My Father Thought Sideways

My father thought sideways. It happens. Probably stemmed from the shrapnel imbedded in his head on a hillside in Italy. March. In a dismal rain. 1945 proved a momentous year for my father. Invalided home as the war was ending. Brain surgery. Newborn. A boy. Moving with wife and baby. Restarting college courtesy of the G.I Bill. I came along when the dust had settled and the poetry began to flow again.

It was the poetry that cascaded through my childhood like the rapids along the Columbia before man belted the river with concrete. My earliest memories are words rippling together. We tiptoed through the house because his ever-present headaches raged. Heads weren’t created to have metal plates inserted. I don’t know if his vibrated but first sopranos in the church choir and the concert violinist next door made him wince. I was five when an office was created in the attic on the opposite side of the house from the wild-eyed boy next door and his yappy dog. They drove Dad to Thurber and P.G. Wodehouse. By the time our Julliard trained neighbor, Mrs. Gilkey was across the fence, Dad spent his mornings marinating words in his dust-green aerie.

Beyond Dad’s office was a door leading to the real attic. Where suitcases, trunks, boxes, and pipes nestled in floaty insulation. Don’t sneeze! Don’t step off the wooden two by eights that held the house together.

We crawled on rafters to avoid falling through the ceiling to our bedrooms, terrified that each knee wobble would bring us to the edge of doom. And we showed off the space to visiting cousins who sweated with fear as they followed us to Dad’s old army trunk. The one tucked to the right of the door and wedged under an eave. The paint had faded from green to the color of mud, grass and blood stirred with silver rain. We’d lift the lid and wait. Fingers eager to explore palpated the contents. Dad’s brown officers cap usually came out first because it resided on top. Kids would put it on, oldest to youngest. In a hushed silence the boy cousins would stare at Dad’s helmet. The one with the shrapnel hole to the right of center.

“Can we touch it?” they’d always ask. My brother would gingerly roll it from the far back corner then reverently lift it for them to stick their fingers into the jagged edge. They’d turn it over, suck in their breaths and stare at the red-brown of the dried blood.

My brother has the helmet, now. I don’t want to know where he placed it. When I close my eyes I still see the attic and the shadows as if something remains hidden in the dark.

         THE HELMET

            A thin white scar
Mars my father’s
Skin, bone,
Among the cedars
In Italy
He lay
In the cold
His blood
Into a
His helmet
Dust covered
In the attic
My cousins
Stick their fingers in
The jagged-edged hole
Tears grow
In my throat.

                                               Written for Dad



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