Sunday, December 08, 2013

The pilgrimage of my soul and self, and music's influence.

Who am I, really, some of you may be curious to know? I’ll tell you what I remember and know as far as I can keep this autobiography moving towards the moment I can type no more. I was born to two misfit souls. Both of them beleaguered by pressures and expectations neither seemed to know how to cope with or fulfill. My dad was part of a huge clan of nuclear and expansive relatives in Cumberland County, North Carolina. Mom was one of only two children from sturdy and rock solid parents from Pennsylvania. But both were black-sheep to their parents via their status compared to their siblings. Dad was a sharp-minded son of a railroad official who, like me apparently, learned to diffuse daily crises with a keen humor and clownish camouflage. Mom was a truly beautiful woman who’d be celebrated as an Elle, or “real woman” size paragons of beauty nowadays. But back in her teen and crucial years, her exuberance for life was always mitigated by the societal norm that woman’s figures had to be somewhat smaller than Bacall’s and not as drastic as Vivian Leigh’s. They were both rebels in a country that still had tangible memories of the Civil War and its outcome and effect. I didn’t know until a few years ago that both of them literally rebelled against their parental and society’s dictums and strictures to extreme and profound levels. My dad, having enlisted in the Navy near the beginning of WWII, was a survivor of an USS Indianapolis-like torpedo sinking in the Pacific. He couldn’t swim, but abandoned ship and somehow “ran upon the water” to a lifeboat, or inflatable raft’s safety. As has been depicted so many times in film, he dealt with the loss of comrades and likely friends to sharks, dehydration or despair for a number of days before rescue vessels arrived. It changed him in ways I could never have known. But his older brother, a commander of a diesel sub not two miles away from the whole episode of the sinking ship, finally managed to confirm my father’s survival, sought him out when they both were ashore (probably in Australia) and nurtured him through the trauma and convinced him to relent and stay with the Navy but in submarine duty. His brother, scion of the family siblings, persuaded another southerner from Arkansas, later to become my uncle by marriage, to be my dad’s mentor on his vessel sub, the USS Flying Fish. They finished the war’s campaigns without any huge catastrophic instances by comparison to the sinking of my dad’s first vessel. To wrap up this first installment, as fate had it my uncle met my mother’s older, favored sister in dry-dock in Oakland/SF. My mom, who I was reliably told would sneak out of her bedroom window here in Visalia in the dead of night, catch the train in Hanford and go up to the Bay Area to fraternize with those swabbies on shore leave. Perhaps, as I’d like to think, she coordinated these clandestine adventures with my aunt, though my loving grandparents never relayed such stories to us kids. My aunt met, fell in love and married the Chief Petty Officer William R. Smith from Arkansas, and his protégé, my dad, met and married my aunt’s “black sheep” sister, Mom, shortly thereafter here in Visalia. They celebrated their marriage at the corner brick home at Oak and Johnson Street, then the home of my maternal great-grandparents. That house still stands to this day, though now a commercial building. Film and snapshots recorded the party afterwards. How my grandfather, a school board and college board member and relative “somebody” in the then small town of 10,000 souls in Visalia in the late forties internally reacted to both daughters marrying obvious hard-living but charmingly clever young southern rapscallions, I’ll never know. But my maternal grandfather, my namesake, was a submariner in WWI in the Atlantic. I’m sure that experience softened whatever reservations he might have had as his daughters became Naval, submariner wives. Next installment: early memories of Visalia and the Korean War effect.

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