• Karlyle Tomms

STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF COURAGE - Perceptions of my Father


On the day my father died, I found a black feather on my way back from lunch standing straight up in the grass as though it had been planted there. Having been taught by some of my metaphysically minded friends that feathers are angel signs, I picked it up and took it back to my office. The feather was old and tattered. The bristles were frayed, and barely holding together. A black feather can symbolize death, or the finishing of a chapter in our lives. Within an hour, my sister called to tell me that Dad had passed.

It was no surprise, but then again it was. At the age of 93, he had been hospitalized recently, but he was one of those people who was so tough it was difficult to imagine that he would ever die. At the age of 91, the housekeeper found him passed out in his house. He was taken to the emergency room, and the medical conclusion was dehydration. He simply needed to consume more fluids. He made it to his 93rd birthday before having to be placed into a veteran’s nursing home, but physical wounds, illness, dementia and Post Traumatic Stress had finally taken their toll on him.

This was not the first time my father had faced death. There were multiple times in his life when he might have been taken, but he beat them all, right up to September of 2016 when at last he let go. He had been captured by the Japanese in Guam a few days after Pearl Harbor. At first he had fled into the jungle with others when the Japanese began their invasion of Guam on December 8th 1941. He was soon captured with other GI’s, and placed in front of a firing squad. The Japanese officer conducting the firing squad had already given the commands of “ready” and “aim” when a Japanese commanding officer stepped in to stop it. Ultimately, it was purely for intimidation, and the pregnant pause before the commander stepped in was simply to allow American GI’s to contemplate their demise. My Dad told me that there was barely a dry pair of pants left in the lineup.

After that, they were all locked into a small closet, piled on top of each other and left for a couple of days to starve, and marinate in their own stench before being loaded into ships for the trip to Japanese POW camps. Upon arriving in Japan, they were given paper and pen to write letters to their kin back home. These were, of course, carefully monitored by the Japanese, and used as a form of propaganda. My Dad commented to another GI, “I’m going to tell them I’m really enjoying the fruitcake. They know I hate fruitcake, so they will realize we are not being treated well.” Prisoners were then forced to take lessons in Japanese language, and were not allowed to address any Japanese national in English, so my Dad became fluent in Japanese.

My Dad spent the entire four years of world War II in Japanese POW camps, before being liberated by the Americans at the end of the war. During his time there, he endured beatings, and ate cockroaches or whatever he could find to survive. He reported to me that he had gotten down to seventy-eight pounds at one point, and he was six feet tall. He kept a hidden journal while he was there, scratched on whatever paper he could find. If the journal had been found by the Japanese, he would have been severely beaten at least, probably killed. He wrote in the journal maybe once a week, but there is a space in the text where he did not write anything for several months. I have wondered if perhaps that was the point at which he got so sick and thin that he almost died.

My Dad learned how to pick locks in prison camp. When his group was assigned to unload cargo trains, he was able to steal sugar, rice and other commodities that could be hidden in the barracks and rationed. All this had to be carefully sneaked by the guards, and hidden stealthy away. Because the Japanese people were also rationed due to the expense of war, he was eventually able to negotiate deals with certain guards, and share stolen bounty that they could take home to feed their families in exchange for favors. Even then, they all had to be very careful that certain evidence did not show to those higher in authority. It is likely those skills of theft and deception helped him survive where a third of the prisoners died.

After his liberation and return to the states, he re-enlisted so he could go to Korea and fight. Even though he endured hell through World War II, he felt as though he had not been able to do what he was sworn to do. He needed to fight. He needed to feel like he was fulfilling his mission as a Marine, defending his country and living up to his commitment. Korea was also no picnic. He told me of times when the weather was so cold there, that while taking a piss down range, the urine would freeze before it hit the ground.

In the early 1950’s, he and a Navy friend from POW camp narrated the story of their experience as prisoners of war in a book called Laughter in Hell which was written by Stephen Marek. That was also around the time he met my mother. She was much younger than him and he told me he was intrigued by her when he happened into a bar near Taft, California and spotted her sitting alone near the back. When he inquired about her, the bar tender told him they called her “The Mystery Woman” because she would come in once a day at about the same time, sit alone, have one drink and put off the advances of any man who tried to talk to her.

He apparently took that as a challenge, and set about trying to get to know her. I have no idea how he did it, but he must have seemed glamorous to her. He was a very handsome man who had written a book about going to war, and he was also doing bit parts in movies for Universal Studios at the time. She was a naive young woman from a liquor dry county in the sticks of Arkansas. She was there because my Grandfather had been encouraged to move to California, and was told the desert air would give him relief from his asthma. It didn’t take long for Grandpa and Grandma to go into culture shock as there is, even now, a huge difference between rural northern Arkansas, and Southern California. Her family soon moved back home, but my Mom stayed, and my Dad developed a relationship with her.

I don’t know what my Dad may have been going through emotionally after being a prisoner of war, and also fighting in the Korean Conflict, but I know from what he told me, he was drinking heavily at the time he met my mother, and he was also womanizing. He told me it was the latter that broke them up after he slept with the hostess of a party they were attending when my Mom was pregnant with me. Apparently, that was the final straw for her in their relationship, so she moved back to Arkansas while she was still pregnant.

I was born in a rural clinic a year after my Dad’s book was published. He had autographed a copy to my mother, “To the finest woman I’ve ever known. May fortune always smile at you and your loving heart always be filled with happiness.” That book was one of the things I treasured and clung to throughout my childhood.

My mother was killed, reportedly in an auto accident, just after I turned five years old. She had taken me to see my Dad when I was eighteen months old and had contacted him when I was about four years old, but I never knew that until I was eighteen. When she died, my grandparents filed for guardianship, and did not inform my father that she was gone. Apparently they told the courts that my father could not be located. Throughout my childhood, he made no effort, that I knew of, to contact me. He told me, after I finally met him at the age of eighteen, that he would have come to get me if he had known my mother was dead.

My grandparents did not describe him as an abusive man, but told me that he had problems, that he would hoard food, that he was angry and a perfectionist. That was not the impression I gained of him when I finally met him, but he had sixteen years to heal during the interim.

I was finally able to reach my Dad by writing a letter to the publishing company of his book. My efforts started as soon as I turned eighteen, and my grandfather could no longer forbid it. The publishing company sent me a letter stating they did not release contact information of their authors, but they had forwarded my letter to him. At that point, I could only wait and hope.

A few weeks after receiving notice from his publishing company, I got the first letter from my Dad. He noted that it was obvious I needed answers, so he borrowed money to buy airline tickets, and flew to Little Rock to meet me. He could have denied me, but he chose instead that we would begin our relationship as father and son. I drove to Little Rock to meet him, and after spending those first few days with him, he hugged me at our departure. That was the first time, in my recollection, that any man had ever hugged me. Many take a father’s hugs for granted, but there had been no real father figure in my life to that point. So that hug became one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Afterward, I stood on the street and watched him drive away in his rented car. I was dazed by the experience, but I also felt comforted and reassured. He proved himself to be different from the father my grandparents had described. After all, they had only the hearsay of my mother who had been deeply hurt by him.

When Christmas came, he sent me tickets to fly to California and meet my little brother and sister, as well as his current wife. There had been another wife since my mother whom he had divorced. There had been a wife previous to my mother with whom he had two children, a son who had died at age seven from kidney failure, and a daughter who had also been taken from him. She, as well, contacted him as an adult around the same time that I did.

I had a whole new family then, an older sister, step brothers and a little brother and sister. After being raised as an only child, I discovered siblings, and a way of life that was completely contrary to what I had grown up with. While I was growing up in a four room house that had no running water in rural poverty, my Dad had become an electrical engineer, and raised my little brother and sister in a nice middle class home in Chatsworth, California. There has been more than one occasion that I imagined what my life might have been like if I had been raised by him instead of my grandparents. However, life is what it is. It becomes what it becomes, and our story unfolds only partly because of our own choices.

I experienced my step mother as always having been kind to me. She encouraged my Dad in his relationship with me, and smoothed over rough places between us. When she died at the age of 87, I had known her for 35 years, and I could not recall a single time that she had ever spoken an unkind word to me. She had been with my Dad for many years before I met him. She had been the love of his life, and the only woman who had been with him for more than a couple of years. She tempered his anger, and comforted him when he woke up screaming in Japanese. She had been the one to smooth the jagged edges between us when I first admitted to my Dad in 1981 that I am gay. He did not take it well at first, but after she spent time with him, he came to me and apologized for his initial rejection. He admitted fear that I could be the target of hate crimes, and talked about the way gay men were treated during his generation. His fears were as genuine as my own. I could not be the son he had hoped I would be, but he came to accept that I am who I am. I am reminded, when thinking of those times, that although I had grown up without him, my father authentically loved me.

My Dad did not receive 100% service connected disability for the impact of his military experiences until he was in his fifties. I don’t think he had asked for it. Even then, it took several years to be granted benefits. He had multiple problems due to starvation, beatings, malaria and other illnesses that he experienced as a prisoner of war, but he had to prove those problems resulted from time in the military. He had previously endured the pain, and had been very proud that he was able to continue working for as long as he did. By the time he was in his late fifties, he was in a wheelchair due to his chronic pain and neuropathy. He was in a wheelchair for most of the time I knew him. In his eighties, he could no longer deal with the manual chair, and had to be switched to a motorized wheel chair. That didn’t stop him. He went where he wanted to go, and did what he wanted to do.

My Dad’s willingness to face and conquer his anxiety, and his willingness to forgive the Japanese is probably one of the things that saved him, and kept his Post Traumatic Stress from being any more severe than it was. He still had nightmares about being in the prison camps, and later in life, my step mother was incorporated into those nightmares. He reported dreams where she was interred with him, and he was protecting her. He refused, much of the time to eat rice, but despite his torture, he seemed to have forgiven the Japanese. When I was visiting Los Angeles during the 1970’s he asked what kind of food I wanted for dinner. I asked for Polynesian. So, he got out the yellow pages and began searching. He found a Polynesian restaurant, and while we were there, he noticed that our server, a Japanese woman, had a noticeable ethnic accent. The next thing I knew, he was bantering, and laughing with her in pure Japanese as though they had been old friends. He did not blame the Japanese people for what their government had done, and did not seem to have resentment toward those who had incarcerated and tortured him. He had even named his last service dog Tomodachi, Japanese for Little Friend.

As my father aged, I felt as though we were getting closer. For a time, I was on the phone with him two or three times a week despite the fact that I was living back in the Ozarks, and he was in California. However, the stress of aging began to take its toll on him and my stepmother.

When my stepmother began to develop Alzheimer’s, Dad seemed to have difficulty understanding what it was doing to her. I had noticed that something was wrong almost three years before her doctors, and she took pride in telling me that her doctors said she was fine. However, I noticed this woman who had been able to throw a gourmet meal together in a snap was having to repeatedly measure, never quite thinking she could go ahead and dump the cup of flour into the bowl. She had been a realtor for fifteen years in the small town where they lived in San Diego County, but had to look at a map to figure out how to get home. Dad had to repeat simple instructions to her over and over, yet she still could not seem to comprehend. He became increasingly frustrated with her, but continued to try to keep her at home. Eventually they settled into a gated community in El Cajon where he thought she was safe to walk the dogs within the gates. He affirmed that the dogs knew the way back to the house even if she didn’t. When she didn’t come back one afternoon, and was found wandering the next day miles away with the dogs still on the leash, it became evident that he could no longer look after her at home.

I underestimated the strain this had placed on him, and I underestimated what role my Step-Mom had played in helping him to think things through. I also underestimated that he was probably already developing some frontal lobe dementia back in 2008 when I visited California. He had placed my step-mother into an Alzheimer’s unit only a couple of months before my visit. We were having a gathering at my Sister’s house when he began saying that he paid for my college as well as my graduate school. He then said, I had gone to school on his GI bill. When I affirmed to him that I had gotten scholarships and grants, worked during school and it had taken me ten years after graduate degree to pay back student loans, he continued to insist that he had been solely financially responsible for my education. I reflected that it probably would not have been possible for me to go to school on his GI bill, and that he had many great accomplishments to be proud of, but he did not get to take credit for my accomplishments. The result was that my Dad stormed out, and refused to speak to me again.

A couple of years later, after my step mother’s death, he apologized to me at her memorial service. I hugged him and said, “Thank you.” However, he then forgot that he had apologized, and even though my sister pointed out to him that he had apologized in front of witnesses, he continued to insist that I had turned against him, and he refused ever to talk to me again.

After he had been placed in a nursing home earlier this year, I received a call from a nurse stating that my Dad wanted to speak to me. A moment of hope filled my heart, but when she told him I was on the phone, I heard him telling her in the background that I was not the one he wanted to talk to. Since he was having a hard time explaining, I explained to her that he probably wanted to talk to my brother Ryan. Those words, spoken in the background of a phone call, were the last words I ever heard my father speak.

After work, on the day my father died, I walked to the ocean near where I now live in Texas, and went to a little hide away beach where I like to hunt for sea glass. In order to find that beach, one has to step off the beaten path, and go behind bushes and pampas grass. Otherwise it cannot be seen. I had no sooner stepped down into the sand when I saw another black feather standing straight up as though it had been planted there. This feather, unlike the first one was in perfect condition. I have come across feathers in my path on multiple occasions over the years, often during times of stress and reflection, but until the day my father died, I had never come across any feather that was standing straight up, tip down, as though strategically and purposefully planted there. On that day, I found two. I picked up the second feather and kept it. I interpreted the two feathers to mean that the first was a harbinger of his death, and symbolized the casting off of his physical form that had been so tattered over the years. The second feather was a messenger that he had become renewed, and was no longer in the tattered form he had inhabited when he was alive. I would like to think this was my father’s way of letting me know that he now understands how much I loved him.

His memorial service was held at the National POW MIA Memorial in Riverside California, and I was honored to be there. Despite my father’s stubbornness during the last years of his life, my sister knew the truth. She understood how much he had meant to me. His stubbornness was both his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. It had probably gotten him through Japanese POW camps where a third of all captives died. It got him through dealing with years of pain after going through the torment of being a prisoner of war from 1941 to 1945. It got him through spending the second half of his life in a wheelchair. It got him through his battles to be granted his service connected disability that he so profoundly deserved. It got him to the age of 93 when so many times death had come for him and failed. Unfortunately, his stubbornness also kept him from me during the waning years of his life. In 2008, I had lost my father a second time. However, he has never been lost to my heart.

During my layover in the Las Vegas Airport on my way to California for his memorial service, I suddenly looked up from my laptop to see a few troops marching by. Then I heard bagpipes and applause. I stood to look, and there at the next gateway Marines were at attention, saluting as old men with veterans’ caps were wheeled from the plane. I realized this had to be the return of an honor flight in which aging veterans are taken to the memorials of significance related to their particular military conflict. I stood with the others and applauded as each man was wheeled from the plane.

There was a sadness I felt during that interesting coincidence. To my knowledge, my Dad never went on an honor flight. He had many honors, but that one he missed. At his memorial, his medals were pinned to a Marine Corps Uniform that was dressed on a mannequin nearby. His military service was the proudest thing of his entire life. It permeated his life right down to the bronze plaque that will carry his name at the Riverside National Cemetery.

I was never so honored as when my brother, sister and I sat down at the end of his service, and were each presented a flag by perfectly groomed young Marine, along with a brass shell casing from his salute. My father was a hero. He fought for his country, and sacrificed for his country more than many. He suffered for all of us, and I have to say that I am deeply offended when I hear someone spouting the erroneous belief that people who have Post Traumatic Stress are weak. Obviously, they never met my Dad. He was anything but weak. He was the strongest man I have ever known, and he was much more than a military hero. What he may never have known is how much of a hero he was to me. He perhaps never knew that I always felt as though I was standing in the shadow of his courage. He was the first man who ever hugged me. He was the first man who honored me, and did not abuse me. He took out a loan to come see me when it would have been easy enough to simply ignore my letter. He accepted me, and gave me the family I had longed for throughout my entire childhood. He was a role model of strength, courage, and yes, stubbornness. He had his faults. Who doesn’t? Yet, his strengths, outweighed any fault that I ever found in him. He will forever live as the hero of my heart, the greatest hero I have yet known.