A post for my brother Pat
October 16, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
My brother Pat Wictor is a folksinger. Yesterday he called from the road in New York, and we had a two-hour conversation about our father Edward, who died on February 23, 2013. Ed was a mystery to us. He was the most secretive person I’ve ever known. In fact he scared me my whole life because he was so alien. After Ed died, my brother Tim and I had a talk that made me spend a year researching our father.
To preserve family relationships, you have to be scrupulously respectful of your relatives’ wishes. Just because you’re someone’s sibling doesn’t mean that you have the right to call them up and dump things on them that they may not want to know. Yesterday was the first time that Pat and I discussed my research on our father. Everybody deals with burdens in their own way. An empathetic person won’t demand that the world conform to his own approach. After two years, Pat was ready to talk.
At his peak, our father smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and drank two quarts of scotch. He did so for decades, driven by his tortured psyche. The reason he was secretive was that he had done many things that he didn’t want known. With good reason.
I’m of the opinion that nearly all people like my father are made, not born. Here he is in 1930 at the age of two, trying to please his parents by posing the way they demanded.
My paternal grandfather Frank was— Well, this photo captures Frank’s essence best.
Frank was what people call a “lovable rogue.” He was an avid photographer, but what he liked to do was to “tease” his subjects until they were either reduced to tears or ready to explode with rage. Then Frank would take the picture. This is my paternal grandmother Angelina with my father in 1930.
Angelina never smiled, unless something bad happened to someone. It’s as clear as day to me that Frank put my father through some kind of hell before clicking the shutter. My father looks anxious and resigned as he tries to be a good boy. A two-year-old should never have that expression. And a one-year-old should never look like this.
In this photo that Frank took in 1945, my father is seventeen.
For the fifty-two years that I knew Ed, I virtually never saw him smile or frown. His face was a mask that hid his emotions. As he told Tim, “I can talk about anything as long as it isn’t personal.” This is the only photo in existence of my father looking furious. I know what happened right before Frank took the picture.
“Your shirt’s got a square collar. It’s a girl’s shirt. Whatcha doin’, little girl? Readin’ a little girl’s magazine? Lookin’ up patterns for dresses? We’ll put a dress on you and call you Little Sue!”
My father once said that to Tim: “We’ll put a dress on you and call you Little Sue.” Ed was a tape recorder that played his father’s words. I corroborated it with my mother. For his eighty-four years, my father spoke like a man born in 1900. He called cars “automobiles,” described murder as “clipping,” called machine guns “typewriters,” referred to hired muscle as “torpedoes,” and complained constantly about “stool pigeons.”
By 1947, at the age of nineteen, my father had perfected the mask he wore the entire time that I knew him.
He’d given in to Frank and armored himself. It was around that time that he began his titanic drinking.
When Mom and Dad got engaged, CeeCee flew to Iowa while Ed drove their new car from Louisiana. Mom spent a few days with Frank and Angelina. The night Dad arrived, Mom was sitting on the sofa with Frank. She saw the car lights in the driveway.
“Look! Ed’s here!” she said and stood up.
Frank grabbed her by one arm and the back of her neck and yanked her down onto the sofa next to him.
“That’s not Ed!” he said and roared with laughter. “Ed’s not coming! He ditched ya!”
He wouldn’t let go. Mom told me that she had to physically tear herself away, almost losing her blouse in the process. If you knew my mother, you wouldn’t have wanted to do anything to upset her. When she was distracted from her problems, she was a beautiful and cheery as a sunrise.
Frank and Ed’s hometown of Remsen, Iowa, was the center of bootlegging during Prohibition. The bootleggers were members of the mafia, “made men” who did what it took to protect their turf. After my father died, we learned that he was told of his cancer five years earlier. He sought no treatment. However, he spent three years shredding and burning an entire four-drawer filing cabinet’s worth of correspondence between himself and his father.
Here’s Frank in Long Beach, California.
The official family story according to my father and mother was that Frank and Angelina first visited Venezuela in 1963. That’s not true. My father went to Venezuela in 1955. Sometime that year, Frank joined him.
Even in that poor-quality image, I see conflict in my father’s face. I see sadness and reluctance. Frank—as always—is at ease.
They flew all over South America, Central America, and Mexico. I found three boxes of slides, the places identified with my father’s handwriting. Ed always told me that he’d never been to Ecuador, Panama, Chile, and so on. The slides show that he had. In Mexico Frank and Ed had a chauffeur-driven limousine.
Another slide of Ed from 1955. At this time he was supposed to be a struggling student living hand to mouth.
From 1953 to 1970, my father never looked the same in two photos. He had dozens of pairs of glasses, and he changed his hairstyle constantly.
I discussed all of this with Pat, and he accepted it. Without prompting from me, Pat filled in a lot of the blanks that I deliberately left in my narrative.
“This is really good to know, because it explains everything about Dad,” Pat said.
It does. Before Dad died, he told me that he never wanted to work for an oil company. I asked him why he joined Creole Petroleum Corporation, but he wouldn’t answer. He did that a lot. He’d just sit in silence, staring, until you dropped the subject.
I now know why my father went to work for an oil company. When Frank visited Venezuela in 1963, Mom took a photo. Tim is in the middle.
My father was one of the most physically powerful men I’ve ever encountered, but as you can see, Frank was almost twice as bulky. It was all muscle. The Wictors are some kind of Stone Age throwbacks. All of us inherited the freakish physical strength of our ancestors. My brother Tim and I once carried about fifteen footlockers from storage. Each weighed 600 pounds (272 kilos). We were both past fifty at the time, but we did it by simply grasping the handles, lifting, and shuffling along.
This photo was taken in 1961 in Iowa.
CeeCee holds my brother Paul and pretends that all is well, Ed has donned his mask, Frank avoids eye contact with the photographer, Angelina holds uneasy Tim, my uncle Ken—Dad’s brother—avoids looking at the camera while holding my cousin David, and my Aunt Fel poses demurely.
Ken and Frank hated to be photographed. My uncle never looks at the camera.
As I told Pat yesterday, the reason I began researching our father is that in 1983 I found a magazine photo that shows Ed on a train station in Park Forest, Illinois, in 1954.
There’s no doubt that it’s my father. As Tim observed, “It has to be him because he’s talking to himself.”
Our father hated silence, so he talked to himself, cleared his throat without letup, sang, coughed, sneezed, snorted, and hawked. Silence unnerved him. If there was no noise, he was in danger of thinking, and he couldn’t bear his thoughts and the feelings that they brought with them. He craved noise and numbness.
I took the magazine to his house and told him about it.
“I’ve never been to Illinois in my life!” he shouted.
Initially he didn’t want to look at the photo, but after a cursory glance, he said it wasn’t him. I remembered that strange incident for thirty years. After Ed died, Tim told me a story about our father mentioning people he knew in Cicero, Illinois. So I began my research project. The first thing I did was get copies of my father’s DD Form 214, his discharge papers from the Coast Guard.
The records don’t match the account Ed had given us of his time in the Coast Guard. He enlisted in Nebraska, even though there was a recruitment office in Des Moines, Iowa. According to the Coast Guard, he was a pilot, though he always denied knowing how to fly. Also, his records list his hair color as blond.
Ed had indeed been to Illinois in his life. Serially. He was discharged from the Coast Guard in Chicago, and he went there several times a year beginning in 1951. I have all his old passports. In the 1970s he flew to Chicago about every three months.
These trips had nothing to do with his job at Exxon.
Pat and I discussed it for two hours yesterday. One of the things Pat said was that he’d never seen our father genuinely smile. Ed had three modes for photos. The first was Flex Your Mouth.
Second was You’d Hate to Know What I’m Thinking.
And third was F*ck You and Your Prying Lens.
But as I told Pat yesterday, I’ve discovered several images of the man our father could’ve been if he’d had the strength to renounce his own father. Ed refused to be held accountable, and he denied responsibility for all his actions, which is why he died in terror. There was no need for this fear. The system is benign. When you own up to your sins, you’re given a chance to make amends. My father is an unquiet spirit, but he had moments of genuine happiness.
The last photo is Ed and Mari, the sister of our Venezuelan maid Nina. Mari was the funniest person I’ve ever met. She could even crack up my father.
At the start of his marriage to CeeCee, Ed made a genuine effort to break away from Frank. In the end my father lost. I can see why. Frank wasn’t tortured at all by his choices. He did what he wanted, and he would never have allowed his son to escape.
Frank’s death in 1965 sealed my father’s fate. The Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller wrote that when a parent dies before the child can see the reality of the relationship, it becomes impossible for the child to ever “betray” the dead. Instead, the parent is elevated to sainthood
“My father was a lovely man,” Ed told me many times. I never argued. Ed was torn by his choices, so he self-medicated himself into almost every possible illness a person can have. Since I was afraid of my father, I took only one photo of him my entire life. This is it.
He had only a few months left to live.
But despite his troubles, there was a period in which he was happy. It was caught on film, so Pat and I know that it existed.
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