Tag Archives: death

Farewell, My Father- My New Book

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.


Book Description:

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.

Father and Son holding hands


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.

Hemingway at War and In Love- 1917-1924

Hemingway’s life was soon to change with the assassination of an Archduke across the Atlantic. In 1917, the fervor of war called to America’s youth and Hemingway was no exception. The United States Army rejected Hemingway for defective vision. He volunteered for the Red Cross Ambulance Division in Italy.

Hemingway the soldier

Ernest’s first induction to the foreign world was during World War I when he went to Italy. There was a war on. So Ernest didn’t have a chance to absorb all the cultural aspects of what was going on around him. He did make some friendships that were very important later on his life.

In Italy, he experienced his first taste of freedom, drinking and carousing with his fellow drivers. Hemingway soon grew anxious for action. He wrote a friend, “I’m fed up. There is nothing here but scenery and too damn much of that. I’m going to get out of this ambulance section and see if I can’t find out where the war is.”

He was about to get his chance. On the night of July 8th, 1918, the Italians were being bombarded by the Austrians from across the Piave River.

Hemingway was delivering cigarettes and chocolate rations to Italian soldiers when a deadly mortar explosion hit near where he was standing. One man was killed, and Hemingway’s knee and leg were riddled with shrapnel.  He said his life floated out of him like a silk handkerchief being pulled out of a breast pocket.

“I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back,” From A Farewell To Arms.

According to legend, Hemingway carried a wounded soldier to safety before he collapsed and lost consciousness. He had only been on the front for six days.

Hemingway’s Wounds and Writing

Hemingway had come close to death and almost had his leg amputated. This experience had a profound impact on his work. His father committed suicide when Hemingway was 29 years-old. Some critics believe that Hemingway’s writing is an attempt to make sense out of the trauma of the wounding. Hemingway was obsessed with death. Death was a theme in much of his work.

Hemingway heroes always struggle with death. A Hemingway hero is often a restless man. Hemingway heroes stay awake at night and sleep during the day. Sleep is an elimination of consciousness. Darkness is the night. The night is like death. A Hemingway hero avoids the dark of night so he doesn’t dream or have to face death in the darkness. Hemingway heroes will leave a light on. Avoiding sleep is avoiding the final sleep of death. This is called the concept of the “nada” or nothingness.

The Hemingway hero alone in the darkness the hero will have to face his demons. The hero wants to escape this by visiting a clean, well-lighted place. Alone, with his nothingness the hero will found that he lived a life unfulfilled. That nothingness is a total denial, a failure to make choices about the trauma that the hero has seen and endured.

Life is emptied of meaning and purpose. The hero’s life, his relationship with God, his relationships with friends and family all don’t matter. All the hero has are monotony, routine and the insomnia of sleepless nights.

Some critics believe that Hemingway’s severe wounding in World War I so traumatized the novelist that his fiction was to a great degree unwitting self-psychoanalysis. Much of Hemingway’s fiction is biography. His writing is both an external and internal passage.

Hemingway falls in love

While recuperating at the Red Cross Hospital in Milan, love found Hemingway. Hemingway was captivated by Agnes Von Kurosky, the volunteer American nurse who inspired his most famous love story.

Hemingway wounded

“She had wonderfully beautiful hair and I would lie sometimes and watch her twisting it up in the light that came in the open door and it shone even in the night as water shines sometimes just before it is really daylight,” from A Farewell To Arms.

The intensity of war heightened his feelings for Agnes, who took a liking to the handsome hero. Hemingway told a friend that it was worth getting wounded so he could meet her. They explored the splendors of Milan together.

Ernest and Agnes

During the months of his recuperation, nineteen-year-old Hemingway became increasing enamored with Agnes. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnes was less sure of her love. Agnes’ letters only hinted at a life together.

Hemingway on crutches

Hemingway took this as a sure sign that she wanted to marry him. He hoped their relationship would continue even though his time in Italy was coming to an end.

On New Year’s Eve, he was discharged from the Red Cross and returned to America. Hemingway returned to Oak Park, a war hero in 1919. He had ample opportunity to work on his storytelling. With little regard for the truth, he told hometown papers that he was actually a soldier in the Italian Army and that he had been personally decorated for bravery by the King of Italy.

Hemingway became a local celebrity. But after experiencing life, love, and death in Italy, he felt stifled in small town Oak Park. His state of mind grew worse in a letter from Agnes.

“I am writing this late at night after a long think by myself and I am afraid this is going to hurt you. I was trying to convince myself that it was a real love affair, because we always seem to disagree and our arguments always wore me out that I finally gave in to you to keep you from doing something desperate. But I am now and always be too old, and that’s the truth, and I can’t get away from the fact that you are just a boy- a kid,” said Agnes in a letter to Ernest.

Grace was troubled by her son’s lack of direction. She kicked Ernest out of the house in an effort in what she considered to be the right path.

Hemingway with cane in Oak Park

“Unless you, my son Ernest, cease your lazy loafing and trading on your handsome face to fool gullible little girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ; unless, you come into your manhood there is nothing before but bankruptcy- you have overdrawn,” wrote Grace.

Belittled by his love and his family, a depressed Hemingway still had to face his future. Hemingway wrote to a friend, “My family, God bless them, are wolfing at me to go to college. Frankly, I don’t know where the hell to go.”

Ernest decided to go to Chicago, and with his background as a newspaperman, he wrote articles for the Toronto Star and worked odd jobs.

At a party, he met Hadley Richardson, who was visiting Chicago from St. Louis. Hadley had lived a sheltered life under a protective mother. At 29, many predicted that she would be a spinster.

She gained confidence from the more worldly Hemingway. And unlike Agnes loved him despite their eight-year age difference. Five visits and nine months later they were married in 1921.

Ernest and Hadley

Hemingway was encouraged by author Sherwood Anderson to move to Paris. Anderson gave Hemingway letters of introduction to his literary friends on the Left Bank. Lured by the idea of Paris, Hemingway worked a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. In 1922, with Hadley’s trust fund, the couple left for a new life in Europe. Ernest was 23 years old.

Hemingway and My Dad

Writing Class

I am taking a writing class. One of the books we are using is “On Writing Well” by Williams Zinsser. This is a great book to learn how to write. Zinsser gives the following advice: Writing is hard work. A clear, concise sentence is no accident. Clutter is the disease of writing.

We got an exercise to cut 50% of the last thing we wrote. I did that with yesterday’s email. It took me a long time, but it is much better.

I rewrote some sentences over and over again. I fiddled with it until I came as close to 50% as I could. I cut the piece I sent you from 1742 words down to 982. I promise to do this with all future pieces. Your time is valuable.

I did my best to strip away every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that served no function was erased. I think it’s much cleaner without losing any of the original intent. I am learning that good writing is a craft. Clear writing is clear thinking. I hope you like it. Thank you for taking this journey with me as I learn to become a writer.


I love to write. Learning to write well is the hardest thing. I aim for spare and simple prose like in a children’s book for easy reading. I am happy when I do it well. I try to boil down my sentences without spreading them too thin. I throw out adjectives and adverbs.


I imagine each paragraph like the sound a machine gun or a typewriter- tack-tack-tack, then silence. I begin the next paragraph- tack-tack-tack, period. I want the boat to be steady and deliberate.

I am a historian, but I want to write like a novelist. Good writing is telepathy. I want my readers to “experience” my writing in a mental picture they can see, feel and taste.


Few sentences come out right the first time or the fifth time. Good writing gets great through exhaustive editing. I stick to a daily schedule. Writing is a craft, not an art. The more you practice, the better you get.

A Job

I am not a deep thinker. My work has no symbolism or deep meaning. I use my own experience to give credibility to my work. Trying to get names, dates, locations, smells and tastes right is tough. The trick is to pile up items, like bricks, to give a physical effect on the reader with a complexity of emotion.

I want the reader to see my picture in their mind. This is the real magic trick, and it will take a lifetime to master.

The Why

I write about two things: death and my dad. He died when I was twenty-one years old. Freud and Dr. Phil couldn’t unsnarl my relationship with my dad. I felt I was never “man enough” for him.

Father and Son

Vince Oto was born poor and hungry in the Great Depression. His parents were immigrants from Italy. His first memories were about work. He woke up at 4am to deliver newspapers with his older brother, he was four years old.

Hunger and poverty-plagued him throughout his childhood. His family never had enough to eat. There were too many kids (11 brothers and sisters) and not enough food or love. He was no intellectual, but he had uncommon common sense. His instinct was what was important. His family was the most important thing.

My dad was not an emotional man, but he felt deeply about the things he thought worthy of his feelings. He cut straight to the core of things. He was charming and generous, but private and distant. My dad only had a few close friends. He loved them for what they were, not who they were.

My dad had an undiagnosed learning disability. He read words and numbers backwards. Later in life, he discovered he had dyslexia. He felt dumb and slow but was a quick learner. He could watch something physical and do it. He could build engines and fix things in one lesson.

He’d watch it, and learn it. He was smart about people. He said, “People are like books. All you have to do is listen.” His disability made prove himself physically. He was an extraordinary athlete.

His experiences made him tough. He fought for everything he ever had. Physical achievement gave him dignity and self-respect. He went to war and came home a hero.

My dad was a real life, Hemingway hero. He was forty-three years old when I was born. Short and stocky, he was a powerful man. He had thick shoulders, arms, and chest from hard, manual labor. I see his eyes looking back at me in the mirror.

My dad had a patchwork of scars from war and construction accidents. His injuries left him crippled and in constant pain. He never complained. Despite the pain, he lifted weights every day.

He was all hard work and manhood.  When I asked him about his war experiences, he said, “I did my job.” He didn’t talk about what he did. He was a warrior without a war.

A Gentle Father

My dad was gruff, blue-collar man with calloused hands, but he knew how to love a son. He taught me how to box and shoot. As a boy, we talked girls and lifted weights.

Baby boy and dad

Later, our relationship got complicated. We argued. I loved books more than sports. He tried to nurture my inner athlete. I was a wimpy bookworm. He wanted a buddy to hang out with. My world was books, his was hard work and physical courage.

He loved me and told me so many times, but it never seemed enough. He was not a tough-love dad. He shared his hyper-masculine love by teaching me how to impress women, how to tip waiters, and how to fight. I wanted to win his approval. I copied his mannerisms. I ate what he ate and walked like he walked.

His shadow grew after he died. He defined my manhood.


I joined the Army for him. I spent the next fifteen years trying to be the man I thought he wanted me to be. I became an infantry officer. I did tough stuff because I thought, “This is what he would do.” I was terrible at all of it.

Father and Son holding hands

My father was a natural leader of men, not me. I am better at reading history than making it. I was too young when he died. I never knew him as a man. Now, older and wiser, I know he only wanted me to be happy.

I was a terrible soldier, but I loved the amazing people I met in the army. It gave me miles of writing material. I know he would be proud. Writing is a way to visit him, if only in words.