When I was in sixth grade, a solo runt raised by paranoid immigrants and beat up by classroom bullies, my writing was so good that on parent’s night the school covered an entire wall in the auditorium with my poems, guaranteeing my further victimization in middle school.
My father watched the proceedings and listened to the teacher’s compliments with a frown. As we walked across the dark playground where I had been bruised so often he took me by the hand, a rare occurrence.
I thought he looked handsome in his gray delivery driver shirt. They allowed him to bring his truck home sometimes. He was smoking a cigarette I wasn’t supposed to tell mom about; she was anxious enough, recuperating slowly from an illness that left a question mark on how long she’d be with us.
He explained that writing is a terrible vocation, or a hard piece of bread, as he put it. I’d never be able to make any money at it. So I shouldn’t make a habit of it. What I had done was wrong. He had that squint of a man who would climb until he owned half the company whose logo he wore on his shirt.
I tried to stop writing but it was an addiction now shameful as masturbation. Yet I was clever enough to figure out if I wrote my parents trite poems for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day I could write the rest of the year. Even as a child I thought of this as tribute extracted by tyrants, but I paid the price to have the freedom of my imagination.
As the tradition continued into the era of the first driver’s license I wrote those poems because if I didn’t it meant war. I had tried before to substitute a simple card or a thoughtful gift for this outgrown childhood ritual, but lack of a poem outranked even my numerous acts of delinquency when it came to enraging the old man, so he’d remind me:
At the beginning of the war, still a child, he almost died, dragged onto a train where anyone who lost consciousness smothered underfoot. A slave laborer at war’s end, when the death march halted, before the bullets reached his end of the line, he fainted. He woke among the bloody bodies with no one around but the birds in the trees.
How did he survive in those death camps, one after the other? He tried to stay clean, to comb his hair, hoping they would understand his dignity. He said some guards took pity on him so they snuck him moldy bread. He was referred to by number not name.
His family of almost twenty was reduced to three. He knew he was lucky to have survived, but he had to live the rest of his life with memories of babies thrown in the air for target practice. His amputated toes bore unavoidable witness whenever he took off his left sock.
Decades later, retired in beautiful southern California, he would chase crows away from his pool because he remembered them eating the eyes of corpses. He could understand neither the American fascination with gruesome horror movies nor the Christian obsession with the torture of Jesus. Halloween made no sense to him.
The war made him an atheist. He told me he didn’t care if the whole world died as long as he wasn’t singled out again. Like many atheists he was an ethical and honest man. Like all war survivors he was deeply troubled and troubling, refusing any therapy for the world of horrific memories he carried with him every day of his life.
Workers who caused problems or underperformed due to lack of self-discipline he berated. But he also sent employees and their children through college. The loyalty he earned was so strong that when he died after two decades of retirement many of his former employees and their families attended his funeral to tell stories of his generosity.
My mother also fled to America from a childhood in war where she experienced the swollen belly of starvation. She was proud of having grabbed back the stuffed bear the sergeant took from her when her family was arrested. She saved a friend because she had the guts to ask the enemy for help; soon her friend died anyway, sprayed with bullets.
Though warned not to do it while the refugees around her slept she opened and heated up a can of soup she found in the cellar of a ruined house. That was all the enemy needed to find them. She escaped in the melee that led to the deaths of the people she hid with and the people hiding them.
Captured, she insisted she had been no more than a maid, and the officer’s interest in her was merely fatherly; after all she was still a child. Yet she admitted he refused to leave her as he draped her in his fur-lined coat, the only girl on a military train retreating from the rebels.
After her protector became another casualty she reinvented herself. As a student nurse she pretended to be Catholic, going to church every morning and evening. In the ward of wounded pilots they called her “the white angel.”
As a housewife in America, unwilling to acknowledge war trauma, conforming to the local norm, she obsessed on fashionable but economical clothes, a shoe collection, hair color, and manicured fingernails.
Picky about the culture she enjoyed she read Schopenhauer and Paul Valery in between trashy novels but preferred American soap operas to Shakespeare. She hated modern art but she liked the Rolling Stones.
She said she wished the world could be the way the Impressionists saw it, while obsessing on the harsh details of her numerous illnesses, and of aging, which terrified her so much she became addicted to plastic surgery.
They waited a long time after they married to finally have their only child. Later my father confided to me that they regretted the decision. My first disappointment for him was my immediate and permanent rejection of his plan to raise a physician.
At first I rooted for the good guys. Influenced by world mythology, Earth First, and a William Blake book in the school library, when I was fourteen everything that I wanted to do with my life could be summed up in the word “imagination.” I wanted to make art, play music, and write poems that would re-imagine the world.
We had bitter arguments about how hard my life would be, how I was throwing away my intelligence and my responsibility to my family and society. I tried to explain that for me there was no more pressing duty than serving the almighty imagination, the engine of human evolution.
Eventually our arguments degenerated to catch phrases delivered with bitter sarcasm. My father would dismiss my optimism with the curt remark: “I don’t have that kind of imagination.” To him imagination implied delusion, effeminacy, laziness, the weakness of dreamers, the border of madness.
Soured by my fate, I found myself agreeing with the old man about a godless universe without a future. This is what it means to be a man, I thought, to understand how hopeless and meaningless life is. But unlike dad, who added the necessary corollary that you work hard and live decently anyway, I preferred the role of spoiler.
The story of my alchemical transmutation from dangerous teenager to civilized human or as close as I’ve been able to get to that ideal, can be read in The Maestro and The Boy: The Kindness of Manly P. Hall <LINK>. While my father at first welcomed this transformation it proved to be yet another alarming and irritating development for him.
As I began to study the history of religions I eagerly reported back to him my favorite gems of wisdom, including various perspectives on life after death. Such forays into speculation were always met with the bitterest performances of his catch phrase. All such nonsense he dismissed as wishful thinking and childish fantasy.
Once he died in the hospital and was revived. I shared my own near death experience with him but it only made him angry. He insisted he had experienced nothing. Embracing nonexistence, he proudly proclaimed himself a hardheaded realist and dismissed my experience and any other like it as imagination.
He had been sickly all his days, burdened with numerous afflictions caused by starvation and exposure in the war, exasperated by his stressful relationship with my mother. After her attempted suicide and her incarceration in a mental ward, he decided to risk a procedure.
After hours of conversation in his hospital room I understood he did not expect to survive, and he wanted it that way. Even there taking his last few conscious breaths he refused the comfort offered by spirituality. The sweetest thing he could imagine was an end to suffering.
Afterwards, trapped in a coma, he showed consciousness only by moving one eye. Thinking of Poe, I tried to prepare him for the bardo. I wiped his sweating brow with an iced towel talking about what he would see, and what he should look for. I promised reunions and horizons. His eye followed me until they turned up the morphine.
Saddled with unexpected responsibilities, trying to do the best for my now mentally impaired mother, missing my father despite our lifelong battle, I suffered a slight but painful back injury symbolic of the camel and the straw. The chiropractor suggested I visit a man she knew who specialized in releasing trauma.
Feeling miserable I drove deep into Laurel Canyon where I met the healer in the closest thing to a cottage in the woods Hollywood can provide. In the living room I browsed shelves of art books. The therapy room had a window on a lush green backyard that looked more like sunlit English countryside than arid southern California.
I told him only that my father recently died. With a peculiar expression he stopped the session. “I’m not a medium,” he said, “I don’t channel. I never have. Yet I feel his presence so strongly. He’s repeating an important message for you. Your father wants you to know he’s learning to enjoy his imagination.”
Article written by Ronnie Pontiac
Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge. He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.