Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Remembering My Dad on the Anniversary of His Death

My Dad at Camp Cook, California, shortly
before shipping out to Korea.
When my daughters were little, I wanted them to know the grandfather they never met: my father, Norman Katz. Over the years, I regaled the girls with stories designed to delight and inspire. I had plenty to work with: The time Dad unexpectedly brought home two pet spider monkeys who escaped inside the house and created havoc before Dad caught them; the way Dad could hold a perfect handstand on board our sailboat on the open sea; or the time Dad tried to rip a swastika flag from outside Nazi Party headquarters in Los Angeles. 

In keeping with the pattern set inside my childhood home, though, I rarely spoke to the girls about my dad’s experience in the Korean War.

And yet, in many ways, Dad’s warrior self was the core of his being. It formed the basis of his personal code encompassing patriotism, persistence, hard work and loyalty. His soldierness also played a significant role in his death. And so, on this Father’s Day, when the closest I can come to my dad is to deposit his favorite Sees’ lollipop at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., I present these thoughts, inspired by former Master Sergeant Norman Katz of the 40th Infantry Division of the California National Guar

I awakened late to the sound of violent pounding on the front door of our home in Riverside, California. By 1971, I was accustomed to nocturnal disturbances. We lived in the flight path of March Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command facility. During the Arc Light and Rolling Thunder bomb campaigns against Vietnam, I lay nightly in bed praying for our troops as the reverberations from war-bound B-52s shook the foundations of our house. The door-pounding on this night, though, was nothing like the tremors from the B-52s; but it equally signaled the urgent tenor of a nation at war. The visitor was in distress. He shouted for my father to let him in, now.

I rushed to see what the fuss was about. Instead of returning to bed as instructed, I hid eavesdropping while my dad sat down with our visitor, a family friend. The man was a doctor freshly back from Vietnam. He had stepped directly off his flight home and immediately came to see my dad. In a voice choked in a way I never before had heard from a man, the doctor blurted out a horrific story. He was on board a medevac chopper, he said, leaving a combat zone, when the enemy lobbed a grenade directly inside the rescue Huey. A young medic instantly threw himself atop the doctor, saving our friend’s life – and losing his own in the process. The doctor could not come to grips with the experience. He said he kept reliving the moment. He could not get the image out of his mind.

Dad managed to calm down our friend. Yes, Dad could get over the top wild - he once dove off our sailboat wearing an eypatch and holding a knife in his teeth, and swam over to John Wayne's converted minesweeper to ask for a beer - but he also knew when someone was in trouble. For instance, now. Dad told our friend that many other veterans – himself included – experienced these types of flashbacks. My Dad's involved a punji stick, mortar fire, and a pit filled with skulls. I already had intuited that my father felt guilty for surviving war while others died. But I did not know that he sometimes returned, in his mind, to the battlefield.

Still, the revelation made sense.

My dad, a former flame-thrower operator, was proud of his Purple Heart, but seemed to get upset when we asked how he earned it. This was his standard response whenever we tried to talk about the war. Once, my mother asked point blank if he ever killed anyone face-to-face. My father seemed to age visibly before our eyes. His silence, and his expression, gave us our answer, and also the unspoken statement: Do not ask this question again. Another time, during a father-daughter outing to our favorite restaurant, a man rushed up to my dad and tearfully hugged him. When I learned that my dad had saved the man’s life in battle, I asked to hear more. Instead, my cheerful father disappeared into a state of mourning.

The “mood” grew pronounced in response to the sights and sounds of war. My dad did not like fireworks. He loved war movies, but could not watch them. The combat scenes plunged him into an unsafe place deep within his own mind.
Today, we know that Dad’s behaviors, and the unsafe place, were  part of a trauma-induced syndrome. The syndrome is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It is powerful and insidious. It can interfere with healthy life in ways both mild and severe. In the worst instances, it can prompt good people to commit heinous acts, or to slip hopelessly beneath the waves. It can interfere with their ability to cope with challenges that have nothing to do with combat.

Dad with his sister Beverly.
She died this year on  his birthday.
This is what happened to my dad. When his life turned troubling in a way that, in retrospect, seems thoroughly surmountable, he needed to be able to take a step back, to gain perspective, to retreat “inside the wire” of psychological support. In early1970's-America, though, there was no wire for veterans. Society was polarized between the soldier-bashers and the love-it-or-leave-its, with scant attention to real issues facing real soldiers.

 Society did not talk about PTSD, let alone its insidious impact on how a person copes even with non-combat related stress. In fact, PTSD was not even classified as a psychiatric syndrome until 1980.

At the height of the Vietnam War, with young men daily being called to duty, and civilians marching in the sreets, combat veterans were cast adrift. Former Master Sergeant Norman Katz of the 40th Infantry Division did not know to appear on a friend’s mat at midnight, pounding on the door to be let inside.

My dad endured his internal crisis alone. Not surprisingly, without anchor, he buffeted farther and farther out. And then he sank. He disappeared to a place no one could pull him out of. One day he embarked on a motorcycle ride to the remote hills where General Patton once rehearsed his tank maneuvers. We thought this was a good sign; that Dad was regaining interest in forgotten favorite activities. We did not know that he left the house with a plan - and two handguns.

Someone heard the first shot, and called for help. By the time the rescue chopper found him, it was too late. Dad was gone.

It has been a profound loss. Among other things, my girls were deprived of knowing their grandfather, the only male family member who actually put boots on the ground in a combat zone. In terms of 20 June 2010 alone, I lost the opportunity to hang out with Dad on Fathers Day.

In the time I did have with my father, though, I gained a lifetime of wealth. His values are ingrained. I live by a code of patriotism, persistence, hard work, and loyalty. And because of my dad, I never will ignore a midnight cry for help.


Debra LeCompte said...

I know you so much better now... so much better. One day I will tell your father, thank you for your service.

Susan Katz Keating said...

You just did, Debra. Thank you. : )

Michael said...

Bless you, Susan.

Susan Katz Keating said...

Thank you, Michael.