On this Veterans' Day, I think of my father, Jesse Gibson Franks, Army Air Corps, who flew 35 combat missions in B-17s over Central Europe in World War II. He was shot down twice.
He survived to benefit from the G.I. Bill, securing a doctorate in British and American Literature with a dissertation on Melville.
He came from Arkansas, of that invisible swath of the nation that is now being disparaged by the sophisticated and the comfortable. He was a flawed man. But he was a great man.
He fought the most necessary war in the history of the world, but as I would always tell my classes, that most just war tore through America in the decades to follow, to this very day. The inhuman rigors of battle broke the American soul (not to mention the rest of the world, and never forgetting the reason for the necessity of the thing, beginning with the moral imperative to rescue the Jews). In home after home. Our descent into materialism, consumerism, the sexual revolution, a totalitarian hubris that refuses to be disturbed by liberal education, confusion about the relation of the sexes, the collapse of marriages that goes on and on, I trace back, societally, to the unimaginable trauma of that heroic venture. Everything solid melted into air.
Here we are, in the ruins of greatness. The only way back to that heroism is through open hearts and open minds, through liberal education and the recognition that the "other side" is filled with fellow citizens, fellow humans, people WITH REASONS.
My father survived the war, but he couldn't outrun it. We must somehow, together, outrun the inhumanity that lies coiled in the cellars of each of our hearts.
I miss him. My kids miss him, though they don't know it yet.
A fatherless world stings. It's a world of infinite collapse. "It's Father's Day, and everybody's wounded," sang the indispensable Leonard Cohen.
I am re-presenting one of my early sonnets for this occasion. Thank you, veterans, for your sacrifice. May God the Father give you all the grace to outrun in peace the horrors that must be sustained in war that horrors find their end.
For my father
How cold it must have been those three dozen sorties;
How loud, within the belly of the dragon;
How quiet, floating down a thousand stories;
And colder, when your friend was strafed and slackened.
It ruined you. You couldn’t drink enough
To exorcise the gelid cacophony.
You fathered freedom, though, and, in that, us,
Crushed the rage that slaughtered Jews so savagely.
Still, I can’t keep a father. They all go.
Joseph, David’s son, could you foster me?
Of my unquiet bapa, too, take custody?
And ward my children’s own unpatroned woe?
Would that the festal, gliding, glinting ranks
Drop soundless fire upon these orphaned banks.