What follows is the rough draft intro of my new book “Farewell, My Father”.
“For we are strangers before them, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.
1 CHRONICLES 29:15
This is not just a book about a great man but a book about a special relationship between a father and his youngest son.
I did my best to write an honest portrait of my father. It’s a story full of love and kindness, also full of anger and regret. My father was one of the most extraordinary and complicated men I ever knew.
From taking on all comers in an improvised boxing ring at the VFW or rushing headlong to the scene of a car accident or a building on fire to help strangers to his death three months after being diagnosed with cancer, he was a colorful character.
I remember Dad coaching me on how to box– I was awful, to him rescuing me from drowning, or taking me with him along his quixotic long 200-mile drives, “just for a cup of coffee.”
Here is my dad in all glory, his telling of whopper stories, his tormented days leading up to his death. And here, too, is the darker side of a charismatic hero: the rages, the estrangement from his son, the courting of danger, and finally his too early death.
I have tried to write this book several times, but in memory, my father remains fuzzy and out of focus. It’s hard to write about a man you both love and revere in total honesty. In my memory, he remains edgy, like he has been photographed, not painted.
I remember immense amount about him, almost the day-to-day material of the last three months of life. So many of those memories and emotions remain undigested. At this point, I knew he was dying so I remember him with a soft focus and not the recollection of the strong man who shaped and dominated my childhood. If you use too much of a wide-angle lens the simple man becomes distorted.
In the end, this book is written by a son about his father. There is nothing unoriginal here. The son both loves and reveres the father. The father doesn’t understand the son but loves the son in his own unique way. Sometimes that love is so remote that the son hates him a little. This book is a portrait written in love, in all the sweets and sours, and ups and downs of an evolving relationship.
My father was a good man, who overcame incredible odds. He had an almost unbelievably tough childhood. His parents were Italian immigrants, and he grew up in the Great Depression. The Oto household had too many kids and not enough love. In school he suffered from severe and undiagnosed dyslexia– he saw numbers and letters backwards. His dyslexia forced him to become a physical dynamo. Dad quit school at twelve years old in the eighth to take a full-time bricklaying job when his father grew too sick to work. This job gave him an extreme work ethic.
At fifteen, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army in 1949. He loved the Army because it was all about being physical.
In the summer of 1950, he was fighting for his life as a sixteen-year-old infantryman in the Korean War. He came back from the Korean War as an eighteen-year-old Sergeant First Class (the Army still thought he was twenty years old). Almost everyone in his chain-of-command had been wounded or killed in over a year and half of fighting. He received several medals for bravery and was wounded twice.
With Dad, I had two fathers. The first father was a decorated soldier, a real hero, who fought in a war, a physical and manly man. But there was another father, a loving dad who taught me to ride a bicycle, who taught me to be a man. Both fathers were the same man.
The second father is what I am going to write about. I called him Dad. Dad was the most important father to me and the one I loved the most.
From the time I was a young boy, I felt certain unspoken assumptions about the course my life should take. I felt it was my duty and obligation to carry on my father’s legacy as a warrior. As a young man, I joined the U.S. Army to be a soldier like Dad.
Dad died of cancer when I was twenty-one years old. In my innocence, I had a romantic notion that being a career soldier is what he wanted me to be. I later learned that the second father would have been happy with whatever made me happy. I spent my early adulthood trying to live up to the man behind the legend, a father who only existed in an image I created.
In 2003, at Fort Benning, GA, a retired general who served with my father in Korea made the connection with Dad when he read my last name.
“Your father was one of the bravest men I ever knew,” said the highly decorated General.
A kaleidoscope of emotions came over me. Dad had been dead for seven years. When I asked Dad about his wartime his answer was always the same, “I did my job.”
The man I remember was so much more. Dad was emotionally expressive mixed in with animal magnetism, and a lot of charm and appeal. Dad gave off the image of a man with prosperity even though he was dirt poor. His generosity and love of life was his prosperity. You knew he would look after you, support you and most importantly, show you a fantastic time.
Dad was a man of contradictions. He was stoic and silent about some subjects. Especially things that were unpleasant like growing up in the Great Depression or his wartime service. If he cried, it was internal.
If Dad was happy or angry his face, especially his eyes showed every emotion. No matter what he thought about you could see it in his eyes. His absolute emotional honesty was one of his best traits.
If he loved you, he let you know it. If he were angry, he would tell you why. If he was great, lousy or whatever you knew it. If he hated someone or wanted them out of his life, they knew it. He was never quiet about anything. Total candor, total emotion all the time. A tough guy with a mask. Vulnerable and neurotic. People are fascinated by someone who has no vanity, no sense of personal boundaries, who just says this is I am. Dad seemed to say, “Come along on the ride with me, it’ll be fun.” And sometimes it was.
Dad had a chip on his shoulder. He waged war on life. Dad never cared what other people or thought or did. Dad was the atomic bomb of having fun. He was a late middle-aged adolescent always having a good time. You loved him and wanted to be a part of his movie.
People loved Dad. His friends made allowances for his outrageous behavior because he was so charming. Dad seemed upset and troubled by his own faults. Getting old was hard for him. Dad had to reconcile his own myth with encroaching old age. He mourned the loss of his physicality. Dad’s slaying of this dragon was something to watch.
A little part of him thought that he was invincible, that he could take on or do anything, but it was cancer that killed him in the end and not war or a lifetime of poverty. He was a real character. Dad was kind, arrogant and quick-tempered, funny and dramatic, insecure and beset by doubt. Every situation demanded him to be at the top of his skill, the top of his personality.
Dad’s death immortalized him in my mind. Dad died too early in my life, I spent twenty-five years in the Army trying to live up to him. His death is the reason I became a writer.