Flight Path

In 1949, my parents, two of the strangest people I ever knew, made the unfortunate decision to marry. Eight years later, when I was nine, my mother, who screamed uncontrollably while pummelling my child-self with her tight clenched fists, frequently raged at my weakling, self-deprecating father. One morning, after she angrily hurled a knife across the dinner table, and he caught it, and laughed, she loudly shrieked and fled—abruptly divorced him in 1959, impulsively sold the house on Ivy Street in Newark, New Jersey, for unknown reasons decamped to the island of Nantucket.

Nantucket: on the cusp of 1960, as yet undiscovered by the well-known and well-to-do, was a boyhood paradise. My mother, brother and I arrived in winter by a twin-engine, fixed-wing airplane, met at the modest airport by Mr. Barrett. A large cantankerous man, who passed his spare time fringing the edges of three-inch wool squares with a large sewing needle—he drove us into town in his large black Packard. Along the way he offered to rent us an apartment at 23 Liberty Street, which we moved into a few weeks later.

Soon I became best friends with Johnny Dennis, who lived down the street. His father, John Value Dennis, a hardy man and self-taught ornithologist, once drove us in his Ford Woody to the moors, a pristine acreage of vast lowland plain perfect for erecting long, wide nets which unsuspecting migrating birds smacked into and found themselves trapped. Repeatedly, the three of us would rush from hiding, Johnny and I spellbound as John Sr. carefully untangled a wriggling bird, expertly banded the left or right leg (left for female, right for male), opened his hands and set it free.

A few houses past the Dennis home lived the mysterious Doll Woman. Walking by her small house I could momentarily spy through the window the army of dolls seated mute and unblinking on shelves, in chairs, propped atop old New England furniture. Occasionally I glimpsed the silent eccentric herself. Exceedingly thin, her long grey hair purposefully coiffed, her gaunt oval face heavily confected with pancake make-up and rouged cheeks, daily she assembled herself in period dresses adorned with taffeta ruffles and satiny fabric. Who was she? What secrets did she hold? A widow, perhaps, more errant ghost than hardy Nantucketer.

In town, my brother and I met the trim and bespectacled Mr. Reed, proud owner of Reed’s Hardware, which happened to stock gas-engine WWII model airplanes. Displayed in cardboard boxes with cellophane windows, I obtained one courtesy of my mother—supported by monthly checks from her parents, and the pittance in child support sent by my father.

One afternoon, in a nearby field I activated the engine’s glow plug by feeding it gas from a small tin can and spun the propeller with one finger. Immediately it sputtered and roared to life. Quickly, I handed the buzzing thing to my excited brother, gripped a black plastic handle with twin lines which lead to the planes left wing, signalled my brother to let go, and I wheeled about in a continuous circle. Like an angry hornet, round and round the bright yellow plane turned in its centrifugal circuit, angling high or low at my command, until the gas ran out, the plane sailed to earth, and gas was re-administered.

Despite our sibling rivalry my brother and I got along well. Intuitively we understood that our mother was strange. In the course of an hour, she could be frenzied, fearful, uncaring, angry. She suffered enormously from self-pity and cried a lot. Her ability to express love was severely limited. Many afternoons, beneath a white wool quilt, she would lie in bed, cigarette in one hand, tippling beer and reading Playboy magazine. Her strangeness, her odd or frantic behavior, defined our sense of what was normal. All mothers must be like her. And all fathers identical to our own meek man.

Five years on my brother and I grew to hate her intrusiveness, her cruel mockery and heckling, unaware she was possessed by her own mother’s self-hatred, and ten years on would have a brain tumor removed. When Mrs. I, as our grandmother was called, died in 1980, her daughter blurted out to startled family members, “I’m glad the bitch is dead!” Forty years earlier, after an attempted suicide at twenty-two, under sodium pentothal she had asked a therapist, “Is it possible I hate my mother?”

Twenty-three Liberty Street was a half-mile or so from the main piers, whose weathered boards saturated the salty air with creosote’s aromatic maritime scent. Often my brother and I, with our fifty-cent drop lines—rugged yellow plastic squares resembling tic-tac-toe boards, wound with sturdy green twine, a sinker and fishhook—sought out “wharf fish” which may have been tidewater carp, and the occasional sea robin, a slimy, bottom-dwelling elongated fish with a bony head and fan-shaped pectoral fins. “Got one!” we cried when the line jerked downward, and he or I excitedly hoisted up the squirming creature from the dark water, dislodged the hook, threw the wriggling fish back into the ocean brine, or tossed the unfortunate catch to the greedy gulls, who swarmed and pecked and tore it apart. On warm sunny days, when the deep water was preternaturally clear, shoals of tropical fish meandered past.

Early on, my brother and I were enrolled at Academy Hill School, a one-hundred-year-old brick and mortar building, where students sat at wrought iron and wood desks, teachers chalked math and grammar lessons on enormous blackboards, or pulled down colorful window-shade-like political maps and rotated large pastel globes to illustrate history. To begin the school day, each morning, after solemnly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Miss Maribeth “Kip” Ingram’s 4th grade class listened reverently to a psalm from the bible, read by a student selected by Miss Ingram the week before.

On the appointed day, as I fretted over which clothes to wear, my mother exploded in a volley of anger and struck me violently with her clenched fist, her jewelled ring digging a painful gash in the center of my back. An hour later, standing before the expectant class in white shirt, slacks and jacket, I opened the bible to the 23rd Psalm.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” These first lines I spoke unwaveringly, but soon I began to shudder, then weep, and the well-behaved students, puzzled at first, jeered and laughed as Miss Ingram protectively led me out of the classroom and into the hall to comfort me with her embrace. From that day she became my surrogate mother. I would occasionally visit her home. Confide in her. Dwell in her kindness.

It was during this time that I became friends with Albert Jenkins, a sturdy well-adjusted boy who lived five houses from Academy Hill School, and blond-haired, blue-eyed and chubby Jimmy Worth, a kind hearted boy, who, like Albert seemed to wear only wool sweaters and worn-out jeans. Tobey Leske, a short, energetic ten-year-old had a little sister whose name I don’t recall. Their father owned and operated Captain Tobey’s, a popular seafood and chowder restaurant located in town.

One winter afternoon, the snow drifts edging three-and-four-feet high, Tobey and I trudged to his father’s house. His parents, like my own, were recently divorced. Finding the house deserted, Tobey led me to the bachelor den, from whose ceiling hung a plastic menagerie of WWII model planes: sleek winged jets, lumbering broad-winged bombers, propeller-driven fighter planes, each lovingly assembled and hand-painted in great detail.

At first gingerly, Tobey and I pulled the plastic craft down and played as pilots in aerial combat. But gradually, as if possessed, we began to excitedly crash the delicate war toys into each other, or threw them cruelly against the wall, or gleefully stomped them to pieces on the bare wood floor. How to explain this pent-up anger? This stylized savagery. We hadn’t a clue. I don’t recall the consequences.

My year in paradise passed quickly. I recall that my mother had a friend, a handsome dark-haired tennis instructor named Tony. Who was this mystery man? What they did together she would not say.

I recall long bike rides to Jetty’s beach, with only dunes and vegetation either side of the long straight road. Breakfasts at The Lamppost, where for the first time I ate eggs that were not pure white. Lunch at The Donut Shop, where a colossal brown replica hung precariously above the entrance door. The skeletal antique tricycle touting Young’s Bicycles; Mr. Young patiently showing myself and Johnny Dennis how to assemble and launch an Estes cardboard rocket.

The day Johnny and I caught hundreds of wall-eyed mackerel in a faraway stream, repeatedly flinging the shiny creatures at each other, we dodged this way and that, the stiff gleaming corpses pilling either side of us. Our clothes flecked with fish scales and stinking of fish, an older black man dressed formally and driving a Rolls Royce—he may have been the chauffeur, gave us a ride to town.

One rainy night, for reasons never explained, my father came to visit. My father: In 1943, after less than a year in service, was discharged for being psychologically unfit. Prone to anxiety, panic, and depression, in the ’50s he endured primitive applications of electro-convulsive therapy, losing a tooth in the process. In middle age he was hospitalized numerous times for anxiety and panic; doctors prescribed drugs of minimal benefit.

Unable to work, wearing his signature black watch cap and checkered lumber jacket, my father took to prowling the neighborhood streets. A tragic and lonely figure, daily he discomfited neighbors and passersby with his frightfully paranoid and racist rants. “Kooks,” he called the ubiquitous enemy, which perfectly described himself.

On the first night of his brief stay, as I pour water over him with a kitchen pot, see how my father sits like a princely child in the large white tub with its four clawed feet. At meals, the sight of my parents sitting together made for a happy-sad time. When he left a week later, it was as if my father had never visited. In eleven years the unfortunate pair would re-marry each other, their odd duet a long lived tragi-comedy—he with his silly puns and immature humor. She, infinitely shallow, profoundly disturbed, falling for each silly gag.  Years later, “Your mother is like a chicken running around with its head cut off,” a therapist would tell me. “Your father is delusional.”

Elsewhere, I recall the obscenities unleashed by a feral boy named Donnie, from whom I learned the word fuck. I recall a handsome proud West Indian man of athletic stature, outfitted in captain’s cap and sailor’s khakis. Was his name Kirby? A fixture at the piers, was he a stevedore? A deckhand for hire? A war veteran?

Vividly, I remember the day Johnny Dennis and I entered the forbidden foyer at 23 Liberty Street, how we excitedly opened the nineteenth-century lock of a mysterious door with a skeleton key, ascended the creaking spiral staircase and came upon several identical small rooms. Each was fitted with a single mattress atop an iron frame, the mattress covered with a blanket and patchwork quilt; a small woven rug and sailor’s trunk at the foot of the bed; a compact wood bureau; a small wood chair. These rooms became our secret sanctuary, until Mr. Barrett detected our trespass, scowled at my mother and me, brought his tools and changed the lock.

Somewhere a photo exists of my boyhood self on a side street near the town post office, where I once bought a coveted forty-cent plate block of a U.S. Revenue stamp. It is late afternoon. The street is roped off, in preparation for the weekly sailors’ dance. In the center of the photograph, I am surrounded by young and old gawking onlookers. Tethered to the organ grinder—a short swarthy man, a small anxious monkey sits perched on my arm, nervously awaiting its ducat reward. The look on my face is of pure delight.

I recall my last day in Nantucket. Before stepping into Mr. Barrett’s cavernous black cab to ride to the airport, board the plane, fly back to New Jersey—as we said our goodbyes, Johnny handed me an official multi-bladed Boy Scout knife, which I treasured for years.

As the Vietnam war raged, one Thanksgiving my mother rose from her seat at the family table, to read loudly from the King James Bible. “Jesus is my Lord and master,” she proclaimed. She wept copiously, bolted from the great white-carpeted living room, ran hysterically down the main street of South Orange, New Jersey, her alarmed brother and worried father in hot pursuit. “She has schizophrenia,” my uncle told me one night during her six-week confinement in a psychiatric hospital in Summit, New Jersey. He meant she was crazy.

Could I have guessed that five years later the first enemy grenade would explode directly in front of our machine gun, twisting the barrel like wet clay, dirt and dust filtering down? Could I have known that Wilson and Larry Roy, Rudy and Bieck would raise up from behind the rotted logs, repeatedly fire their M16s, heatedly curse the unseen enemy, or that Wilson would shout, as I crouched behind the clotted roots of a fallen tree, “Look to the left, Doc, they’ll try to outflank us.”

Could I have known that Larry Roy would valiantly yell, “Toss me a grenade, Doc!” and I did, and he pulled the pin, counted three, chucked the thing, its killing radius five yards, BOOM, and we knew they were dead. But seconds later, who would have thought a second grenade would land between us, the four of them—Shake ’N Bake, shot in the leg, I’d earlier patched him up, lay off to the right—with nowhere to hide, scrambled atop me, the blast seeming to lift us up, Wilson last on, getting it worst. I was decorated three times, court martialed twice, demoted of all rank, honorably kicked out. Problems with authority, they said.

It was during the time of patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon that I wrote to my parents—seeking their approval I wrote to them often about being an infantry medic—requesting a survival knife. “K bars,” the Marines called the large thick-handled daggers with their long cruel blade. We used them to clear a bit of jungle before bedding down at night. There aren’t enough in the platoon, I said. Send me one. They cost five bucks. I’ll pay you back. Weeks went by. No answer. “You can buy one from this magazine,” I wrote. “Just send me the fucking knife.”
A letter arrived. “All is well here. We don’t think the knife is a good idea. It’s sharp and pointed and you might hurt yourself.”

Stupid. Crazy. Witless. Take your pick. It took decades to partly forgive their flaws, to let go my rage.

After the war I avoided contact with my father, now wheelchair-bound, sillier than ever. I did not know he was dead until my brother and I patched up a falling out. After he told me, I felt a brief sense of loss. At my mother’s burial only my brother, myself, and the funeral director. The gravedigger departed after completing his task. When the crew assigned to lower the casket failed to arrive, the three of us, using two sticks and nylon webbing,  lowered the coffin six feet into the ground.

After the symbolic spadefuls of dirt onto the top of the coffin, I removed my sports jacket and vigorously shoveled dirt onto the casket at the bottom of the grave. Dig and toss. Dig and toss. Like filling sandbags beneath a tropic sun.  After forty minutes, resting twice, I had completely buried my mother.

I returned to the island in 1980. Much had changed. Academy Hill School was  now re-purposed to senior housing. The Mad Hatter, a most elegant restaurant, its long tables linen-draped, heavy with silver and crystal, was gone. Demolished. The land, bought by the city, reborn as a park. Gone too, the hole-in-the-wall Shell Shop, sequined floor to ceiling with the dazzling shells of all things mollusk.

At Young’s Bicycles, the now sixtyish owner advised his son to rent me the Rolls Royce, the best three-speed in stock. “But Dad,” the boy wondered. “Just do it,” his father replied. On Liberty Street, the Dennis family had long departed. As had the mysterious Doll Woman. Jimmy Worth and Albert Jenkins were away. Tobey Leske was somewhere but could not be found.

I neglected to visit Shedden Sanguinetti, an occasional pal who lived at 20 Liberty Street. Three years older than my boyhood self, I later learned he had served in Vietnam. From the outside, number 23 had not changed. I took photographs. As with number 20, its present value surpasses one million dollars. The moors? Thankfully protected by a conservation partnership.

The town center and waterfront, which had fallen into decline, had been snapped up and gentrified by Walter Beinecke, Jr., a wealthy investor intent on restoring Nantucket by attracting upscale tourists. The Nantucket community I had known, blue collar, close knit, a sprinkling of socialites, had mostly vanished.

On the last day of my visit, I learned that my beloved Miss Ingram—we had stayed in touch for several years, had cancer. When the hospital nurse said Maribeth was too ill to speak I hung up the payphone and wept.

Recently, after looking at family photos, and reviewing military personnel records, which I collect, it occurred to me that Robert Leske, Tobey’s dad, might have fought in WWII. Might have been a combat pilot. Online, I discovered that he’d died in 2003. I located his date of birth and social security number. His army service number and date of enlistment. His 1942 CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) pilot-training yearbook. A photo of his gravestone is inscribed with the words “US Army Air Force, Air Force, WWII, Captain, Korea, Cold War.”

His son Tobey sold the eponymous restaurant for a large sum in 2012. “It’s definitely bittersweet,” he said at the time. “It was always my father’s business. He started it and was there every day when it was open. We had leased it just before he had passed away.”

Echoing his dad, Tobey worked on Nantucket as a water taxi pilot; he also ran a construction company. He passed in 2017. His mother died in 2000. During the second world war, much like her former husband, she served as a Navy pilot. She was also a aerial photographer and flight instructor.

Unlike my own parents, did Robert and Jean Leske know happiness before they decided to separate? Had they been good, loving parents to Tobey and his sister? Or did they fight and hurl things and hysterically weep? Did the mother hit her children? Beat them? Or was she firm, but caring? Was the father a hard working, strong willed man? A leader as befit his captain’s rank, but equally capable of love? Did their son and daughter love them in return? Miss them when they were apart? Mourn them when they died?

Sometimes I wonder how and why the marriage of this gifted pair ended in divorce. Was it a stormy process? Or amicable? And what of the war? Did their identities, like mine, revolve around a series of violent events which continued to intrude on daily life? As veterans, did they discuss or recollect the war in front of their children? Were they overly strict or negligent because of it? Were they subject to fits of anger, or sadness or dark moods? Did they drink? Had the training, and mobilization and risk of combat played some part in the fracture of their marriage? Or had they recovered a balance in life? A place to call home.

As a collector, I’m tempted to request Robert and Jean’s military records from the National Archives. I want to know more about their military skills, geographic assignments, promotions, awards, disciplinary actions. I can understand such things. Identify with them. Tell myself that is who they really were.

But old files do not illuminate the inner life of those who have survived war. Do not reveal hidden sorrows, triumphs or wonderments. Clearly, father, mother and son lived full productive lives. That is the lesson here. The truth worth seeking.
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Top photo: Robert Leske’s CAVU 1942 year book.