My Father's Letter
July 25, 2012
“I had to go read my letter day before yesterday,” said my father on the phone. He hadn’t been feeling too good the day or two before I called him and he was telling me so with one of his coded messages.
Dad’s most significant memory of World War II was the reception of his Honorable Discharge on May 28, 1946. He was almost finished with boot camp and looking forward to returning to Louisiana when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on his birthday. He didn’t get back to Louisiana until he had toured Europe with Patton’s Third Army and participated in the Battle of the Bulge.
He married a war widow and a few years later, I was born on May 28. It was years before my mother convinced him to visit a doctor and get a thorough check-up. In the early sixties, that involved a hospital stay of one or two nights and lots of tests. It was (at least for him) a dreaded experience that he planned never to repeat.
A week or so after the series of tests was completed, he received a letter from Dr. August Street of The Street Clinic in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was a typical business letter for that era. It was typed on a manual typewriter (with very few, if any, errors) and signed with a fountain pen. I can still remember that the doctor’s signature was legible! It was brief and thorough. All the tests were negative and the doctor was issuing my father a “clean bill of health.”
Dad kept that letter in the top drawer of his chest of drawers — with his socks. It was his evidence that he was healthy and should feel good. It was also his reason not to endure such torture again. For years, whenever he couldn’t stymie symptoms with OTC medicine or Roi Tan cigars, he would go pull out that letter and read it. It was a wonderful placebo.
“I said ‘I’d love to dad if I could find the time. You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids’ have the flu. But it’s sure good talkin’ with you, Dad. It’s been sure nice talking with you.'” I grew up just like him. But I think he gave me more time when I was a child than I gave to him when he was in his twilight years.
“I’m still not walking like Tim Conway.” Conway’s character, The Old Man was one of Dad’s favorites. He enjoyed the whole cast and laughing at their antics and attempts to make each other break character (which Korman did often as a result of Conway’s ad libs). The Old Man’s gait, use of a cane, and speech patterns became a benchmark for my father’s own assessment of his body’s response to the ravages of time.
Every time I called him and every time he told me that, we shared a laugh. At the end of every conversation, he told me that he loved me. About six months before he died, I called one afternoon to check on him and he answered the phone. “How you doing?” I asked. “Well,” he hesitated and caught his breath, “I’ve started walking like Tim Conway.” We didn’t talk long and I promised to visit soon — which I did.
When the call ended, I cried.