Our house is on a flat piece of earth on a mountain plateau and the sky is the view from where we sit. The southern tail of the Rockies tapers off into the plains, and two other modest ranges embrace the area, offering no end of beauty. At first, I thought our property itself, flat, scrubby, prickly, essentially, treeless, was dull. But, taking my eyes up from my feet, over the peaks to the horizon, I realized half my visual world is sky. When I tell people I grew up in Kansas, you hear one of two things: a crack about Dorothy and Toto, or a remark as to how flat it was when they drove through. Everyone drives through, no one stays. Even my Dad, who choose to return there with his family from San Francisco in the 1950’s, dissed Kansas. The original settlers, he liked say, either didn’t have the gumption it took to continue west, or were too lazy to go back, so they plopped down in Kansas. As a kid, I looked at the sky a lot. Clouds, especially. Dad had been a pilot starting with the barnstorming days of aviation. I like to imagine the name comes from getting your ass into a barn when a storm is coming. He had to pay attention to clouds. When I was very young, he taught me some things about predicting weather from them. Cirrus, wispy things, aren’t serious but can point to things to come, nimbostratus, gray and flat, means it’s probably raining already, cumulus cotton balls are OK, but if they puff up taller like the Michelin man, a storm is likely. Stuff like that.
Growing up I became, Jimmy, Boy Barometer, reading the high and low emotional pressures building in our father, watching cirrus moods moil into cumulonimbus, his big, round face, cheeks puffed like Dizzy Gillespie, angry and fiercely blowing. Our mother, a stalk of bamboo, was the only bulwark as tempests broke. My older brother and I had bedrooms at the top of the stairs. At night, I would sneak out of bed, crawl like a scout to the doorway and listen to my mother and father fight below. She hushed, seeking some purchase of reason, restraining her own anger; his basso voice cracked in wounded flailing, as if her words came at him like panicked bats. The morning rose on bruised and cautious silences. Slowly, the worn fabric of our daily existence mended, but I kept my eyes on the firmament.
An aviator can sight on stars, and has an advantage over a sailor, being above clouds. On summer evenings, home from watching a softball game, or after dinner when dad went out to be sure the coals in the hibachi were extinguished, he’d point out constellations and tell me their names. I enjoyed these private lessons, but I didn’t seem to retain what he was explaining or see what he saw in the night sky. After a few attempts, he stopped trying.
One of those summers, I joined a Little League team, and dad would give me batting practice using a tennis ball, our barn as a back stop so I didn’t have to chase the ones I fanned, which I mostly did. He could be patient. Again, I didn’t seem to pick it up. One night, at a game, as I sat on the bench next to Cecil, our pitcher, I asked if I could try on his glasses. It was a shock. I could see the numbers, sharply, on player’s uniforms in the field. I could see small branches on the trees that before had appeared as fuzzy clusters. Not just birds were clear, but the wires they sat on. I could see things that didn’t exist to me before. That night I told my mother. The next day she took me to have my eyes checked and I got some Buddy Holly glasses.
If I had been a different person, I might have been able to say to my dad, “Now that my sight has been corrected, I would very much like to go back outside to resume our study of the stars.” Honestly, it didn’t occur to me; I really didn’t have an affinity, or a reason, to differentiate between Scorpius and Ursa Minor. At an age when adolescents are pulling away from their fathers, I got closer. I don’t mean we spent a lot of time together. By my senior year of high school I was, typically, active in school plays (which suited me better than team sports), working part-time evenings and weekends at a clothing store, and I had a girlfriend. Dad, for the first time in my life, had taken on a job. He worked as a probation officer. Before WWII he had been a district attorney and was good at reading character. He liked being able to guide these men as they came out of jail, often giving them money for work shoes or a shirt. By then, my brother was off at college and life settled around us pleasantly. I would come home from work about the time my dad was turning in, sit on the side of his bed and chat for a few minutes about the day. These talks were the salvation of my relationship with my father. When he died a few months later, it is what I grieved for, what I would miss for the couple of more decades he might have lived.
What had damaged him is not clear. I may seek information one day, if Menninger or the State Hospital in Topeka still have such records, as all who could bear witness are dead. It doesn’t matter. Mercifully, what was done can be undone, if not erased. I was visiting my mother some twenty years after my father’s death. Very seldom would she vary from the family cant about my father’s life and “illness”, but this night, over martinis, she made a frightening confession about the years when I climbed out of my bed to eavesdrop. This woman, who went to Berkeley, the CEO of a family business, later a government official, was at such a loss, with no idea what she could do to salvage our lives, considered taking one of the shotguns from the rack on our living room wall, killing my brother and me, and then herself. I have no doubt this was fleeting fantasy born of her desperation. She wouldn’t have done it. (I wonder, though, how far down the imaginary path she went. Would she have shot us as we slept? We had separate rooms. The one remaining would have woken up at the sound of the blast, sat up, waiting?) After this admission, I was stunned to the point of quiet acceptance, of validation. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her - why not kill him?