What It Was My Father Came Here to Get Away From Print

Dad Pre-War(River Teeth 18.2 Spring, 2017)

1 /

As early as I can remember, my father hated Catholics. Actually, he despised all religious people. He called believers hypocrites; priests and pastors, pimps. He rarely spoke of this enmity or, for that matter, much else personal, including his years aboard a Pacific Ocean supply ship during the Second World War. “Hurry up and wait,” he told my brothers and me. That was the only combat he faced. No story bayoneting Japs ever emerged. Maybe, contrary to my comic-book idea of war then, there wasn’t any. So, when he unloaded on religion, I was piqued by the sibilant sounds of those scandalous words, hypocrites and pimps, and the frosty certainty with which he iced his dismissal.

His disdain for God’s henchmen on earth began and ended with two betrayals—one, his body, the other, his soul, though he would have denied the latter had any substance left. Born in 1914, in Evanston, Illinois, he was given up at birth, probably by immigrants, a Bohemian mother and a Swedish father. That day, he was adopted by the childless Larsons, (another) Swedish father who was irascible and belt-prone and an English mother who cradled the baby to daily mass. They named him John Joseph Milton, the first two referencing Jesus, the third an artistic aspiration. My mother said Dad figured out long before he asked them about his adoption that he wasn’t theirs—what gave it away was his swarthy skin and his inborn suspiciousness.

At St. Mary’s, down the street, he was a student and an altar boy. Photos survive. In one, he wears a white surplice with a starched linen collar and large satin bow. A boy, maybe any boy, who loved God. In another, he’s all decked out: a woolen suit, knickers, black shoes and high socks, neck tie arched at the knot. A full head of combed-back black hair. It must be Confirmation, for nestled in his soft hands is a Catholic prayer book, a finger and a rosary marking a favorite page. He’s ten, the age of discretion; he’s chosen this religion for himself. Though unfazed or freighted (I can’t tell which) by years of catechism, he dresses the viewer (me) with an untroubled gaze. His fate feels staked. He may know what he doesn’t know.

As a teen, my father attended St. George High School. He told me once that he blossomed there, often the first through the double doors, with the Christian Brothers’ tutelage: four years of athletics (baseball, swimming, and boxing) and scholastics (the physical sciences, history, literature, and art: he loved the medieval painters and was a talented drawer). He thrived in the dramatic society (my dad, acting on stage!) and the debating club where he persuaded the class that the US government had a moral duty to help the poor with food and shelter.

The school uniform was black pants, white shirt, striped tie, and a serge blazer. Sewn onto the blazer’s pocket was a patch, the school emblem, a fire-breathing dragon. (His coat was one of the few things my dad saved, along with Navy memorabilia, in his sixty-one years.) The legend goes that in 302 CE, George, a Roman soldier and a Christian, travels from Palestine to Libya doing good deeds in Christ’s name. There, he finds the desert dwellers are trapped by a dragon; they’re hoping to appease the monster by tying a princess, a virginal sacrifice, to a tree. George unbinds the damsel and, with nimble twists and balletic leaps, he exhausts the dragon’s ire and, at last, thrusts his saber’s length into its belly. So bedazzled are the Libyan pagans—some fifteen thousand, the story says—that they shudder, drop to their knees, and convert to Christianity on the spot. The Church later canonized George as the protector of men like him who defend the faith with arms. He became the patron saint of boy scouts and soldiers.

In addition to the school’s namesake, my father loved the liberal critique of the Church his teachers, the Brothers, embraced. They got him reading, alongside the Bible, a modern, secular work, H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History. As a teenager, when I paged this two-volume set, shelved in my dad’s headboard, I noted little pencil checks in the margins and whole paragraphs circled. I’ve since learned that Wells’ plan was to evaluate historical events only in human terms. Nothing is supernaturally caused; such explanations he rejects. Wells also likes to assess how history has been presented, alongside what happened. For example, where he writes about the “teachings of Jesus Christ,” my father circled this paragraph.

Jesus is much wronged by the unreality and conventionality that a mistaken reverence has imposed upon his figure in modern Christian art. Jesus was a penniless teacher, who wandered about the dusty sun-bit country of Judea, living upon casual gifts of food; yet he is always represented clean, combed, and sleek, in spotless raiment, erect, and with something motionless about him as though he was gliding through the air. This alone has made him unreal and incredible to many people who cannot distinguish the core of the story from the ornamental and unwise additions of the unintelligently devout.

Wells goes on to note that Christianity perverted Jesus’ message of Love with Paul’s adamant focus on the Fall of Man, a vengeful God, a happy or doomed afterlife, and, of course, salvation through Christ. On the contrary, Wells argues. The Nazarene was a political revolutionary; he offered a committed life on earth, forgiveness, and nonviolence. And yet since Love was too improbable a goal for warring tribes to achieve, Christians, fighting off more than the lions, bent Christ’s message: Worship the fatuous miracles of immaculate conception, crucifixion, and resurrection, and “believing in” such myths will, once everyone buys the package, usher in paradise. Which, my father laughed, is fools’ gold. “How do I know?” he said. “They sold it to me.”

2 /

When my dad graduated from high school, he decided his feisty education had prepared him for religious studies. He would make his mark in seminary on a church that had been fattened on mammon and sustained itself by secret dealings during the Great War. When he told his mother of his decision, she was ecstatic. Just eighteen and destined for the collar.

I imagine him then—two weeks into the term and in a class of pious recruits. The cassocked father is teaching Moral Theology, fast-chalking phrases onto the blackboard. One is “canon law.” Another, “extreme unction.” There are many such phrases the young men have been intoning to themselves as they copy the terms of faith into their notebooks.

In his serge St. George jacket, my father’s hand slowly mounts the air. To him the priest offers cupped hands—ask away.

“I’ve been reading about the Great War, and I don’t understand why the Pope was neutral. Shouldn’t he have been opposed to the killing? And why would God allow so many men to die in the trenches?” His questions parry and thrust; he is fearless like St. George.

The priest is curious just who my father is. Misunderstanding the question, my father states his name.

“No,” the priest says, “who are you to be asking such things?”

“Yes, but I was—”

“Yes, but nothing,” the priest continues. “This is not a university. We don’t question our superiors here. Go to college and study philosophy if you want to box with God. You’ll do well, too, not to second-guess the Holy Father.”

My father returns the volley. Why can’t we ask questions? Why isn’t war a sin? Why can’t we discuss Christ’s revolutionary message? In school, the Brothers said—

“Stop it!” the priest shouts.

The novitiates stare at him—my father, naïve leviathan, who’s brought the bottom up. The priest leers. He is old, sour-faced, with elephantine ears.

“Boys,” he says, “there’s always one who defiles our sanctity.” He snickers. Shakes his head. A boy in the front snickers, and another behind him snickers, and another behind him shakes his head. “Whoever this young man is,” the priest continues, “he’ll have to change if he’s to remain among us.”

For the rest of the class, my father stews at his desk. He closes his notebook. He broods. He feels small, a nailed Christ on a crucifix pendant. Neither he nor the priest regard each other. He stares out the tall seminary windows. The leaves of an elm, each yoked to the branch by its stem, spangle in the wind, turn this way and that.

Turns out the priest is right: whoever this young man is, he will not change.

The next afternoon, my father told me, he emptied his seminary locker, rode the crosstown bus, and enrolled at Northwestern University. There he would study neither philosophy nor history nor religion but commerce, a career he would profit from. That night he told his parents he’d be the family’s first college graduate. A brisk four years later—cashiering at a soda fountain to pay his own way—he was. (His mother was disappointed but she liked the idea of college, a kind of cloistered world not that much different than the church.) He did have one temptation left—a live drawing course, with fleshy nudes, at the Art Institute of Chicago. He gutted it out for a time but found that Catholicism had an ally in the unbending dictates of classical art. So he quit that, too.

After these upheavals, and before the war, he became a designer and marketer of paper products to schools, practical, unquestionable, a need to fill every year. Sales would become his stock-in-trade.

The last time my father set foot inside a church was for the mass the Evanston parish held when his mother died. I was with him then, that harried week we buried her and put the cantankerous old Swede, his father, in a home. During the mass, my dad was untroubled while John Senior quaked with anguish; I felt his stick arms rattle under his suitcoat as we, on either side, helped him stand and sit. Grandpa, so he confessed, hadn’t been in the pews in years. Perhaps he hoped the service would expel his grief. Repeat-after-me, stand-and-kneel-and-be-seated, and repeat-after-me. Was it some wave of regret or anger that roiled him that morning? Maybe it was his fear of a wife-less solitude. Maybe it was a celebratory relief that got him shaking so. Call it “marriage fatigue,” like manning a supply ship in war.

But for my father—who would have a massive heart attack three years later and die of a second heart attack five years on—that morning in St. Mary’s, I could feel traces of the old vehemence, contending with the church’s reptilian nature, measuring the foe’s distance with his lance. That’s what memory says. While the few old women in attendance, lugubrious funeral-loving sorts, dotted themselves with the sign of the cross, my father harbored his reserve against the glassy stained light and the cadaverous air. How serene he seemed, in vigilant silence, the untoned words pebbling on his lips—none of it is true, not now, not ever.

3 /

So, while my brothers and I grew up in southern Ohio, in Middletown, famous for its steel mill and basketball players, there was no God, no church, and no Jesus in our home: Sundays were for sleeping in. For years, my mother, neither reverent nor scornful herself, tolerated (maybe agreed with) my father’s refusal to attend service or invoke God’s name. Others clasped hands for the meal blessing, not him. After my mother told her mother, a devotee of the Billy Graham Hour, just how churchless our Sunday mornings were, she said her grandsons, at the very least, needed some exposure to the Word.

One Saturday, Mother announced that the next morning at 9:00 a.m. sharp we’d be attending the Methodist church. Her directive was female and democratic: “John, I think the boys need to decide for themselves.”

“Decide what?” he said. “What’s to decide, Dorothy?”

Overruled, he chauffeured us with speechless ill-will. From the back seat, I felt his disgust race past his annoyance. Discharging us—the engine ticking, his gloved hands palm-circling the wheel—he drove off for doughnuts, gifts to memorialize the hoax.

That morning we were four deep in the pew, awkwardly trying on the Methodists much as we tried on school clothes during pre-Labor Day trips to the department store. My brothers and I wiggled, but we settled down once the pastor came out and sat in a chair with a high carved back. Next, a bevy of thirty boys and girls and teenagers—the youth choir—shuffled onto risers against the back wall and beneath the tight-lipped pipes of the organ. The choirmaster entered. A peacocky man, about thirty-five, he nodded to the organist and raised his hands, thumbs up, fingers drooping. The singers stood in a uniform bustle.

A stately hymn unfolded, and the choir slow-danced an emotion I knew innately. My feet moved my shoes, my legs swayed. The choir leaned into the song. The beat was faint but began to pulse. The conductor’s hands drew the tune from the singers’ faces, at first sleepy and stiff, now buoyant and charged. A voice stretched inside me (was it mine? was it theirs?) until I was humming right along.

On the drive home, I buttonholed my parents: “I want to try out for that choir!”

My father, squint-eyed, stared at me. He had the look of a man who had just cut himself with a knife. For a week I needled my mother every day until she got the audition scheduled.

Finally, this nervous, determined nine-year-old ran into the Methodist church, a quartz-flecked limestone building, and down to the basement and the choir room where I presented myself to the choirmaster, Mr. LeRoy. I stood next to him. He moved me by my shoulders to the end of the upright.

“Now hold onto the piano here,” he said. “I’ll play a scale to warm us up. Do—re—mi—fa—Sing!”

And repeat. This time he stopped singing mid-scale and leaned an ear my way while I kept going—so, fa, mi, re.

“Ah,” Mr. LeRoy said, “you’ve got the makings of a strong baritone,” as though it were secret knowledge only he and I would share.

Next, he vamped the intro to a secular tune, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and nodded at me to join in. What an effortless song it is, with its scale-wise melody, its marching rhythm, its held and syncopated notes in each phrase, its lovely self-conscious line, “of thee I sing.” Indeed, the music is the country; making the tune makes “My Country” exist. Those sung lines, “land where my fathers died” and “land of the pilgrims’ pride,” are the reasons why we “let freedom ring.” The tune ties the lyric to the point. Song bullets its way to the patriotic heart faster than any politician’s speech. In that moment, the tune spoke to that part of me, which, even then, sought to analyze the art. I must have sung well, for Mr. LeRoy announced that, though my voice would change, he’d have me singing with the altos, the girls—but I could stand next to the boys. I was in.

I thought “in” meant wearing that Kool-Aid-purple choir robe whose toga-like pleats draped to the floor. That was only the start. In meant learning to sing while you listened to your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor sing. In meant the sound of a room resonating during rehearsal, our ears ringing like gongs. The tunes were often rock-ribbed Protestant hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” with its delineated doctrine on “God, in three person, blesséd tri-ni-ty.” But there were also anthems and carols, the German round, “Music Alone Shall Live,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” even hand-clapping Negro spirituals. Sung tone captivated me—it was physically indelible, breathing our bodies like bellows. That music entered and exited through the flesh and not the mind convinced me of the body’s intelligence. I remember, every December, rapturous Saturdays preparing Christmas stalwarts like “Joy to the World,” a tune that climbed down the major scale from top to bottom, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which, in a minor mode, ran along sneakily, bum-Bum, bum-Bum, bum-Bum, bum-Bum, bum-Bum, bum-Bum, bum-Bummmmm. To which Mr. LeRoy, buoyed by our “bum”s, would exclaim, “Sing like that and you’ll bring the house down.”

And yet, after several Sundays, during the long-seated pauses, during the sacraments and the pastor’s sermon, I began to fidget. Something was amiss. In rehearsal, we sang as though we were conversing with one another, the sound engulfing us and Mr. LeRoy. In performance, it was different. Our rehearsal camaraderie was supposed to continue on stage; its energy would be projected onto—and shared with—the audience. They were to participate in our vibration. They completed us. When they didn’t respond, at first I didn’t understand. The bench-backed brethren before us slumped like fed bears. Their listless gaze said either they didn’t get it or we, the singers, needed to—what, intone more righteously? I could feel us trying. But maybe we didn’t have it in us. Perhaps the drag was the absence of applause, the look of exhausted privacy that seemed inborn with Methodists.

Many a Sunday, to my disappointment, we slogged through the doxology, a half-a-beat off. We ground through the hymns, singing and staring at family members in the near distance, my mother, my brothers, never my father. Why was the flock dozing? Didn’t they want the good tidings we bore them? The harder we pushed, the less they moved, until our efforts petered out. Through it all, Mr. LeRoy propelled us on, but even his bright face dimmed. In the light of the stained-glass windows, in the glow of the minister’s jeweled vestments, there echoed a mere performance of a feeling—until I recognized the fiction. We were being used to prop up a flaccid faith.

4 /

A Saturday afternoon, and I am with my father in our Ford station wagon. We are on our way home after choir practice and a haircut. A gas station attendant is pumping the gas. The car’s tan upholstered insides my father keeps Spic ‘n’ Span. He rubs the just-buzzed hair on my head, stiff like a putting green. His hand swishes over, from nape to top. I like the feeling. Cherished. I smell the barber’s talc, the tightness of the paper collar, lingering on my neck. From his wallet, he thumbs out two dollars for the man.

Sometimes when he is not looking at me I espy the gold tooth in his mouth.

“You like that choir, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” I say.

He asks if the leader ever talks to us about God.

It’s a strange question, but, “No,” I say, “he tries to get us to listen to the person next to us. And to watch him.”


“Because he knows where we’re going.”

“I’m sure he knows where you’re going, Tom.”

“He knows the song, I mean.”

“What is the song?”

“The song,” I kind of laugh, “is the song. He knows how the song’s supposed to go, and he wants us to sing it that way.”

“You like it because he knows how it goes and he wants you to sing it his way?”

A big patch of empty air lies between us as if we’re on opposite sides of a street. Our words hang there, hovering, noiselessly. There’s something about my answers my father doesn’t trust. I wonder, Does he think the church is using us? That the congregation is unmoved? That my desire to make music is guiding me toward what I want, which is, in part, away from him?

I tell him that I don’t want to go to church but I do want to sing.

He fixes on me. Almost all the thick black hair he had as a boy is either gray or gone. He says, “That’s not all they want. You’ve got to watch out, Tom. They will sucker you in with open arms, then sell you a load of claptrap even they don’t believe. That’s what religions do.” He taps the wheel and continues. “Once they cast their spell, they’ll take what you love. What you value. And you won’t get it back.” He looks at a grove of buckeyes behind the station, their branch ends bud-tipped, the green barely fused. He turns to me. “Watch out. You have to fight off that spell.”

I see, then, in the sky blue of those suspicious eyes, an abandoned place in him, like a bombed-out building in a bombed-out town, where his passion for God had been and been vaporized into radioactive dust. I also see him acknowledging an alien passion in me. He softens, smiles, and, again, swishes his hand over my buzz cut, from nape to top—this time passing to me I’m not sure what: a sword and shield and chainmail suit behind which I might hold off any dragon like the one who bore down on him all those years ago. Why would I need his armor? Not only had I proved I was altogether capable of deceiving myself—that was a given—but the music I loved I could love too much. Just as he did. With the church. With his idea of the church. It’s the zeal for the thing I should watch. One arms oneself against one’s own defenselessness.

5 /

The following week, at rehearsal, Mr. LeRoy was in top form, as though our lackluster Sundays had never crossed his mind. He cajoled and inspired us: accent this rhythm like so; listen here for the fifth above your tonic; sing this line loud because it’s the point of the tune. From him, I felt the discipline of making music for its own sake, clearly, more vital than churchly ritual. Music journeyed us: we boarded the train and were taken far away, ourselves a station stop we watched recede, disappear, and reappear an hour later. It wasn’t hard to realize getting there was in the going: the enactment of the tune, not its reception, was its end.

That morning I met eyes and smiles with a girl named Molly. Molly’s was the face of exaltation. In the quivering of her throat, in the tune trumpeting from her mouth, there was an implacable now, a voiced halo, pulsing its embryonic heart. It was human—the undivine—present, not displaced, not beyond. I got what Molly was sending me. The other half my father never knew or had summarily expelled. Yes, the church brought us in to sing. And it’s true, “God’s house” has good acoustics. I don’t doubt that he has a toe to tap and a horn to toot. But God is not the reason we raise our voices. He’s not responsible for how good we feel. Our bodies are. They choir the hymn. They score the assembly. Whenever we sing, the union of music and words begins and ends with us. If any glory’s intended, the spoils are all ours.

That Catholicism could be separate from artistic passion was a distinction I don’t think my father grasped. He never spoke of St. Mary’s, his childhood church, as a venue for song, a village spire worthy of some compensatory due. No, for him, the creedal nonsense and the intellectual vacuum soured everything. As I say, he thought music and faith were bedfellows. The indivisible is what he beheld in me: I was just as entranceable as he was to a ritual’s or a choirmaster’s spell, that procurement which masquerades as our inborn desire, whose attractiveness is, in part, a need to be procured. Art’s procurement I treasured. I always have. But for my father self-deception was the commonest human motivation. Thus came his single-breath scorn—priests and pastors, panderers and pimps. It’s no different with the movies. Or the government. Or the glory of war. The arts, too—it’s all a racket. When he tossed out God and religion, out went music, literature, and philosophy as well. (I grew up in a home where other than Wells’ Outline the only records and books were bought by my brothers and me. Television—The Andy Williams Show and Get Smart—ruled.) My father’s lasting belief—I get it now—was believing, no, expecting, any desire he nursed would betray him.

Quitting seminary seemed his right to life. But freedom from faith is wearying and more drama than it’s worth. On those nights when he couldn’t sleep, when, sitting in his cotton pajamas and silk robe, he looked at the dark with a kind of labored indifference, undiscussed and stubbornly private, when, as a teenager, I would come in late dazzled by an Ingmar Bergman film or a Thelonious Monk concert, and he’d check that I was home (drunk or high, didn’t matter: being home did), I’d catch him in his ancient vulnerability—that frailest part of him, still so dear to me—and wondered whether he regretted that by demonizing the church, and his part in it, he had dismissed all spells, the best and the worst among them.

His demons were not mine. Some code, either in my body or in the force of the music, kept me from confusing the church with what sounded inside it. Pierced by the Orphic arrow, I was smitten by song for much of my life. In high school a capella every morning for three years, I sang with one hundred others. “Away in a Manger” and George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” “Down By the Riverside” and Randall Thompson’s “Choose Something Like a Star.” I taught myself the clarinet and the guitar, later studied piano and composition in music school. I wrote and performed my own work, solo and in groups. Along the way, I became lost in literature and was seduced by writing, a loft less elevated than music. That the writing eventually won out suggests my father understood how our talents operate: for a long time, music disarmed my verbal affinity, kept my body beguiled, my mind lulled. Then one day, on the heels of my divorce, following ten years of marriage and twin sons, the music didn’t show anymore, and there I was, twice let go.

It’s a paradox to be awakened to our calling—only after it’s been sorted out. To become the writer I am the music had to delay. And yet for me the greatest deception, self or otherwise, is that believing anything without doubt can kill the beautiful and its arousal in us. As it did with my father, such an early shock can make the absence of enchantment more necessary than the risk of it stealing back in. How awful the wish to have never been arrowed at all.

What is the wandering core I feel in all this? I find an overture-like joy to have been neither soiled by sin nor bent by salvation. And yet shouldn’t I feel thankful to something for escaping those trials? Maybe the credit goes to our human speciation, our one hundred millennia to date, the washing free of each generation, learning to pay homage to an absence. How do I honor the nothing that was wrong with me or with my father, for that matter; that I was, like you, blessed with nothing the priests and the pastors needed to fix? I didn’t even need to deny the faith he once had and then had to deny. There he is, in my binocular view, on the road to nowhere, cherishing his defenses, liberating his children, those father things I am truly grateful for.


[This piece received "special mention" as a nonfiction nominee to The Pushcart Prize XLIII: 2019.]