Last time I was in Florida visiting my old man, he went on the nod during the baseball game we were watching on TV. Looking at him, grey-haired, gravity wracked and lightly snoring in his recliner, it dawned on me: I’d been calling him my old man, though not to his face, ever since I was a teenager, that is, for nearly twenty years. Pushing eighty, he still had his health and his wits, for the most part, but the clock was clearly winding down. He was getting increasingly forgetful, he’d lost interest in golf, and he and my mother liked to talk about “the final solution” over those late dinners we shared when I came down. Even though this only meant moving from their expensive condo to an exclusive facility intended to gradually usher them into fully assisted living, it was difficult not to think about the fact that my old man had now absolutely become what I’d been calling him for so many years.
Touching the knickknacks he’d collected on his travels and the awards and mementos he’d been given by business associates always made me feel close to him in a way I didn’t feel when we did things like sit around in silence watching baseball on TV. With my mom out shopping, I saw my chance. I went off to wander the condo and search for my old man in the artifacts of his past. I touched the bayonet given to him by the AMVets for his help in the fight against muscular dystrophy, the mounted hubcap you could raise to reveal a flask underneath from the Detroit Press Club, a mess tray from the USS Arizona, each little compartment of which was filled with a snapshot from his visit. I considered these and other things that marked moments in his life I knew little, if anything, about. Eventually, I found myself standing in his bedroom closet holding a hatbox I’d pulled from the top shelf. Inside were his World War II Navy Pacific Theater medals and a black and white photograph of him interviewing a midget princess back when he was a reporter for The Detroit Times.
My old man is six-foot-two, and the princess looks to be maybe two-and-a-half feet tall, so it was a good photo opportunity: a snapshot of the thirty-something, jet-haired reporter in an angled fedora and tan trench coat, pencil pressed against the notepad on his thigh as he crouches down across from that tiny woman in her miniature evening gown with a little mink stole wrapped around her shoulders and a childsized diamond tiara in her hair. I should also mention she was old, quite grandmotherly, and a perfectly symmetrical midget, not a dwarf. If she’d been photographed without my old man around for scale, you’d have trouble telling her from any wealthy, little old lady.
I’d heard bits here and there, mostly through my mother, about the life my old man lived before I was born, this mythic life where he’d go out into the night to get let under the tape at a murder scene or watch the cops sift through millions in counterfeit bills, but this old photograph was the first evidence I’d ever seen. The image only reaffirmed the legends my childhood mind had created around his absence. There they were, forever frozen against the darkness, that toddler-sized old lady staring up at my father caught being the young man I’d never met. It was all true: my old man had lived a life straight out of a Film Noir. I suddenly wished I’d known him then, saw both of us sitting with a couple neat whiskies in the swirling smoke and worn mahogany of the Detroit Press Club talking about the bulldozed juke joints on Hastings Street or the long shadow of the Purple Gang. I wanted to sidekick it with him. I wanted to see what his face looked like by match light in an alley as we fired up a couple Lucky Strikes. I felt gnawed, like I’d blown a chance I’d never even had.
In the photograph, the midget princess is caught forever answering one of my old man’s questions. Her mouth is frozen into an O around whatever she’s saying, and there’s a look of consideration on her face that implies he asked her something worth thinking about. As a reporter in the 1950s, my old man’s whole life was focused on asking the right questions. My three older sisters were still little girls at the time, not much bigger than the princess themselves, and my old man had yet to endure those teenage years of, “Since when does midnight mean two in the morning?” or, “Do you actually think I’m letting you leave the house in that skirt?” or any of those one-sided inquiries a father wants his children to answer with obedience, not words. By the time I was in high school, my sisters had already worn down his interest in answers and left to get married. My spiked hair and leather jacket and ripped up jeans, my endless supply of mans and I don’t knows, merited little more than a shake of his head and a snap of the raised front page. But now I’d become uncomfortable with the silence we’d allowed the years to set between us, and there was something about the look on the midget princess’s face that made me want to know what he’d asked her at the shutter’s instant, as if his question held an answer to the mystery of a father I loved but couldn’t say I truly knew.
I put his medals back in the hatbox, returned the hatbox to the shelf, and took the photograph with me into the living room. My old man had levered himself up in his recliner and switched the channel to NASCAR. There he sat in his faded jeans and holey socks, an arm folded across his belly and the tip of his index finger resting reflectively against his lips. My whole life, this was the way I’d seen him relaxing alone. Walking in on him this time, I remembered that more than once over the last few years I’d taken the tip of my finger away from my lips, looked down the length of my dirty jeans at a toe poking through the hole in my tube sock and shaken my head with a smile.
He was unaware of me as I stood a few steps behind his recliner, collecting in my head all I could about the photograph before I asked him about it. What I knew was the obvious—things I could put together through our general family history or see for myself: he was a reporter for the Detroit Times; she was a midget princess; the picture was taken at night on the Detroit Metro Airport runway sometime in the late 1950s. Although he was only thirty-something at the time, I noticed that the photograph has him looking kind of stretched out for his age. It’s a shot from that era when reporters used to drink their breakfasts at the bar and fight for the phone booth to call copy in to the desks. An era where they would follow a story from the second it broke until it went cold, sometimes sleeping in their cars or living in cut-rate motels for days on end, washing their one pair of socks and underwear in the sink before hanging them on a knocking bathroom radiator to dry. It looked like that kind of living was beginning to wear on my old man, with the skin on his neck starting to wattle and those dark circles blooming under his eyes. Lately, I’d been seeing that same future in my own face when I stared into the bathroom mirror, and I’d just stand there and take it. I’d stand there and let time carve me into my old man. I’d tell him what was on my mind. “Maybe we should have talked more,” I’d say as I turned away into the fact that both of us prefer the company of solitude.
I knew that before the picture was taken, my old man had been on the graveyard shift covering car wrecks and fires and rapes and murders and other things gone wrong inside the night. He spent a lot of time with the police. My mother was at home with my three sisters during that time, and it was tough for her, his being away, sometimes for days, only to come back and crash land after he’d banged out these sad stories of human wreckage. But he was a damn good reporter, a natural who could always find the angle, so an editor finally got it right when he must have said, “Moon, you and Flash here head down to the airport and get the scoop on the princess midget for the morning edition.”
Which appears to be exactly what they did. A photographer whose name I’ll never know and my old man jumped into a beat up press corps car in the middle of the night and drove to Detroit Metro to watch an old yet child-like midget princess walk down the stairs a ground crew had rolled up to that plane. He started asking her questions almost as soon as her feet met the ground, something you can see is true because surrounding the two of them is nothing but runway and darkness and the edge of a gigantic airplane wheel. Then, as my old man was getting his quotes, this photographer snapped a picture so good you could call it “Moon with Princess” and hang it in a gallery or put it in a book. It’s that interesting to look at, and Moon is what the other reporters called my old man, a nickname they’d given him because he shared a last name with a newspaper cartoon-strip character most people are too young to remember.
After the princess story ran, the editor kept feeding my old man features, and he started winning awards for his articles. Eventually, they moved him to the day shift, giving him his choice of stories off the Human Interest desk until The News and The Free Press sucked up all The Times’ advertising accounts and ran them out of business. After that, everything changed for my family. With his newspaper connections, my old man landed a high profile job doing PR for the auto industry, a job with a much bigger salary that led to a connected life where he traveled the world and powerful automakers like Lee Iacocca and Carol Shelby knew him well. It probably bothered my mom that he was still gone a lot, but she had me, a kid in grade school to keep her busy now that my sisters were in college, and the money he was making meant a better life for all of us, especially when he was around.
I mean I certainly didn’t know anyone in my grade school who could brag about being driven around the racetrack at Daytona in a pace car at over 100 miles per hour by a driver who takes his hands off the wheel when you’re high up in the fourth turn and about to wet your shorts at the thought of blasting over the lip of the track and off into the sky. My old man was right there, grinning, ready with a physics lesson, “Now that’s centrifugal force.”
Nor was my old man one to mince words or suffer fools. At eighteen, he was floating around the Pacific on a destroyer escort, worrying about torpedoes and kamikazes, following in the shoes of my Uncle Eddie, a Warrant Machinist, and itching to avenge the death of my Uncle John who’d died in the tail gun of a B-17. When I was eighteen I was looking to pick up girls and get loaded at college keg parties, trying not to worry about living up to the man who grew out of that submarine-chasing kid. He understood the predicament I was in, which is why he tried to make me feel better by saying, “Son, you can be anything you want. All I want is for you to be happy. Be a garbage man for all I care. Just be the best one you can.”
Standing there, holding a piece of my old man’s mythic history, all of these thoughts rattling around, my mind moving back and forth between his past and our now, I could see him coming home early in the morning after that picture was taken and talking with my mother about the princess while she serves him dinner. This was years before I was even an idea. He’s eating last night’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes and peas as the sunrise begins to push through the slats in the kitchen blinds. My toddler sisters are still asleep upstairs. My mother is leaning against the sink, looking into his tired face, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Teresa, her arm isn’t much thicker,” he says, holding up his drumstick. She just smiles and shakes her head. “Francis,” she says, though I’m not sure what she means by this.
But standing there, staring at the back of his graying head, I also knew better. My imagination couldn’t change the fact that the man who looked too much like a private detective in that photograph would always be something of a mystery to me. The old man I knew was not the jet-haired reporter crouched beneath an angled fedora asking questions of a midget princess on a dark airport runway. He was a retired white-haired auto exec who spent a good deal of time sitting in a patio chair high up on the balcony of a Florida condo, sipping whiskey and watching waves beat their final purpose against the sand. He was in no hurry to ask questions of anyone or make a point. He rarely even spoke unless spoken to. He was just gazing out at the world’s ebb and flow, reading the newspaper and Autoweek, taking in sunsets, biding his time. This was my old man, the man of whom I asked, “So what’s the story with this?” when I finally stepped forward, touched him on the shoulder, and showed him a photograph.
A few months after I returned from Florida, I landed a job writing for The Gazette here in my town. Arts and Entertainment stuff. Film reviews. Wire edits. Captions. Once I had a few decent articles under my belt, the idea that I actually was a reporter sank in, and I got up the guts to tell my old man. “Familiar start,” he said, and I agreed. It does feel familiar, like I’m about to get a late-night break where the editor assigns me a midget princess of my own, and sends me off to some backstage Green Room where a staff photographer catches me in the smoke-whorled lamplight, leaning across a bottle-littered coffee table toward a fading rock star, pen against the notepad on my thigh.
That day when I asked my old man about the photograph of the midget princess, I expected to get a reporter’s facts: what country the she came from, her name, the photographer’s name, the year the photograph was taken. Instead I watched his eyes drift over the thing for some time, drawing lines of connection between this image of his former self and an only son who now bore no small resemblance to the reporter on that airport runway. Finally, he spoke.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
My heart sank. I remembered that we were at the beginning of his long goodbye. I wasn’t sure what to say.
He read my face, understood, and smiled. “No. That’s the first question I asked her,” he said, “What are you doing here?”
He went on to tell me that she was a little woman with a big heart, some kind of European royalty who’d offered up her family’s estate for use as an Allied Air Force hospital during World War II. Years after the war, her son had found a wooden box of USAF pilot’s wings in the estate’s wine cellar, and she’d come to America to personally return them to the Air Force.
“Might as well be you in that shot,” my old man said as he handed the photograph back. “Why don’t you hold onto that for me.” Which is exactly what I did. I took the photograph with me when I left Florida. I looked at it on the flight home. I looked at it as I put it in a frame. I’m looking at it now, hanging on the wall above the table where I sometimes type my stuff on an old, manual Underwood I bought at the thrift, and I am still unsure what the real story is, what this picture actually says about my myth versus the real old man. Unsure like I sometimes get when I’m trying to do my job, staring at a shot of a pretty woman painting a kid’s face at a county fair or a smiling blind man having his hand licked by a seeing eye dog, and I’m unable to find the right caption, those words that see through what’s obviously there to tell us what’s really inside the picture.
What are you doing here? my old man had asked. Meaning, “This is how you question the heart.” Meaning, “Here I am twice confronting the ghost of my youth as the son who resembles me holds out a photo from my past.” What are you doing here? I ask the same thing of our face when I look in the mirror, searching for my angle in that story they’ll headline Son Seeks Truth Behind Father’s Mystery by Reading Too Much into Photograph. A story I will end with the rest of what my old man told me that day I handed him the picture of the midget princess: Listen. It’s no mystery. The real story is never in the fire, but in the way the fire flickers on the faces of the family watching their house burn down. It’s not in the car wreck, but in the place the driver left behind and the place he’ll never reach. It’s not in the fact that the princess was a midget, but in the idea that for her every journey is twice as far. It’s not in the spaces that might grow between people, but in the ways we reach across.
A wonderful, rich, tender story. I enjoyed it tremendously and will reread it.