A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 5
by Jake Rohrer, June 1, 2011
All the world is dark and dreary, everywhere I roam,
Oh brother, how my heart grows weary, far from the old folks at home.
— Steven Foster “Swanee River”
The loss of my father was a shattering event. I wasn't yet 20 and my closest confidant and personal hero was gone before he would be 50. He had always provided a cloak of security and confidence, and my admiration for him was boundless. Most things I did in life were done with the idea that whatever it was I was doing should be done well enough to meet the standard he himself would apply. Any endeavor I undertook was buoyed and made better by the thought that this is the way Dad would do it. He was a neat and fastidious man who presented a handsome appearance and an eager smile. He wasn't educated beyond high school but was smart in ways you didn't learn in college. He lacked intellectual finesse and had a ribald, unrefined sense of humor but could nonetheless fit in with any crowd because he was aware of his limitations and knew when it was best to listen rather than talk. His self confidence was enormous, maybe boosted by his natural ability at the right moment to lapse into a charming and irresistible country bumpkin: “How's yer crouch, Jeanie?” he asked in a congratulatory phone call to a close friend's wife who had that day given birth to her first child.
His penmanship was similar to his appearance, neat, grand and flowing, everything in place, even though his numbers and spelling ability sometimes spoke to his country school background. On an evening visit to our new home in Kensington, just prior to moving in, with a nail in not-yet-hard cement, dad scratched all our names and the date into a stairway leading to the backyard. It was September of 1949, and typical of Dad, the engraving was neat and meticulous, but when it came to the date he forgot how the number “9” was supposed to look. Either that or he was so used to writing prices backwards on the inside of windshields, he got momentarily confused. The date was forever commemorated as September 1P4P. In the center of his engraving, with the beam-end of a flashlight he incised a perfect circle, saying, “...so that we'll always remember this night.” It was his nature to laugh at his own drollery.
Even though Albany's Chief of Police was one of his close friends, Pop didn't care much for bossy cops. I happened in on a phone call to a sergeant of police one night when he was trying to get bail information on a friend who had been arrested. The cop hung up on him. Redialing, I could see that he was pissed off. “Are you the bastard who hung up on me? Well, I don't like to be hung up on!” and he slammed the receiver home. I thought they might come to arrest him, but they didn't. He was arrested once, though, for rolling through a stop sign at an empty intersection one morning. A young cop cited him for running the stop sign, a chickenshit citation, thought dad. He told the cop he wouldn't sign the ticket unless the cop wrote on it that he had almost stopped and rolled through at no more than 2 miles per hour. Dad thought there should be a difference between a failure to stop, as though he had run the intersection at top speed, and the fact that he had slowed and cleared the intersection before proceeding. The cop refused and a standoff ensued. The cop said sign the ticket or be arrested. “Okay, sonny. Arrest me,” and the cop obliged. But it was mostly fun for pop. He just wanted to make his point: no one was endangered and the cop was being an asshole. He didn't spend much time in jail.
* * *
“Lie detector? Ah, I see! You mean wife. I got one.”
— Charlie Chan
At one time in 1960 I became the prime suspect in the theft of an antique pistol that belonged to a rancher from who dad and some friends had leased a cabin, along with permission to hunt deer on the ranch lands. I had permission to use the hunting cabin with some friends during mid-week when no one else was there. Dad and other members would come on the weekend. Our station wagon got stuck on a hillside in dry grass. We had a truck, too, but no rope to pull the stuck vehicle out with. Another member's son and I went looking for rope and found an outbuilding near the absent rancher's home that looked promising, but the door wouldn't open. I gave it a gentle enough kick and it opened. I was wearing dad's boots. Inside we found a lot of supplies and things, including the subject pistol, but no rope. We closed the door and left without taking a thing. We finally rescued the station wagon and left a day or two later. Dad and his friends were there on the weekend when the rancher and the local sheriff came calling. “Gentlemen,” said the sheriff, “Let's see the soles of your boots.” His eyes went wide when he saw that dad's boot print matched the imprint from the outbuilding's door. The only thing that kept him from getting arrested then and there was the presence his friend, Ralph Jensen, Albany's Chief of Police.
The rancher was terribly upset about the missing pistol, apparently a family heirloom. All were sure that I was the culprit, all except dad who knew I wouldn't lie to him. Even the chief called me into his office and strong-armed me, “...c'mon Jake. We know you took that gun.” Just like a cop. Even a cop who was a friend and who had spent many social evenings at our home. First and always a cop. Then he played his trump card: would I be willing to take a polygraph examination? Absolutely. Let's do it. Ralph arranged the polygraph through the Berkeley police department because Albany didn't have their own. If I thought I had been pissed off by cops before, I had a new experience waiting for me. The polygraph cop was the biggest asshole cop I'd ever encountered, cold and intimidating while I was strapped to his goddam machine. My every denial was met with incredulity and I was shaking with anger at this bastard. My result was “...inconclusive.” Even when asked my name, the result was inconclusive. I was too pissed off at being treated like a thief and a liar to give them a straight line reading. My saving grace was the polygraph result of the fellow who was with me when we went into the outbuilding and found the pistol. He confirmed every detail of my story with as straight a polygraph line they'd ever seen. Had anyone the sense to thoroughly interrogate the other two fellows who were with us at the cabin, it is my opinion that they would have found the thief. Dad's confidence in me never wavered.
* * *
Dad was also respected and adored by my friends, one of whom christened him the “Earl,” thinking he should have a deserving title. One Sunday morning during my senior year in high school, some sorority girls from Berkeley, “Thracians” they called themselves, came to our house to plan a joint social event (i.e., a drunken party) with our renegade group, the “Saxons.” I made brief introductions to dad as they came through the living room to the back deck where the meeting would take place. After they had filed through, Dad said to me with a sly grin, “...I'll take the brunette.” Her name was Jeanne, an especially trim and pretty young woman who was to become my first wife and mother of our children. I have no doubt that my father's interest encouraged my own.
Almost unique for the time, Dad didn't smoke and never had but he truly enjoyed alcohol, which he seemed to control without ever letting booze get the upper hand. Many are the times I've seen him laughing, loose and happy, but never sloppy or drunk. A tireless worker and successful businessman, he was also held in the highest esteem by his many friends and the business community around him. Together with Mom, also a strong, loving and capable person, they belonged to what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” those who came through the great depression, were victorious in World War II and built the country into the greatest power on the planet. America could kick-ass on anyone.
To be the beneficiary of such parents and such times is the cornerstone that reinforces my belief that I was truly a fortunate son, a gift from unseen gods. Because I can look back on it, I am aware of how precious a time it was for me and for the country, and how I will never again achieve the sense of righteous innocence, security and pride that I felt when Dad was around and America stood for truth and justice. In the final moments of the film “The Godfather” there is a flashback scene from happier times, with the family talking and jiving around the dinner table, waiting for “pop” to get home, then rushing to greet him, the loving, respected and resolute family benefactor. In this single scene I again experience exactly those emotions from my youth, remembering the respect I had for my father and my pride in America.
Then we grow up and become aware of things like racial injustice, poverty, greed and government-sponsored lies. Learning the truth of these things, we are compelled to correct them, not only for the human condition, but so that we might again bring back the pride and sense of righteousness we once felt. But we probably never will because too many of these moral deficits were and remain an outgrowth of our economic system and there will always be something new under the sun to piss us off. I tend to excuse my ignorance of a lot of these things as a teen because when confronted with a new reality, I was usually able to examine and learn from it. But even as a teen, I suspected there was something amiss with John Wayne and Ronald Reagan who I thought of as phonies. They seemed to use their celebrity to mask realities, especially when it came to Native Americans, and hawk cigarettes.
Dad died just before the great explosion and turmoil of the sixties began. He never heard the Beatles and didn't get to consider the merits of the Vietnam war or know about the racial upheaval and triumph in the South. We came dutifully through the Eisenhower years (I like Ike!) and the morality of our country and its leaders went unquestioned, Joe McCarthy perhaps excepted. A distrust of the Japanese was still around from World War II and spilled over onto me from my parents. Shortly after dad died, my mother and I declined an invitation to become one of the first Toyota dealers in California, largely out of lingering negative feelings for the Japanese.
We all admired John Kennedy, his charm, sophistication and his pretty wife. Mom was especially thrilled at the family images coming from the White House and thought it all very wonderful. Of course, she knew nothing of the president's appetite for other women. And probably not that of her husband either. Though unlike Kennedy's apparent insatiable hunger, and unknown to the family, Dad had a girlfriend late in life. She was with him when the bullet tore through his leg, causing his eventual death. I never talked to her about the incident because his loss was just too painful for me. Another hunting friend of dad's who was nearby, though, did, taking me into the dark confidence that I spent the next forty years keeping from my mother. If she ever knew, or even suspected, she never let on, at least to me. Whatever the carelessness that caused such a careful and meticulous man to self-inflict such grievous injury, I know that the long hours and stress of his work, together with a probable lack of sleep the night before, played their parts. Shortly following dad's death, Kennedy, too, was gone, and the period of grief and sadness grew even darker and deeper.