It was one of those days in June that remind you of the summer that is just around the corner: glaring sun, humidity and temperature in the 90’s. The type of day best remembered in Kodachrome and not in person. I don’t relish summer weather as my northern European stock prefers a more alpine climate and, as a result, hot and humid weather often leave me cranky. But that was not the major contributor to my unhappiness that morning.
Nor was it my mother who was sitting next to me in my Jeep as we drove down Springfield Avenue to New Providence from Summit. My mother is among other things, a scholar, an accomplished author and editor. She is also thoughtful and the type of woman who would never leave the house without looking ready to meet the Queen. To be sure, she was tense, and had been particular in the way to that of a nearly 83-year-old woman who is challenged by late onset OCD. Or perhaps it was not late onset, just exacerbated with age, but I figured her niggling that morning…the garbage cans needed to be precisely in the right spot, the toaster was centimeters off its preferred mark, etc had more to do with the chore we were conducting that morning than any underlying neurosis.
That chore was not the source of my anger. It was merely a symptom. My anger lay in the decision my bull headed, I know what is best for me, father had made in his Dr’s office several days before. He had told his Dr. that his diagnosis of kidney failure was premature. That the prescribed course of 3x a week dialysis was, as a result of the faulty diagnosis, not necessary, and that he was stopping the treatments immediately. Dr. Gelber has patiently explained that there was no misdiagnosis. That the blood work, done before and after his treatments, confirmed that dialysis was the correct treatment. . That if he did not continue the treatments the toxins in his blood would build up causing disorientation followed by coma, followed by death.
Dad did not listen, his mind was made up long before he walked into that office. He insisted that his point of view was the correct one and it was the course he was planning on following. I had been down this path with Pops many times before in which he had taken an intransient position and would not budge even when he knew he was incorrect. To be fair, my father was a brilliant man and as many times that I knew he was wrong, he was right. It also meant that when I was correct the bragging rights were that much sweeter. The rub in this situation was if I was right and he wrong, I wouldn’t get an opportunity to gloat because he would be dead.
What I didn’t understand at the time, was that only part of my crankiness came from my father’s perceived stubbornness. The other part of my anger, the sub conscious part, came from the fact that I knew that my father knew exactly what he was doing. He was just telling us that he didn’t believe the Dr’s even though he knew it to be true. He had had enough. He was tired of living the life that he was living…unable to walk, confined to a third floor bedroom, diapered, catharized, carried out three times a week for dialysis, and all the other indignities not being able to take care of yourself entails. He, like the courageous man I knew him to be, chose a way to end his life with dignity without getting a lot of argument from those he loved and who loved him. An Irish exit for Jewish man. A brilliant plan. Except it would leave me without my Dad, the thought of which left every one of Kubler Ross stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) subconsciously competing to be number one in my emotional hit parade. It was really no wonder that I was cranky.
My mother’s and my chore that morning put my father’s decision not to continue with his treatment into sharp focus. We were going to the bank he kept a safety deposit box, to remove its contents, so when Dad died, would have access to its contents. A prudent action for sure but one that left no doubt in either one of our minds that Pop’s time left with us was measured in days. Knowing that the end is coming is no solace to those who are left behind.
The bank we were visiting had been my father’s bank since we had moved to New Jersey in 1959. He had chosen it because it was close to his work at Bell Telephone Laboratories back in the time when there was no such thing as direct deposit and being close to your bank meant you could deposit your check in person easily. The building itself was a non-descript mid-century brick building that was tucked between two strip malls which made parking there quite difficult. We got lucky, and there was a metered space directly in front of the building which made our walk through the sun and the heat blessedly short.
Inside, the bank they had done what they could to modernize the interior with modern fabric partitioning, track lighting and computer monitors at every desk top but it looked like they had maintained the same furniture since the bank opened in the 1950’s. It was bulky and brown and made of oak. It looked as if had been designed to survive a near hit of a nuclear bomb. It was clearly capable of surviving a half century. One of the modern conveniences this bank offered, personalized service, greeted us at the door and inquired how they could be of help. When told of our need to visit the safety deposit boxes she directed us to a very nice bank officer that for the sake of this recounting I will call Ms. Clue Less. She was pretty in a pinched banker sort of way and when we explained our mission she seemed quite eager help us accomplish our task. We provided her with the requisite information…my father’s name and the number of his safety deposit box.
She smiled at us and then began tickling her keyboard as if she were debuting at Carnegie Hall. She leaned forward and stared into monitor as if the secrets of the Kabala were going to be revealed momentarily. Then she leaned back and resumed her attack on her keyboard and then leaned forward into what I was now calling downward facing banker. This went on for about 5 minutes before she excused herself saying that she needed to consult with her superior.
While we waited for her return, I busied myself with answering emails on my iPhone and my mother did her best imitation of a tea kettle set on simmer. There was little steam but you could sense that if the banker did not allow us access to my father’s safety deposit box soon that the pot would soon boil over. Her frustration had less to do with the banks’ service than the situation. Her husband of nearly 60 years, the only man she had ever known, was pulling the plug and she was here to collect a lifetime of important documents and objects. As for me, I was doing my best not to think about things too much. My task of the day was much simpler than hers, I was here to take care of her.
Our banker returned. She apologized for the delay. The problem was that my father had acquired his safety deposit box in a time when computers were room sized and required their own air conditioning systems and bankers conducted business using personal recognition, ledgers, and index cards. This bank had not fully converted their “old” files to a digital format and so while they knew my father had a lock box they did not have his signature on file nor who else was allowed to open it. Additionally, the only person who could unlock the old file card system was out of the branch at the moment and wouldn’t return until later that morning but if we wanted to expedite things we could always have my father fill out one of their power attorney forms. After delivering this wonderful news she smiled as if seeing the sunrise for the first time.
My mother was not smiling and the simmer setting on the tea pot went to full boil. We’ve been doing business with this band for over 50 years. This is a dreadful way to treat customers and so on. I don’t think the banker had ever been spoken to that way by an eighty some odd old person. She was clearly upset at the invective and I could also sense there was nothing she could do about the situation so I thanked the banker and told her that we would come back later when the banker who could help us would be present and with their signed power of attorney. And then led my mother sputtering out of the Bank.
We drove home to my parents’ house. And while my mother cooled off in the kitchen I went upstairs to the third floor master bedroom suite my father now lived in to let him know what was going. He was seated in his wheel chair dressed in the grey and red LuLemon warm up suit my mother had given him for his birthday that year and was seated at his desk. Or what he called his desk. It was actually a cork topped foldable card table that he kept his computer, papers and personal items on. It is also where he ate his meals.
He was, as usual, reading the ink off the New York Times and despite his yoga wear attire looking very professorial with his glasses low on his nose and his closely cropped beard. If you didn’t know how sick he was it would be very difficult to spot his illness.
I kissed him on the top of his head, a habit of mine since I first noticed his hair thinning on top of his head many years before. It had started out as a tease but had turned into a gesture of tenderness and love. “Hey Pops. Hows it going.”
He looked over his newspaper at me and gave me his standard response “Paul, growing old is not for the faint of heart.” I gave him a hug and sat down in the chair opposite him and told him of our adventures in banking and ask him if he would mind signing the power of attorney that the bank had asked us to have him sign. His hand shook as it took it to read. This was a new symptom and for the millionth time I was reminded how frail he was. It was a concept hard for me to grasp because this man had always been so strong, a protector, a person with whom I always felt safe and even though those roles had been reversed now, whenever I looked at him it was hard to see the frail elderly gentleman he was and far easier to see the superhero he always was to me.
How does that expression go? “You can take the superhero out of the Dad but you can’t take the Dad out of the superhero for the son.” Okay I made that up but it is how I felt that morning.
My father looked over the document and finally asked me for a pen to sign it. When I gave him the pen he signed in a unsteady hand, not the flourish of his youth. I told him we would see him later and headed downstairs to collect my mother and return to the bank.
When we returned to the bank we were greeted Ms. Less. She again apologized for having to make us come back to the bank for the second time. She told us that the bank manager had returned, a Ms. Condi Scending (not her real name) , and that if we could just wait a few minutes more she would be with us. True to her word, the manager came to meet and ushered us in to her office/cubicle and explained that her associate had only been doing her job and that we of course nodded our head if only for the sake of politeness. She then asked to see the document that my father had signed and after reviewing led us to the corner of the bank in which the card files (in 2012? Really not kidding.) were kept. She opened up a drawer and after a minute of sorting pulled an ancient artifact of a card and examined the signature it held. She looked down our glasses at us and said “ The signatures do not match.”
My mother, with equal amounts of saccharine and condescension, replied to her “My husband signed that document over 50 years ago. He is old. He is ill. His signature has changed. And if you don’t allow us access to his safety deposit box right now my first step will be to close my account of over 50 years, my second call my will be to my attorney and initiate a lawsuit against this bank. Are we clear?”
Whether it was the threats or the fact that our voices were quite loud in a quiet bank and her hope to avoid a scene, Ms. Scending, backtracked, said she hadn’t meant to imply that we could not access the safe deposit box and of course signatures change of overtime and please to follow her. So we did and she led us to the vault and after she inserted her key and my mother mine and the box removed and placed on a small shelf adjacent to the box. My mother looked in the box and pulled out a manila envelope and said “Take a look at these” and then asked Condi is she could have a private room to review the other contents. I knew what my mother was doing. She needed a private place to take some valuable items out of the lockbox and place them in her bags and was leaving the paperwork to me.
The contents of the envelope turned out to be the types of things any average person might have placed in a bank for safe keeping. There was the deed to my parents’ home, birth certificates and various other important papers. However, what drew my attention were several documents that related to my father’s service in the army.
The first to catch my eye was my father’s petition for Naturalization which was issued by US District Court for Northern Texas in Fort Worth Texas. This made me smile because one of our fathers “jokes” had been that he was Texan as that was where he was naturalized. I didn’t learn until our trip to his Grandmother’s village of Farafheld how much playing cowboys and Indians had played in his life and how this joke must have pleased the child who been sent up the mountain with the goatherder to live out his wild west boyhood fantasies. . In reviewing the documents there were some things that did seem a little odd to me. First, it listed his middle name as Israel. My father’s middle name was Zacharias. The second was the date of the petition, the 20th of January 1945. By the timeline of my father’s service that I had created for myself, with his guidance while we were in Vienna, he should have been in Italy suffering through a very cold winter.
At that moment, the anomalies in what I thought of as facts and what his naturalization papers said didn’t bother me too much. Perhaps my father screwed up on the dates he told me. Maybe he arrived in Italy February. Not a big deal but I would have to ask him about this and perhaps his middle name.
The next document I looked at was “Army of the United States” certificate of service. It stated that Ernst Rothkopf has served as a first lieutenant in the 913th Field Artillery Battalion 88th Infantry Division. All of which I knew from the time I began reading as a child “The Blue Devil in Italy.” However, what was odd there was a term of service listed on the documents. It said he served from the 4 August 1945 to 23 January 1947. If this was true my father did not begin his service in Europe until well after the war had ended there and almost the end of the war itself. While unsettling in that it did not follow the timeline of my father’s service that I knew I rationalized at the moment by seizing onto the word 1st Lieutenant as you enter service as an officer as a 2nd, so perhaps this only referred his time at the higher pay grade.
However my trip down the river in Egypt came to an abrupt close when I saw a reverse ink (black background/white type) certificate titled Enlisted Record Of Rothkopf, Ernst. While it was no surprise that my father was an enlisted man, this document said he had served that way for 11 months and 3 days. This shocked me out of denial for two reasons. First, in my discussions about with my father about his service it was always assumed that he went directly from basic to OCS. No delay was ever mentioned by him and I never thought to ask because I knew the Army’s policy during WW2 was officers were not promoted from the ranks excepts as battlefield commissions. Second, it confirmed what the previous document had referred to before. My father hadn’t been in Italy during the War. In fact, he had served only 4 weeks as officer while the US was officially at war and then only with Japan as Germany had capitulated in early May.
All that had been reading was confirmed by the last document in the stack. In addition to everything else, it said my father had not left for Europe until December 11, 1945 and had returned one year later December 10, 1946.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
I was stunned. I had a lifetime of family myth invested in his service record. His service, his story were a part of my identity. So much so we had spent 10 days in Europe exploring it so I could understand deeply what it meant to him. I guess I could have been angry at what clearly was deception on my father’s part. I guess I could have felt hurt that he did not share his “real” story with me but I really was neither of those things or maybe there were just minor element in what I felt. The overwhelming feeling I had was confusion. I had total faith that my father would not have deceived us without a good reason but I couldn’t understand why 65 years after his service had ended it still mattered and the deception continued.
I was still in a fog of confusion when my mother emerged from the cell in which she was emptying my father’s lock box. When I saw her standing next to me I sputtered “Are you ready to go?” She told me she was so I gathered the papers I was looking at and placed them back in the manila envelope and escorted my mother from the bank.
The minute we were buckled into the car, I asked my mother “Was your impression that Dad was a lieutenant for most of his career in the Army?”
She replied simply “Yes.”
“So your understanding was basic training, OCS, deployed to Italy to the Blue Devils. Right.”
She cocked her head as if what I said was a little curious a bit and said “Yes.”
I said “Well, that is not what is not what his army papers say. It says that he was an enlisted man for almost a year.”
“Can’t be. Has to be a mistake.”
“It’s there in black and white.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I am sure that your father can explain it. Why don’t you ask him when we get home.”