Thursday, June 9, 2011

Arnett Winfrey Hawkins, My Dad (on his 87th Birthday)



Had my father lived, today would have been his 87th birthday.  He was born on June 9, 1924, in Woodville, Virginia, a small town in the shadow of the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains.

When he was 5 or 6, his youngest brother, Herbert, playing with matches, burned down the house in which Dad and his sister and five brothers lived  with my grandfather, Henry, and my grandmother, Lucy.  My grandfather bought some land half–way between Washington, Virginia (known as “Little Washington”) and the town of Sperryville, Virginia.  The land and the wonderful home my grandfather built there also were in the shadow of the great mountains.

When Dad was nine, his father was killed.  Dad had been one of his father’s favorites.  My grandmother told me that Henry would take my Dad everywhere with him.  When his father died, my Dad was crushed and, in my opinion, never really got over it.  He would tell my brother and me stories about his father that made it very clear that Henry was Dad’s first and greatest hero.

Eight or nine years after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother, with the help of her oldest son, had gone through all the money that she had received when Henry died.  She had to sell her Sperryville home—to my Aunt Pauline and Pauline’s husband, Jack—and she bought a large townhouse on East Capitol Street in Washington, D. C., seven blocks from the U.S. Capitol.  My Dad did not want to move to DC with his mother.  He had grown to love horses.  He cared for the horses that his family owned, and he rode with the Rappahannock Hunt, a group of horse fanciers who enjoyed fox hunting.  For Dad to leave the home his father had built, and his horses, was a second huge trauma for him.

Dad was in High School in DC when World War II started.  In June, 1942, he graduated and became fodder for the draft.  He did his best to avoid the draft, going so far as to travel by train across country to Washington State, where he tried to get a job with the airplane industry.  Such a job would have exempted him from the draft.  He failed at getting such a job, and the exemption, so he joined the Army Air Corps.  He served in Europe, but, as far as I know, he was never involved in combat.  He worked from the rear, maintaining planes that others flew into combat.

After the war ended, Dad returned to his mother’s home in DC.  There he met my mother, who, with her sister Marie, was a WAVE and a roomer in my grandmother’s home.  Mom says that Dad at that time was “cute” and that she fell in love with him.  I’m not sure what would have happened had Mom not become pregnant (with me), but my sense is that they would not have married otherwise.  My Dad’s family hated Yankees and Catholics, both of which my mother was.  My Mom’s family did not like Dad from the minute they set eyes on him.  Still, the pregnancy trumped personal feelings and prejudices, and they married.  I was born in January, 1947.  My brother, Bob, came along in March, 1949.

My parents’ marriage was a mess almost from the beginning.  Dad was very insecure.  Anytime my mother did something out of Dad’s sight, Dad was convinced that she was having an affair with somebody.  This insecurity persisted, and worsened, throughout their marriage until Dad’s death.  Mom tried several times to leave him and get a divorce, but she always changed her mind.  She didn’t believe she could afford raising two boys just on her salary as a secretary.

Dad had a ferocious temper that would go off with little or even no provocation.  He was emotionally and psychologically abusive to my mother, my brother, and me.  From the time we were very little, my brother and I knew to fear Dad and to avoid him if possible.  With me (and only me), he added physical abuse.  He would smack me around for no reason that I or my mother could determine.  I have forgotten most of these incidents, but my brother hasn’t.  My brother still has nightmares about Dad’s hitting me.  He remembers just about every instance.  When he recounts one of these episodes, I most often will remember it, but only because my brother brings it up.  I guess I blocked these things.

Dad was a heavy drinker.  He and my mother had a house on seven acres in the country in Loudoun County, Virginia.  The property had a barn where Dad would spend a lot of his time during the day.  He retired at the age of 47 (some disability claim), and, after retirement, most of his waking time was spent in the barn.  It was there that he kept his alcohol.  He died of cirrhosis of the liver.  His death certificate had as a contributing cause of death “chronic severe alcoholism.”  When I saw that, I was flabbergasted.  I never knew Dad to be drunk.  My mother says that what I need to say is that I never knew him to be sober.

My brother and I over the years independently have reached the conclusion that our father was gay.  There are so very many indicators of it.  He had a long and exclusive relationship with a married dentist that kept the two of them away from their families for almost every weekend while we were growing up.  They spoke for hours on the phone during the week, and they would get together during the week at least once.  Dad, as a kid, was taunted by his macho brothers for being a sissy because he was skinny and he liked to read.  Other things, too, convince my brother and me that Dad was deeply in the closet.  That would explain a lot of his raging, unfathomable anger, as well as his deep insecurity.

Dad did give me some positive things.  He was thrilled at my academic achievement.  He would take my seminary report cards into his office and bore his colleagues with them.  He told me many times how much he admired the work I did in school.  He allowed me to come to love the country in which he was born and raised.  I spent many summers during my teen years with my Aunt Pauline in the house my grandfather had built in Sperryville.  To this day, I believe that is some of the most beautiful country on earth.  He contributed to my love of reading.  Dad read always, even, apparently, when he was drunk.  Our house was full of books when I was growing up: fiction, history, politics, and biographies.  He made me appreciate careful handling of money and budgeting, an appreciation that has seen me safely through some tough times.

On the whole, though, I am not mourning Dad today.  My mother, my brother, and I each have had to deal with Dad’s memory since his death.  Each of us has done this, and the way I would describe our dealing is that we all have closed the door on most of our memories of our life with Dad.

Still, he was my father, he was a wounded man, and today is his birthday.  My wish for him is that he has found that peace in death that eluded him always in life.
Dad and I, c 1973 (sorry about the tie!)

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