Winged Shoes and a Shield
City Lights Books
“My Dad Cured Me of Guns”
“My Dad Cured Me of Guns” is from Don Bajema’s story collection, Winged Shoes and a Shield (City Lights Books). Bajema has toured extensively on the spoken word circuit in the US, Canada, and Europe where he has shared club and theater stages with Henry Rollins, Hubert Selby, Jim Carroll, and others.
Bajema provided these reflections on his story: I haven’t read this story in a long time, so with fresh eyes I’ll confirm that much of it is taken from real life. It might be that I hadn’t read it because I remembered it as an indictment of a sort against my father. After a certain age a man is embarrassed of that kind of thinking that is so common to young adult males, but in time seems regrettable and dishonorable.
But the story isn’t so much an indictment of a particular man, as an out of focus viewing of one of the pit falls of the ‘human condition’. We in families are by needs of proximity ‘close’ but the lack of connections in the spirit are often only made more obvious and painful by that proximity. That I’m afraid was the case in our 50’s tract home on a steep suburban street in San Diego.
But let me, with the benefit of time and knowledge gained in the subsequent years, take the omniscient over view in that moment in their lives.
Dad was a Pacific War hero and long staying patient at Camarillo Mental Hospital as a result. He was the youngest, and probably in some sense the favorite of his mother’s thirteen children reared during the Great Depression on a small farm on the Canadian border with Washington State. They were good, hard working, and lonely people cut off in many ways by the non-life affirming strictures of the Dutch Reform Church. Guilt and shame were the levers that dug you like a tree stump from your roots in humanity to the more useful purposing of a stern God perhaps a pasture for dairy cattle or a field for His crops. At any rate it was a painful extraction.
Dad was seventeen when he shipped out to Pearl Harbor as a sailor working below decks as a machinist mate. I don’t think he was aware of his claustrophobia until those days in the tight confines of the engine room. But he was very handy with machinery and able to do the job as so many of his generation were. After the terror of that fateful Sunday morning and the fourteen major battles at sea over a period of four years in which he never set foot on his home shores and could count by minutes his time on dry land he came ‘home’ a permanently frightened and disheartened young man.
By the time he, and his wife who was a nurse at Camarillo and administered his electro shock therapy, adopted me as an infant son Dad was drinking heavily and wrecking cars as quickly as he could repair them. Mom loved Dad dearly but her sexual orientation was not toward men. They had an arrangement. One I was unaware of other than to see the symptoms like a fever to the pneumonia in the body. My inability to diagnosis led to a resentment – of course we were being schooled on the expectations of family via 50’s television – we as children were believers failing to see the intended ironies of the ‘programming’.
I should make it clear that I love my father who I spoke to on the phone just a few hours ago. He is a better man than I am, has done more and overcome more in his life than I have with mine, though our challenges were different. Which only means he dealt with war, death, addiction, alcoholism, heart break, years of lonely yearning for a life he’d been suited to and watched destroyed by war as he summed up eloquently enough in another memory of I have of him around the same time “My Dad Cured Me of Guns…” takes place.
I’d come home from school on one of those pale early winter evenings. We lived on a steep road with a terraced back yard and beyond that yard a two miles of Southern California canyon.
He was standing on the rim of the canyon that dropped a few hundred feet into a flat expanse of scrub brush, hobo campfires, hidden pornographic magazines, panties and condoms as well as deer, rabbit, flocks of birds and arroyos for any boy needing time to himself to get lost within, which was my intention when I came upon him, standing there back turned and looking as alone as anyone I’d ever seen. As I neared him I could see that his shoulders were twitching, that he seemed to be about to make a stoop to the ground but then stopped himself and regained his upright posture, but then shuddered and bent again, then stood again.
I kept walking completely confused and fairly alarmed. I drew to his side and saw a collapsed face, I saw his usually composed and firm face loose and wet and broken into a man I did not really recognize. I can recall at this moment how close it was to making me faint. He looked at me, surprised that I was there. But unlike me or any of the boys he failed utterly to cover his crying, to protect his dignity. He just tried to smile. The world swirled and the ground rolled under my feet like someone was snapping it like a blanket. I asked him, “Dad, what’s wrong?” And he said, “It’s alright, Don, it’s okay. It’s just that the world was trying to kill itself for about six years.”
So, to be fair, let it be said I understand that my Dad cured me of a lot of things.