“Pack your shit. We’re going to the airport.”
This is my grandfather to my father, Fall 1966, or thereabout. I can’t say whether those are the exact words spoken, or if words were necessary.
This is how I imagine it.
Not too emotional. Cold. Tough. This is the last straw. My father’s lies and cheating could no longer be ignored. Lies and cheating.
This is all based on what I know and have been told, mostly by my mother when the mood was upon her. I know my grandfather was a no bullshit guy where my mother was concerned and that he was tough enough to carve out a nice wholesale meat business in the northeast Bronx in the forties. I’ve been told that in spite of his blood my father was a ne’er-do-well, which on some level he admits to; a liar, philanderer and two-bit hoodlum at most. I would guess that he is a narcissist and sociopath.
My mother became acquainted with my father in 1963 while she was in San Francisco, trying to avoid commitment in New York City after a suicide attempt. She was vulnerable, to put it mildly. I try to envision what their courtship looked like. Courtship. She was twenty five years old and a complicated set of feelings and ideas I’m sure. I know what it’s like to seek validation for emotional pain and emptiness, I did it for years. Any port in a storm, if you’ll pardon the cliche. She was just doing the same thing, carrying that fire in a horn so she could pass it on later.
At one point she recalled for me that my father told her he was a law student and that is the occupation they have listed for him on my birth certificate. She told me that she began to doubt his story so she went to the school to inquire about his status. They explained that no student by that name was enrolled. This was around the time that I was conceived.
According to my father he attempted suicide at some point that fall in order to “bond” with my mother. It was allegedly an act of love. It may have been an attempt to prevent her from leaving him. I’m not sure. Regardless, it defies logic on multiple levels. Most pointedly because my father is too in love with himself to actually want to die.
I was born in June of 1964. I was named Robert, after my father’s father who passed away two months prior to my birth.
My mother recalled being at a party with my father while I was still an infant and becoming aware of another woman at the party that she was certain was my father’s girlfriend. She left him and returned to the Bronx shortly after that.
He followed her.
My father relied on my mother’s family to make a living in New York, but he was erratic and unreliable. He worked at my uncle’s diner in Times Square. According to legend, at some point during his time in New York, he started an affair with my mother’s cousin Dolores. It wasn’t the first and presumably would not be the last. Drastic measures were required. The fabled day when my grandfather and two uncles showed up at our small apartment and escorted my father to the airport remains a mystery. My mother wasn’t there (she was allegedly warned off by my grandfather) and she’s dead now. She wasn’t exactly forthcoming about it when she was alive. My grandfather died twenty seven years ago; my uncles are remote and the nature of our relationships don’t promote this kind of discussion. Why would we talk about it? The very fact of my father’s existence was unknown to me until my twelfth birthday. The idea of meeting him was implausible, as he existed only in my imagination.
Turning the key in the lock that afternoon and opening the door, I had a partial view of Valerie sitting at the computer, her face bathed in a blue whiteness. The time of day, the silence of the house, and her quiet and intense concentration indicated that Farrell was napping, and she was engaged in research. Lately she had been compiling the family genealogy, for “Farrell’s information.” He was only two; my wife is very pragmatic. I locked the door, turned and walked up the hall. I was in the transition period of the afternoon, between substitute teaching and my own evening classes.
“It’s your grandfather” she said, without looking up.
The image on the monitor flickered in the subtlest way. Set in a web page of questionable production value was an official service photograph of Admiral Robert Donahue. Coast Guard Aviator #2. It was a pretty average setting. Seemingly above average guy, average web site, average day. The man in the picture stared at the camera with his head slightly cocked, a neutral facial expression, his arms splayed somewhat unnaturally on the desk in front of him. The day suddenly lost its quality of averageness. I had never seen this man. He was a rumor, a specter, a fable, as was his son, my father.
“Wow. Check it out.” I said, distracted.
“He kind of looks like you” Valerie said.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, “I guess he does.”
It was exciting, mystifying, puzzling. What do you do with something like that? Is there anything to do with it? While I had not let this become an all- consuming topic for me, the question of my father and his family had been a subject of varying intensity throughout my life. At least from the point that I learned that Len Piccoli was not my biological father. As I grew up among the torn pictures of my early childhood and through the disintegration of my parent’s relationship and my estrangement from my stepfather, the mystery of my father waxed and waned. A few years previous I had made a half-hearted attempt at discovering his whereabouts with an internet-aided people search, but did not sustain the effort. He was, in a way, better as an enigma.
“Oh,” Valerie interrupted my mental wandering, “and take a look at this.”
I was now looking at another website which featured a tie-dyed field with loads of information on the Grateful Dead. Slightly higher quality execution than the previous locale, and seemingly a world away.
Staring, I smirked, “What’s that.”
“I guess it’s your cousin, or something like that.”
As she scrolled to the bottom of the page the same service photograph of the splay-armed Admiral appeared, this time miscast black and white in a psychedelic sea. The contrast was almost absurd. The caption under the photo invited “Read my great Uncle Robert’s war story” (and buy a bootleg of Santa Monica Civic Auditorium 1975). The Dead Head guy was into the war hero due to the power of a familial connection. Blood is thicker than LSD-25, I guess.
I stood silently staring, thinking of the awkwardness of contacting this distant unknown relative from a family that I had only a reproductive connection to. It was funny peculiar to me also, because I have often wondered who I would be today if I had grown up in California, where I was born, instead of New York. Something like this guy is what I have often imagined. Whatever that means.
“It’s no big deal,” Valerie said, anticipating my apprehension and trying to head me off at the pass, “it’s only people.”
“What do you mean only?” I hissed. I had been trying to fill my father void, consciously or unconsciously, for thirty years.
“Alright. You’re right,” she replied. “I’m sorry, but I was afraid that you’d get really upset about this and I was trying to avoid that.”
There was a lengthy silence as I began the task of attempting to manage this development.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you, I’m just having a little difficulty processing this.”
“I know that it can’t be easy for you. If you don’t want me to go any further I won’t.”
I’m not sure that she meant that entirely, and anyway my curiosity was provoked.
“No, go ahead, I’d like to see where this goes” I heard myself saying.
I was only partly present, as I had already begun to reflexively distance myself from this new information, as a hedge against emotional vulnerability. Historically, I have shied from the glare of the cold light of truth out of fear. It is not without reason, because at times the truth of my life has required an element of denial just to get out of bed or off the floor in the morning. Fear has been both a creative and destructive force in my life, having both prompted me to action and preventing me from acting. Valerie has been a huge influence on me in regard to my having the courage to face the truth and join the fray. The nature of our relationship required me to face uncomfortable facts about my life. It seemed as though another personal growth opportunity was at hand. I ventured forth.
“I wonder what it would be like to contact this cousin?” I thought aloud.
Valerie said, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
“Yeah, right,” I replied as I went to change for school.
Valerie found John Jeremiah Donohue in her persistence. She attempted to verify his identity by contacting him directly. He figured it out instantly. He then began a campaign to gain access to me, contacting people around me, sending food to my house(one night an unordered pizza showed up already paid for), hovering on the periphery.
The interim leading up to our meeting is fuzzy for me. I recall the intense deliberations around whether I should take a chance on meeting him. I spoke to men who I looked to for guidance (father figures!) and there was some uncertainty there. The outcome could not be guaranteed with anything like confidence and there was some fear for my emotional well-being. It was pretty intense for me though I ultimately decided to go ahead with the meeting. I needed to know the truth, whatever it was.
We made a month long trip out west in August 2007 which set up the possibility of the meeting. We landed in Oakland and visited my aunt in Pleasanton for a week before heading to Long Beach to spend time with friends, Howie and Stacey. It was from Long Beach that I would make the trip to Fallbrook, CA to meet my father.
Howie volunteered to go with me which was a great offer that I couldn’t pass up. Stacey wanted to come also so it ended up all of us, Howie, Stacey, Valerie, three year old Farrell and I, stuffed in the car on the way to meet my father.
It was an important moment for me and I was on a different plane in regard to the atmosphere around me. It was almost like an acid trip, experiencing my senses and surroundings on a level of heightened awareness. We spent a lot of the ride joking nervously, everything funnier than it normally would have been.
Jerry (my father) wanted to have breakfast at Denny’s. Oddly, he wanted to meet me at a Jack in the Box where I would leave my car and then proceed to the Denny’s with him in his car. It was such a weird an inappropriate suggestion. Tell me a reason why that was a reasonable idea. “Let’s just meet at Denny’s” was my reply. We left Valerie, Farrell and Stacey at the Jack in the Box so that my family wouldn’t have to be a part of what was about to happen. I didn’t have any reason to trust Jerry and he certainly wasn’t giving me any.
Jerry was seventy five at the time of our meeting and had had several coronary bypass surgeries. I didn’t really even know what he looked like. We arrived in the Denny’s parking lot and I just looked for the guy who was also looking for someone. He was short and bald but fit. He had his eyeglasses hanging around his neck and there was grape jelly on one of the lenses. He invited Howie to join us and awkwardly, Howie told him some implausible story about how he was going to visit some friends nearby.
Jerry and I entered the Denny’s and it seemed like almost everyone there knew him. I’m not certain as to whether they knew about our meeting or not. He is active in the community and it is a small town so it wasn’t unusual, it just felt weird. They made prolonged eye contact with me and most of them told me “God bless you”. I was already uncomfortable with Jerry just based on his energy.
We got a booth and sat staring at each other. We ordered breakfast although I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to eat. After the waitress left he laid it on me. As much self-revelation as one could have in a Denny’s eating breakfast. In no particular order; the story of his kidnapping by my family and how the FBI met the plane in Chicago and escorted him to California; how he grew up with Jack Dempsey in the house all of the time and lost his virginity to Jack Dempsey’s daughter; working for Mickey Cohen; his connection to white supremacist Tom Metzger; the suicide attempt that he used to try and bond with my mother and my grandfather’s alcoholism (he was old school with bottles hidden all over the house, even in the toilet tank). He talked and I listened (which I should have taken note of).
I couldn’t access an emotional connection to this self-interested man. He was not on the same wavelength as me. In spite of this I agreed to meet him again the next day with Valerie and Farrell.
We met in a park in Fallbrook and ate Jack in the Box breakfasts that he brought. We sat and chatted, on a more surface level than the day before. We stayed until Farrell was exhausted from running around and parted amicably. I was not particularly moved by the experience in the way I imagined. My father was a person, living the life of a person, doing person things. He wasn’t a spy or an athlete or a rich guy, all things I imagined in fantasies during all the years of not knowing. In spite of being letdown by reality I could imagine working on a relationship with him.
We drove from Long Beach to Tucson to visit Valerie’s mother Jean. While in Tucson I spoke to my father on the phone. We were having a “How’s it going” type of conversation until he asked me to put him in touch with my mother. It was a surprising and inappropriate request. I felt some type of way suddenly and I certainly didn’t want to open the door for him to possibly hurt my mother again. She knew of my plan to meet him and was quiet in her response to the idea. It certainly didn’t include him reuniting with her. We left it at that.
The next day he called and reiterated his request. I explained to him that I wasn’t willing to be the conduit for his contact with her. He became angry. He said “You sound like a puppy trying to protect it’s mother”. I lost my temper. I couldn’t believe after five days that he was denigrating me and making wildly reckless requests. I took it to the street, “You don’t know me motherfucker! I don’t owe you shit! I’ll fucking kill you!”. Click.
I’m really not qualified to diagnose someone else, but I think that Jerry Donohue is a narcissist. It seems that he looked right past me with the goal of obtaining my mother’s forgiveness. I mean he could have found her quite easily without my help. Digital age and what not. After my refusal his interest in me was almost completely nullified.
He kept contact through random e-mails for a while. Mostly right wing propaganda (They’re coming for your guns! The age of a single digital currency is at hand! They’re killing babies in the third trimester!) until I had to block him. Not before writing him back and complaining that he wasn’t even seeing me as a person and that his views were not aligned with mine. I doubt he even noticed.
Thirteen years later he’s still going at eighty seven. A few years ago I was contacted by a man in Ohio who was also an abandoned son of Jerry. I told him I had no interest in maintaining membership in that club. It did lead me to wonder how many of us there are. I hope they’ve come to the same understanding as me; that there’s no there there.
Robert Donohue; United States Coast Guard Historians Office