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Header: Jess Anderson in Madison Wisconsin
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My Father
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He was really a heel, but a very interesting guy in an odd sort of way. Lord knows how or why it got started, but his greatest problem was drinking, for which no remedy ever worked, not that he tried anything other than going on the wagon periodically.

When he was drunk, which was virtually all the time, he was a remorsely violent person. He never got far with beating up on my mother, because she could whip him. The kids were another matter; there are horror stories galore, but the telling would be too grim. Despite his extreme cruelty to her, my sister retained a soft spot for him right to time he died. I certainly did not; I was elated when my parents divorced in 1946 and was glad to see him go.

The end of his life was not pleasant. At some point, I think at about age 50, he attempted suicide. That led to involuntary commitment in a state mental hospital (Jacksonville, in Illinois), which was by all reports (including his) a really awful place.

He was released to halfway houses a couple times. However, he was downing beers almost as soon as he was let out and was always sent right back to the hospital within a week. He never drank liquor, by the way, only beer.

While he was in the hospital he kept a diary (my sister has it; I have a xerox copy). His first white-collar job had been as a draftsman for a company in Chicago. He was very proud of his penmanship (quite justifiably; it was beautiful), and a fanatic for the proper maintenance and perfect use of drafting tools. So the diary, written in a place of great deprivations, consisted of a large sheaf of 5.5" by 8.5" sheets, lettered on both sides with absolutely no margins (top, bottom, or sides) in perfect majuscules not more than 1/16" high, and with virtually no space between lines, using a #3 lead pencil that was perfectly pointed. The lines were absolutely straight, and I'm sure he did not use a straightedge -- he never needed one: he could rule a perfectly straight line three feet long by eye. He used only an equals sign to separate entries, which were usually dated.

He records the events of his life in the madhouse as though they were ordinary, which they emphatically were not. Most of the writing is terse. He notes down (including the time, remarkably) each and every cigaret he smoked ("Roller." "Butt." "Another roller." "A Camel, thank god!"). He noted down all his activities, for example each time he swept the floor of the day room. The detail is just amazing. But what it mainly shows is the utter bleakness of his existence and the reduction of what had been a keen mind to an unthinking routine.

At the very end, on the last page, all his induced order breaks down. The writing is (relatively) sloppy, and the last line trails down the page, exactly in the gesture of a hand that is ceasing to live. That line says, "Hell, I still don't know what it's all about." It's very poignant. Such a horrible waste.

Maybe the most striking feature of the diary, which I've read twice, is that there isn't a single metaphor in the whole work. I asked my mother about this, because the love letters, which she had kept and I had read, were fairly poetic. But he had in fact copied those out, not created them, for he was apparently incapable of assaying life in figurative language. He had, simply, a totally literal and linear personality. The musician in me finds that particularly strange. But I did get some of his meticulousness and manual precision genes, I think. My friends call it compulsion.

There had been better days. He was good-looking as a young man, to judge by the photographs that survive. He was phenomenally bright, though uneduated, having not even finished high school because family problems forced him to start working in the Pennsylvania coal mines at age 16, which would have been 1923. Later he trained himself to be a draftsman and in Peoria worked for the electric utility, which in those days engineered major power installations for local industries that would be big power customers. His specialty was industrial lighting system engineering. He did well and in time became an officer of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES). After his second marriage, he moved back to Chicago and became some sort of vice president for Westinghouse.

The largest by far of his projects in Peoria was a new set of rack houses for Hiram Walker Distillery (the world's largest), which had had a disastrous fire. The fire, incidentally, dumped millions of gallons of whiskey into the Illinois River. They say drunks lined up on the shore for many miles downstream to get loaded on the dirty river water. Fish were killed as far away as St. Louis (180 miles).

As kids, we didn't have many toys (my dad made decent money, but drank up a lot of it). But he brought home old blueprints from the office, showed us how to sharpen pencils with a pocket knife (you got whacked if it wasn't done perfectly, of course), and we amused ourselves for hours, patiently covering the white lines with black lead lines. I suppose it helped me develop good eye-hand coordination, which has certainly stood me in good stead since. I can rule straight lines without a ruler, too.

In Chicago he had worked for the Holophane Company (industrial lighting fixtures) before moving to Peoria. He gradually worked his way up to better-paying and more challenging jobs, eventually becoming a lighting-system engineer. The auditorium of the Lyric Opera in Chicago is a wonderful art-deco room for which my father, of all people, designed the lighting system. That design is still in place, as far as I know, nearly 70 years later, though surely the controls and fixtures themselves have been updated. I've since sat in that room through many a fine performance (and more than one terrible one).

I suspect he didn't have much fun. He drank all the time, spending most of his nonwork hours in bars. I don't think he ever loved anybody; my mother said he didn't. God knows he slept around a lot, which annoyed my mother quite a bit. She told me years later that he occasionally slept with men. I might have talked to him about that, if I had known it while he was still living.

One thing he really liked was baseball -- not the majors, but playing the game himself. (No great surprise, I hated baseball.) Peoria had a Sunday morning league, and I remember trooping off to Glen Oak Park to watch Dad play. I guess his team was sponsored by Cilco (Central Illinois Lighting Co.), for their logo was bright red and so were the uniforms. He cut quite a fine figure in his baseball rig. After the game, he and his cronies would retire to a bar and that might be the last we'd see of him for days.

Surfing the web one morning in September 1997, I chanced across his name (my name too, of course). Another of his great passions was chess, which I think he probably played well (as did my mother and brother). I hadn't known that he was the founder of two chess organizations in Peoria, one in 1938, the other in 1943. The descendant of these groups is now the Greater Peoria Chess Federation.

It was the debilitating life in the asylum (stifling in summer, freezing and damp in winter) and severe emphysema that did him in at the relatively tender age of just under 56. I didn't see him or talk to him at all after I was 21, though he lived until I was 29. I miss my mother like mad, but I've never missed my father a bit. It isn't so much dislike as an abiding disinterest and a deep pity for the man.

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