I COLLECT IDEAS ABOUT MANHOOD, how a man should be. I’m sixty-eight now, but continue to collect. I need to know; I want to understand. I have a knife; I gave it to myself.
I was in a cigar shop a few days ago; a man was sitting smoking. Crew cut. Fifty maybe. I think he had a Maori tattoo on his right bicep. Spoke of warriors and wankers, said the French were wankers. Spoke of warriors fighting in Burma during World War Two. “Those fuckers were tough,” he said. Puffed on his cigar.
The Haka: Maori War Chant
Make the earth tremble
I have a photograph of my father. He’s in uniform, young, a lieutenant. I have another photo; I’m sitting on his lap. We’re on a boat off the coast of North Carolina. I was three or four. Before he went to New Guinea in the Second World War. My father is holding me lovingly.
After he returned from the war our relationship fragmented. No one told those at home how it would be. “Men returning from the war will be damaged; they will damage others.” No one said that in 1945. We weren’t told. My mother and I heard nothing; we were not prepared.
All my life I have been trying to collect the pieces. I have nothing that was his, no objects. Maybe if I had some of his possessions I could put us back together; maybe if I had solid things that were his I could talk to them. Gather them around me. Tell them that I was sorry for the way we were. Speak to solid things that were his and tell them that with all my big-city sophistication I should have come to understand about the war and its effect on him before I did. Before he died. So that I could have talked to him about it.
I’m mourning him now; I miss him. During twenty years I must have seen three psychotherapists, while my father was alive. I told them all about my childhood, that my father had been in World War Two in New Guinea. I told them what happened to me when he returned. Didn’t any of them understand? Why couldn't they have explained it to me? Why didn't they rescue him for me before he died? They're worthless. Shrinks. The talking cure.
I smoke cigars; he smoked cigarettes in a holder. I wish I had his cigarette holder; I’d smoke Camels, his cigarette. Hope for his taste on the holder. Talk to the smoke.
My father, Captain James Edward Leach, was a dentist in the medical corps during World War Two. He was angry when he returned; he was angry out of his fear I think. And he was ashamed of his fear, what he had felt on New Guinea during the fighting. So that when he first saw me in his dental chair, eight years old, his little boy afraid, he saw himself, I think, under Japanese bombs. And I think that he needed to hurt that fear, control it, punish it. So he hurt me, his little boy in the chair. That’s my understanding.
He filled my teeth without using Novocain. Filled all my lower incisors without using an anesthetic. He told me that he was teaching me a lesson about dental hygiene; he didn't know what he was talking about. I have a permanent bridge there now. In place of my lower incisors.
I’m sorry that it took me so long to understand why he caused his little boy such pain. I needed to understand before he died so that I could talk to him about it.
I have a knife; I gave it to myself. ###
28 July 2006
The Maori war chant quoted above can be found on the Dances of Life website.