My Fatherby Ron Kolm
An expanded text, comprised of found objects: letters, bookmarks, receipts, announcements, photographs, etc., found in a series of used books in the Strand Bookstore.
My Father sailed the seas.
He spent the bulk of his years on ornately appointed ocean liners, rusting freighters and scarred Men-of-War, bobbing over the waves. He was born Victor Radio in West Orange, New Jersey, on a rainy inauspicious afternoon in April, 1898, to Hadley Radio and Myrna Radio, née Sebniewski, formerly of New York City.
I have a picture of him at the age of twelve, before the sun permanently creased his face, in knickers, knee socks and ankle length boots, standing on a well-tended lawn, holding a golf club longer than he was tall; his steel-rimmed glasses framing a smile for the camera. He joined the Merchant Marine as a wireless operator in 1914. He must have been big for his years even then.
He got torpedoed twice during the Great War; once right off the coast of New Jersey, not far from the boardwalks of Atlantic City, in front of an audience of startled bathers.
He met my mother-to-be, Olivia Swickley, at a 1922 performance of the Lumia Suite, with Thomas Wilford himself at the Clavilux, the gentle flowing figures of light bringing them together. He had just returned from a run to Glasgow, delivering a cargo of wool, I think. He gave her a picture of the Necropolis, mounted on cardboard; graphically depicting the famous levels of the dead, tier upon tier of them, gothic mausoleums towering over the flat headstones in the foreground.
“Keep your face toward the Sunshine and the Shadows will fall behind You.” He wrote these romantic lines to her in the Fall of 1937. On July 29, 1938, he purchased a ticket from the New York Central Railroad to White Plains, New York, at which the time he proposed to her a joining of their fortunes and futures.
I think the match broke her Father’s, my Grandfather’s, heart, for he drove his model ‘T’ down the railroad tracks late one night into a highballing express. All they ever found of him was a small lingering cloud of alcohol.
The last time my fragile mother laid eyes on my sea-faring Father was at the three-o’clock show on Monday, January 29, 1940, at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, where he accompanied her to a talk given by Mr. David Burpee, and saw the preview of his New Tetra Marigold. My mother, I should explain, loved flowers, and often produced intricate arrangements of fascinating design. I have their admission card yet. Admit two, it states in boldface type on the bottom border.
Promptly after the show my Father, already wizened from constant squinting over brilliant watery expanses, shipped out on the good ship Klactoveededstene. Never known for his jocoseness, he merely chucked my mother under the chin, kissed her briefly, and was gone.
She never saw him again.
I can visualize him sitting there in a spindly wooden deck-chair, a blanket of plaid tucked around his legs, a scarf wrapped around his thick neck, a wide-brimmed sports cap upon his graying hair, reading a book slowly, peering through steel-rimmed glasses misted with sea spray.
“You have no idea what it was like to love a King-sized man,” my mother often told me. “It meant king-sized beds, aisle seats at the movies, running when he walked, holding your breath when he tried on new clothes; for they never seemed to fit.”
There are probably miles from Peru in steerage, and coils of hemp, barrels of syrup and ingots of copper in the bay. The hold exudes the smell of a mule dung, a not unpleasant aroma.
His large head shifts from side to side with the lazy swells of the sea. A breeze tugs at the corners of his blanket, and flutters the bill of his hat. A pipe dangles loosely in his paw. He knocks the ashes from it against the leg of his chair, and watches them skip across the deck.
The crew is foreign born.
The days have been too bright, and too warm, for him.
Someday the sea will rise, a churning mass, and the pages of his book will flip past in a blur, too fast for his aging eyes to follow, his blanket in tatters, strips of cloth dancing wildly in the wind, his scarf blown away.
They’ve drawn a circle in chalk around his chair.
And he remembers those days when but the simple act of throwing his book out from the boat would have put diamonds in the sea.
RON KOLM is a poet, editor, activist, and bookseller, based in New York City.