading to our flat above luncheonette. If he had the radio on I’d know something was up because Mom was never there when my sisters and I straggled home from St. Paul’s grammar school.
If I arrived before my sisters and no radio noise, I’d still sense something was amiss. With the last step up I’d look right over the railing and there he was, eyes above race rag looking at mine. No greetings between father and son. I was in fifth grade and our family’s youngest, yet already I hoped he’d stay gone.
Dad neither explained nor apologized for his desertions. After calling Mom (to gauge her anger) at the restaurant where she worked, that afternoon he’d reappear as though kids should be thankful (“Oh, Daddy, Daddy! You’re home!”). Alas, with each return he’d sense his bitch of a wife was turning us against him.
Adam blames Eve.
After stowing schoolbooks atop a dining room chair, I couldn’t avoid going to where he was still propped to change clothes before I went out for sports.
I had a Little League game that evening. Still abed, Dad yells as I descend stairs in uniform, carrying mitt, “Tell the coach you wanna pitch! Pitchers make big bucks, NOT outfielders!”
Career guidance from namesake who never attended my four years of LL games, nor did we ever have a catch.
For me his behavior was explicit: he returned to accrue more escape money. I didn’t know his logic, nor did I ask (or care). This I did know: Dad preferred bars to home.
My child’s mind wanted us to escape his desertions. Especially the stress they caused Mom, who got no help from clergy. When she sought his counsel, Monsignor Fartney said Dad fled because of abuse from her.
Eve blamed for Adam’s sin.
“For your soul’s sake,” Fartney advised, “you should serve Dad’s needs” (for more kids?). “Better drunk than gone,” His Nibs declared.
Enforced daily by burly hair-trigger nuns clad head to toe in black except for a stiff white top-of-head box and platter-sized bib hiding all trace of gender (bosom, neck, ears and hair). Their garb, girth and fury evoked orcas.
Born to matriarchy, I asked after getting face-whacked for an unauthorized smile on day one of first grade, “Mom, are you sure nuns are girls?”
Excelling at catechism, I knew my unspoken hope for Dad’s absence was known to God. Nuns said thinking sin was the same as doing sin, and must be confessed. It seemed sinful to want Dad to go, so I couldn’t wish for that. But after he chose to leave, I wanted him to stay gone.
Didn’t pray for it, but I did hope.
* * *
For some reason, the Nash man brought our talk back to what I thought I’d dodged.
“Do you reckon your Dad would have approved of you enlisting, especially during a war?”
I’d said Dad had died, a lie. Perhaps the Nash man sensed my unease. . .so no more lies.
“Probably not,” I said. “He was a draft-dodger during World War II. He used to say, ‘Only dummies got drafted, and the dumbest of all enlisted’.”
Prolonged silence, then the Nash man changed our topic.
* * *
Dad achieved escape velocity when I was 11. The year before he’d been injured as passenger in a car accident, and was due to receive a $5,000 insurance settlement. Enough for a down payment on a house (Mom’s plan).
One Sunday she walked sister Eileen and me three blocks from our flat-above-eatery to a quiet, tree-lined street. She’d found a house there for sale whose mortgage payments she could afford. We gawked from the sidewalk like serfs coveting a mansion. With two floors plus attic, basement, and grass on three sides, for us it was a mansion.
“You’ll each have your own bedroom,” Mom said, “and can invite your friends over.” She knew why we didn’t allow pals beyond our low-ceiling flat’s downstairs screen door.
Dad had other plans for the $5,000. A lunch-wagon driver (when employed), he’d been calling the insurance company twice daily to ask when it would be deposited in a bank account Mom couldn’t hide from him. He learned of its deposit three hours before she did, withdrew all then rushed home to pack for his final desertion.
No more slinking home with empty pockets, no more midnight harangues from Mom, no more ball-and-chain family to hinder his moves. He aimed to win big at racetracks up and down the East Coast.
Free at last.
He knew Mom would be rabid when she learned the money was gone. Eileen was home sick from school that day and saw him rushing down the flat’s stairs, suitcase in hand with our recently bought clock-radio under his other arm. The $5,000 wasn’t enough, so Dad had grabbed our newest appliance to pawn on his way out of town.
“Hey! Where you goin’ with that?” Eileen yelled down the stairwell at his fleeing back. More than Mom or siblings, she saw Dad as curse rather than parent.
“See ya around, kid,” were his parting words, flicked over a shoulder like spit.
Dad avoided his usual exit-stop at the Starlight Tavern, knowing Mom would call there after learning he’d taken the $5,000. He also told his brother in Philly (“Patty the wife-beater,” Mom called him) to claim ignorance of Dad’s whereabouts when she phoned, seeking to retrieve the irretrievable.
* * *
Him gone was better than Dad with us, or so it seemed to me. I’d grown to dread his return on school nights: the stink of beer, ciggies and urinal on him, face red, eyes watery. Mom waiting like Vesuvius. . .bedtime rage made indelible.
Naïf to all but rote catechism, I assumed Dad deserted solely because he preferred bars to home. Bitter, dingy rooms brought from Ireland for the low end of working class, where barflies boast of how they’ve scammed wives, employers and other oppressors.
I was about to learn treachery’s depth.
Three years after Dad left for good, I was home alone on a Saturday morning when the phone rang. A black wall unit in the kitchen, close to the door with a view to spring grass in our flat’s small back yard. All thanks to Mom, we’d moved to a better rental two years after his exit. No kitchen chair so you stood (or leaned against the stove) for as long as you used the curly-corded phone.
Mom was at work and my sisters were out. I assumed the call would be for one of them.
“Hello. Is this the home of Joseph Nickerson?” a young girl’s voice asked.
I was immediately wary. Age 14, girls didn’t call for me.
“Uh, this is Joe,” I said, not knowing what to expect.
“Is Joseph Nickerson your father?” she said.
Max alert—Mom had warned us to tell anyone who phoned asking for Dad to call back when she was home.
“Why do you wanna know?” I said, stalling while juggling options: say Dad’s dead, or he’s away on a business trip.
“Well,” she said, “I think my Dad is your Dad.”
I had no response. My catechism mind couldn’t grasp the concept.
“Hello?” she said after a pause of many seconds. “Are you still there?”
“Yes. . . .I don’t understand.”
We talked for an hour. At first I thought she was one of my sisters’ girlfriends, me their target of a phone joke. Suspicion soon eased.
She described her father’s nightly bar boozing, periodic desertions, unannounced returns, work for a few months, then gone again—mirroring our life. Same name, height, weight, hair, and ways including lying abed reading racing rag, arm wrapped over head to tweak opposite ear.
He’d go from us to them and vice versa. Marriage (even two) hadn’t nullified his right to booze evenings at bars. It’s what real men do.
Like us, they were Irish-Catholic so divorce was impossible. My half-sister didn’t trust her father, and thought her mom too forgiving. She was spunky, far sharper than I, and frank. Her humor synced with that shared among Mom, me, and siblings.
She’d found our phone number in trousers he’d left in a closet, and called when home alone. As we talked I found myself admiring her, sight unseen. We were enjoying one another’s company and soon spoke as though we’d been pals for years. I was amazed by her calm on revealing what had me reeling.
“That’s not all,” she said. “I found another phone number—there may be a third family.”
Nuked me again.
“Joe—you’re my half-brother.” I heard her smile as she said that. Months younger, she was proof girls mature earlier than boys.
But for me “half-brother” sounded wildly sinful. I looked down at my standing torso thinking: Half from waist up or waist down, or is the split vertical?
Nuns didn’t teach kids about half-siblings or step-parents or divorce or remarriage (much less abortion, incest, rape). All were taboo, and you’d get hit or expelled for asking about such in class.
She added: “Our father is a bigamist.”
I faked knowing what it meant. We both knew she had me at a disadvantage.
She had to hang up ’cause her mom was due home soon from work (another waitress). I said I’d phone her when home alone, but hung up dazed, like I’d been phoned from Mars. Reality didn’t align with dogma. Her dad’s appearance and behavior mirrored mine, so I believed her.
I locked my half-sister’s scandalous revelation in a mind room until I could decide what to do. I’d written her name and phone number on scratchpad paper and hid it as well.
Seeking guidance from parish clergy was not an option. They didn’t bother with bog Irish, instead milking Catholic parents on the wealthy side of the railroad tracks separating them from us.
Mom had already gone to Monsignor Fartney to inquire about a divorce. She knew how he’d reply, and was ready for him.
“Well, if not a divorce,” she said, “how about one of those annulments rich Catholics get? How much do they cost?”
Years later I asked how His Nibs had replied.
“He’d already condemned me to Hell, saying if I divorced I’d not be allowed burial in a Catholic cemetery,” Mom said. “His quiver was empty.”
* * *
What to do with my secret?
Born to Plato’s cave, our lives were ruled cradle to grave by nuns who forbade questions and priests to whom we confessed unauthorized thoughts. The Legion of Decency censored films as did the Index Librorum Prohibitorum ban authors (Voltaire, Rosseau, Descartes, Milton, Locke, Galilei, Pascal, Gibbon). We had but three TV channels, none of which broadcast reality.
Although still a kid, I knew I could NOT tell Mom about the phone call. Nor my sisters as either might tell her. I had male neighborhood pals but telling them, from whom I’d hid all details about my absentee father, was not an option.
Mom’s parents visited that July. Pop and Nana (as we called them) brought stability in their black, crinkled faux-leather suitcase. A tall man with big hands and bald, Pop had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for 25 years as a mechanic. One of his thumbs was half as long as the other since a locomotive wheel he was repairing rolled and sliced it.
Nana still prayed I’d become the family priest, and had been thrilled to hear my eighth-grade classmates had voted me Most Likely to Become one.
One balmy evening I was home alone with them. Mom was still at work, my sisters away, and I was out back throwing a rubber baseball against a wall. I’d chalked a strike zone there and would pitch both sides of six-inning games while mulling other things.
After supper they’d settle into aluminum lawn chairs on our flat’s raised front porch. Nana and Pop enjoyed making eye contact with passersby and engaging them in neighborly chat. No recent sounds from their direction, so I went in through the kitchen and living room and stepped out onto the porch.
“Pop, can I please tell you something?”
He was the best male influence in my life. Pop didn’t say as much as his zealous wife, preferring to listen while puffing a pipe stuffed with Indian Head tobacco. After retiring, he’d sit at the window of their second-floor apartment in Pottsville, looking out at passersby while puffing and listening to the waist-high wood radio next to his chair. I’d sit on the floor before the radio and listen to Pop’s tales of locomotives and train travel. TV hadn’t yet intruded, which allowed conversation involving eyes no less than ears and mouth.
My grandparents realized me initiating conversation was extraordinary.
Chin on knees, I sat on the concrete porch and spoke up to Pop’s left profile as he looked dead ahead, puffing pipe. I told them about the phone call from my half-sister two months prior. Showing no emotion, he was silent for thirty seconds after I’d finished. Nana stayed mum when Pop was in that mode.
“Don’t tell your mother about this,” he said. “She’s had enough heartache.”
Music to my ears.
I gave Pop the paper on which I’d written my half-sister’s name and phone number (in another state). He said he’d have his eldest son (Don, a PA state cop) look into it.
If she’d called before I told my grandparents, it wasn’t when I answered, nor did I call her. Thereafter she didn’t call, I guess, because Uncle Don phoned her mother with a cop’s stern warning.
Here’s where it gets maddening.
Despite uncanny memory for impressions and specifics from prior decades, I can’t even guess at my half-sister’s first name. It had to be an Irish-Catholic name acceptable to that era, which narrows the possibilities considerably.
Her phone call, when and where I was when we spoke, what she revealed, and how much I enjoyed speaking with her I cannot forget. But her name and contact info were very soon gone. Subconsciously erased, or perhaps still there but irretrievable, like the $5,000.
She reached out, I ratted her to a cop.
As for Dad, he went from Catholic wife to Catholic wife, knowing both (and perhaps a third) would take him back repeatedly to avoid the stigma of divorce. Only once did he explain his privilege, after coming home boozed on a school night when I was in third grade. To escape Mom’s fury, he sat on cot’s edge to rub my back.
“Joey, there’s God the Father and God the Son, but there ain’t no God the Mother or God the Daughter. He made Eve from Adam’s spare rib—to serve Adam. Nuns agree, your mom doesn’t.”
* * *
The Nash man is about the age of Pop, who I’d visited in hospital a week before starting the hitch to war. I’d never seen him with a head cold, much less in hospital. He was the rock of his extended family, which is why Dad didn’t want us living near Mom’s parents. As far back as I can recall, when Pop and Nana visited, Dad was absent.
The aroma in the Nash man’s car brought to mind Pop and his pipe. He’d puff and listen as others spoke. When Pop removed pipe from mouth, all listened.
The more I was around Pop, the more I understood why Mom raged at Dad when he’d come home boozed, hours after getting off work. She earned less waitressing six days weekly than he wasted buying booze for barflies and betting on horses.
At the hospital, my aunt and uncle wouldn’t identify Pop’s illness. Their generation didn’t explain such to youth, nor did I question authority figures, having been regimented since age seven. I had, however, become adept at reading the language of behavior, a defense acquired after the face whack in first grade. Theirs said the scene they were leading me to was somehow significant.
They ushered me into Pop’s hospital room as though they thought I’d faint. My uncle (the cop) seemed ready to grab me. Pop was sitting up in bed, prepared. It felt insolent to stand and look down at Pop, like it should be the other way round. Uncle Don stage-managed my visit. After ten minutes, I could tell by his and Aunt Mary’s glances my time was up.
With them hovering, Pop and I had been allowed only small talk, so I couldn’t yet understand what the hospital scene meant. But as I leaned in to kiss Pop goodbye, his eyes caught mine in a private look that stunned me.
He was crying before my kiss reached his rough-stubble cheek. I couldn’t react, unready for what his eyes spoke to me. Plus Don and Mary were nudging.
It took days to fathom my grandfather wasn’t crying for himself, for his illness. Seven grandsons yet none were in the military, much less going to war. I wouldn’t realize until riding with the Nash man: Pop feared I’d die before him.
* * *
The Nash man had picked me up east of Columbus. Sixty miles beyond the nine he offered, he dropped me past the city’s western edge, at a busy ramp up to the interstate.
“Well, son, I’m glad you’ll not be in the trenches. I’ll give you another ride thirteen months from now, when you’re hitching back to Jersey safe and sound—and ten years older.”
He sees me struggling for words to thank him, so he adds, “Semper fidelis, from an old marine to a young one.”
He U-turns for home, grind and double-clutch going into third gear.
I remember him and other samaritans more than the war that followed. Most rides were short, so I had many benefactors over 3,000 miles. Didn’t learn most of their names nor did they ask mine. Neither mattered.
I know them as the Nash man, GTO woman, Nam-vet cop, Navy chief, Pontiac women, Corvette lieutenant, Quaker woman, Falcon guy, Studebaker draft-dodger, Porsche monk, et al. Plus several farmers in pickups and big-rig drivers.
I must have been a pitiful sight, standing along the road to war, to have attracted their grace. Now that I’m the Nash man’s age, I wonder: If I see a hitcher whose fate is as mine was then, will I stop?
Standing half a football field ahead, right arm extended arrow-straight, thumb out at eye level, sign held high in left hand. War-bound marine doesn’t smile, wave thumb or beg. Just deadpan, staring at my oncoming windshield: she knows I realize I should stop.
I have seconds to decide.
* * *
Francis Duffy began writing via letters home to a loved one who’d requested: “Show me places I’ll never see except through your eyes. . . .No details are too small.” That led to war (Vietnam), then college (LA, SF, Tokyo) and grad school (TX, HI), then editing/writing at newspapers (Tokyo, Jidda, Seoul), magazines (TX, Tokyo), tech pubs (Tokyo), then web-content work (Washington, DC). And lately, fiction.
If you enjoyed ‘Nash Man‘ leave a comment and let Francis know.
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