By Michael Calvert
September 21, 2014
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” my dad liked to say in those times when he was feeling upbeat when I was growing up. He clinched his fist, threw a short punch and put on a fierce face when he said it. The chorus from the Field Artillery anthem often followed, off key but with gusto. “It’s Hi, Hi, Hee in the Field Artillery. Where ere you go, you always know that those caissons are rolling along.”
I had seen Audie Murphy and James Cagney in war movies, and I imagined that young second lieutenants in Dad’s unit had intoned the line about when the tough get going in their deepest voice when they moved out from their lines to set up a new forward observation post. Dad and others would unreel telephone wire as they headed to a position where they could see shells falling on enemy lines. Quick calculations of azimuths would be called back to the gun crews for adjusting the next salvos. Dad’s unit had fought their way across the deserts of North Africa and into the mountains of southern Italy before he was sent to an army hospital in Mississippi with a diagnosis of “battle fatigue.”
When Dad was not feeling upbeat, he retreated to his darkened bedroom. These periods became more frequent when I was in high school and college. One morning, before I left for my part-time job as a janitor at the Union Department Store, Dad shuffled past the living room door in his rumpled blue plaid bathrobe. When he returned, I called out, “Good morning,” more as a challenge than a greeting.
He looked up and scowled at me, his face lined and hair twisted, and grunted, “Morning” as he reached for the bedroom door.
After my four-hour shift, I went to the main library, a Greek temple in a grove of towering occupying a block in downtown Columbus. I checked out three albums for Grandmother, Verdi’s Aida , Chopin’s ‘Etudes and a collection of the Best Irish Tenors. Anything Irish was sure to please Grandmother whose maiden name was Ryan.
“Come in, honey. Oh, new records!” Soon she was positioning the needle on one of the records turning on her hi-fi record player that she still called the Victrola. “The march from Aida is just grand,” she said with her hands clasped. You would like opera if you gave it a chance. Someday you will.”
After I assured her that my freshman courses at Ohio State were going well, she asked how things were going at home.
“Mom got promoted to Clerk-typist III. She got a raise. too.” Grandmother nodded but I didn’t think she was listening.
“How is your father?”
“Spending most of his time in bed. He doesn’t come out for dinner. I don’t know when he eats.”
“He’s got a VA appointment next week. They need to get him on some of these new medications. Here’s an article I cut out from Time Magazine. These new drugs are helping other veterans.”
“I’ll give it to Mom. He’s been going to the VA for a long time, but they don’t seem to be able to help him.”
“Oh, Michael, don’t worry. They’ll find something. Don’t give up hope. Your dad’s going to get back to his old self.”
“I hope so.” I said flatly. The next record dropped onto the turntable. Soon Chopin’s piano notes broke the silence in the apartment.
“You don’t know all the terrible things he experienced in Italy, Michael. He wasn’t much older than you are now.” Grandmother stared at the OSU Law School across High Street, and continued, “He was fully exposed for days at a time – out in front of allied lines. A German patrol might have killed or captured him at any time of the day or night. No wonder your dad has a case of nerves.”
“Yeah, but it’s tough on Mom. She’s up at five in the morning and goes until nine at night when she falls asleep in front of the TV.”
“Your mother is amazing. I never thought she could work in an office and do everything she has to do for the family. I just wish your father would get well and your mother could be home with her children.”
“It’s hard for her, but she’s made some good friends at the office. She says it’s been good for her to get out of the house. She used to get bronchitis every year, but not since she began working.”
“Well, she will be better off when your father gets well and goes back to work. She could stay home.”
“Dad needs to put the war behind him and just stop thinking about things that happened all those years ago. He needs to think about Mom and his kids…”
“Oh, Michael, he loves all of you, but he just can’t cope right now. The doctors at the VA understand the state of his mind. They have seen a lot of veterans like your father.”
“A lot of veterans are working and taking care of their families.” My voice rose involuntarily. “ Their wives don’t have to work all day and come home to cook dinner, wash clothes, and pack lunches. Why can’t Dad forget the war and get a job?”
“That’s so cruel.” Grandmother’s face grew red and her eyes squinted. “He’s my son and I love him very much.” Her head dropped and she sobbed.
“I’m sorry. I know Dad’s nerves are shot, and I know he loves Mom and all of us kids.” I moved next to her on the couch, and put my arm around her.
Chopin played on. When she became quiet, I said, “I am so sorry. I’ll see you tomorrow.”