WHAT DADDY DID
Excerpt from the forthcoming memoir
addy never experienced combat, but he owned cruel souvenirs, things he purchased from a fellow Marine who found them in a cave inside Mount Suribachi on the Island of Iwo Jima. The soldier who took these objects from the body of a dead Japanese officer knew something of the sorrow and horrors that accompanied the war and prayer flags, the gun, the helmet, the canteen, the knife, the black eyeglasses with round lenses and the letters from family and pictures of home. But Daddy in his innocence saw these things as booty, the spoils of war, mementos of combat he envied but never experienced. When I was a small child I found these things in the bottom of his closet and as I removed the strange objects from the box, a ghost entered my nostrils with the smell of sweat on the headband inside the steel helmet, on the leather holster and canvas cover on the canteen.
In the summer of 1945 Daddy and a few thousand other Marines were packed like sardines in the bow of a ship, part of a massive first wave in a frontal assault on the Japanese mainland. They were told they were headed for almost certain death in hand to hand combat with zombie Jap hordes that would rather die than surrender, but in the middle of the Pacific Ocean news came that Japan had indeed surrendered and the soldiers’ new mission was to be an occupying force, arriving in total victory, merciful, kind and clean-shaven, white knights with shining teeth, representing the loving, forgiving Christian values of a kindhearted nation, there to secure the peace and lend a helping hand.
Daddy was stationed in the devastated city of Nagasaki just two short weeks after its encounter with the handmade sun. “Anything black was incinerated instantly,” he said with more and more morbid delight as he grew older, fatter, richer, shorter and balder, and as years passed and he retold the stories whenever I insisted.
“People who wore black, even just a spot of it or a dark color, were maimed or burned alive or incinerated in a split second. But people who wore white survived, sometimes with no burns at all, even when they were close to the blast. There were permanent shadows of people and light poles and electric wires on the sidewalks and streets. I saw the silhouette of a woman, just a smoky smudge on the steps of a house that was blasted away. She looked like she was holding a baby.
“But, son, those Japs were going to mow Daddy down on the beach before he even got a chance to set up his mortar. Somebody had to stop them and I’m glad it didn’t have to be me. Thank God for the Bomb, son. You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Bomb.”
Daddy’s words haunted my dreams with visions of people in white shrouds walking through apocalyptic hell fire, but the other “war story” Daddy shared haunted him to his grave . . .
“We were housed in a prisoner of war camp converted into a barracks, side by side with troops from other allied countries. The city across the bay was devastated, nothing left, just rocky charred debris scattered everywhere. There were people walking around, still looking for survivors, sleeping in the ruins, scared of us. We were taught a few Japanese words, but I think the jackass commanders didn’t know what we’d find and it was worse than they could imagine . . . but hell, I was just a corporal. I didn’t know squat. None of us knew what we were doing there.
“Within a few days of moving into the barracks we caught a Jap kid stealing food, so we just gave it to him. We gave him blankets and let him sleep under the trucks nearby and would sneak him into the barracks. We called him Tony. He was thirteen, a tough little kid. He was our platoon mascot, a sole survivor . . . he lost all of his family. He was in school when the bomb hit and when he walked home through the smoke and fires, he couldn’t find his house, so he slept in the rubble and started searching and begging for food and water. I taught him how to kick a football and he was speaking simple English in no time at all . . . and he became our translator . . . so we could actually help people. That was our job, you know, the one we weren’t really prepared to do . . . help people. At least we got to help Tony. He and another Jap kid were like adopted sons. Tony was with us for months and then one day he just vanished. After a couple of days, we went looking for him, me and my two buddies. We walked up the road through the Russian barracks and past their headquarters to the Turkish encampment no more than two blocks away, and Tony was hanging upside down from a pole next to the Turkish flag.”
Daddy’s lips always quivered when he spoke of the Japanese boy and the older Daddy got the more his voice broke until a tear would gather in the corner of his eye and as Daddy grew senile and vulnerable to his regrets, the tear would run down his cheek further and he would sob and then for a few seconds he simply could not speak. “They slit his throat . . . drained him like a pig . . . and put a sign on him that said THIEF . . . in English. Those Turks knew we were taking care of him and they killed him anyway. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen, even worse than the burned bodies of the boys who died when the barracks caught fire in the middle of the night . . . I never liked Turks after that. They are a dirty and cruel people.”
When I was a little kid Daddy worked all day and had more than his fair share of hobbies. Whenever he was present in the home he was to the point and there was no messing around, and if Mama said I did something wrong he took his belt off and whacked me across the backside or gave me a stern lecture. From my thigh-high perspective he was big and powerful with a smirk on top . . . or he was long gone. When he favored me with his good humored attention or told me a story from his past, I absorbed it like I remember the tall grass that cut me, the dirt I ate, the time I pissed in a barrel and it ricocheted into my mouth, and the bee in the clover that stung me on the middle finger of my right hand.
By the time I was five years old, Daddy was managing a factory that produced a popular brand of hot dog that had a unique tender texture and light, sweet flavor. Needless to say, we ate a lot of Elliott Packing Company Wieners. Daddy was such a good sales manager that Mister Elliott let us stay at his vacation home on Ho Ho Sound where I spent most of my time in the crystal clear water making friends with the sea creatures. I sat in the calm shallows on the white sandy bottom in a little rubber mask like I was Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, surprised by scallops in the sand, jetting and flapping away when I tried to touch the little blue lights on the bottom, then vanishing back into the sand again to peek up at me with a row of tiny blue eyes. I met a little black fish with long silky fins that flowed and waved in the water like heavy velvet in the wind. The little black dancer playfully nibbled at my legs and rubbed up against me like a kitten, tagging along wherever I went. Later I would learn that this little fish’s gown would soon vanish and its eyes would move to one side of its head and its body would flatten like a pancake and turn the color of the sandy bottom. I finally went inside when I was stung by wasps after I accidentally poked their nest with the butt end of a crab pole I was dangling over the side, trying to net a crab the size of a garbage can lid in a net the size of my little head. My mother consoled me and held me tight and the pain was not so bad anymore, but I dreamed of those angry wasps buzzing inside my head and awoke in the middle of the night and I had been scratching my bites until they bled.
It landed with a thud in a cloud of dust beside me and when I first saw it, my hair stood on end. It was a giant, pitch black, patent leather Rhinoceros beetle the size of my foot, dusted like a shiny tar biscuit with strange curved flattened horns, jagged thorny legs and amber wings that folded under ridged armor plates on its back. It clicked and whirred, moving like a machine on legs like rose stems, tottering over the dirt clods I was throwing. As it ambled toward me I was frozen with fear, about to run, when my Daddy shouted from the backdoor.
“Daddy!” I hollered and jumped to my feet, pointing at the ground. “Daddy, look! A big black bug! Daddy, come see. It has horns!”
“Keep your hands off of it!” he shouted. “Don’t touch it! It’s dirty!” I was constantly bringing creatures into the house; crayfish, snakes, turtles, dead rodents and lots of bugs. On summer vacation at Caswell Beach, I carried a stinking road kill skunk into the rented cottage, shrieking in pure joy, “Mama, I found a kitty. Mama, I found a pretty kitty.”
“Daddy, will you play with me?” I pleaded. Daddy was big time entertainment in the backyard. “Kick the ball for me, Daddy.” Daddy could kick a football to the moon and I knew no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to kick a football like my Daddy. “Kick the ball for me, Daddy! Please?”
“No. Not now. You’re going to work with me today . . . I’m going to show you how we make those delicious Elliot wieners. It’s about time you know where the bacon your Daddy brings home comes from.”
Mama looked worried, but I was excited because I got to ride in the car, the bulbous black 1939 Desoto that resembled the huge, shiny, black beetle I had just encountered. The Desoto had a little ledge, a small cave-like compartment below the rear window that smelled like a mildewed felt hat. It was my favorite place to sleep and it was where I had learned how to stop the world while lying in the heat of the sun on a cool day as the road rumbled under the wheels and I found that place between sleep and waking and discovered the soft smooth ball in my head and I rolled it against the roof of my skull creating a harmonic resonance that soothed me like a kitten’s purr. For years, long after the Desoto was gone, I dreamed of riding in that window and the little felt ball would roll against the inside of my head and time would stop in a purgatorial pause of sweet friction.
It was a perfect fall day. The air was crisp and the warm sun was shining bright. Daddy drove through the place he called Niggertown and Mama called Hell’s Kitchen, where the sweet smelling dark brown people lived and the houses weren’t painted. We passed the old mental institution and the spooky cemetery and the train station, down George Street past Granny’s house, past the warehouses and grain elevators to the monolithic cinderblock fortress that was the Elliot Meat Packing Company. From my little submarine window I could see the backs of many cars in the parking lot like a gathering of giant beetles.
I remember the blue sky, the old wooden gate and the red mud in the stockyard that stuck to my shoes. I remember the sounds and the earthy fecal smell of pigs and cows in the holding pens adjacent the big, plain, cinderblock building with no windows that Daddy called “the slaughterhouse.” I’d heard that word slaughter many times before, and though I didn’t know exactly what it meant, I associated it with cowboys and Indians because they were always “slaughtering” each other. I thought it must be a very good word, because it was noble and strong. I imagined that whatever slaughter was, it was very good and patriotic. Slaughter meant something very important in the game of cowboys and Indians, so I assumed it was a food fight where they were slinging slaw at each other.
I remember the bulbous tits of a huge pink sow suckling a row of little piglets.
“Babies!” I gleefully screamed.
“Yep . . . she’s makin’ bacon. I brought you here to show you where the bacon comes from . . . and there she is.”
“Daddy, can I hold one?” I begged Daddy as he was distracted, talking to the dirty men in the stockyard.
“Sure,” he said. “You can play with one for a while,” and a man took one from the litter and handed it to me.
I cuddled with the soft, spotted piglet and let it nurse on my finger in bliss for an eternity. I remember how its soft, sweet-smelling belly felt against my cheek and the way the little creature felt warm in my arms and how cute it was, like a silken puppy with a flat nose and a curly tail, happy to be with me, begging me to take it home.
“No, you can’t take it home,” Daddy scolded.
“Oh, Daddy, please? Please, can I have just one?”
“No. You can’t have a pig.”
I cried as the man took the pig away and put it back with its family.
“Stop that crying. Look. See how big his mama is. He’ll grow to be that big and he’ll have long tusks like steak knives.” He pointed his fingers up at either side of his jaw and made a mean face. “They’re not pets. They’re food. We raise these little guys to be big and fat, and then we kill them and eat them.”
“Oh, Daddy. You’re being funny.”
“No, I’m not. You’re being funny.” Dirty men were standing around laughing at me, so I ran and grabbed Daddy’s leg.
“Now we are going to go over to the slaughterhouse. You can choose: Do you want to watch them shoot the cows or do you want to see the pigs slaughtered?”
Daddy and the dirty men laughed, standing over me like giants as I contemplated my choice: I didn’t want to see cows get shot because I knew what a gun did. It killed things. So I said, “Let’s go see the pigs slaughtered.”
“Okay. Let’s go,” he said with a smirk.
So, it was off to the slaughter on Daddy's shoulders, into the cinderblock dungeon where I thought I was going to see something I heard about on television, something that cowboys and Indians did to each other in a food fight. Cold slaw--it made sense. They made the pigs eat the horrible cold slaw and it made them big and fat like mama pig and they got long teeth and somebody shot them with a gun.
Inside the open end of the slaughterhouse a bare light bulb dangled above a tank of stinking brown water the size of the small pond in the old city park that gave some other children polio, so mother wouldn’t let me play in it. I wondered if there were fish in the pond. Chains rattled and clinked high above, dangling from two large pulleys attached to the rafters. Daddy carried me up some wooden steps onto a platform overlooking the pond and from the vantage point of his shoulders, I watched the dirty men herd pigs into a small corral below. Across from me, standing on a plank over the pool of dark rusty water, a man was raking a long knife against a metal rod, making it ring like a bell that tolled over the grunts and shrieking complaints of the pigs.
Shinggggg. Shingggg. Shingggg. Shingggg.
The ringing, the grunting, the roaring, screams and squeals swelled into a nightmarish cacophony of reverberating panic in the great room until it frightened me to the bone. I understood the pigs were very afraid and my courageous optimism evaporated, replaced by a sense of impending doom. To my left, standing in fecal, ferric, stinking mud, men in long rubber aprons with dirty hands and faces, pushed and prodded the animals under the platform, then one man grabbed the biggest, fiercest pig and another quickly lashed its hind legs, slipped a hook under the rope and another tugged on a chain, hoisting the pig into the air. Chains rattled and clanked as the conveyor swung the screaming animal running-in-air over the stagnant pool where the man with the knife quickly grabbed a front leg, pulled the raging pig toward him and ran the long razor sharp blade deep into the animal’s throat into its chest and out in a split second, then swung the wailing pig over the pool as blood gushed from the gaping wound like an angry fire hose.
As the blood splashed, splattered and rippled across the pool I realized it was filled with blood and so was I. The odd, noxious, sweet and sour smell of blood filled the air, spraying from the gaping wound, launched by the liquid screams of the dying hog. Quickly, one by one, the terrified wailing pigs were hauled up, stabbed and left to dangle over the pool in a hellish chorus line, running and shrieking as blood drained and splattered loudly into the turbulent pond.
I lost consciousness, and in the void I found the ball of felt in my sleepy head and rolled it against the back of my skull, stopping time in the middle of the nightmare. I had seen death before when I was given a little kitten that I watched die slowly, horribly, in contorted spastic convulsions, defecating and vomiting all over its box until it was still and stiff. I prayed to Jesus but it didn’t work.
I awoke against Daddy’s chest with terror and sadness in my nostrils like the dirty stench of a bathroom in a filling station. He was sitting and I was on his lap next to a mountain of shiny, round, wet purple things and a man was sitting on a white bucket squeezing bright yellow pee from each shiny little purple thing. I knew what pee was and how it smelled and how it tasted . . . but what was pee doing in those little purple things? The golden liquid splashed loudly into the bucket then the man in the white apron tossed the emptied object into another pile of shiny purple things, then he reached for another and squirted the pee in the bucket, then another, and another, and another.
Piurrrrrrrrrrrrip. Piurrrrrrrrrrup. Pirurrrrrrrrrip. Pirurrrrrrrrrip.
“The kidneys are sold separately or we make them into a pudding,” Daddy said. “We use all the guts, nothing is wasted.”
Then it hit me: Guts! You haven’t got the guts. Chicken guts. Fish guts. Those purple things are pig guts! They come from inside a pig!
I was shaking, weak and limp in my father’s arms, sad about what the cowboys and Indians had been doing to each other all along, and I was sick in my stomach from the smell of the pee and the blood and the poo poo and whatever those other horrible odors were that took me back to the panic of the pigs and the awful blood.
Daddy cuddled me to his chest and said, “And now I’m going to show you why Elliot Packing Company’s hot dogs are soooo very delicious. You want to know the secret formula? You really like those hot dogs, don’t you?”
“No, Daddy. I’m not hungry. I don’t want to eat Jesus anymore, Daddy. Not if they hurt the pigs.”
“Sorry, son, but these are the facts of life,” he said as he placed me on my feet. “We eat pigs and cows, not Jesus. Jesus is just Wonder Bread and grape juice.”
I held his thumb and he pulled me into a larger room filled with shiny silver tables and polished mint green machines manned by faceless men in blood stained white aprons and hats. Daddy held me up so I could see the long table where a line of hot dogs threaded like beads on a necklace moved along through the air. Further up the line there was a fantastic machine of rotating and twisting tubes, pumping pink wiener goo into little fleshy noodles that looked like the thing Daddy called a rubber that I had found on the side of the road near our house. I brought it home to show to him and Mama howled like a dog. Daddy laughed and howled, too. Then he got mad. “It’s a damn dirty rubber!” Mama told me that rubbers were dirty and I should never ever to touch them, but she said that about everything I brought home and now it looked like they were making hot dogs out of those dirty rubbers, anyway. I was growing more and more confused by these things Daddy called “the facts of life.”
“The meat goes into the intestines, the chitlins, the guts,” Daddy said. “It makes the hot dog kinda crisp on the outside and it adds flavor, too.”
“Rubbers are guts?” I asked and Daddy laughed like that donkey in the field next to the church.
Attached to the wiener machine was a huge motor with a large funnel on top. I could see two triangular ears sticking over the top of the funnel. I walked around the table and Daddy picked me up so I could see the enormous pig head shaking and sputtering in the grinder. A man was standing in front of the vibrating pig head shaking his head at Daddy. He yelled, “Boss, looks like this one’s too big. I’m gonna have to cut it up.” The grinder was making a horrible noise with the pig head bobbing and rocking on top. Its eyes seemed to be looking at me.
“Looks that way,” Daddy said, and then with a knowing smirk on his face, he asked. “When someone asks you what goes into Elliot Packing Company hot dogs, what do you tell ‘em?”
“What did you say, sir?” The man shouted over the whine of the grinder.
“Tell my son what goes into Elliot Packing Company hot dogs,” Daddy smiled.
“Everything but the squeal, sir!” hollered the wide-eyed grinder man with a grin.
Daddy yelled over the noise, “That’s what we tell them, but to really get the hot dogs to taste yummy, we only use the heads. That’s the secret formula, son. Don’t tell anybody, now.”
Daddy and the grinder man laughed at me as the pig head smiled and I looked up into its slimy nostrils at the sticky lumps of goo inside, and said, “It’s got big dirty boogers, Daddy.”
“Everything but the squeal, son . . . everything but the squeal.”
Lee Bridgers is an author and fine artist living in Moab, Utah. He works in film, video, painting, music and the written word and has MFA and BFA degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of North Carolina. He has taught and directed film schools and worked in the film industry, had one man art shows in Europe and the USA, published two books and builds custom bicycles. While at the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage read one of his diary novelettes and made him promise to write his memoirs. That was in 1992 and now Lee has recently completed his first memoir of ten short stories from a series of three volumes. Follow up volumes can be completed within two months. The first book I KNEW YOU WHEN YOU WERE A DOVE follows Lee's life up until 1973 and he is currently seeking a publisher for this completed volume about the Vietnam War era and the effects of the war, the pill and the cultural shift toward consumerism on his generation.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.