My father died eight years ago today. Rather than focus on his death, I thought I’d concentrate on his life.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter Two of my forthcoming book, in which I go into detail about the interesting man he was.
My father, Gerald Robert Smith, was born in 1920 in Michigan. One of four children, he picked blackberries in the summer, delivered newspapers growing up, and enlisted in the Air Force the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
He was trained as a fighter pilot, flew B-24s over Europe, dropping bombs on Germany. His plane was shot down in 1944 and my father was captured and taken to a German prison camp for the last six months of the war.
Although he likes to talk about the war, I find it impossible to follow along. War is a two-dimensional concept to me, a few pages in a history book read aloud in a class I don’t want to be in.
There are more interesting parts to my dad’s life, I think. Like his other family.
After the war, at age twenty-four, my father returned home to Michigan, to a wife he barely knew and to a son who’d been born while he was away. He finished college, went on to have a couple more children, and then moved his whole family to Southern California.
My father then delved into a career as a mechanical engineer. He began working with men like Wernher von Braun, a German rocket science engineer, whose name I will come across for the rest of my life. And for the next two decades my father traveled the globe, leaving his family alone in their little house in Pasadena, while he sat in smoky conference rooms with men who were trying to change the world.
In my twenties my half-siblings, who are all twice as old as I am, will tell me stories of the man they hardly knew, the one who came home late at night, the one who was gone first thing in the morning. The man with the temper, the guy who hardly knew his wife. This man they speak of, our same father, is one I never met, and sometimes I have to remind them of this when they question my devotion to him.
In the early seventies my father moved his family again, this time to Florida. It was there where he finally divorced his wife Helen, and where his children became old enough to go to college.
He married once more, this time for less than a year. I can never remember her name.
By the time 1975 rolled around my father was living in Atlanta. He had three grown children, two divorces under his belt, and a prosperous steel manufacturing company that afforded him more money than he’d ever dreamed of.
1975 also found him wearing a funny blue suit he’d bought in Mexico as he rang my mother’s buzzer in Manhattan one warm June morning. The suit was stitched to look like denim and embroidered with brightly colored flowers.
My parents had been set up on a blind date by mutual friends, but the night they were supposed to go out my mother stood him up. She’d gone to Long Island that day with a friend to pick strawberries, and by the time she came home the last thing she felt like doing was going on a blind date with some older businessman from Atlanta.
My mother was thirty-seven years old and had lived in Manhattan for seventeen years by then. She had dozens of friends. She went to parties and art openings. She smoked pot in the village and spent Tuesday nights in smoky jazz clubs, sipping martinis and recrossing her legs.
My mother was funny and quick-witted, and always up for an adventure. She was uncommonly pretty, with those green eyes and blond hair, that symmetrical face and easy smile. When she went to sleep that night in early June in her little one bedroom apartment on Twenty-Eighth Street, she had no idea that her life was about to change.
My father, at fifty-five years old, was just entering his prime. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the two divorces and three grown children, he was happier than he’d ever been.
He flew first-class wherever he went. He stayed at the Watergate Hotel when he was in D.C. and The Plaza in New York. He winked at stewardesses and drank tumblers of scotch on the rocks. He wore hats and suits and left big tips at fancy restaurants.
He wasn’t used to being stood up, so the next morning he rang my mother’s buzzer at 9am. “Who dares call anyone before noon on a Sunday in New York?” my mother later wrote about that first encounter. “It had to be you, as they say, and I opened the door with wet hair asking if you wanted a Bloody Mary, which you did, thank God.”
I try to imagine this moment between them. My mother in the doorway with her wet hair, my father on the threshold in his blue Mexican leisure suit, the moment of them not knowing each other and knowing each other eclipsed in one short breath.
They went to The Sign of the Dove, “a very un-NY restaurant because it’s so pretty and light and which I hadn’t been to in years,” my mother wrote. “It couldn’t have been more beautiful and sunlit and green and smelling of fresh flowers and the oysters and Eggs Florentine and bottle of Montrachet are what must have been what made me say yes to an invitation to go swimming in your pool in Atlanta that very evening.”
They flew to Atlanta that afternoon and made daiquiris with the strawberries my mother had picked on Long Island the day before. They swam in my father’s pool and smoked Camels and talked into the night, their legs dangling into the water lit from below by the pool light.
They were married three months later on Cape Cod. I was born two years after that.