Friday, March 27, 2015

Semper Fidelis, Yeah, Always Faithful-For Lawrence James Jackman


From The Pen Of Bart Webber

Frank Jackman freaked out as he jogged that early pre-dawn morning along the previously untrodden pavement before him, “freaked out” a term not now currently in use but an old expression picked up in the 1960s counter-cultural night out in the West, probably San Francisco, where many such terms were coined in the drug-filled blue-pink night. After the freak-out subsided, and still jogging to clear his thoughts, he began flash-thinking back to the long ago events that had caused this particular freak-out, that unfinished family business that never got resolved and for a long time now had been placed on hold in the deep recesses of his mind since he could no longer do anything about making things right.  Making things right like he had done with lots of other bad situations that he tried to make amends for as he got older, getting on an even keel after decades of statutory neglect with his old growing up town days, his old high school feeling left out and aliened days, his old corner boys petty crime and midnight shifter days, a few old flames that he had abandoned days, a few whom he had left high and dry, very high and dry days, a couple of ex-wives left in the lurch when he headed wherever he was heading and with who days, and a couple of his siblings short-changed days, and then honed in on the thought of that unresolved business that very well could have been resolved or at least put on an even keel too.

Then head down in thought still moving along out of some unconscious impulse he shed a tear in the darkest hour before the dawn on that unfamiliar roadway, a tear not learned in the West but learned in his po’ boy growing up in the East, shed a tear stumbling in the dark to find the sidewalk in front of him like some night-hunter before him for all that he had not done or said, not done or said to his father, Lawrence Jackman, in the long ago when he had the chance. Strange, freaking out, shedding that tear just that early morning since in the past he seldom thought of his father long gone to a sad unacknowledged grave thirty years before.

Once you hear the circumstances, once you hear what happened that morning as Frank related it to over drinks one night in Boston few days later, then you will probably agree that the freak-out and that shed tear were not out of order. Agree with me too since I knew his father, not well as in those days fathers were distant figures, when we were growing together in Carver, a town about thirty miles south of Boston.

This is the back story of how that freak-out spilled out of Frank’s inner workings and why that tear had been shed. Frank had, as he had for many years now, ever since his military service during the Vietnam War, been active one way or another in the anti-war movements against the hubris of American governmental foreign policy that crisscrossed his life. Been active as kind of a penance, an act of atonement for what he had had to do then, had to do because he got caught up in lots of things he did not understand, did not inquire about even as he had feelings deep down that the thing was wrong, that he was not built to be a killing machine against people who had done him no harm. But he had nothing in his life, schooling, way of living that would have directed the better instincts of his nature to another course then (and he was not alone once you hear the stories of the guys who got caught up in that war machine without really knowing how to resist the damn thing then, or wanting to in their patriotic working-class neighborhoods). He was damn well sure that he would get the message out loud and clear to forewarn new generations about the nefarious doings of the American government whenever he could. Other governments too but as the old Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che” Guevara, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and periodically an iconic hero to the young desperately in need of self-less heroic figures in their fights against a world they did not create, said of those radicals and revolutionaries who work in the States that they were in the “belly of the beast” and needed to slay that dragon first and foremost to insure the safety of the rest of the world.

Frank had paid attention to a call from various peace and social justice groups who set up a Facebook page for the event and who were sponsoring an anti-war rally in front of the White House on March 21st to coincide with the 12th anniversary of the start of the second Iraq War in 2003 in Washington, D.C. (he would let ride his feeling that the whole Iraq quagmire really had been a continuously on-going war since the first days of 1991 and let the “official” twelve years stand in mute commemoration). So he had once against travelled the well-worn road from his home in York, Maine to D.C. in order to participate once again, to “show the colors” as an old biker friend who had saved his bacon and that of others in ‘Nam, Jeff Crawford, who did not make it back to the “real world” after that experience winding up face down on a bloody road just south of Carlsbad, California after a botched liquor store robbery in 1976 always used to say while they were on guard duty about the biker gang that he hung with around in Ellsworth up by Bar Harbor. You just had to let people know you were even if small in number alive and well, and ready to raise in-you-face hell about the matter.

Of course in order to “show the colors” these days unlike in the old days when for a number of years after he had been discharged from the Army in order to show he had gotten “religion” on the issues of war and peace Frank would sojourn down to D.C. at the drop of a hat hitchhiking when that mode of transportation was less of a hassle, when you could thumb without being either picked up by the cops as a “vag” or in fear of getting pick up by weirdos and psychos. Later when the open roads were not save by some rickety long ass ride siting inevitably beside a snorer, a huge guy, or some mother with a kid on her lap bus. Now by plane though. And, truth too, he no longer slept on some young local D.C. volunteer’s living room floor in his old army sleeping bag (not from ‘Nam” days but of World War II vintage bought at an Army-Navy store in Cambridge when he knew he was going to be on many living room floors, or in the anteroom of some welcoming church, some Quaker meeting house or some Universalist or Unitarian church before they joined forces, or in Rock Creek Park if nothing was available but now a cheap but clean motel. This motel was locate just over the Potomac River from D.C. in Arlington, Virginia, one that he had not used previously.

Frank had since his retirement from a government job in the Boston area a couple of years before taken up again his old-time habit of running, really jogging to put a proper name to what it felt like to him as the youngsters passed him by with ease, even chucky kids, which he had started as a kid to get out of the house and to get out some of his home-life teenage angst and alienation frustrations but had not done so for a number of years before starting up again for the same reasons except put oldster in front of the reasons rather than teenager. He had jogged in D.C. previously but in a different location so as he left his motel that dark morning he was trending new ground although he had an idea that he wanted to head toward the Potomac to try and catch the running trails that he knew dotted the river.  

He had gotten up before six in the morning on the Saturday of the day of the protest, his usually tried to do his running when he his wobbly legs had some spring in them, and figured that he would head to the Memorial Bridge and into DC for a bit having seen a sign on a street close to the motel the afternoon before saying that the bridge was about a mile or so away. So he had started in that direction in the very dark before the dawn. As he picked his way through what seemed like a park he noticed to his left a strong white light illuminating something and as he approached his heart sank for the white light was jumping off of the famous iconic Iwo Jima Memorial to the fallen Marines of World War II (and other wars, excursions, interventions, invasions, and occupations) and that is when he freaked out.

At first Frank thought about how he had never been this close to the monument, had considered that he had not had previous occasion, and no desire, to see the sight (and seeing the monument up close made him cringe since this outfit had been involved in every nefarious war and skirmish since back in American revolution times as inscribed for all to see at the base). Frank knew it represented a big moment in the last stages of the Pacific War Theater of World War II and that it had ever since been forever etched in every schoolboy’s mind (now schoolgirls too, he figured) as a sign of gritty determination, and of another way of “showing the colors” since the whole point had been to capture the hill and plant the flag and thus show the Japanese who were kings of the hill. He also had previously only known the story of one of the soldiers planting the flag, a Puma Indian from out in Arizona, a Native American who was treated just like every other “injun” when he got back and wound up just another dead drunk in some stinking sullen arroyo out in the low desert.

Moving past that monument Frank began to well up thinking about his father, his poor bedraggled father, who had been a Marine too during World War II just like the guys in the white-lighted group statute, who had fought and survived in Guadalcanal in 1942. Had taken his fair share of hardships in other Pacific battles (as also separately noted on the base of that statute) and did his duty as he saw it. Did his duty as he saw it and like a lot of other fathers from World War II, hell, like Frank in ‘Nam, didn’t want to talk about it, said they did what they had to do and that was that.

Thought too about when his poor father told him a story from before the war when Frank was young and inquisitive and wanted to know how he got into the Marines and why he wound up in Boston. See his father was not from Boston, not from the North at all, he had been born and raised in coal country, born down in Hazard in Kentucky, Hazard of famous labor struggles and folksong. He had been working in the coal mines when Pearl Harbor happened. Lawrence Jackman had not thought twice about joining the Marines when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor rather than continue in the deadly coal fields, said he would rather take his chances against the Japanese than against the coal dust, and he never looked back. Toward the end of the war he had been assigned to a naval depot at Portsmouth, New Hampshire and one weekend had travelled to Boston where he attended a USO dance and met Laura Riley, Frank’s mother who was from Carver, about thirty miles south of Boston. So yeah, he never looked back. 

Although Frank though that morning something that he had never thought before, maybe Lawrence Jackman, his long underrated father, should have looked back since he never drew a break in this this wicked old world once he decided to stay in the North after the war at Laura’s insistence. Never got in on that golden age of American labor that a lot of families bought into, and were rewarded with a few of life’s goods like a private home, a decent automobile and some nice vacations and entertainments. See Lawrence was uneducated, barely finishing elementary school before he hit the mines to help his struggling nine children motherless family. The hard luck push was that the Boston labor market was in no need of very good coalminers, and so he was always shuffled off into some last hired, first fired unskilled jobs making no money, forced to live in public housing for long enough for the culture of poverty, for the never-ending “wanting habits” that accumulate down at the base of society to grip his kids. See he and Laura produced four close-in-age fast-growing sons who made one Lawrence Jackman continuously fret about feeding and housing his own. Add to that a deeply disappointed Laura Jackman who expected to rise when all the boats were rising in the 1950s and you had some explosive situations, you had some very tense times around the Jackman household. And as those four sons came of age they created endless heartaches for their father, a couple going to jail, another put in a mental hospital after too much craziness on the outside and Frank, well Frank was nothing but a corner boy and just smart enough to stay out of the state’s institutions but not smart enough to see that his actions were killing his father since his father had pinned his hopes on him.  Although Lawrence Jackman never wavered as a family man, took whatever life’s bitches had to offer him in sullen distant silence.     

Several years before, back in 2009 after Frank had received news from a family member that his estranged mother had passed away and thereafter he had taken a trip down to the Carver Heights cemetery to pay his last respects to her if not in life then in death. While there noticed that on his father’s adjacent grave site somebody, or rather some organization as he found out later, had placed an additional stone beside the traditional headstone denoting his service as a Marine in World War II. (He on a return trip would place a Marine Corps flag next to that stone as a physical token that Lawrence James Jackman had done his duty as he saw it and that someone beside the Marine Corps Association recognized that fact.) Reflecting the sadness of the moment Frank had shortly thereafter written a post hoc letter to his mother to be sent to family members in an attempt to finally reconcile with his mother, even if from beyond the grave. Filled with emotion during that period about what had gone awry in the nuclear Jackman family Frank had also written a belated obituary for his father to be passed around to those who knew him and to the family around Father’s Day trying to put paid to the grief he had caused that worthy man. This is what Frank had to say:

In honor of Lawrence James Jackman, 1920-1990, Sergeant, United States Marine Corps, World War II, Pacific Theater and, perhaps, for other Carver World War II veteran   fathers too.

I have always turned red, turned bluster, fluster, embarrassed, internal red, red with shame, red at this time of the year, this father’s day time of the year, when I have thought about my own father, the late Lawrence James Jackman. And through those shades of red I have thought, sometimes hard, sometimes just a flicker thought passing, too close, too red close to continue on, to think about the things that I never said to my father, about what never could be said to him, and above all, because when it came right down to it since we might as well have been on different planets, what could not be comprehended when said. But although death has now separated us by some twenty years I still turn red, more internal red these days, when I think about the slivers of talk that could have been talked, usefully said. And I, Francis Mark Jackman, will go to my own grave having that hang over my father’s day thoughts.

But just this minute, just this pre-Father’s Day minute, I want to call a truce to my red-faced shame, internal or otherwise, and pay public tribute, pay belated public tribute to Lawrence James Jackman, and maybe it will rub off on others too. And just maybe cut the pain of the thought of having those unsaid things hang over me until the grave.

See, here’s the funny part, the funny part now, about speaking, publicly or privately, about my father, at least when I think  about the millions of children around who are, warm-heartedly, preparing to put some little gift together for the “greatest dad in the world.” And of other millions, who are preparing, or better, fortifying themselves in preparation for that same task for dear old dad, although with their teeth grinding. I cannot remember, or refuse to remember, a time for eons when I, warm-heartedly or grinding my teeth, prepared anything for my father’s Father’s Day, except occasional grief that might have coincided with that day’s celebration. No preparation was necessary for that. That was all in a Frank’s day’s work, my hellish corner boy day’s work or, rather, night’s work, the sneak thief in the night work, later turned into more serious criminal enterprises. But the really funny part, ironic maybe, is grief-giving, hellish corner boy sneak thief, or not, one Lawrence James Jackman, deserves honor, no, requires honor today because by some mysterious process, by some mysterious transference I, in the end, was deeply formed, formed for the better by that man.

And you see, and it will perhaps come as no surprise that I was estranged from my family for many years, many teenage to adult years and so that my father’s influence, the “better angel of his nature,” influence had to have come very early on. I, even now, maybe especially now, since I have climbed a few mountains of pain, of hard-wall time served, and addictions to get here, do not want to go into the details of that fact, just call them ugly, as this memorial is not about Frank Jackman and his tribulations in the world, but Lawrence Jackman’s.

Here is what needs to be told though because something in that mix, that Lawrence Jackman gene mix, is where the earth’s salts mingled to spine me against my own follies when things turned ugly later in my life. Lawrence James Jackman, that moniker almost declaring that here was a southern man, as my name was a declaration that I was a son of a southern man, came out of the foothills of Kentucky, Appalachian Kentucky. The hills and hollows of Hazard, Kentucky to be exact, in the next county over from famed, bloody coal wars, class struggle, which-side-are-you-on Harlan County, but still all hard-scrabble coal-mining country famous in story and song- the poorest of the poor of white Appalachia-the “hillbillies.” And the poorest of the poor there, or very close to it, was my father’s family, his four brothers and four sisters, his elderly father and his too young step-mother. Needless to say, but needing to be said anyway, my father went to the mines early, had little formal schooling and was slated, like generations of the Jackman clan before him, to live a short, brutish, and nasty life, scrabbling hard, hard for the coal, hard for the table food, hard for the roof over his head, hard to keep the black lung away, and harder still to keep the company wolves away from his shack door. And then the Great Depression came and things got harder still, harder than younger ears could understand today, or need to hear just now.

At the start of World War II my father jumped, jumped with both feet running once he landed, at the opportunity to join the Marines in the wake of Pearl Harbor, had fought his fair share of battles in the Pacific Theater, including Guadalcanal, although he, like many men of his generation, was extremely reticent to talk about his war experiences. By the vagaries of fate in those up-ending times my father eventually was stationed at the huge Portsmouth Naval Depot up in New Hampshire before being discharged at the end of the war, a make-shift transport naval base about one hundred miles from Carver.

I have to interrupt my train of thought for a minute as I just chuckled to myself when I think about my father’s military service, thought about one of the few times when my father and I had had a laugh together. My father often recounted that things were so tough in Hazard, in the mines of Hazard, in the slag heap existence of Hazard, that in a “choice” between continuing in the mines and daily facing death at Tojo’s or Hitler’s hands that he picked the latter, gladly, and never looked back. Part of that never looking back, of course, was the attraction of Laura Riley (Carver High School Class of 1941), my mother whom my father met while stationed at Portsmouth after meeting at a USO dance in Boston. They married shortly thereafter, had four sons, my late brother, Jubal, killed many years ago while engaged in an attempted armed robbery, me, ex-sneak thief, ex-dope-dealer, ex-addict, ex-Vietnam wounded soldier, ex-, well, enough of ex’s, a younger brother, Prescott, now serving time at one of the Massachusetts state correctional institutions as a repeat offender, and Kenneth who drifted off one day at sixteen and never came back. Not a pretty picture but over for him now. Well, not quite, whatever my father might have later thought about his decision to leave the hellhole of the Appalachian hills. He was also a man, as that just mentioned family resume hints at, who never drew a break, not at work, not through his sons, not in anything.

I am not quite sure how to put it in words that are anything but spilled ashes since it would be put differently, much differently in this year of 2009 than in, let’s say, 1971, or 1961 but I have thought of it this way when I tried to write the sentiment I want to express here several years ago and could not quite it in words then:

“My father was a good man, he was a hard- working man when he had work, and he was a devoted family man. But go back to the point about where he was from, from down in Appalachia. He was also an uneducated man with no skills for the Boston labor market. There was no call for a coal miner's skills in Boston after World War II so he was reduced to unskilled, last hired, first fired jobs. This was, and is, not a pretty fate for a man with hungry mouths to feed. And stuck in the old Carver Housing Authority apartments, come on now let’s call a thing by its real name, real recognizable name, “the projects,” the place for the poorest of the poor, Carver version, to boot.

“To get out from under a little and to share in the dream, the high heaven dream, working poor post-World War II dream, of a little house, no matter how little, of one’s own if only to keep the neighbor’s loud business from one’s door Laura,  proud, stiffly Irish 1930s Depression stable working-class proud Laura, worked. Laura worked mother’s night shifts at one of the first Carver Dunkin’ Donuts filling jelly donuts for hungry travelers in order to scrap a few pennies together to buy an old, small, rundown house, on the wrong side of the tracks, on Maple Street for those who remember that locale, literally right next to the old Bay Lines railroad tracks. So the circle turned and the Jackman family returned back to the Carver of Laura’s youth.”

“I grow pensive when I think, or rather re-think, about the toll that the inability to be the sole breadwinner (no big deal now with an almost mandatory two working-parents existence- but important for a man of his generation) took on the man's pride. A wife filling damn jelly donuts, Jesus.

 “And it never really got better for my father from there as his four boys grew to manhood, got into more trouble, got involved with more shady deals, acquired more addictions, and showered more shame on the Lawrence Jackman name than needs to be detailed here. Let’s just say it had to have caused him more than his fair share of heartache. He never said much about it though, in the days when we were still in touch. Never much about why four boys who had more food, more shelter, more education, more prospects, more everything that a Hazard po’ boy couldn’t see straight if their lives depended on it, who led the corner boy life for all it was worth and in the end had nothing but ashes, and a father’s broken heart to show for it. No, he never said much, and I haven’t heard from other sources that he ever said much (Laura was a different story, but this is my father’s story so enough of that). Why? Damn, they were his boys and although they broke his heart they were his boys. That is all that mattered to him and so that, in the end, is how I know, whatever I will carry to my own grave, my father must have forgiven me.

“I am getting internal red again so I have decided that it is time to close this tribute. To go on in this vain would be rather maudlin. Although the old man was unlike me with the Army, he was always a Marine, and he was always closer to the old Marine Corps slogan than I could ever be - Semper Fi- "always faithful." Yes, I think some historic justice had finally been done, that expression is a good way to end this. Except to say something that should have been shouted from the Carver rooftops long ago- “Thanks Dad, you did the best you could.”

Now you know why Frank Jackman shed that tear, that tear for his lost youth, for all the things he did not do, did not say when he had the chance and so maybe you should shed a tear for Semper Fi Lawrence Jackman too.


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