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Tools of His Trade

An impending visit by elderly parents provokes a chain of volatile memories.

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In one of the drawers of my Boulder home is an ancient document, foxed and brittle with age. Removing it from my desk drawer, I slowly unroll it. Because it is the height of summer, I have to blink away the harshness of the daylight before my eyes adjust to take in the familiar details of an old boat, printed in what is called rotogravure, shown plowing through an open stretch of water. Below the boat, the curlicue writing on the paper identifies it as a “captain’s license” for my uncle, Albert Gottlieb. It’s a kind of portal for me, this piece of paper, a dream-enabler that launches me back in time, to an era made sepia in memory, when men sported bowler hats and watch chains and women wore flounced skirts and button-up shoes. Cars had names like REO and Deuce and Cord back then, and the subways of New York were mostly “els,” which is short for “elevated,” or running above ground on girdered platforms. Manhattan, lurching forward out of the Depression, hummed and flowed with new energy. And about five miles northeast of Manhattan, in a part of the Bronx called the Grand Concourse, my four uncles and my father were jostling each other in two beds, trying to get to sleep at night. They were rambunctious boys, crude, loud, grasping, and horny, and it was hard to settle down. Their own father, long ill, was at that very moment coughing his tubercular lungs out in a sanitarium in the Adirondack Mountains, soon to die. It would be left to their mother, her brilliant gifts cramped in this New York City tenement, to raise them into men. All of these boys in their turn would eventually—to their surprise—grow old, their bodies broken by the hammer blows of stroke, diabetes, and heart attack. But for now they were glossy young kids, laughing out loud at night, on an evening of memory, in an America itself still young, and bristling with the novelties of the new century.

Placing the captain’s license back down on the table, I glance out the window to where the slabbed Flatirons are visible, glowing in the morning sun. None of my uncles, nor any of their children, has ever seen these majestic rocks. They lived and died along the Northeastern corridor, working in Staten Island, in New Jersey, and in Connecticut, before eventually gathering in Florida, to ride out their last years in keeping with the seemingly ironclad laws of Jewish migration. My eyes light on one wall of my studio, where there hangs a photographic display. Here are the various uncles, immortalized as teenagers under glass: Bernie with his vain fillip of moustache and his bedroom eyes; Murray, the sanguine one, mouth slightly open; Arnold, always steady and predictable; my father, Leonard, a bit dreamy looking, and wearing my nose, brow, and eyes. At the center of the display stands Albert, the first-born son. Taut-muscled and blade-nosed, Albert seems to stare slightly downward at the photographer, as if aware not only of his important role as default father, and of his future job as “the first Jewish tugboat captain of New York harbor,” but, of the appalling destiny that awaits him just a few years down the road. Until recently, I’d never understood why even the mere sight of his oldest brother was enough to reduce my normally stoic dad to tears. I hadn’t realized that Albert was at the center of an emotional absence that has haunted him his whole life, rendering my father insomniac, autocratic, and predisposed towards a kind of brittle terseness. One day, in a rare intimate moment, he confessed to me he’d spent his entire life racked by the dream that he was lugging a dead body from pillar to post, hiding it under beds and in closets and staying only a half-hour ahead of the police. It would only be years later, mulling it over, that I would understand why.

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Gazing at it one last time, I slide Albert’s captain’s license back in a drawer, then place the picture frame of photos out of sight behind the bookshelf. My parents are arriving later in the week for their first-ever visit to my Colorado home, and stashing the memorabilia is a preventive measure, the better to maintain domestic calm over what I expect to be an explosive few days.

On a chill wintry day six months earlier, I’d stood outside the house where I’d grown up, the split-level New Jersey tract home my parents had bought new, in 1960, for the majestic sum of $29,000. It was a house I’d loathed as a child, and come fully to appreciate as an adult. Intricately crosshatched with the nearly half-century of our habitation, I knew its secrets like you know a favorite pair of jeans: the hieroglyphics scratched on out-of-the-way attic beams with my knife; the holes worn in the linoleum floor by the legs of the kitchen table upon which—revolving steadily between pitched argument and laughter—we ate 50,000 meals; the slightly damp, cool, ammoniac air of the basement.

I continued to stand there, staring somewhat dazedly at the house, before my vision lowered to take in the huge dumpster parked in our driveway. The house had been sold, and workers were buzzing in and out of the normally sleepy premises, dismantling the last of the furnishings and raising a huge pile in the dumpster. They were racing the clock to empty the house and allow the new buyers their final “walk through” by the time the contract mandated. In a 12-hour frenzy, they’d ripped out built-in pieces of furniture, yanked rugs from their moorings, pulled rotting old cabinets from the wall. Several workers were coughing from having entered the back crawl spaces of the attic, but what they’d brought out was astonishing. On the sidewalk, propped against the large green dumpster, stood three large brass etchings of maritime scenes. Unearthed from years spent in darkness, they shimmered brilliantly in the afternoon sunlight. I’d forgotten all about these beautiful etchings, which were all that remained of one of my father’s grandest schemes: to employ a novel chemical process that effectively “screened” an image onto brass and provided something that was a little like a metallized photograph.

The workers asked if they could keep the etchings. Frozen, knowing there was simply no more room in the moving van, I nodded yes. Over the previous three weeks, I’d already packed four tons of my parents’ items, including thousands of books, some of them dating back to the 16th century. I’d packed maps and instruments, household tools, and my mother’s beloved Le Creuset pots, red like lobster shells. My father was an amateur rare book collector, a paper-maker, bookbinder, and woodworker, and he was also a historian of celestial navigation. I’d dismantled his vast tool collection, filled with specialized rarities, parceling it out to eager local buyers on Craigslist. All of this was taking place because my parents, finally, had become too infirm to live in the large split-level house, and so had decided to sell and move permanently to their small Florida condo. My father had been against the move from the start, and had lodged his objections by employing one of his favorite dodges: a shocked, passive withdrawal whose apparent indifference was but a coin toss away from rage. This is not really happening, the fixed half-smile on his face seemed to say. Or if it is, not to me. A year earlier he’d told me in all sincerity he wanted to die in the house. A year before that, he’d sold off all his rarest books and navigational instruments at auction. “They were my friends,” he’d said softly to me one afternoon, “and it was hard to say good-bye.”

Later that same day, after the workers had finished scouring the house and the “waste management specialist” had come to remove the dumpster, after the awful new buyers had successfully taken their inspection tour, after I’d placed the call to the taxi to come take me to the airport and then back to Boulder, I sat on the floor of the bare living room, watching evening crawling up the windows one last time, alone in the utterly still rooms in which I’d known my first girls, rehearsed the miniature childhood versions of the adult I’d become, and made and unmade my parents as first my enemies and then my friends—and, putting my face in my hands, I began to weep.

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You are showing me how to use a wood plane. I am 11 and the instrument is dauntingly large and heavy. We are up in your cedar-smelling attic workshop, which is a cabinet of wonders for me. There are things called heliographs, which are used for signaling with the flashing power of the sun. There are marine chronometers, ancient sextants, barometers, and hygrometers for measuring humidity. It is a paradise of precision and mystery, and the leavings of your own lifetime as a navigator for Northwest Airlines, and the lives of your brothers as engineers and ships’ mechanics. I do not question why these strange instruments are gathered in one place. Nor do I wonder why you and your brothers, all of you, were drawn so deeply to both the sea and the romance of engineering and machines. I simply presume, in the way of small children, that everybody possesses an assortment of similar things in their attics. I’ve also fallen in love with the way in which optics allow a person to cross distance at high speed. From those attic windows, telescope in hand, I can swerve my vision over the local high school field, with its tiny formations of students wheeling in marching band rehearsals. I can watch the bright shells of cars crawling on Ridge Road, a mile away. Although the angles don’t permit it, I can dream of spying on the neighbors.

“Move it slowly, on the level, and don’t press,” you say of the plane in my hand. I smell the sour mash on your breath. Old Grandad. 100 proof. A long sip of that upon your returning home and you seem instantly expansive and at your ease. Otherwise, often, you are terrifying to me. And yet, of course, in the way of young children, I want nothing more in life than to be you.

“Move it slowly,” you whisper to me, as I concentrate with all my might and bear down carefully while an incredible, perfect, fragrant corkscrew lifts up off the wood and sets down again. The process is magical. I look up in disbelief, and incredibly—the sun breaking through clouds—you are smiling at me.

Being old is like inhabiting a parallel universe, right beneath our noses, where the unthinking ease with which we live our lives is suddenly, bewilderingly up for grabs. In the day before my parents’ visit, I found myself gazing at my Colorado home nearly exclusively through the optic of advanced age. The floors of the kitchen—didn’t they become ice-rink slippery when wet? And what about the flagstone staircase leading from the lawn down to the studio where they’d be staying? The dog, I knew, had a tendency to greet new visitors with a powerful paws-out lunge to the chest. Repeatedly I was filled with images of my father, already as frail on his feet as a tumbleweed, losing his balance and hitting the ground with a hip-shattering fall. To make things worse, according to a person I met at a recent dinner party, Boulder Community Hospital regularly receives the elderly guests of locals who’ve underestimated the oxygen deprivation and suffered silent heart attacks. My mother is overweight and wheezes simply getting into a car. What would she do with the thin Boulder air for company?

Then—and more important than any of these—there were the emotional questions. Though my dad had sold and broken up much of his large collections, I’d managed to cherry-pick some instruments and books, and had re-created a kind of three-quarter-size version of his library in my Boulder studio. Would seeing all his old “friends” buoy him or cast him down? Would he be overjoyed by the reunion, or shattered by it?

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I was worried about this because I knew that my father’s relationship to the past, in the way of the very old, had become labile and unpredictable, and that the formerly orderly sequencing of his mind had grown cluttered. Certain elements of childhood and his early life, which he’d long ago stopped talking about, seemed to have returned to him with renewed vividness, and rendered him emotional and even tender-hearted. An austere, somewhat aloof man, he’d lately grown deeply involved in the lives of animals, fascinated by the whip-tailed lizards crawling around the stucco exterior walls of his Florida condo, or pulling the car over—he still drives—to observe the habits of the egrets as they lifted off the folding sticks of their legs and vanished, flapping, into the palm trees. I sometimes caught him smiling at me with a delicacy and candor that had no precedent in our former relationship. Though I relished this new emotional access, its seeming randomness made me uneasy as well.

More striking than any of this, however, was his relationship to that topic about which, until recently, he’d never spoken; that topic which hung like a shadow over my childhood, glimpsable only in his uniform with its exotic braid and the rattling little box of medals, and in his sudden, violent rage when he caught me as a young child watching Hogan’s Heroes, that wildly popular comedy about life among Allied POWs in a German camp. Suddenly, he couldn’t stop talking about what happened to his life during the years 1942-1945. It was as if he wanted to memorialize it somehow, get the truth out while there was still time. It was as if, nearing the end of his life, and looking backward over the vast distance traveled, it was this one series of events which had become most important to him of all: the war.

You are flying on a B-24 “Liberator” bomber, a huge, droning, seemingly invincible four-engine city of a plane. You’re the tail plane of a huge formation, returning from successfully bombing a ball-bearings factory in Schweinfurth, Austria. The mood inside the cabin is lighthearted, cheerful, with that celebratory air that follows a well-executed raid. At age 22, having enlisted over the objections of your family to “get Hitler,” you are a first lieutenant and navigator, and proud of your distinction. As the tail plane in a formation, your own responsibilities are minimal on this particular afternoon. It’s in fact while packing up your charts, your compass, and calipers, that you suddenly hear a sharp percussive twanging of bullets puncturing the metal fuselage of the plane. Messerschmitt ME-109s, the cream of the German Luftwaffe, are diving downward out of the sun in classic fashion and making a long, raking pass alongside the American formation. Your plane is too big, too heavy and lumbering to perform evasive maneuvers, and continues to drone along imperturbably, even as, all around you in their swiveling wooden seats, your 11 different gunners open up against the Nazis with their big .50 caliber machine guns. The Messerschmitt fighters roar by, double back for another pass. The thumping concussions of more bullets sound out, and the four big 14-cylinder Pratt and Whitney engines of your plane abruptly stop turning over. The suddenly unmoving propellers are starkly, terrifyingly visible outside the windows. It is a Sunday afternoon, September 14, 1944. You are at 11,000 feet, and beginning to drop.

Thirty seconds later, the call goes out to abandon ship. Over the caterwauling noise of bells, sirens, and men shouting, you move calmly to the edge of the outer door of the plane. The strings of flak-blooms are visible in the sky, and the rest of the formation stretches before you with a strangely solid, fixed aspect. You leap, fall free of the plane, yank the ripcord, and the lovely tented mercy of the chute pops open with bone-jarring impact. After that, suddenly, there is calm, along with endless white space and soft winds. You feel the heat of the sun on your cheeks, and in a gesture of orientation you take your pulse, meanwhile looking down to where, between your booted feet, the curved surface of the earth is rising fast.

Three minutes later, you hit the dirt hard, roll as you’ve been taught, stand up, and stow your blowing chute. You’ve landed in the middle of a park in what will one day be called Slovenia. Elderly gentlemen in black suits sit on nearby benches smoking cigarettes. Women push prams. All of them have stopped, the better to stare open-mouthed at the American aviator fallen from the sky. You know that you have only a few seconds to act, and quickly yanking them from your neck, you bury your dog tags in the dirt, with their tiny letter “J” announcing your religion. You’ve barely straightened up when the Nazis burst out of the woods, firing over your head. You don’t know that you’ll pass the next 14 months in a bitterly cold German camp near the town of Bath, on the Baltic. Neither do you know that during that time your wife will abandon you for another man, and you’ll eventually end up drawn to a shy, pretty, somewhat high-strung piano teacher with whom you’ll have two children, the first of whom will be autistic, and the second a writer who, after a difficult childhood, will make you proud. You’re unaware that you’ll end up living in a house on a hill in New Jersey for 45 years and will one day leave it as an old man disbelieving in the ruin of your once beautiful body. You know only what a soldier is supposed to do, which is say absolutely nothing beyond name, rank, and serial number. Marching forward, hands in the air, you do it.

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I saw them, spotlit with slowness amid the hurrying crowds of DIA. The elderly are out of place in airports, and my parents seemed set apart, crouched against a wall near the baggage carousel and literally haloed with old age. I swept toward them, amazed that the entire shaky apparatus of shuttle vans, planes, trains, and concourses had actually functioned, and deposited them here, and I gathered them happily into my arms.

Slowly, very slowly, we left the main concourse and got into the car. I drove home as we bantered together. My relief at their safe arrival was palpable. And yet it was also strange to see these people, who I associated so deeply with a particular experience—that one tense house, amid those particular grassy hills and trees—moving amid the wide sweeps and vistas of E-470.

We arrived and I held my breath when my father, on the second front stair, wobbled precariously. But he recovered himself, and the charmed spell seemed to hold. The dog behaved himself and didn’t lunge. The slick flagstones remained dry and grippable. The stepsons were models of affectionate decorum. My father sat on the couch, asked for a martini, and began preparing himself—as he does, now, compulsively—for a sustained spell of reminiscence, when I decided, given how well things were going, to first take him and his luggage out to the studio. My partner and my mom were engrossed in conversation, and clearly it was time.

Carefully, we picked our way across the backyard, down the corkscrew flagstone stairs, and then I slowly opened the door and beckoned him inside. He stood at the threshold a moment, happily taking in the space with its mounted array of his navigational instruments, including the beautiful half dozen astrolabes he’d painstakingly carved out of brass, the literary first editions I’d rescued from his library, the maps and scrolls. Then his smile fell. He’d glimpsed the glass-lined photographs of himself and his teenage brothers which—stupidly—I’d replaced on the wall and forgotten about. Grabbing the heavy frame with surprising strength, he placed it on the couch, wordlessly bent over it, and zeroed in on his brother Albert.

You are 15, and alone in the cold apartment, tapping your foot restlessly on the planked boards of the kitchen floor, and you are waiting for your beloved older brother to return from the bathroom in the hall. It is the dead of winter, and frost-spangles line the windows. In one corner of the room, the sole source of heat—a potbellied stove—sends its pipe upward through the ceiling like a long-necked woman. You’re thrilled to get to spend a few hours alone with your oldest brother, who—silently, telling no one about your feelings— you worship. His competence and strength make him stand out quietly, even in a crowd. Plus, Albert knows things. He knew how to dismantle, grease, and reassemble an old diesel marine engine, or how to make electrical transformers by dipping the cores in pitch and hanging them from wire hangers to dry. He knows about the treacherous winds and currents of New York Harbor, and ropes and dead reckoning, and how to read a chart. Even better, he makes the staggering sum of 50 dollars a week and gives all of it to your mother, uncomplaining. For all of that, and because your own Dad is mostly absent, he is your father. One day, if everything goes exactly right, you’ll be a man like him. It’s all you’ve ever wanted.

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Kid, he says, entering the kitchen and sitting down on a ladder-back kitchen chair. Kid, he repeats, I don’t feel so good.

He beckons you over. You think it might be one of his practical jokes. Like the rest of your brothers, he’s a great practical joker, with a real flair for mimicry. You come forward with a sly smile on your face, waiting for the punch line. Maybe he’ll rub your head with his knuckles or give you one of his special droop-eyed winks. Kid, he says again, I’ve got the most terrible headache.

And then that thing happens, that thing which will be so intricately bound up with the man you’ll become that you’ll never be able to speak it out loud and so rid yourself of it; never fully express the horror of it and the pain, and because of that, in a very real way, it will become you, as intricately housed in your being as the twists of your own DNA. Because at that moment in time, Albert, your beloved and impregnable tower of a brother, falls forward in his chair. And though you rush forward and catch him before he hits the ground, shouting out loud the word “what?,” there is no answer. Instead, sighing deeply and grimacing as if tasting something bad, his eyes rolling up in his head, Albert begins to die. Alone in the quiet house, sprawled in your arms, with the world outside the windows hastening irrelevantly to and fro, he slips away forever, courtesy of a brain aneurysm. And though you will do many distinguished things with the rest of your life, and know many satisfactions, it is your misfortune to have been born before the era of widespread therapy and feel-good drugs, and part of you, as a result, will remain forever crouched on the cold floor of your apartment, clasping the body of your brother to you and sobbing out loud as his life ebbs away.

My father stared at the old photo a long time before he turned toward me, his face drawn with feeling. All his brothers were now gone save the youngest, Murray, living off his pension as a mechanic on the Staten Island Ferry. Born into an era of flappers and Prohibition, the Gottlieb boys had shared a fascination with machinery and the new field of electronics, along with the ancient truths of the ocean and the stars, and it had bred in them a bluff, forward-facing temperament that soldiered on, regardless of the difficulty. I’d grown up wired differently. I was soft where my father was hard, compassionate where he was caustic, moony where he was lucid and sharp. Rather than science, I’d been drawn to my mother, with her love of writing and European culture and music. But the harshness and clarity of my father were inside me as well. I could feel the ghost of his rage in my temper; I owned his hands, the same stiffness in the lower back, the same critical, skeptical stance toward the world. What he’d given me finally would remain a mystery, because fatherhood itself is a mystery. But I had never met his equal as a man, and I knew I never would. The ache inside him suddenly filled the room. I saw the tears in his eyes, and quietly, for the thousandth time, realized the force of that ancient truism: The soul does not grow older.

“It doesn’t go away,” he said quietly, turning from the photograph.

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I reached out, touched his shoulder. I wanted to comfort him by saying the exact right thing—but what would that thing have been? That memory is all we have and that it should be cherished, even when it includes unspeakable loss? Or that because we owe our existence to acts of tenderness performed in worlds that preceded us, and under the sway of stories of love, our proper relationship to our own lives, despite their shortcomings, should always be gratefulness? Instead of this, I said nothing at all because, in truth, I knew that he would have to sort this moment out for himself, as hard as it might be. After a few seconds, perceptibly, he did. At age 90, he drew himself upright, the old soldier. Then his face brightened and his eyes, holding mine, began to sparkle.

“OK,” he said, “now how about that

martini?”

Eli Gottlieb is a 5280 contributing editor. His last story for 5280 was “Diagnosis Unorthodox.” His second novel, Now You See Him, will be published in February 2008 by William Morrow. E-mail him at [email protected].

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