Kadner: The secret lives of our fathers
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org June 14, 2013 10:22PM
Lt. Bernard Kadner showing off a string of fish he caught during World War II in Burma | Supplied photo
Updated: July 17, 2013 6:48AM
During my father’s final days of life, we talked a lot about his youth.
He didn’t seem to remember much about the birth of his sons, their formative years or his 40 years of marriage.
I figured it was Alzheimer’s disease. I had read that people suffering from the illness often had better memories of the long ago than the recent past.
But looking at some photographs recently got me to wondering about those final talks and how little that children really know their fathers.
The photographs, recovered by a family member cleaning house, show a smiling, vibrant young fellow who seems to be as happy as a person can be.
The fact that Lt. Bernard Kadner was in Burma and India at the time, serving as a member of the U.S. Army during World War II, doesn’t reflect in any negative way in the photographs, which he apparently mailed home to his grandmother.
Maybe he was just trying to put on a happy face for the folks back home. Or maybe, for much of my life, he was trying to put on a happy face for me.
“Your father loved the Army,” I remember my mother saying more than once.
Maybe she was right.
As a young father, Dad didn’t talk much abut the military.
Whenever people tried to glorify war, in the movies or in stories told on summer days to impress little children, Dad would make a point of telling me, “That’s not the way it is.”
The man I knew was a rather gentle soul who had a hard time sharing his feelings. He was of a generation hardened by the Great Depression and war.
Add to that the fact he lost his mother when he was 5 and was raised by loving grandparents, aunts and uncles when his father left home, and you could say his life was tougher than most.
He taught me about baseball, stressed the importance of education (not only in school but as a lifelong process) and tried desperately to pass on ideals about patriotism that seemed out of date when the Vietnam War came along.
Dad was a right or wrong kind of guy and didn’t see gray areas in life. At least it seemed that way to me.
That’s why it was surprising when he revealed a side I had never seen before when I was in college.
He told me that he had been a runner for a bookie in Chicago before the war began, picking up bets and bringing them to the bookie’s place.
As my mouth dropped open, he continued to explain with pride that he eventual graduated to setting the odds on various bets for his “boss.”
“I was good with numbers,” he explained with a big grin.
This was the most interesting and totally non-Dad-like thing I had ever heard out of my father’s mouth.
When I displayed an obvious fascination with his criminal past, Dad quickly clammed up.
“A lot of guys worked for the Mob back then,” he said. “There weren’t any jobs during the Depression.”
And that was the end of that.
His war stories consisted of two that I recall hearing repeatedly.
The first was about the trip by troop ship across the Pacific. He became involved in a game of Hearts for money, and after he slipped a fellow soldier the queen of spades (which usually causes the recipient to lose the game) the man took exception.
“He pulled a knife on me and was going to kill me,” Dad said. “Never play Hearts with people you don’t know.”
The other story was about walking through a jungle alone at night and seeing “a thousand animal eyes glistening in the moonlight.”
He was so scared that he repeated over and over the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil ...”
There were no tales of glory or descriptions of firefights.
The only other lesson from those war days was about poverty. As bad as things were in the States during the Depression, he said, he never saw anything as bad as the hunger among the population of India.
“People would dig through excrement to find something to eat,” he said.
I had no idea what “excrement” was at the time and said so, causing Dad to quickly use the cruder but more understandable four-letter word. It’s an image that never vanished.
“We’re lucky to live in America,” he said.
And so here I am, years after his death, looking at photographs of a rather swashbuckling young man who could be a stranger.
I was lucky enough to have known my father for more than 50 years, and I never saw the side of him that I see in the pictures.
Maybe he didn’t think I cared. Perhaps something I did or said indicated as much.
Maybe he just wanted to keep that part of his life to himself.
Whatever it was, it made me ponder how little we know about our parents.
As Dad grew older, I realized there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know about his life and began asking relatives. They told me stories about his upbringing that contradicted a lot of images I had about the man.
For example, he was always on my case about not cleaning my plate or refusing to eat foods I didn’t like.
I figured that was the Depression Era youth in him, emphasizing the importance of appreciating what you have.
“He was pampered growing up,” one aunt told me. “His grandmother felt sorry for him because his mother had died so young. He was a fussy eater so she cooked meals just for him. Everyone else had to eat what was on the table.”
People are a mystery. That’s the one sure thing I know.
My father never talked much about those early years of his life, the hard time with no parents nor about the moments that brought him great joy.
I wish I had pressed him more. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have mattered.
From his point of view, he was a father, not a friend. That was that.
And it was more than he ever had.