By Dick Cummins
Dick is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a regular contributor to this blog. This is an excerpt from his unpublished memoir.
First things first. It was 1947 and I was only four when I found out that my father was an atheist, not that he told me. It happened when a priest walked into his hospital room with a vial of oil and some cotton. We were in the intensive care suite at Camp Beale, outside of Marysville, California, the cardiologist saying my father was visiting his old friend, General Simpson, when he collapsed on the floor. They’d rushed him to the ER and that saved his life – but then the doctor added “… just barley.”
He was under an oxygen tent, eyes closed, either asleep or unconscious, a tube threaded up his nose and IV lines from a bottle and a bag twining down into his arm. His right hand was over the side of the bed so I gripped one finger in each of my hands, afraid to let him go. General Simpson was standing beside me too and I could tell he was trying to be more optimistic than he really was by the way he talked to my mother.
“We were wounded at the Marne in 1918,” he said. “The Germans counter attacked and I took a ricochet and your husband was blown out of his machine gun nest by a mortar shell; his ammo bearer landing on him probably saved his life—but not the ammo bearer’s.”
“I’ve seen the Purple Heart, but he never told me how he got it,” my mother replied.
“He could have stayed out of action, but after they pulled the metal out of him, was right back with us at the front. He’s a good man Mrs. Cranston—and he’s way too young to have a bad heart already.”
“I hope you’re right,” my mother replied. “Nicky really needs a father. He’s getting into the willful stage,” she said looking down at me. “Don’t know where he gets it.”
“Mama, your husband’s men used to say they sure wouldn’t want to be any son of Sergeant Cranston’s because he was hard and strict, but don’t get me wrong—he was fair too. They respected him for that.”
“He has a stubborn streak, that’s for sure,” my mother added, glancing at the oxygen tent to see if her comment might wake him up, get him started.
The cardiologist leaned over the bed and began listening to my father’s chest with the stethoscope he had dangling around his neck, to see if he was still alive maybe—but that didn’t wake him up either. When he finished he shook his head a little.
“Your husband has severely blocked coronary arteries Mrs. Cranston. Honestly we didn’t expect him to survive this long but he seems to have an exceptionally strong will to live!”
As if he was cued, a pudgy priest, wearing thick rimless glasses knocked on the door jamb.
“Excuse me; is this Sergeant Cranston?” he asked, walking into the room and over to my father’s bed without waiting for an answer. The long embroidered scarf draped around his neck trailed back underneath his arms..
Later my father said he must have checked the “Catholic” religious preference box when he lied about his age to join the Army at fifteen in 1912. (“I don’t think they had a preference box for ‘none’ in those days” he told my mother, as not having a religion was probably illegal too.)
“I’ve known Sergeant Cranston for over 30 years, Father, and I don’t believe he’s a practicing Catholic,” General Simpson offered respectfully.
“I know for a fact he isn’t,” my mother added. “When we were married he said that he would never set foot in a church—wouldn’t say why, just that he wouldn’t.”
“I was called to come because his condition is listed as ‘grave’ ma’am,” the officious little priest announced. “His records show his religious preference is Catholic, so here I am.”
“Perhaps things have changed, Father. Sergeant Cranston saw a lot in that first war that maybe had ah…,” General Simpson paused looking down at me and then continued. “After Belleau Wood, he told me he was probably the only foxhole atheist in the U. S. Army, if that helps you to understand the situation a little better.”
“Be that as it may General, sir,” the priest continued; opening a tiny vial of oil and pressing a small ball of cotton to its mouth, he tipped. “Regulations are unequivocal sir. The day a soldier is listed in grave condition, and his records say he’s a Catholic, Last Rights must be administered—a precautionary gesture of course.”
That said, and before anyone could stop him, the short priest rocked up on tiptoes and lifted the plastic hem of the oxygen tent with his thumb and forefinger, pinky sticking straight out and began dabbing my father’s forehead with the oily cotton ball.
“Through this holy anointing,” he intoned, “may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
The tapping on father’s forehead caused him to stir as if a woodpecker doll were trying to wake him up. Next the priest flicked my fingers off of his hand like they were flies and began swiping my father’s palm with the cotton too.
“May the Lord who frees you from your sins, save you and raise you up.”
As if that were a command, my father opened his eyes and raised his head up off the pillow. Recognizing that a priest was fooling with him, he crooked his index finger. The priest looked over at the cardiologist who shrugged silent permission, and standing farther up on his tiptoes the priest leaned down, his ear close to my father’s lips.
But if he thought he was going to hear my father’s last words or repentance for sins, he had another think coming.
“Get the hell out of here,” my father rasped, dropping his head back on the pillow.
I grabbed his hand again and started to cry as the priest crossed himself urgently and backed toward the door.
“It’s your immortal soul sergeant,” the priest spluttered. “I’ll be praying very hard because you’re going to need a lot of forgiveness from our Lord and Savior…”
My father lifted his head slightly again.
“Out…” he gurgled and closing his eyes he laid his head back down.
My mother reached over and tucked the plastic front of the oxygen tent back around my father’s neck affectionately and I could not stop crying.
“Mrs. Cranston,” General Simpson said with a crooked grin. “You know they couldn’t kill your husband through all the action we saw in Germany and France, which leads me to believe he’s probably going to be around for you and Nicky a while longer.”
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to think so,” My mother replied, as if she thought the general was shining her on and pressed her hand on top of mine as if to pass hope down through it into my father.
Two weeks later my mother got a phone call from General Simpson. He said the nurses were really getting browned off at my father; it was probably time to talk to the doctors about bringing him home. He said a nurse told him that while pushing my father around the halls, oxygen tank strapped to his wheel chair, he would cough and swear and growl that some how, some way he was going to get his hands on a goddamn bag of the Bull or bum a goddamn Camel. Then he was going to light right up—right after turning off the goddamned oxygen so he “wouldn’t blow this goddamn brig of a hospital completely to hell like it needed to be—just because he had a bad habit.”
When they released him from the hospital, armed with nitroglycerin tablets for the angina, his cardiologist told him that he had to make two life changes. The first was to move closer to a large Army hospital because his heart condition was quite serious and two, he absolutely, positively had to stop smoking. Because if he didn’t, his life expectancy would be in months, not years.
As soon as he got home, my father put our little chicken ranch up for sale and we began packing for the move to Monterey so he’d be close to the big Army hospital at Fort Ord. For two months he hadn’t been able to smoke but seemed miserable and forlorn without a roll-your-own bobbing up and down in the corner of his mouth.
Just outside of Sacramento, pulling a trailer full of our things, we stopped for gas. When my father came back to the car after paying he had a bag of Bull Durham in one hand and package of Zig-Zag rolling papers in the other.
“Please don’t Russell,” my mother begged quietly. “You’ve made it this long. Don’t you want to be around for us? For Nicky? For yourself? For your family?”
My father would never have said anything mean like “shut up” to my mother, and scowling, he ignored her, forming a little rolling paper canoe then shaking a hill of tobacco into it, spreading it end to end with his finger. Twisting back and forth, he rolled the ends, licked the seam tight and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. Then, looking out the window to avoid my mother’s long-suffering look, he pulled out his old Army Zippo. Thumbing the friction wheel, he drew in, the flame bending into the twisted end of his perfect cigarette, the doctors, his family and his heart be damned.
Before we got half way out of the station, he was coughing violently and pulled over.
“Are you okay dear?” my mother asked, touching his shoulder.
“Just a little dizzy. Jesus—these damned things,” he said, and then to me, “If I ever catch you smoking I’ll paddle your bottom ‘til you can’t sit down … terrible habit!”
And so my father continued to smoke, a roll-your-own drooping out of the corner of his mouth more often than not, because nobody was going to tell him what to do, especially not those prissy heart doctors.
Ten years later, in the alley behind Central Junior High School, I was learning to smoke too—dizzy and coughing from class B Fatimas cigarettes that only cost 19 cents a pack.
Because no one was going to tell me what to do either.
Ever join a self-destruction derby to prove a point? How’d that work out for you?