Wednesday, July 22, 2009

For my grandfather...

(I was reading Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff this morning. He opens through Jane Conrad's eyes; Jane was wife of astronaut Pete Conrad; she was a good friend of my mother's at St. Mary's Hall, here in Tres Leches. The stunning pall of death upon death among the flight testing pilots brought my paternal grandfather to mind, a man for whom Pat Booker Road, the highway into Randolph Air Force Base here in Tres Leches, is named. I labored for many years under a grandmother-induced fiction of why the road was named after him, and then was brought up short some few years ago by the real story. In the intervening years, Heroism took a dive: this seemed more a story of good ole boys and dreaming. After reading of Janey's ordeal and the long reign of the Friend of Widows & Orphans, I came back around.)

Tale Enough

The stories told of you were mythic:
Flight training,
Downed through the trees,
Thrown free,
You managed to save your crew
Of seven.
Two weeks later,
You died of burns sustained
In the heroics.

The official story was more
Prosaic.
No crew,
No freedom,
No saving, just
You & death
The very next day.
Your seventh crash
Was fatal, your
Luck run out: for this,
Your (and mine & my father's) road,
Wide asphalt memorial
Into your old buddy Randolph's
(Or was that mythmaking, too?)
Field.

Bulky, burly
Spencer Tracy looks
In the pictures,
You with the football
& basketball
& boxing teams
You coached, Borgesian
Beasts lined up
For the cameras,
From times of desperation
We no longer fear.
Fat buddy-boy cigar
(Or am I also dreaming?)
In hand, you
Might as well have been
Tammany
Or Barnum in
Your Big Show.

Why the need for
Stories beyond
This? 6
Resurrections not Tale
Enough? And where
The seeds? Borrowing,
I see the divebombing to
Wake your sons,
Hallucinatory
Fog-flying, trucks
In flight
Above you, as you
Navigate the bridge's
Beams.

We all must add,
It seems: some simply
Add better,
More pointedly, more
Enthusiastically, than
The rest.

Where did I
Hallucinate your fear,
The emptiness of that
Cigar chomp,
The knowledge that there
Are unlucky 7s beyond
The 6?

Next time I visit
The white teeth &
The wide meadow,
I'll remember the heroism
Without
The myth.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Dee Martin said...

I have a story of not so much a lie (or embellishment of truth) but of a secret kept for a generation because at the time it was considered shameful and yet by the time I was an adult seemed silly. I wonder at how many family stories that are accepted as gospel are not quite because of the culture at the time. Sound to me like your grandfather was an interesting fellow no matter which story was true.

2:18 PM  
Blogger MichaelO said...

And here, I just watched The Right Stuff on Saturday night. Most of those boys were bull riders by nature. Full of conquest up until the moment you're kicked and skewered.

Perhaps grandma's crew of seven were all him. He and his 6 cat-lives before him, pulled out of the wreckage of his own abandon. Thanks for sharing that.

2:40 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Dee: Whether Icarus or "just plain" flying cowboy, I'm fairly sure my grandfather was indeed a man about town, a raconteur, magnetic. I did not know him, as his "fatal" flight was in 1936, when my father was 14. But, he certainly planted seeds. Funny, the grandmother telling the stories was my maternal grandmother.

3:28 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Michael: I'm enjoying the book; saw the movie years ago. I did not know, however, how much the book leans on Pete and Jane Conrad, who all but disappear in the movie: I guess to keep it all focused on the original 7. (Magnificent 7? Seven Samurai?) Pete was a Philly boy, and even though Janey was Uvalde County, Texas girl, she went to Bryn Mawr, so they were both up your way.

Hermano, I hope you're collecting your comments of late into something: their poetry and song deserve a chapbook of their own.

Many thanks.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

I'm with Michael and Dee on how family stories change as they are handed down because of a greater tendency toward euphemisms in times past.

I really like your poem. And I'm glad you're not disappointed any more with the man even though you can see through the myth. Parts of the myth may have been your grandmother's way of coping with such early widowhood.

4:46 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: Interesting little vapor trail that's showing up here. As I said to Dee, the grandmother who regaled me with the mythics was my maternal grandmother, to whom I have long attributed the story, given her penchant for confabulation in other arenas (clearly, I am her grandson: I just do it - mostly - on "paper"). But, if she's not the originator, whence the story? Perhaps it was the widow, my paternal grandmother, who passed two years before my birth and is in the Big Meadow at Fort Sam Houston, right beside her husband.

More digging to do.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Teresa said...

There may have been another reason, too. To spare you the child from the ugly due to an aversion to speaking ill of the dead. That was a very popular point of view in earlier generations. And so this larger-than-life personality was gently nudged into someone a young boy could admire for the larger-than-life part without any of the rough edges to scar his tender psyche. Either grandmother could have done that, or both. The one as a way of "re-creating" her husband, and the other as a way of "sparing" her grandson. But neither wanting to breathe anything that could possibly be misconstrued as disparaging the dead.

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Richard Wells said...

Ovation. Well done. Pride, a nice thing. Without the myth - humanity - warmth.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

Whatever the story/truth, and whoever the teller, the healing is the core thing. The story in my family caused a rift that I didn't understand all the years I was growing up and even less when I understood the meat of it. The best thing I ever did for myself was to realize that all that came before me and handed down their screwed up "ness" were just, like me, doing the best they could to stumble through it all. Seems like we all go through a period of blaming the past for who we are in the present as though they had some secret plan to meant to sabotage us. Getting unstuck from there is the hardest but best thing. But you know all that and probably in much better terms than I am saying it. I think it is a great thing that you can write this tribute to the man instead of punishing him for not being the myth.

10:19 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: All good theories, but my gut tells me that sparing the child exceeds my maternal grandmother's inclinations. Can't speak at all for my paternal grandmother, since I never met her: in fact, I think she may have passed even before my father met my mother: the fickle finger of fate now points to my father as the possible myth-maker. I've got some leads; I plan to see where they take me.

But, the notion of the myth covering something seems quite reasonable. In my first novel Scarred Angels, I even took the notion head on, speculating that the fictional "hero" was actually a drunk, and that alcohol may have accounted for the crash, covered up in all the hoopla of road, etc. My father was an alcoholic; no stretch that my grandfather may have been one, too.

As I say, at this point in my life, it's not witch hunting that I'm after, but there may be some interesting things to learn about one and all, as I back-sight the stories.

11:39 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Richard: Mil gracias, amigo. Thank you for your warm words.

11:40 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Dee: Agreed. As I continue to walk this story around in the light of day, I'm excited about simply exploring, seeing where the story leads.

11:41 PM  

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