The armored man
November 9, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
One of my favorite films is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. It’s been called the most depressing movie ever made. I disagree. It’s a cautionary tale.
The movie is about a secret company that allows disaffected middle-aged men to fake their deaths and start over. For a fee the company gives the men plastic surgery, sets them up in their dream occupation, provides them with housing and a love interest, and turns them loose. Unfortunately, when given a second chance, most men make the same mistakes all over again.
Rock Hudson had a mental breakdown during the filming of the final scene. A closeted gay, he lived a secret life, and the stress of that and his desperate need to be taken seriously as an actor were too much for him. Frankenheimer also got him drunk for the party scene, resulting in another breakdown. I find that reprehensible.
My father led a secret life. Today I came across a letter he wrote to his aunts, referencing the trip he’d just taken to South Africa.
When he went to South Africa, Dad took his former office manager and my brother Eric, who was an infant at the time. Also, the reason Dad didn’t join us was because he wanted to spend Christmas with his second family, not because he was too busy. I’m writing this post to explain my father and to show that hope is almost never misplaced. The hope-part comes at the end.
A Midwestern armory
Here’s Frank, Dad’s father.
Yes, that photo perfectly illustrates Franks’ personality. One of my father’s childhood duties was searching the bars to find Frank and bring him home for dinner. When Dad lay dying, he loudly relived the time he was five and Frank sent him to the store to buy a cigar. On the way home, Dad rubbed the cigar along the picket fences he passed. He handed Frank what looked like a carnation. And Frank beat the hell out of him.
Frank once spent the summer fishing in Canada. He got so deeply tanned that people kept mistaking him for what in Canada is known as a “First Nations person.” Frank beat them all up and bitched for the next four decades about those goddamn Canucks who called him an Indian.
As an adult Frank lived across the street from his brother Gilbert. The two didn’t speak for sixteen years. Nobody knew why. Then one day the feud ended. Mom said that the longest period Dad went without speaking to her was four months. She once asked him, “Did you like it when your parents gave you the silent treatment?”
“Then why do you do it to me?”
“I don’t know.”
Here’s Dad at the age of two with his mother, Angelina.
The photo is important to me for two reasons: One, my father looks terribly sad and sheepish, and two, it’s the only photo in existence that shows my grandmother smiling like that. My theory is that Frank played some kind of joke on Dad right before the photo was taken. Angelina loved Schadenfruede, particularly when children were the object. Mom said Angelina would hold Tim and Paul and make tragic faces, crooning, “Oh, poor, poor baby. Poor, poor baby,” until my brothers began crying. Soon Mom developed elaborate stratagems for preventing Angelina from holding the babies.
When Mom went to Remsen to meet her future in-laws in May of 1959, she and Dad traveled separately. Frank and Angelina picked up Mom at the airport late at night; Dad would arrive the next day by car. Mom spent that day talking with Frank and Angelina, getting to know them. In the evening they adjoined to the living room, Mom and Frank on opposite ends of the sofa. Suddenly, headlights illuminated the room as a car pulled into the driveway.
“It’s Ed!” Mom said and began to stand up. Frank lunged forward and grabbed her by one wrist and the back of the neck. Mom said he was unbelievably strong, like an animal.
“Siddown!” he yelled. “That’s not Ed! It’s a stranger! Ed’s not coming!”
Mom gave Frank a strained chuckle. He pulled her back down onto the sofa; Mom said his fingers on the back of her neck reminded her of how lions kill their prey.
“Let go of me,” she said emphatically.
“No! That ain’t Ed! You’re goin’ nowhere! Ed’s not coming, ever! You’re gonna have to live with us by yourself!”
Mom stood and tore herself from Frank’s grasp. As she ran to the front door, Frank’s raucous laughter followed her.
Here’s Dad at seventeen. This is the only image I’ve seen in which he looks angry.
Even when he was angry during the time I knew him, his face never changed. This may be the only Ed Wictor frown captured on film. It could even be the only Ed Wictor frown that existed, however fleetingly. Since Frank took the photo, I’m positive that Dad’s expression is the result of funnin,’ as they call it in the Midwest.
“Whattaya wearin’? Only girls’ shirts have square collars! Are you a girl? Huh? Whattaya readin’, a little girlie magazine with pictures of dollies? You daddy’s little girl? Is that what you are? Daddy’s cute little girl? Aw, I’m only funnin’ ya! Say cheese!”
There’s distinct sadness in that frown. Sadness, disappointment, and the recognition of being totally rooked in the father-department.
Angelina had a sister named Edna.
Edna’s husband often went on benders and disappeared for days. Seventeen-year-old Ed would be sent out to find the man. Once when Ed located him, Edna’s husband said, “Let’s not go home. Why don’t you and me go out and get us a nice piece of ass?”
Here’s Dad at eighteen.
This is the man I knew my whole life. He’s ambiguous, intimidating, and—most critically—impervious. Now he wears a full suit of steel armor.
A suit of armor forces the wearer to use far more energy than carrying the equivalent weight in a backpack. Because the mass is distributed evenly over the entire body, every movement becomes a burden. The suit of armor protects but also exhausts the man wearing it. To remain permanently armored is so difficult that every aspect of volition must be given over to it. Self-protection is the animating force.
My father let down his guard only once during the fifty-one years I knew him, and that was due to illness, medication, and existential fear. At all other times, he was encased in the armor he began forging as an infant.
A Second Chance
Mom said that Dad’s original plan was to divorce her and move to Belgium, where he’d make up for his earlier missteps as a father.
“I didn’t do such a good job with the first five children,” he told her. “This time it’s gonna be different.”
It’s not my place to comment on what kind of a father Ed was to Eric. As Eric says, he and the rest of us had different experiences. However, problems don’t magically go away. Improvement requires a lot of hard work, reflection, and brutal honesty. The armored man is once again constricted, exhausted, and at a disadvantage. His protection drags him down when he needs to be nimble.
What I will say is that Dad gave me a brother to whom I’m as close as I am to Tim. Eric is an incredible man, with deep insight and understanding. As a small child, he came out here alone to meet siblings twenty years older than he is. In this photo he and Dad free ice cubes from the tray.
Dad made terrible choices, again and again and again. As I look through Mom’s effects, I learn more and more about this man who lived eighty-four years in a suit of armor and refused—even at the cost of his life—to change. I now believe that his every action, thought, and utterance was learned behavior.
Yet Eric proves that a person born in difficult circumstances can nevertheless choose to better himself, through sheer force of character. I’m not saying Dad lacked character; all of us are different, and we react differently to the same sets of hurdles. When I look at photos of my father as an infant, I see great sensitivity. The family protocol was to “make a man out of him.” Some people respond well to a process of “toughening up.” Others die.
A graceless, unruly, oblivious, hard-drinking man can beget a sensitive boy who is in no way a chip off the old block. In fact, I viscerally despise the notion that the son should be a reflection of the father. In my mind a child is his or her own person. The parents should gauge the child’s individual temperament and act accordingly. This is difficult when parents wear their own armor. Those steel suits hamper vision, hearing, and touch.
In many ways Dad didn’t have a chance. However, every morning was a new opportunity to do things differently. The problem is that too many adults can’t view their own parents objectively. To acknowledge less-than-ideal behavior is seen as disloyalty and a betrayal. I don’t share that belief. Parents are fallible humans. They often don’t do the best they can. Admitting it is how you free yourself from the past and shed your armor.
My father had this: Christmas Day in Remsen, 1938, with what looks like a bruised face.
I wish he’d had this: La Puente, the summer of 1989.
To his credit Dad allowed us to provide Eric with the support that—combined with his innate strength of character—made a suit of armor unnecessary.
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