Monday, April 1, 2013


Brothers Red, Chuck, Whitie and Don in the restaurant they opened 
after the war.

There’s an old saying that it isn’t weakness that causes mental breakdowns, but rather, having to be far too strong for far too long.
I vividly recall my father’s first complete mental breakdown. I remember, in fact, the word breakdown on my uncle’s lips and how it scared me. I was five at the time. It was not quite a decade after the war. We had just moved into a new house. Although, the other house had been ours too, my father had bought it from his father. That first house that I recall had been the address on my father’s dog tags throughout the war, the place he had lived as a teen with his parents and three brothers, and where my mother had lived with my father’s family through most of the war, so it was as if this new place were the first house that had ever really been Whitie’s own.

Sadly, however, he never seemed happy there. He had put the down payment on it on a kind of whim while our mother was still in the hospital after giving birth to our little brother. Now we were five, my parents, my older sister, my newborn brother and me, and for some reason, Whitie decided it was time to move.
I think having so many burgeoning responsibilities right away after coming back from the war must have put quite a strain on him, considering what he’d been through and the kind of high-strung guy he was. At any rate, being the second-born, I couldn’t recall a time when he didn’t seem tightly wound. I always figured it was just the way he was. But life back in the old house seemed like better times to me. Like when he would sit in the armchair in front of our big black and white Admiral TV in its maple-wood cabinet watching the Friday Night Fights, sponsored by Gillette Blue Blades, and I would sit on his lap watching with him and eating the spearmint-flavor “greenleaf” jelly candies, marshmallow “circus peanuts” or Brach’s chocolate stars that he handed me one at a time. I still remember what a safe, happy feeling that was to lean back against my dad, who smelled of soap, Skin-Bracer and cigarette smoke, and feel him relaxed and tranquil, as he told me why he liked Joe Lewis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMota, Jersey Joe Wolcott or Archie Moore to win, as if he were talking to someone much older than four and as if the boxers he was talking about had at some time been personal acquaintances of his. I think that memory, that feeling alone is why, to this day I find it soothing and inspiring to watch a good boxing match on TV. It was a sport in which my father saw the training, the poetry in motion, the one on one challenge rather than the savagery that the sport’s detractors always point to and it’s the only sport for which I have inherited his enthusiasm.

At the new house, however, he seemed changed, always nervous, preoccupied and short-tempered, unprepared for the rigors of caring for small children when my mother worked late, so that I now dreaded Friday and Saturday nights when she did so, and was glad whenever she would talk her mother into coming over and lending a hand so that Whitie could just sit quietly in an armchair watching TV and smoking until Mom got home.
And then came the breakdown. As I recall, it was around noon when Whitie’s big brother, Red, brought him home from work at the restaurant that they owned together with their younger brother Chuck. Red had his arm around Whitie, helping him along as if he might fall down if left to his own devices and my father seemed to be sobbing and muttering incoherently. Trying to put on a jovial face as usual, my uncle turned to me with his big red-faced grin, said, “Who’s this guy?” then took his pipe out of his mouth and, pretending it was a six-shooter, squeezed off a couple of rounds in my direction, then blew imaginary gun smoke from the stem, before sticking it back into his mouth.
But then was when he turned to my mother after taking Whitie to the bedroom where he could lie down, and I heard Red say the words “Dr. Berry...complete  in hushed tones, and saw the frightened look on my mother’s face. She noticed, attempted a strained smile, said, “It’s okay, honey, Daddy just isn’t feeling well,” and added, “Why don’t you go out and play while I talk to Uncle Bob.” I went out, but didn’t play. Instead, I sat on the edge of my sandbox trembling, and worried. There was something serious going on here. Something worth fretting about.
Recurrent Nightmares. What followed for Whitie were decades of what, back then, was called “manic depression”—before the days of more modern and rather more euphemistic terms like “bipolar disorder” or “chemical imbalance” or “post-traumatic stress disorder”. This was often accompanied by a new term that my father’s doctor, a former medical corps lieutenant colonel, introduced and which sounded sinister and ominous: psychosomatic symptoms. These included severe back pain, allergies, acid stomach and chest pains, among other things. We even learned how to use such academic terms in common conversation, as in: “Frickin’ psychosomatic my ass. I’d like that sonuvabitch to have to live with this pain and see how goddamn psychosomatic he thinks it is!”
Reba Mae and Whitie on their 50th anniversary. Decades of manic
depession couldn't separate them. They would share their lives for yet
another ten years.
So it was that we began to watch Whitie like you might a ticking time-bomb, as he would go from soaring highs in which he seemed an unstoppable powerhouse, capable of incredible feats and snap decisions, and in which he became irrepressibly talkative, highly sociable—if extremely volatile—and well-adapted to superhuman work schedules and stunning achievements, followed by headlong plunges into total darkness in which he might hole up in his bedroom with the drapes drawn for weeks or even months on end. In these abysmal states, he refused the help of those who tried to reach out to him, even telling Reba Mae that he was no good, that she should find somebody else, that he didn’t deserve her, that she should just let him die in peace, because a life like this just wasn’t worth living. As his family we “entertained” a miniature parade of well-wishers, who would come to try and “cheer him up”: among these, successive Methodist pastors, who, over the years, would spend part of their house-call evenings sitting in our living room, munching on our popcorn, watching our TV and waiting in vain for our mother to coax the lion from his lair; Red, who would stop by for a cup of coffee and to see if maybe he could get in to give his little brother a pep talk; Whitie’s own father, who would talk a leg off of Reba Mae about Whitie’s condition at a volume that the subject was sure to hear from his bedroom—“I was a-tellin’ Alice that it’s all just his nerves. He was always nervous, even as a kid…”—but all to no avail, since in these states, our father refused to see or talk to anyone. He would draw into himself, almost implode, and nothing and no one could pull him out of his own troubled soul. It would be over when it was over. We would just have to wait.

Psychiatrists followed: doctor’s orders, since Dr. Berry, the ex-colonel and our family doctor, was finally able to convince Whitie that you didn’t have to be crazy to go to a psychiatrist and that if he didn’t go, he’d never get well. But then, getting well, it seemed, was never really in the cards.
He told the first psychiatrist, a Dr. Kalb, that he hated his job. “Then you have to stay at it, confront it, show yourself that you’re up to the challenge,” this psychiatric fundamentalist told him. And Whitie grew furious. He wanted permission to quit, to do something else with his life. He wanted off the hook. But if he wanted to quit, the hardline analyst reasoned, it was because he was sick and needed help seeing that the only way to quit was to meet the challenge, find success and move on to bigger and better things with a strong, light heart. Being a quitter would never help him rebuild his self-esteem. Perhaps what he needed was a bit of stimulation with electric shock treatment. Whitie told him, more or less, to go shock himself. The doctor talked to Reba Mae about his shock theory and she told him the same thing. They talked about Whitie’s childhood and the Doc told him he hated his father. Again Whitie was furious. What kind of textbook bullshit analysis was that, he wanted to know?
That was good, Herr Doktor said. Getting angry was good, even if he transferred it to the doctor (instead of raging at his father as the psychiatrist thought he should). “Go ahead,” Herr Doktor encouraged him. “Get mad! Tell me exactly how you feel!”
“Like wringin’ your goodamn neck, you kike bastard!” Whitie ranted.
Getting mad was one thing, but anti-Semitism was more than the good doctor’s own bruised inner child could take. “Okay, that’s it,” the Doc said, adding in a voice not unlike a baseball umpire’s, “Yer outa here!”
The next one, a Dr. Ciavarelli, was just the opposite.
“You want to quit, quit! It’s your life to lead as you like. You don’t owe anybody anything. You don’t want to go to work, stay home!”

Whitie did…and went to bed for another couple of months. Reba Mae wanted to know what the hell the doctor thought he was doing with advice like that.
Oh, well, that wasn’t at all what he’d meant, the doctor assured her. He’d meant Whitie should do whatever made him happy! But that was just it, nothing made him happy. The man was a prisoner of the deepest kind of depression. Reba Mae got him up, got him dressed, got him back to the doctor’s office. The doctor declared him (again) “manic depressive”, but now added, “with acute suicidal tendencies” and added that Whitie was going to need intensive treatment in a medical facility.
Home Away From Home. By this time, I was about twelve or thirteen. I can’t recall how long Whitie was in the hospital that time. But long enough for me to have accompanied my mother several times to visit him after school or on the weekend. He was staying in a facility in the city of Troy, Ohio, about an hour from home. Reba Mae and I tried to make an outing of it, as if we were just on a lark. We would chat and listen to the car radio and chew Doublemint gum as my mother drove and, depending on what time we set out, either going or coming back, we would make a halfway stop in the town of Sidney, for strawberry pie at The Spot, a traditional family restaurant. If we were on the way there, the pie served as fortification. If we were on the way back, it was comfort food.
It seemed a little silly to need a boost in order to “man up” for the visit. After all, he was her husband, my father. But the man we would meet in the psychiatric ward at the hospital didn’t seem like Whitie, not even like the erratic Whitie who could, at any time, be enthusiastically leaping over the moon or resignedly parachuting into the bowels of hell. This was “Institutionalized Whitie”, living in a safe, orderly, indoor, hospital-green world that, oddly enough, appeared to suit him, so that our overly cheerful presence and upbeat banter clearly seemed more than a little jarring to him. Here, for as long as it lasted, he wasn’t anybody’s husband or father, nobody’s brother or son. And he didn’t seem particularly happy to be reminded that, back in the world, he was. Here he belonged to nothing and to nobody. He was the individual subject of specialized treatment, and was only part of anything in as much as the people who shared this ward with him were all as disturbed, at least, and as broken as he was, so that nobody was accusatorily asking him just what the hell his problem was and why he couldn’t get the hell over it. Here, nobody knew what his or her problem was. It was what they had in common. That’s what they were all here to find out, and if anybody was asking that kind of questions, it was because they were genuinely trying to help him find the answer. In the meantime, it was a kind of ivory tower, in which he obviously felt untouchable. The only pressure was to try and find the answers he was looking for, to try and get well, nothing more.
On one visit, for lack of anything better to do, I asked him to show me his room, since we always met him in a sort of rec room in the middle of the ward where there was TV, reading material, armchairs, sofas and tables for games and activities. So he led me to his room.
“It’s not much,” he said, “but it’s okay.”
It was a basic, utilitarian space that, once the bed had been placed inside, had barely enough room left for a passageway from the door to the window at the other end and for a small built-in locker for personal belongings at the foot of the bunk against the wall. The hospital-green linoleum floor was shiny clean, the matching paint on the walls and ceiling impeccable. This too, somehow seemed to suit Whitie, since he had always been obsessively neat. This tiny room, had that “squared-away” look that he had always prized, with his house-slippers placed just so with their toes under the bunk at one end and his pajamas neatly folded on the pillow at the other, the bedding pulled and tucked so tight that you could bounce a quarter on it.
To me, it looked like a cell, but more like a monk’s cell, I was thinking, than a prisoner’s. Except, that is, for the bars on the window, the silhouettes of which I could see through the neatly pressed translucent curtains. What did they think, I wondered, that he might break out and run amok? Or were the bars so that he wouldn’t climb up onto the windowsill and take a three-storey swan-dive into the parking lot pavement. Both thoughts disturbed me equally and made me eager to get back to the rec room where my mother was waiting.
When we went for the last time to that place to pick him up and take him home, Whitie sat on the edge of his bunk, his gear neatly packed in a small suitcase and waiting on the floor beside him. He looked pale and overtly anxious about whether this was such a good idea. It was as if he were being abducted by strangers and had no idea where we might be taking him. But the doctor assured Reba Mae that Whitie was doing well. That he’d not only made great strides in conquering his own neurosis, but that he had proven a great help to others with similar problems. Among his “peers”, we were told, he had become a leader and had been of fundamental importance in the improvement of several other patients. So much so that the doctor felt Whitie had missed a great calling, that he should have studied to be a mental health worker.
He wouldn’t have had to tell me that. I knew how smart Whitie was, that he could have been anything he set out to be, if he hadn’t also been so mentally and emotionally flawed. But at that age, I didn’t have the words to fully express what I felt—least of all, to Whitie. So as I advanced into adolescence, our relationship was to become a sort of tacit stand-off that occasionally boiled over into open and mutual hostility.
In later life drugs didn't solve the problema but helped him find a sort of
middle ground. Here Whitie, Reba Mae, Dan, Darla and Dennis enjoy a
family reunión.  
Advances and Retreats. After this first brief period of voluntary institutionalization, Whitie no longer holed up in his room when the world closed in on him. Instead, he would call whatever doctor he was seeing at the time for an admission order, pack a bag and head for the nearest psych ward. During the good times, he was more capable than ever of incredible achievements, like during the longest high I ever recall, in which he became a route salesman for a local cheese manufacturer and turned a northwestern Ohio route that hadn’t been able to eke out enough sales to pay for the licensing and insurance of the truck he drove into a company powerhouse that brought in nearly four million dollars a year in revenues.

It was during that period, when my sister and I had already long since left home—she for college and a career, I, to travel, then briefly for college, and finally for a three-year hitch in the US Army—and when our little brother, now a teen, was the only witness still at home, that Whitie met up with a new breed of psychiatrist. This one—a tall, laconic Korean—really couldn’t have cared less, it seemed, what our father had been through in his life, about his childhood, his youth, his job, his marriage or his world. For this one, depression all boiled down to chemistry.  If you could reach high highs and low lows, all that was necessary was to find the middle ground, and you found it with drugs.
Fluoxetine (Prozac) was still a somewhat experimental drug at the time. Psychiatrists were finding out more about its effects by watching what it did to their patients than by reading the laboratory prospectus. And what it did seemed to vary drastically from one patient to the next. Whitie and an old friend, also a veteran, who had been in the Marines during World War II, were both going to the same psychiatrist at the same time, and both were taking fluoxetine. Whitie entered a state of long-term non-manic behavior, a sort of irritable light-gray mood in which he was never content but seldom took to his bed for longer than a day at a time. I missed the highs, but not the lows. In this state at least he and I could sit down and talk without impossible peaks and valleys. His friend and fellow patient, meanwhile, went from bad to worse over the years and eventually killed himself before his seventieth birthday. With Whitie, the panic and depression would, in the end, come back but by then, he would have choices—a stronger dose of drugs and early retirement.

In all those years, I never once heard of anyone’s having asked Whitie about World War II—about his years with the Seventh Army, about the horrors of war—in connection with his treatment. World War II was something you only talked about as a triumph of good over evil. What one had lived through in that war was a duty and a privilege, not a burden. You carried it without complaint and without regret—at least in theory. Anything that was wrong with you mentally was a product of your own failings and weaknesses. And with drugs to remedy it, there was no longer any excuse for “bad behavior”. You fit in or you checked out.
Whitie, still a powerful man a age 70 despite his life-long
struggle with manic depression.
Telling Signs.  Since Whitie’s death a decade ago, there has been a plethora of film documentaries on the subject of World War II, starting with those in remembrance of the sixtieth anniversary of D-day and the end of the war. After the earliest of these came out, I tried to see as many as I could, since in nearly all of them, besides real battlefield footage shot by combat photographers and cameramen, there have been the testimonies by World War II veterans—often from both sides of the conflict. What the American witnesses to that war have, for me, had in common is that I have seen Sergeant Whitie reflected in all of them. In most cases, now octogenarians, they are talking openly about their combat experiences for the first time since the war. They are usually reserved and reticent, yet apparently full of need to unburden themselves of the horror and pain they’ve been carrying in their hearts and in silence for all these decades. Often the point at which they break down during the interviews is when they have to talk about the men they killed, certain that it was either that or die, but also knowing that most of those enemy soldiers were just men like them, with lives, loved ones and dreams like their own, and, like them too, simply victims of the politics of those times. There is no longer any hatred, just remorse and sadness. 

So it is that, in the last ten years, I have begun to wonder just how much the trauma of his years as a combat foot soldier were responsible for my father’s on-going mental illness and his apparent incapacity for happiness or for any deep sense of beauty in life. In fact, as time goes on, I wonder more and more if it wasn’t the war that was entirely to blame for shattering Whitie’s life.

As he grew older there were telling signs on which to base such a theory. When, as a member of the Regular Army, I was assigned to the NATO forces in Europe in 1972, my father, mother and brother came for a short visit. I was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, and they flew into Frankfurt, located a couple of hours away by car. A German acquaintance took my wife and me to the Frankfurt am Main Airport to meet them.  On the way back home, everyone was chatting and joking and just generally being happy to see one another. But Whitie was uncharacteristically silent, watching the landscape as it whizzed by along the Autobahn. Eventually, I touched his shoulder and said, “What’re you thinking, Dad?”
Without hesitation, he said, “I’m thinking I’ve seen this landscape before. I’m thinking I crawled over most of it.” And then later, as he gazed straight ahead at the road, “You know, Dan, they had these superhighways way back then. We couldn’t believe it. There weren’t any Interstates back then. We’d never seen roads like these. We landed cargo planes on them.”
When our father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1999, my brother Dennis moved back to Ohio from Saint Louis, where he had lived for many years, to help our mother care for Whitie. It was at about that time that the 1998 World War II blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan, came out in video. After having seen it in the cinema, Dennis decided to make a gift of the video version to our father, thinking that it was a film that he would surely be interested in, since he had been in service during the war. Since we knew so little about our father’s personal experiences in the war, there was no way for Dennis to gauge how Whitie might react.
If there’s anyone who has never seen the film, it is worth noting that it is a Steven Spielberg masterpiece, with an equally masterful script by Robert Rodat. It has been critically acclaimed for its graphically realistic depiction of some of the worst fighting of the Second World War and of the horror experienced by the men who struggled, died or survived in the midst of it.  The video cassette lay around the house for some time before Reba Mae was finally able to talk Whitie into watching it. Before they ever got through the carnage of the earliest scenes in the picture, however, Whitie shut it off.
“What’s the matter?” Reba Mae asked.
“I can’t watch it,” he said. “It’s way too much like it really was over there.”
Shortly after that, Whitie started obsessively reminding his wife that he wanted her to promise that he would be given no military honors when he died, no color guards, no twenty-one-gun salutes, no military markers or flags on his grave, no VFW speeches, no bugler’s Taps, no piper’s Amazing Grace, nothing to connect him with the young man who had left his innocence on the battlefields of France and Germany.
A last family reunión at our Ohio home several months before Whitie's
death in early 2003.  
Epitaph. The last time I visited my father’s grave back in Ohio a few years ago, when I saw the bronze stake grave marker identifying him as a World War II veteran, I had a fleeting urge to uproot it, toss it into the trunk of my rented car and leave it there, as if forgotten, when I turned the car back in, down in Miami. I know that sounds awful. But then again, I figured it was my fault it was there. Whitie fought the terminal cancer that finally killed him at age 80 for four years. During that time the cost of his medications not covered by health insurance ran into the thousands of dollars a month. I was the one who talked him into getting into contact with the Veterans Administration to see if he couldn’t maybe get some help from them with these onerous expenses. They owed it to him, I reasoned. They had borrowed on his youth, placed him in harm’s way, sent him into the thick of the worst war in history. It was time they paid something back. He could, it turned out, and did get VA help, during the last couple of years of his life. Before that, he had been adamant. He’d just done what he had to do, he said, like everybody else. Nobody owed him anything and he wanted nothing, no recognition, no honors, no fanfare in return. He had spent his entire life practically denying any real part in the war. And now more than ever, he was reluctant to own up.  But, finally, more because I was an Army veteran than because I was his son, he heard what I had to say, responded that he would think about it, and eventually gave in.

I figure that it was because of this new contact with the Veterans Administration that, when he died, we received his record, medals and honors—among them, four bronze stars and a commendation from the French government for his part in the liberation of France from the Nazis—and why that marker that he had never wanted was on his grave. So now, standing there alone in the sharp winter wind on a gray, snowy, Monday morning, that fleeting thought of well-intentioned vandalism flashed through my head. In the end, however, I desisted. Just as soon as I thought of plucking the stake from the frozen ground, I was also assailed by another thought: that no matter what Whitie had said while he was alive, that stake wasn’t mine to remove. Men who struggled in war together as comrades became a family of their own, a family for life and in death, and that bronze stake marker, with the crisp new flag fluttering in its holder, was a symbol that said, the man who lies here forms part of a band of blood brothers. Only we can ever know that part of him, and in that, he’s ours.

For myself, however, I was thinking that I would rather they had honored him in some way other than identifying him with a war he spent his life trying to forget, perhaps with an epitaph that could read: Here lies Sergeant Whitie. He gave his all and asked for nothing in return. All he ever wanted was his life back. Rest in peace.