Dad in 1949 – Age 18
If I had been older, smarter, and more enlightened, the obvious signs might have tipped me off right away. As it was, many years had to pass before it dawned on me.
Dad was a closet beatnik.
Probably the bongos should have tipped me off but, like I said, I was young. Displayed prominently in the living room of our basement apartment in Brooklyn, they presented not always mute testimony of my father’s musical aptitude– an ability which would no doubt have been nurtured in the dark, smoky depths of some unlicensed club in 1950s Greenwich Village. Once in a while he’d set them on his lap and whack out some rhythm, or whatever it is you do with bongos. They came in a pair, linked by a little wooden bridge, and one was slightly larger than the other so that two tones would be produced when he banged on them. I’d like to report that his heated rhythms enticed my mother into hedonistic, sweaty dancing, requiring her to throw her arms about in abandon, sweat flying from the tresses of her raven locks as she lurched through our tiny, four room apartment (with the bathroom out in the hall), but Mom had short hair like Audrey Hepburn and Tuscan women don’t fling themselves about for anything, or anybody.
And the bongos were only one of the signs. Looking back at pictures of us in Maine in July, 1960, Dad is dressed in white clam diggers, a blue-and-white striped French sailor’s tee shirt, and a week’s growth of beard. Barefoot, he poses casually at the lake, by the side of the cabin, or in a chair, his legs draped over the arms as if he doesn’t have a care in the world (besides Mom, my sister Lois, and me).
The most visible, lasting sign (who knows where the bongos are, or the clothes?) were the paintings. Didn’t all beatniks descend upon the Village after the War so that they could paint? And didn’t they all live in attics and cellars, starving for their art? Dad didn’t exactly starve, and we lived in Brooklyn, and he was in Korea, not Belgium, but he did paint. His work hung on the walls of our apartment for years, and went upstairs with us when we moved up a flight, and then new paintings were added over the years. He loved painting with putty knives and large brushes, giving him, I think, the sense that he was commanding the white space of the canvas. His landscapes and seascapes are textured and seem to jump out at you, making you feel as if you can walk into his forests and swim in his oceans. Even today I have hanging above my bed a landscape composed of nothing but churches in different styles and colors. As many times as I’ve looked at it, I don’t think I’ll ever know it completely.
He taught me to paint, though I was always too exacting, unable to sweep my brush across the blank fields: what if I made a mess? I made myself stay in the lines and bit my lips and squinted so that my trees and houses and flowers were rendered precisely. Dad painted sweeping visions of earth and sky, while I created perfect houses with curtains and chimneys and fences. Once in a while we’d go to the art fairs that would be staged all over Greenwich Village, when artists displayed their work on chain link fences, propped up against fire hydrants, or leaning against benches in tiny parks. I could feel him becoming inspired, and he would tell me how free and loose their techniques were.
I don’t remember if Dad spoke hep; his language abilities were limited to Brooklynese and occasional exasperated outbursts of Neapolitan, and the occasional mangling of somebody’s name. He never said too much, or too little, and most of what he said to me involved encouragement and compliments– and that’s cool.