September 01, 2012
You can tell from the shipboard notebook my father started when he was twenty-three years old that he wanted to be a writer. You can read him practicing, can feel the young soul that wants to render the world into words, wants to get better at it, wants to have readers.
By the time I’d become a professional writer, I had no idea that my father had had the same ambition, because I never knew him. He was blown to pieces off the fantail of a destroyer into the shallows near the Japanese island of Okinawa. They identified him from his dental records: Lieutenant Robert Navarre Simmons, United States Naval Reserve, executive officer aboard the USS Longshaw. That was in May 1945. I was two and a half years old; my sister, Pamela, was ten months.
Our mother, Winifred, always called him Robert but didn’t talk much about him. There were photos, and short narrative scraps about how they had met, about how he had walked her all the way to the top of Sugarloaf in Rio de Janeiro before he kissed her for the first time. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell us his story, their story. She just couldn’t bear it. His death put a sadness in her, deep and lifelong. Her way of keeping for us the details of their short life together was to collect in loose-leaf binders the hundreds of letters they’d sent back and forth over the years between 1940 and 1945, and to carefully wrap in heavy brown paper the journal he’d kept aboard the West Ivis,the cargo ship on which they’d met and fallen hopelessly in love.
I was nearly thirty years old before I could bring myself to read any of it.
I remember sitting at lunch in France, with my arms spread, saying, “It’s all right. I’m all right. Look at me. This is no tragedy.” My friend John, who was teaching at the University of Tours, translated that from English to French for his friend Miriam, who was sobbing. Her mother was crying, too, and her father was shaking his head. “It’s just another way to grow up,” I told them; but John didn’t translate that, and I went back to my wine. In all the times I had told my story, to anyone who would listen, no one had ever cried. In that little house, sharing a lunch from their lovely garden with these strangers, I felt like a kid with a rifle in that first moment when he finds out that if he doesn’t aim wide, very carefully, he will hit something.
Then Miriam’s mother spoke. “Did you never know your father at all?” I answered no—I didn’t know much about him even now; I had yet to read his journal and letters. My mother remarried when I was six, and I watched the ceremony from the front pew of St. Aloysius in Palo Alto, California, with instructions to keep Pam quiet while my mother and soon-to-be stepfather said the things the priest asked them to say over the traffic sounds of El Camino Real. For the two of us in the front row, and for my mother, it was a celebration of the fact that life goes on despite its false starts and bad endings.
Roger Vetter was a big man, thirty-two years old. My mother told me that before they were married, while Roger listened to a football game on the radio in our living room, I had climbed into his lap and asked him to be my new daddy. I’m sure I did, and I’m sure it devastated them, but he and I were destined to never get along. Up to then I had been raised by my mother and grandmother, and though they were strict in their lessons and their punishments, I was pretty much the prince of the universe, the little “man of the house,” son of a dead hero. The new man didn’t stand a chance with me.
Not long after they married, Roger told me he was adopting us. They were changing my name from Peter Simmons to Craig Vetter. Pam’s name was changing, too, but only her last name. And although many of these memories are fog, I remember very well asking why my first name was changing. My mother told me they thought Peter Vetter would be too euphonious. I remember that word exactly, and I grew up thinking it meant singsong ugly, which is what my mother told me when I asked. She said they were afraid other kids would make a schoolyard taunt of it—Peter Vetter, pumpkin eater. Roger added that the name-changing operation cost seventy-five dollars whether you changed one name or two. It all seemed reasonable. I was six. And until my Nana Edith, her friends, and an assortment of great aunts and uncles were dead, someone was always calling me Peter and I was answering to both names.
At the table in Tours, Miriam’s mother asked me, “How could they have taken his name from you?” I said I didn’t know. She said that her husband had been in a German forced-labor camp during the war and that she thought he would never come home. As she told us this, her husband went for another bottle of wine, even though we hadn’t finished the one on the table. He was drunk by now, and a closer family grief, survivors’ grief, had taken the afternoon away from my story and all the tears for Robert. Miriam’s father opened the wine, though his wife asked him not to.
That night, I chased a full moon across France from Tours toward Luxembourg and my plane. Moonlight cast vivid shadows across the road; nothing was familiar. Though I didn’t want them to be, spooks were loose in my head, especially Robert’s ghost, in uniform as always, looking so goddamn heroic. This was no father, I told myself. This was a Bronze Star, a few snapshots, a handful of sketchy stories about selfless love, high courage, and glorious death. It was a legacy that shamed my life. I was twenty-eight years old, with two young children and a marriage of my own that was failing brutally. My hair was to my shoulders, the Vietnam War was raging, and I hated everything about the military and America’s cruel and empty sense of honor. I couldn’t help but wonder: what if this man Robert had come back after four horrific years at sea to lose his hair and his teeth and to watch his son grow into a dope-smoking war protester who made his living as a writer?
Pieces of his story came in and out of my head: little chunks, flashes, everything I had, which wasn’t much. And I began to feel guilty about that. My father, whoever he was, had left thousands of words about himself, and I hadn’t read one of them.
By the time I reached Luxembourg I was crazy with all of it. I decided it was finally time to read his words to see if I couldn’t get this guy out of uniform for myself and make a father out of these stories.