That first thing, the thing that couldn’t be denied, the compulsion to put words on paper, for my father

Robert Ertis Woodfin
Robert Ertis Woodfin


It’s late and my thoughts turn to a lifetime of words on paper, in the air, in music, told in bed to a child with eyes wide and heart open.

For me there has never been a time before words.  My first recollection is lying on my father’s chest, in my parents’ bed, his wife beater undershirt my pallet, my front row seat to stories from a picture book Bible.

I can still see the Garden of Eden, the angel with a sword of fire banishing the first couple from paradise, Daniel praying as the lions slept around him, Elijah ascending to heaven in a blazing chariot, Noah welcoming the animals two by two into his ark, the Tower of Babel destroyed by a God who brooked no competition.

Later I remember the evening ritual my dad followed, a man already decimated by the Battle of the Bulge, who somehow retained a love for things of beauty, for the poetry of Wordsworth, the simple majesty of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, a mournful recitation of Psalms 23.  Or perhaps he had to retreat to them, to a world that was a better one than the one he had seen where bodies stacked like cords of woods were burned, joining the ashes that had spilled out of Nazi chimneys.

I remember his description of the bloody footprints, not only along the walls, but even on the ceiling of the gas chamber.

Maybe now I am beginning to understand how such a gentle soul, a man who wanted only to write love poems and recite them and teach them  to students in some English class in some nameless school, could find in the words on paper a place where evil could not reach, a place where he must run to hide.

Later, when he was nearing the end, I remember his compulsion to get his thoughts on paper, how he wrote the poems by hand, had my mother type them on onion skin paper, corrected them and gave them back to her, corrected them and gave them back to her, tore them to pieces.

And I remember after his passing how she plucked them from the trash, reconstructed them, created a shrine, not to his memory, not to the man he had become, but to the man he might have been.

Later, I remember the funeral service where a pastor who had come near death himself in the killing fields pulled my father’s poems from his stack of papers and read them to a congregation who had known my dad only as a quiet man, a cowboy, a loner.

Here and there, from time to time, I find scraps of paper on which I have scribbled, when I was young, later, even later still.

And I realize how alike he and I are, how we share that compulsion to put something down on paper, if not for anyone else at least  for ourselves.  And how in that process our souls may rise to some new height, perhaps for a moment that precious sphere where insight arrives, or common humanity resides.

And I know why I am a writer.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    A beautifully-written and moving portrait of a man who never became what he could have become because the horrors of war got in the way. You are fortunate now to bes able to look past the curtains of his mind to understand him better and realize where your talent as a writer originated.

  • jack43

    The novel that I am now writing addresses the impact of war on men such as your father. I am writing about fear and the “first kill”, about humanity and inhumanity. I too went to war, a war in which there were no fronts and no glory, just gore and loathing. Unfortunately, reality makes a mockery of visions of peace without bloodshed. Appeasement only emboldens the aggressors and we live in a land where we are the objects of the covetous who are not willing to pay the price for what we have but would rather take it from our broken hands. Thus, more boys like your father once was will be sacrificed on the battlefields. Those that return will be mere shades of their former selves. But, occasionally, glimpses of who they were and might have been may be revealed in the words they commit to paper. You appear grateful for them and that is good…

    • Jack, yes, I am grateful. My father seldom talked of the war, except to me in guarded moments. But he carried it around with him wherever he went and often got that far off look in his eyes.

  • Beca Lewis

    This is so beautiful. Father’s and the love that they leave us, even as they struggle to make sense of life. Thank you for being a writer, and honoring your father.

    • Beca, thanks. I guess we are what our parents bring to us. In my father’s case he carried a world of unspeakable horror with him as he tried to go about the usual affairs of life after the war.

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