I never think much about my Irishness. My parents were not the “kiss me I’m Irish” types, though they were both very proud of their immigrant grandparents, and from them learned of the ugly anti-Irish sentiments when they first got off the boat. In the 1850s and ’60s, New York, Ellis Island and Irish men were, more often than not, conscripted immediately into the Union Infantry, where they became mostly cannon fodder. My father made it clear to me that we were Americans–before anything else.
When people would remark to my father about being Irish, he would pointedly tell them he was an American. My father’s cultural identity was thoroughly about this country; the one his ancestors fought so hard to get to. He was a WWII vet who invaded Okinawa. On days like this, I think of my father’s continuing sacrifices in this life; for family, for country. He was always serving some purpose besides his own, he and my mother.
It has been twelve years since my dad died and his ghosts, fear and sense of duty, still have an active purchase on my own psyche.
Recently, HBO started re-broadcasting its new series, “The Pacific.”
I watched the first episode of “The Pacific” with some trepidation. My dad never discussed the war with me until the very end of his life, and even then, not in great detail. Suffice to say it had a lasting effect on him. Every time a flashbulb went off, every time a car backfired, every time there were sudden bursts of light, I think my father revisited that dinky, ashen island full of heat, dirt, flies and death.
I take every opportunity to tell my kids of my father’s service to his country; that 60 years ago he and three million other 19-year olds saved the world. I remind them that their Irish great-great-grandmother made passage here when Abraham Lincoln was still president. I tell them that the Irish use language better than anyone else on the planet, with the exception of Latin writers–that’s a tie.
The swans are like beautiful black veils of death for me.
My father and I had a complicated relationship; I put many gray hairs on his head. I got in an immense amount of trouble; the only one of my siblings to do so. We fought each other with words and fists. His love could be brutal. I rejected the Catholic faith that he and my mother held dear. I hated school and authority, and thought my teachers were mostly dipshits (with a few exceptions, I wasn’t wrong). I only wanted to draw pictures and be left the fuck alone. The world my father represented didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and in a lot of ways, still doesn’t.
My father and I often battled at the dinner table. He would tell me that at my age he was off fighting a war and I didn’t know a goddamn thing about the world. My father invaded Okinawa in WWII; a bloody, bestial engagement in which Americans took the islands inch-by-bloody-inch in some of the ugliest warfare ever engaged. I never knew. My father did not discuss the war other than to say I had no idea. He was right.
The day my father’s ship, The U.S.S. Noble, approached Okinawa, he saw a number of black swans lolling on the bloody water off Okinawa, like black death flowers, rising and falling, tidally, on the waves. He remembered this is when he started to be afraid.
At the end of my dad’s life, when he was in hospice, I would visit him every day and try to have conversations. It was difficult given that he was on a morphine drip. He would often tell me there was a Japanese soldier in the hallway. I thought maybe my father was mistaking one of the doctors for the soldier, but he said no. He kept insisting there was a Japanese soldier lurking in the hall. I asked him why he thought he was out there and my father replied, “To forgive me.”