He designed valves for nuclear submarines during the 50s and 60s Commie scare. But he secretly loved the tabloids—“Hollywood Reporter” and “National Enquirer” tucked away in his top drawer. But not so hidden from a boy like me, trying to find out about my father.
My grandmother called me a snooper: “Do you like to snoop?”
Well, yes I do. Show me your secrets.
Then there was my dad’s bottom drawer where he kept his starched white shirts for work at Westinghouse-Bettis Plant, top secret defense contractor in Pittsburgh, Pa. Underneath their stiff creases, he was heavy on the starch, was the real live 60s gold cache, the glossy periodicals, “Tip Top,” “Nylon Jungle” and “Leg Show.” I suppose you might call them fetish today, but they were really just an hobby-like interest—many featured no nudity, some were topless only—compared to today’s hardcore. But for a boy of 12 home from school over a third of his first year in Junior High, I was a sickly child, it was the mother lode.
You see, my father had a secret life more complex than anyone realized—except my mother—and by the time I was a freshman in High School, me too.
Donald Francis was an only child born of 100% Irish American parents in Chicago. His father worked a blue collar job in some type of manufacturing, of which there was no end to in Chicago from WW2 onward. His mother was one of those overbearing types who wore mink at Easter and a veiled hat that couldn’t conceal way too much rouge and lipstick. In spite of their working class, and his mother’s taste for finery, he never wanted for anything. I have pictures of him with a model airplane back in his youth, the early 30s depression era years in Chicago, that was almost as big as him. It appeared as though you could sit in it. He also was posed with a cute little Terrier, wearing fine knickers with suspenders, and a very nice, woolen cap.
His mother was a strict teetotaler who never had a drop in her life…which makes me suspect the alcoholic gene came from her side and skipped her only because she abstained. Hair-shirt Irish Catholicism has its benefits.
Do your penance and our Father will remove your impure thoughts and desires.
But my mother was a protestant, Lutheran, and did not want to convert to Catholic. So, my father left the Catholic church to marry my mother…and descended into the “Nylon Jungle.”
The GI bill and his father paid for him to go to college, a Chicago technical institute, where he earned a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. Starting off at Sloan Valve in Chicago, Il, he somehow graduated into the top-secret work at Westinghouse-Bettis in Pittsburgh, Pa. Sooner than later, his job designing the first nuclear submarines started to pay off. We bought a new car every other year. A Ford wagon. We moved into a big house with four bedrooms, a game room, and a double lot. My mom had a round rose garden, her lifelong horticultural dream, to attend to, adjacent the painted rose-color concrete patio. That’s where dad would burn the steaks, the chicken, the dogs, the burgers, and anything else that touched his grill. From age ten to fourteen my life tasted mostly like charcoal burnt meat.
One time dad doused the briquettes with so much lighter fluid that when he threw the match on it, my mom, who was not standing back nearly far enough for the pyrotechnic display, had her eyebrows singed off—the fire leaping into her face like an hungry lion. Good times, ala summer of 64 or so.
I knew mom made a mean barbecue sauce, but it was hard to taste it because dad turned everything into ground zero of a nuclear bomb. The poor chicken was so dried up you had to have at least two 12 oz Cokes to wash it down. Even the corn had to be overcooked to suit Dad’s tastes.
A lot of great sweet corn grew just outside the city. Mom would made sure we went for Sunday drives after Church, when we actually went, like six times a year, including Palm Sunday and Easter, so we could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, especially corn, tomatoes, and peppers, from the roadside stands, mostly south of the city on the way down to Uniontown.
Salad was covered in so much dressing, mostly Thousand Island or Roquefort, that I had no idea what raw vegetables even tasted like other than they had an odd crunchy wetness to them. I, of course, was just following the lead of my dad.
During Dad’s bouts with sobriety that never lasted long, he would have Coke and popcorn in front of the TV down in our full-sized game room every night. Well, hooray for sobriety. Dad loved a good western and didn’t actually care much for anything else except Frank Sinatra movies. He and mom shared a love of anything Sinatra.
As we became even more affluent, my dad got a used car just for himself. It was a pink and gray Dodge that was over ten years old and had some ripped-up upholstery. But dad loved it because he could go out and tinker away on it every Saturday and get away from us all. I think he deliberately bought a car that old so he would have to work on it all the time. To say my dad was mechanically inclined would be like saying the ocean is wet. He could take just about anything apart and fix it…like our toaster! Who does such a thing?! My father, down on his wooden work bench in the garage.
Well, being a snooper, I decided to look around my father’s old Dodge one time. I got his keys, fished them out of the dish on top of his dresser while he was taking a nap one Saturday afternoon, and my mom and sisters were off doing something like grocery shopping, though I came to be my mom’s favorite co-shopper just a year or two later.
I rushed outside, knowing how he can sleep like a log, maybe owing to his emphysema, or hung over, or sneaking out with his girlfriend, Gail on Friday night. I looked under the seats, inside the glove compartment, and finally flipped open the trunk. Bingo, bango, bongos. Inside was a cardboard box filled with his other life: stockings, wigs, women’s clothing and more of the aforementioned magazines.
What the hell was this all about?
At first I assumed the girly under and over-garments belonged to his girlfriend, Gail. But why would it be in the trunk? Plus, it was sort of old and raggedy—holes in the dresses and sweaters, runs in the nylons, cheap wigs, and old make up.
Now I had really stumbled upon a mystery fitting of the crime novels my mother consumed like candy-on-the-couch every spare waking minute she had, now that the kids were older and she was working part time, owing to Dad hitting the big time at Bettis.
He had a high security clearance photo ID gator-clipped to his shirt at all times. Even at home after work, just in case they stopped by to check up on him and make sure he wasn’t a Commie spy, and we were the model all-American family: barbecues, baseball, and badminton.
Sometimes on Saturday night we’d all pile into the Ford Galaxie wagon and head south on route 51 to the drive-in. I remember we saw “The Blob,” with Steve McQueen, “The Great Escape,” with Steve McQueen,” “Hole in the Head,” with Frank Sinatra, “From Here to Eternity,” with Frank Sinatra. Wait. I guess we only went to see movies that starred either Frank Sinatra or Steve McQueen with my father.
But that wasn’t the best part. Or tumbling out of the car and running up to the concession stand at intermission for grape popsicles, popcorn, cherry or chocolate cokes, ice cream drumstick cones, ice cream pies, and everything me and my sisters could cram into our stomachs until we were sick.
The best part was driving past the slag dump as the freight train was ejecting molten slag, hot from the steel mills, on an ancient evening in August, coming or going to and from the drive-in. Jones and Laughlin Steel works was going full bore back in the 60s. The skies lit up red at night. The humid air so thick with heavy metals–arsenic, lead, cadmium—that you could cut it with a knife. It stuck to your skin. You could take four showers a day and still feel gritty.
The slag was the left over millings of pig iron from the bottom of the furnace that separated out the impurities in the beautiful refined steel. About once a week, the furnaces, going around the clock, had to be shut down and cleaned out. The still-red-hot and molten metal filled up a mile-long train of gondola cars. With at least four engines pulling this behemoth—talk about heavy metal, think of the weight!—they hauled it out to the slag dump just south of the city, and just before you got to the Route 51 Drive in. The mighty train would creak to a stop. In unison, the cars would tilt starboard and release their red, white, yellow, and orange jewels of cooling, dirty iron ore down the side of the man-made mountain, creating a cascading flow of searing hot color that kissed the sky and our faces. The heat emanating from the dump slapped us giddy, pushing us down the highway.
The only thing I could do was yell, “Wow. There it is.”
An act of man that was as close to mimicking the flow of lava from a newborn volcano as you can get. At the time, that slag dump was touted as the largest man-made mountain in the world. I’ll say.
My father could explain everything about what we saw scientifically. And so my first love in life was to become some kind of scientist. I was rather gifted in physics when I was 17 and 18. But I lost any real interest in science after my father died.
Back then, I thought those summers would never end. It didn’t occur to me that my father would get worse, or my parents would divorce, or I could lose everything—my dog, my bike, my Lionel Train, even my dad.
But I did. We did. Loss was woven into our family somehow. Just like that beautiful slag lighting up the sky like Dante’s Inferno. It was really the horrible refuse from the bottom of a furnace that only sleeps once a week, and spews out poison into the air the other six days.
Taking a step back, I see the beauty in the pain, the loss, the sadness. I don’t understand people who insist on only light. How could this be. What you ask for is impossible.
At night there were so many fireflies we could hit them with our badminton rackets and turn them into glow rackets. There were so many monarch butterflies thick and happy on mom’s lilac bushes that I could easily catch one with my hands, put it in a jar, poke some holes in the lid, and watch it inside my room till I decided to set it free. Sometimes I waited too long and woke up to a dead butterfly inside its jar in my room.
At the height of dad’s drinking, when he was off on his benders, my dad used his considerable intellect to create a separate identity to kite checks and forge prescriptions for controlled substances like Valium, Librium and Seconal. The women’s clothes in his trunk were a big part of that identity. He was impersonating his own mother, who had passed away in ‘64, or so.
One sunny Sunday afternoon when he was off on a weekend bender, he wound up in the park, dressed as his mother, sitting on a picnic table drunk out of his mind. Well, there were Blue Laws in Pennsylvania, and one of them is no drinking in public on a Sunday, especially a man dressed as a woman in a public park…at Easter time!
He was thrown in the slammer. The sergeant on duty, recognizing my father’s place of employment, and being well-aware of the Commie scare, felt compelled to notify my father’s supervisor at Westinghouse Bettis.
My father was fired immediately without severance and never got anything more than an entry level engineering job again. Westinghouse was kind enough to send him over to their air break division, mostly for trains. But the salary was less than half and the work was not even that. It was grunt work, drafting, which all had to be done by hand, a steady hand, back then.
It’s disturbing that I knew so much about my father’s secret life at such an age when I should have only been focused on school, sports, and girls. Plus my bike and my dog. But it just wasn’t like that for me.
The night I learned my father died, I was home from Penn State on Spring Break; there, I buried the lead as deep as it can be.
Not too surprising, there was a big fire that night in the projects where I wound up living with my mom after she divorced my dad.
My Jewish friend Steve, who was a high school dropout and worked at the bagel bakery in Squirrel Hill, was with me as we walked by the fire and gawked like a couple of looky-loos, hoping everyone got out safely.
At Steve’s mom’s apartment, identical to my own, including the bedroom he occupied, we smoked a few joints. We were marijuanaholics, we would joke with each other.
His mom knocked on the door. “Gary, you need to come to the phone; it’s your mother.”
I thought she was just going to tell me to come home. Or maybe I had to run to the store and get something for her, like cigarettes or pop. But it was that molten slag cascading down the black hill in the middle of the night.
Nothing that terrible can ever be beautiful. And yet.
“Gary, I want you to come home now.”
“Why?” I complained.
“Please, for me.”
Then I could hear it in her voice. “Mom,” terrified, “what happened?”
“Your father has died.”
He was found in a cheap motel on Route 51. He had been dead for a few days. Heart attack. He was 48 years old. The jobs had gotten much worse. He had been kicked out of the A.A. halfway house for starting a fire in his bed, falling asleep with a lit cigarette. He was living in a motel.
No one came to his funeral except us— mom, my sisters, and me.
And the next days continued the worst week of my life. My mom immediately bounced down to the booby hatch. She was afflicted with manic depressive disorder all her beautiful life. And my best friend, Jim, who lived down the hall from me at my dorm, was screwing my high school sweetheart, Joyce, my other best friend who had gone away to college with me.
Santana’s, “I Ain’t Got Nobody, That I can Depend On,” held a little more meaning for me than most.
I lived up on the seventh floor and I thought about it.
But the darkness that threatened to consume me also saved me—the glowing slag dumped down the side of the black man-made mountain comforted me in the form of drugs, good drugs, and lots of them, and rock and roll, good rock, loud rock, and lots more of that.
So it’s Father’s Day this Sunday, trying to remember a man I haven’t seen since I was 18. Like a good son, I carry my father’s secrets of submarines and killing machines and the levels he descended for his beautiful Beatrice, my mother. And I am his radiance, his truth be told.