The Politics of Touching

Joe Biden has been going through a lot of scrutiny lately over his touching of strangers.  It’s the beginning of a campaign, and that is the natural time for such issues to come up.  Some people are quite insistent that Biden has been inappropriate, while others are defending him.

As a teenager, I never hugged people in greeting. I felt that I had a wall around me.  I was lonely and awkward socially.  I didn’t know any way out of this conundrum, because my upbringing hadn’t given me any.

David Groves age 8

Then in college, I met people who hugged. When they saw you, they hugged you. When they said goodbye, they hugged you. It was how things were done in their world. Or maybe it was a moment in history when that changed, the 1970s, when men started wearing colors and gays started coming out of the closet.  Or maybe it was the circles that I suddenly entered, the big city that I had moved to, the sophisticated people, the bohemians and artists, I don’t know. At any rate, I started being more touchy.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

I have never been as touchy as Joe Biden. I have admired how loving he is, how confident, how giving, but I have never been able to pull it off.  It’s a cultural thing, too, like Latin cultures that are more touchy (Italy, Spain, Greece), and look down on Anglo cultures that aren’t as touchy. There is a tradition that glorifies that kind of touching.

In fact, my mother tells me a story about that.  She comes from Mexican culture and my father comes from a German/English tradition–i.e., a white guy married a Mexican girl.  And when I was born, my mother hugged and held me all the time.  My father objected.

“You’re going to smother him,” he said.  “Why are you touching him all the time?”

“Because I love him.”

It was a point of conflict with him, and they never resolved it.  Twenty years later, when I was in college, I came back from school being more touchy, and started hugging him hello and goodbye.  My father was shocked, although he never said anything to me about it.  But in private, my mother tells us, he did talk about it.


My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

“When he hugs me,” my father asked my mother, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Hug him back!” my mother said.

There are subcultures that grow out of trauma, such as molestation victims, who freak out when you hug them. And then there are people who seem physiologically averse to touching for whatever brain-chemistry reason. And there are religious subcultures who avoid touching because it might be sexual (cf. Mike Pence, who doesn’t even like to be alone with any woman not his wife, or Muslim subcultures).

I am more aware of personal boundaries than most, probably because my parents taught me to be aware of that. When I was dating, I had problems with the moment when you kiss someone for the first time, for example, because it was an uninvited moment. You had to read the other person, and you could always read wrong.

What I’m saying is that this is not simple.  And before you condemn Joe Biden, ask yourself where you think it comes from: a good place, or a bad place.  That’s the key.


Everyone Dies

[This is chapter 9 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 8, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was driving on the interstate at 75, his mountain bike strapped to the trunk, having emptied a bottle of wine and another one open on the passenger seat.

“It’s the Russians again,” John was saying on the phone.  “You got five days and then we’re on.”

“All ri’,” Evan said, hitting SPEAKER and holding the phone between his hands above the steering wheel.  There was a wall between Evan and his body, and a ringing in his ears that reeked of sulphur.

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“But it’s a different deal,” John said.  “We aren’t in it to win this time.”

“Whaddyu mean?”

Evan had been drinking in his apartment when he suddenly wondered how fast his car could go.  He wanted a number.  It was a leech that attached itself to his brain.  At the steering wheel, he was still wondering, squinting his eyes at the speedometer.  Suddenly a car cut in front of him and he flinched and the phone clattered off the steering wheel and onto the car floor.

“I mean, this time we lose 75% of the time,” John said.  “Have you been drinking?”

“What, so I can’t drink anymore?”

Evan, still cruising at 75, one car riding his ass, was reaching down and feeling for his phone, swerving over the line, then glancing up and straightening up, then swerving again, but whatever, life is for living.

“I give you the signal,” John said, “and you fold.  You’re going to do a lot of folding.  And a lot of losing.”

Evan found the phone and lifted it up to his mouth.


John gave him his typical silence, and instead of trembling, the way Evan usually did, he had a mouth full of shit that he was waiting to spit out.

“Why do you need to know?” John finally said.

“Cuz I fuckin’ wanna know, what kinda question is that?”

“See, I wouldn’t normally tell a guy why.”

“Okay, fuck it, don’ tell me.”

Evan knew he’d overstepped some boundary, but fuck it.  Evan was amazed how much courage he now had against his uncle, although perhaps it wasn’t courage, perhaps it was an unbridled horse called rage, or perhaps it was just the wine talking.  There was a long silence, but finally, John took a deep breath and lowered his voice.

“Okay, I tell you this and you’re in on something,” John said.  “These dudes we’re playing next aren’t whales to take down.  The Russians have to get their money out of their own country.  They don’t trust their own banks, because they’re not really banks, they’re just people who take your money.  Plus, it’s not the Russians’ money to begin with, at least not legally.  So they come here with all their fucking cash and they lose it at our private

game.  If anybody gets wind of it, like really looks into it, we’ve got a couple of witnesses who are in on the game and it checks out.  So then they come to the casino and I’ve got another Evan to help win it back for them.  Minus a commission, of course.  It’s a fucking win win.  Except for the Russian people, but who gives a shit about them?”

“Laundering money,” Evan said.

“Oh, you own a dictionary.”

“The thing that Trump does.”

“Don’t slander my man, I’m warning you.”

“Got it.”

“So are you happy now?” John said.  “Now you know everything.”


Evan hung up and tossed the phone against the door panel.  That’s how it was now.  Everything was difficult.  The world sped by at 85.  His head seemed separated from his body, like Ichabod Crane’s headless horseman.  His mouth was emanating things that his brain couldn’t quite grasp.  He hoped John didn’t notice, but of course, John noticed everything.  He grabbed the bottle and took a swig.  His eyes felt puffy and tired.  He felt woozy.

Maybe I need eye surgery, he thought.

That was the last thought Evan had before he passed out, and soon after that, hit the center divider, ricocheted, bounced into a second car, and rolled three times.


Kara had called Evan ten or twenty times over the last couple days, no dice, straight to voicemail.  She hung up the phone once again.  She had been over to his apartment and knocked, but no answer.  He had been getting distant, but this was ridiculous.  It hit her deep.  She looked at herself in the mirror.  This was the girl that Evan didn’t want.  She slathered on the makeup as if it were a mask.  She drew on the lipstick with a hand that drew perfectly, but deep down, wanted to create just a red slash.  She imagined taking a razor to her cheek.  She imagined blood.  She didn’t know what that was about, never had, but it was never a good sign.

Kara slumped down on the sofa in her silk offwhite blouse, tight black skirt, and fuck-me pumps.  Still was hotter than August in Manhattan, but still and all, she felt ugly.  She had called Evan, but he wasn’t answering his phone and she knew she was heading for a dive.  “Downton Abbey” was playing on her widescreen, a show that always depressed her even more, pretty people in a simpler time, when Kara herself was just an ugly girl living in a lonely world, don’t stop, don’t ever stop.  Kara had tried calling Evan a dozen times or more, which made her feel like a fucking toddler.  Kara had been dealing with dives since adolescence, when they had first hit her bigtime, and she was experiencing a kind of déjà vu familiarity, thinking of Billy Meister, the first boy who messed with her self-esteem big-time.  Looking back, it must have been the narcissistic mother.  Or an asshole father.  Or maybe just bad chemicals inherited from her grandfather, who was sent to an asylum at age 17.

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Kara’s older cousin told her that in 1920, her great-great uncle Frank Elmer had committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun.  Four months later, his twin brother Orland Alexander had killed himself by hanging, despondent over his twin’s death.  Kara felt a bond there.

On a whim, Kara dialed her sister, closing her eyes while it rang.

“You can’t call me,” Kendra said, no hello.

“Kendy, listen….”

“You forfeited that right when you took what was mine.”

“Sis, I’m so sorry, I—”

“He was mine.”

“You took what was mine before that.”

“This can go back and back to Adam and Eve,” Kendra said, “so make it quick.  What the fuck do you want?”

“I miss you.”

“Apparently, your boyfriend does, too.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

“I saw him the other day.”

Kara sat up on the sofa a little straighter.

“You what?”

“He came into the office.  Wanted to talk about his new problem with his uncle.  You know his uncle?”

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“Yeah, so he told me all about it.”

“It is kind of a problem.”

“Yeah, the kind of problem that makes you want to sleep with your ex-girlfriend.”

It took Kara’s breath away, her eyes widening.  No matter that it wasn’t true.


Evan lay in a rotten Vegas hospital with a semicoherent elderly roommate thankfully drugged up beyond coherence, but a British nurse with an erect accent who was much too coherent.

“…Because I came here ten years ago, but I still miss my country terribly….” she was saying as she tidied up the room.

Some lovely painkiller was pumping into Evan’s veins to keep his mind off the broken leg, broken rib, and black eye, and one ragged, underfed coyote was running kind of sideways through his brain.  It was a complex coyote, even pointillist.  It ran like this:

Everyone has to die sometime.  Most people die for nothing, in convalescent homes or in traffic accidents or at dinner eating shrimp or peanuts.  They die of nothing and their life ends up signifying nothing.  They work at nothing jobs manufacturing nothing products for other nobodies.  Insurance, software, government.  They’re ball bearings in a machine that does nothing.

At most, they’re proud to be parents, that’s it.  They look deep into their children’s eyes, and in a cracking voice and with wet eyes, they say, “You are the best thing I’ve ever done.”  What bullshit.

But Evan had the chance to die for something.  The game was in four days.  It didn’t matter if he was healed.  He’d be there.

“…I was up in Leicester Square….”

In his morphine haze, it was like a dream, but it had been that way before the tumble.  There had been times in his life when nothing meant anything.  Climbing stairs was just climbing stairs.  Smiling at the woman in the next car was just smiling at the woman in the next car.  But this was not one of those times.  Now, focusing on the television was the effort of the mighty Achilles.  Smiling at a chatty British nurse was the mighty Achilles about to wield his fucking sword.  That weapon was brandished high.  There were classical brushstrokes on his face and body.  There was a gilt frame around the things that he had planned, and plaques beneath each.  He blinked.  He blinked again.  The morphine wasn’t enough to keep him down.  Everything was a pulse, his sanctified skin pounding with blood.

“…that the old English way of fixing Christmas pudding is best,” the nurse was saying now.  “In this day and age, it’s important to remember that there’s this lovely thing called tradition.  When you’re fixing your pudding, you have to stir it from east to west.  People ask me, they say, Why east to west?  That’s very important, east to west, because that is, of course, the direction that the wise men traveled to bring all their lovely gifts, their frankincense and myrhh, to the baby Jesus….”

I will meet him very soon, Evan thought.


The day of the game, Evan walked out of the hospital through the back door.  He threw a couple bottles of painkillers into his bag.  They’d taken away his driver’s license because of the open container, but he didn’t need a license to drive, he just needed it if he got caught.  He drove through the streets of Vegas wobbly, because the double-yellow line kept shifting like an article on fucking  When he finally got to Pancho Villa’s warehouse, he picked up the car and drove to the game with the Russians in his Mazerati.

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The doctors said that if Evan hadn’t been so drunk, he wouldn’t have survived.  A rib and a leg were broken, but he had ripped off the braces because that wouldn’t do in a real game.  He didn’t need any major questions.  He also didn’t need a slur in his voice, so he was letting the drugs wear off.  He’d explain away the black eye somehow.  As he drove to the game, he began hurting in a major way, in the way that people who are not used to pain realize that pain is a real thing and not just an excuse not to live.  He tried to suppress the pain, but it kept coming to the surface like a dead body.  He needed to weight it down.  If he didn’t, John would hear it in his voice and send him home because he couldn’t pull off the sleights.  He needed to pull off the sleights.  He needed clear elocution and a relaxed face, but without drugs.

Parking the car, Evan parked it against the grain, blocking 2 ½ parking spaces.  He was thinking it was good luck.  Everything was boiling down to premonitions and luck now, so he followed his instinct and parked the car east to west, just to snatch the luck of the baby Jesus.  That fucking coyote was running sideways through his brain again: Everybody dies, the coyote was saying, a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.  This is your moment to shine.

Evan opened the car door and faced the task before him, which was simply to pull himself out of the driver’s side.  He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the pain, and pulled his sore body up against everything that was working against him.  There were muscles all over his body that were spasming, but he held steady.  It was an incredible effort just to stand upright, and a separate Herculean effort to focus.

Finally, Evan just stood there and looked at the house.  He had it all planned out.  Swann’s pistol was in the trunk.  Evan would go into the game and begin playing his part, splitting his two selves.  He would keep an eye on Pancho, because that was his major impediment to pulling this off, plus the Russian bodyguards, and they were an even bigger wild card.  It was all about a moment, just like a magic trick.  You look for the moment when everybody was relaxed.  You made an excuse to go to your car.  A special bottle of Champagne, say.  An antique deck of cards.  He would come back shooting.  He doubted he would get out of it alive, but if he did, he would hobble back to the Maserati and hit I-15.  At the Summerlin turnoff, he would dump the Maserati and jump into a rental compact that was parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  He would transfer four suitcases that he had packed, two of which contained pounds and pounds of cash, in fact, nearly $240,000.  Then he would head east until he got to Arkansas and lay low.  Maybe Kara would be next to him, maybe not.

The drugs were wearing off.  The pain was coming back.


Kara was standing at the window watching Evan.  She felt like running out to him, but she didn’t want any more pain.  It was like touching a hot frying pan.

There were tears in her eyes.  She couldn’t figure out why he had a black eye.  Plus, he was standing kind of funny.  She knew he loved him because just seeing the way that he was standing hurt her.  She also couldn’t figure out why he was just staring at the house.  Something seemed terribly wrong, but she couldn’t figure out why.  So many things swirled around in her head, her sister, them fucking, Evan not talking to her, who he belonged to, DNA, who she belonged to, twins, everything.  They were swirling like blood down a shower drain.  She felt that her heart was collapsing, that she had never felt pain like this before.  She wished there was a drug that could fix it.  She wished she was anaesthetized.  She wished that she could sleep.

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Kara placed her hand against the window.

That was the moment that Evan collapsed onto the cobblestone driveway.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

David Groves age 8

But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

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My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

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Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

What They’re Selling

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father had been a smoker since he was a teenager, and had never been able to stop. For the previous five years, he had been losing weight, so we knew something was wrong. We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he refused. He eventually died a horrible death from emphysema and lung disease.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My mother sometimes wondered if she was responsible.  Of course my father held the ultimate responsibility, but she painfully asked herself whether she might have done something that would have allowed him to survive.  Three  years before his death, he lost so much weight that we knew something was wrong.  When we brought up going to the doctor, Dad walked away from us.

“Leave it to me,” my mother said.  “I know the right moment to bring it up.”

She tried.  But Dad’s ability to stonewall unexpectedly exceeded my mother’s ability to manipulate him.  We even tried to trick him into going to the doctor a couple times.  My sister asked him to drive her to the doctor, and then go into the examination room with her, and when the doctor came in, he start talking to Dad about his own health.  He just stood up and walked out.

There were many people on Dad’s side.  Mom, sis, and I.  The Surgeon General when he released his report.  Those commercials on television.  And 49% of my father.

On the other side, working against him, were many people, as well.  Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.  All those Carolina farmers.  All those Carolina senators and congressmen.  All those 1950s ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that recommended cigarettes “for your health.”  And 51% of my father.

I sometimes wonder what could have convinced that 1% to defect.

Going through my father’s effects after he died, we discovered lots of literature he had received from the tobacco industry. These expensive four-color booklets talked about smoking as a matter of civil rights. You have a right to enjoy a cigarette, the literature said. Fight for your rights, it said. You have the right to smoke next to people, or in restaurants, or at your job, or wherever the hell you want. Don’t let the politically correct liberals take your rights away from you.  (To see some recent versions of this argument, go here.)

The authors of this literature were co-conspirators with the tobacco industry in killing my father.  In the months after he died, I sometimes unexpectedly began to cry.  Once, while standing in line at the grocery store and seeing a headline that reminded me of him.  Once, while driving down Ohio Avenue under the 405 and hearing a song that reminded me of him.  My thoughts were forever bumping into memories of him.  They still are.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Recently, I saw a news item on one of the companies that used to put together that literature, The Center for Individual Freedom. It’s an organization, you understand, that manufactures lies and sells them to an unsuspecting public. And during that election cycle, they were selling lies in nine congressional districts attacking nine different Democrats:,0,5753488.story

These days, they’re attacking the ACA and global warming.  See for yourself.

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They killed my father.  They’re the 1% in more ways than one.  Don’t fall for what they’re selling now.

The Hieroglyphic Heart

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

After college, I began to study dreams.  Finally, after ripping through all those thousands of pages of UCLA curriculum, I had time for leisurely self-exploration.  I read Man and His Symbols and started keeping a dream journal.  Around 9 am, I would wake up, immediately roll over, grab my spiral-bound journal, and write down whatever I could remember from that ethereal world.

Looking it over during the day, I began to see meanings.  It helped me see my life as something with shape, form, and mysterious depths.  But they were depths that could be plumbed, if I just tried hard enough.  Everything could be deciphered.  After all, I was an adult now.

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What I was trying to do, I suppose, was take control of my life.  Supposedly, every person had an unconscious self that made you do things.  It made you lazy or aggressive or mean, even if you didn’t want to be.  It wagged you like a tail, and yes, Hemingway was right, the iceberg of your needs and desires was almost entirely submerged.  All the action was underwater.

I so wanted to decipher those hieroglyphs.  I so wanted to make things better in my life.

One morning at dawn, I awoke from a particularly emotional dream.  I had been talking to my father in a parking lot.  It was in my hometown, and a department store loomed behind us.  But it was the anguish in our conversation that got to me.  Awake in bed, I cried for a bit.

I immediately knew what it meant.

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To understand the dream, you have to understand my father.  He had never been a terribly assertive man, and in fact, sometimes seemed to be so self-effacing that he harmed himself.  He wasn’t a coward by any means, but the thing was, he never asked for anything.  When his wife decided the family would go on a Caribbean cruise, he wanted to stay behind to save money.  And he never wanted to spend money on himself, and in fact, basked in his spartan ways.

Smoking seemed the embodiment of that self-effacement.  Taking a drag, he looked so solitary.  It was all he seemed to need, that cigarette, that smoke hovering around the eyes, that heat he breathed into his lungs.


My father smoking in his favorite chair.

That November, I asked Dad what he wanted for Christmas.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“I am going to get you something,” I said.  “Tell me what you want.”

“Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”

“What, you want me to get you a Shakespeare play?”

“No.  Did you know I haven’t read a novel in 25 years?”

There was always more than a hint of pride in the statement, a sideways slap at the English major who thought he knew more than his father.

“The last novel I read was The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.  Did I tell you that?”

“Yes, many times.”

“You know he couldn’t write unless he was completely drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you ever tried that?”


“All right.  So don’t ever buy me a book.”

“Then what should I get you?”

“A carton of cigarettes.”

“Yeah, right.  You know I’m not going to buy you cigarettes.”

We went on like this for ten minutes, round and round, until something perfect came to mind.

“You really like macadamia nuts, don’t you?” I said.

“Okay, if you absolutely have to, you can get me that.”

“A jar of macadamia nuts?”


“Okay then.”

As an adult, I was starting to appreciate my father in a different way.  Once, he was my hero perched high on a pedestal.  Now, I was learning to hug him, even though it made him feel awkward.

“What does he expect me to do when he does that?” he used to privately ask my mother.

Sometimes I even kissed him on the cheek, which really threw him.  The fact is, I was realizing as an adult in how many different ways that I loved this man.  I so enjoyed wearing a pale green 1950s-style shirt I found in his closet.  I was fascinated about the details of his troubled youth.  I wanted to spend more time with him, although it was sometimes difficult to fit into our busy schedules.

Come Christmas Day, I arrived at my parents’ house early.  With the family sitting in the living room, we casually unwrapped presents, but as always, Dad held back.  He always lingered on the outskirts of the group, like a satellite orbiting a planet.  While we tore open gift after gift, Dad was leaning on a railing, smoking and watching.

“Dad, it’s your turn,” my sister finally said.Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller


Dad picked up my gift first, but looked at it a bit puzzled.  The package was larger than our agreed-upon jar of macadamia nuts.  He tore off the wrapping paper, and what he found inside seemed to disappoint him horribly.

“Oh no….”

“What?” I said, smiling.

“That’s too much, it’s too much.”

I smiled.  It was four jars of macadamia nuts.  In the store, one jar had seemed paltry and ungrateful.  This man had put me through college without requiring that I get a part-time job, as my friends’ parents had required.  He’d coached my Little League team during a year when I was a star.  At age 4, he’d taught me how to run as fast as the wind.  I figured I’d set him up with macadamias for a couple months.


Later that day, we had a moment alone while the women in the kitchen were cooking.

“Dad, I want to tell you about a dream I had,” I said.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The author at age 25


“It was about you.”


“Yes, you.”

I recounted the dream, but as I reached the end, my voice was cracking and there were tears in my eyes.

“You were…you were threatening to cut off your own thumbs,” I said.

It was the thumbs that had really gotten to me.  You see, I had discovered a new way of being in the world.  I wanted to tell him that you didn’t have to hide your emotions and kill your own desires, that in this day and age, you could spend money, you could wear colored shirts, you could tell your child that you loved him, you could give him advice, because he would listen.  I was telling him that he didn’t have to hurt himself all the time.

But while there were tears in my eyes, my father was having a whole different experience of the conversation: He was laughing.  In fact, he thought it was ludicrous.

“I was going to cut off my thumbs?!” he said with a grin.


“David, I’m not going to cut off my own thumbs.”

“No, that’s not what I mean, I know you wouldn’t….”

“…I mean, why would I cut off my own thumbs?”

“I know that, it’s just that….”

But try as I might, I couldn’t quite explain it.  In the end, I had that sense of hopelessness you sometimes get when you try to enlighten a parent.

I changed your diapers, the parent always seems to say with just a slight grin.  I knew you when you didn’t even know how to go potty, so don’t try to tell me anything.

David Groves at Alan Karbelnigs house circa 1981Later that year, though, he did cut off his thumbs, in a manner of speaking.  He was in a dark mood all that autumn because of office politics.  Apparently, Dad’s supervisor had accused him being an alcoholic, which was absolutely ludicrous if you knew my Dad at all.  Perhaps what that supervisor had seen were the effects of a lifetime of smoking.  Or perhaps he was just trying to put his boot on my Dad’s neck, as power players sometimes do.  One day, Dad sauntered up to me with that ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“Don’t be surprised if someday, I just disappear,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Disappear.  Gone.”

There was a quiet anger in his voice.


He took a drag on his cig.

“Because I’m sick of it all.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d just become a hobo riding the rails.”

It sounded to me like someone hurting himself because others had hurt him.  I looked at him with as much love as I could muster.

“Dad, I would really miss you.”


It wasn’t long afterwards that I saw my father sitting on the stairs at home with his shirt off.  It was so alarming that I remember it as if it were yesterday.  My father had become frighteningly skinny.  The mesomorphic father who had always been my hero was so thin that I knew he was sick.

“Dad, you’re too skinny,” I said.  “There’s gotta be something wrong with you.  You’ve gotta see a doctor.”

He wouldn’t listen to me that time, either.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

My father at age 21

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58

Thumbs, lungs, cigarettes, hobos, death, it’s all mixed in together now.  He never went to the doctor.  And three years later, he was dead.

Now that I’m older, I realize that it didn’t have to happen that way.  He could have stopped smoking.  He could have reached out to us.  He could have accepted our love.  It could have been easier for him.  The problem was, the person who was telling him to change was his own son.  And who listens to his own son?

Combo David and Donald shot closer

The Looming Question of His Life

[Continued from a previous post]

Calvin wasn’t what you might call a winner.  He had no love in his life.  He was 150 pounds overweight and wore thick Coke-bottle glasses.  Days, he worked as a bean counter for a school district.  During tax season, he took extra work computing other people’s obligations for H & R Block.  As April 15 approached, Cal would come into the restaurant at 5 pm, eat his greasy dinner, make a dent on his pile of other people’s tax forms while watching Porky’s Revenge or Police Academy 4, and then by 9, would be sleeping in his seat at the counter.  Somehow, his fat kept him upright.  Sometimes, he would snore.

“Are you sleeping much?” I once asked Cal.

“What business is it of yours?” he retorted.

I didn’t consider it an offensive question, so I was taken aback.

“Well,” I said, “because you fall asleep in your seat every evening.  I’m just a little worried.”

“It’s tax season!  What do you expect?”

(It turned out that Calvin had a secret, something distressing that isn’t the point here, but will revealed be in the next installment.)

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Over time, despite the ridiculous aspects of Calvin’s personality, I grew to respect him.  Every Friday, I would stroll among the tables and perform closeup magic for those who asked for it–it was my job–but every so often, we would hit a slow patch and I would chat with him.  By 8:30, it usually slowed down to a crawl, and it was then that I would linger with him while he played along with TV Jeopardy.  Watching the show, I was astonished that Cal always beat the television contestants.  Even more alarming, he always beat me.

The moment I realized this, something alarming happened in my head.  I had to rearrange my estimation of him, if only to avoid considering myself his inferior (because obviously, no one is).  The thinking went something like this.

I’m intelligent, but in a different way than he’s intelligent. 

Cal has a kind of left-brain, encyclopedic intelligence, the kind that focuses on names, dates, and details, the kind that ends up as a pathetic bean counter.

I have a kind of right-brain, creative intelligence, the kind that can deal with ambiguities, flow, and chaos, the kind that can grasp two seemingly contradictory thoughts at the same time and not have to reconcile them, the kind that can easily and inevitably win a Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Neurology face 1aUsing that convenient train of thought, I wasn’t inferior to Cal, after all.

But faced with his obvious hyperintelligence, certain other questions sprang to mind.

Why is Cal working as a cog within a wheel?

Why isn’t he rich?

If he’s so smart, why is he so stupid?

When I first performed magic for Cal, he didn’t react the way other people did.  He wasn’t as astonished.

“I respect that move,” he said.

“What move?”

“That double you did.”

David with card smaller

I flinched.  Cal was right, the sleight that I had used to pull off the trick had been a double.  Nobody but another magician would know that, or furthermore, know the technical term for it.

“Years ago, I studied card magic under John Scarne’s son,” he said with a sly grin.

That explained a lot.  John Scarne is a well-known name in magic.  He wrote 28 books on card magic, dice, gambling, and other games, and in fact was the hand double for Paul Newman during his card-manipulation scenes in The Sting. 

Thinking that perhaps I had discovered someone from whom I could learn, I handed Cal the deck.

“Show me something,” I said.

Cal gladly took the deck, and with great flourish, showed me a trick using a sleight called the glide.  My hopes were immediately dashed.  His skill in sleight of hand was rudimentary and embarrassing, and his estimation of those skills, wildly inflated.  There was nothing he had to teach me except arrogance.

But I still humored him.  As a professional magician, I’m not in the business of making people feel bad, quite the opposite.

I walked around for weeks thinking about Calvin and his intelligence.  One day, I finally asked Calvin the elephant-in-the-room question.

“Cal,” I said, “you’re obviously very, very smart.  So I’m asking myself: Why haven’t you gone into business for yourself and made your fortune, or gone into nuclear physics, or developed a new Twitter or Facebook or some other amazing enterprise?  With your brain, you could do it, surely.”

I had peppered the question with high praise, hoping he wouldn’t take it as an insult.  Thankfully, he didn’t.

“My intelligence has always been a gigantic burden to me,” he said.  “It weighs me down.  It hangs around my neck like an albatross.”

It was a moment that I never forgot.  In his face, I didn’t see regret or pain.  Instead, I saw that this was the question he had pondered many, many times, day after day, year after year.  It was the question of his life.

Eventually, I learned about Calvin’s father, and that offered one answer.

Schooner 1a smaller

“He abused me both mentally and physically,” Calvin said, using cold, theoretical words that distanced him from what he was describing.  “He insulted me and beat me.  When I grew big enough to fight back, I didn’t, I just left home.  And I never went back.”

When someone offers up a confession like that, you know that he has some insight into what’s happening.  Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to feel it, and that was a shame.  It seemed that in many ways, now at age 40, it was beyond healing.

That, of course, explains Calvin’s inability to capitalize on his intelligence.  Granted, other people from difficult circumstances use their dysfunction to rise above it all–look at Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who both came from alcoholic homes–but that’s not how it worked in Calvin’s case.  Everyone needs support during their formative years.  They deserve a father who doesn’t beat them for arbitrary reasons.  If they get a difficult father, it screws up the machinery, and they end up with voices in their head.  Those voices hold them back, trip them, and sometimes, destroy them.  What Calvin told me, in essence, was that he had those voices.

[To be continued]

Adventure on Road X (part 11)

[Continued from a previous post]

It all started with a baby.

027 (2)In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine.  They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces.  But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves.  They knew they were doing something good and pure.  They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.

Don and Sally in the woods 1a smaller cropped2

Sally had witnessed violence in her household.  Her father regularly hit her mother.  Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too.  It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it.  In fact, she was filled with primal feelings.  She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up.  It was a confusing sin for the daughter.  Sally’s father had gone out with other women.  He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted.  For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery.  When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence.  As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp.  It was a confusing and enraging childhood.  Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.

But now, with this child, it was all over.  The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.

I wasn’t going to go through any of that.  And I didn’t.

Sally Groves with her new babyMy parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives.  Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was an eye-opening trip.  I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color.  And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.

Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl.  “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”

My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt.  They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.

After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado.  When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters.  Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name.  But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too.  Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.

In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them.  They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her.  Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.”  To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists.  (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)


Many years passed.  In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country.  Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been.  The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into.  A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black.  The n word became forbidden.  Laws changed.  Blacks moved into white neighborhoods.  In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down.  Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others.  And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.

It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood.  A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives.  It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact.  He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him.  It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.

Dora Groves obit date

Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood.  But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23.  That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it.  But she was adamant.

“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said.  “It was Grandma Dora.  She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”

I showed her the obituary again.  She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it.  Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.

You Didn’t Hear Anything

Writing a novel is truly a journey of discovery.  And in the writing of my most recent novel, I came to realize that I had something to say about the entire espionage apparatus in this country that I hadn’t heard talked about before.  I wrote it, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again about 80 times.  I vacillated between obscurity and obviousness, iconography and narrative, Carl Jung’s symbols and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

Cover What Happens 1d

In the story, Cat and Dante are hiding from a man who works in government surveillance who is trying to kill her.  They have gone off the grid and taken up residence in the tunnels beneath an upstate New York university.


Chapter 18

After a bad night’s sleep, Cat went to bed the next evening at 11.  A couple hours later, Cat felt Dante squeeze her foot three times to wake her up, as he sometimes did when she had something scheduled.  When she turned her head and looked, no one was there.

Above ground, all was quiet.  One campus policeman was watching television 1,000 yards away while another slept two rooms away in a lounge.  Finally, Cat took a walk through the tunnels to clear her head.  During the day, there were always little noises—clicks inside electrical boxes, the rush of water through pipes—but at night, it all went quiet.  Cat made herself a cup of chamomile, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and walked blindly through the tunnels.  Holding her cup of tea, she savored the timeless quality of the night, thinking about nothing in particular except perhaps the hopeless pursuit of sleep, when she turned a corner that she had turned a thousand times before.  She stopped short and dropped her cup; it shattered on the concrete walkway.

Sitting next to the opening in the ancient brick wall was now a red chair.  It had never been there before.  After the cup shattered on the concrete, she realized that there was a small possibility that Dante had put it there, but somehow, she sensed that he hadn’t, and in fact, when she asked him the next morning, he said he had spent the night at his microbiologist girlfriend’s place.  It changed everything in the tunnel.  Cautiously, she approached it with little steps, glancing around to see if she was being watched.  Finally, she reached it and placed a hand on it.  It was a wooden straight-backed chair that looked like it had been painted over several times, the final red coat popping red in a way that made it seem like a dream chair.

Suddenly, Cat heard a quiet noise inside the brick enclosure, a place that should not be emitting any noise at all, and smelled a familiar odor.  It was a living odor, though, not something that was long dead.  Cautiously, she stepped up on the chair and reached herself up to peer inside.  She could see only shadows, and at first, nothing was moving.  There seemed to be places in the dark where someone could stand, although the rest of it was piled high with skulls and skeletal remains.  Then suddenly she saw movement.  The idea that someone might be inside there was inconceivable.

“Hello?” she said.

Suddenly, Cat heard a frightening noise in the other direction, like something tall and heavy falling to the ground, and yanked her head around in alarm.  She didn’t say anything, and something came into her head but it was a thought, nothing more: What’s that?

“It’s nothing.”

The sound of his voice shook her deeply and she nearly fell off the chair.  Cat hadn’t heard that voice since he had passed away eleven years earlier.

“What are you….?”

“You didn’t hear anything.”

“I did hear it.”

“You’re always making things up.”

Normally, Cat would be fleeing, but there was something impossible about it all that made her screw up her courage and tell herself that it wasn’t happening, that perhaps the conversation existed only inside her head, although she couldn’t for the life of her see how.  She knew she was awake.  She knew there was no one in the tomb.  Perhaps it was a trick, like hanging a spoon on your nose.  She heard the noise behind her again.

“Why are you running?” he said.  “If you’re running, you must be guilty.”

“My God, I don’t have a life anymore.  I have someone else’s.  Some girl who looks like me and talks like me but isn’t me.”

“You should have had my father.  He hit my cat in the head with a rake.  It crawled under the house and wailed all night till it died.  Would you rather I had done that to your cat?”

“God I feel like that cat.”

“Oh stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You’re not that important.”

There was a slight rattling of bones and skulls and she saw the silhouette moving to the right, the glow of a cigarette moving with it, and so realized that familiar smell, for in her mind, the smell of burning tobacco had always been inextricably tied to the idea of father.  In life, her father had had bags under his eyes, but they had derived more from overwork and smoking and bad thoughts than from genuine aging.  He was disappointed at what he hadn’t accomplished in his life but had buried the disappointment in the backyard.  It had taken a huge amount of digging.  His harangues often boiled down to digging.  He had beefs.  He had blamed immigrants and welfare mothers.  That was also digging.  He had lived with his wife in a vodka bottle.  That was some serious digging.  Everyone was his enemy.

“All I want is not to be chased anymore.”

The falling sound echoed again.  She turned around, trying to locate where the sound was coming from.  Was it above ground?  Was it part of the machinery in the physical plant?  Was it in her head?  She turned and faced him.

“Tell me what it is.”

“You don’t know?”


He turned in profile, the bones clacking again, and she could feel his intensity like a plate that was too hot to touch.  A stepdaughter is like a gift that a stray dog leaves on your lawn.  She didn’t hear those words, exactly, but that was the feeling.

“It’s the sound of your body hitting the asphalt, dear, when that man who borrowed my gun shoots you dead.”

She was a patsy.  She dropped the rifle.  It wasn’t hers.  There was a man with a rifle on the grassy knoll, but that would be dismissed as mere conspiracy.  Nobody would ever know the truth.

To download a copy of What Happens to Us for only $3.99, click here:

Cover What Happens 1a smaller

Hitting My Father in the Arm

When I was six, my father would flex his upper arm and ask me to punch it.  I punched.  It made a pleasing smacking noise.

“Harder,” he would say.

So I would punch harder.

Harder,” he would say.

And I would hit him with all my might.  It didn’t faze him.  He was my big, strong father.  At that time, I didn’t know that he had been brought up by a mother who was mentally ill, and had an innate inability to display affection.  I cringe, thinking about the chaos he grew up in.  Hitting each other in the arms was what we did to feel close.

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father was a mesomorph, although his smoking tended to change that over the years.  They were a family habit.  My mother, who was a skinny young woman, smoked throughout her pregnancy.  The doctors recommended it for calming nerves.

When I was five, I liked the odor of tobacco.  I had grown up with it.  It was inextricably intermingled with the idea of father.  But my parents knew it was bad for them, so they promised me a prize of $1,000 if I made it to age 18 and didn’t smoke.  He was still a mesomorph and I still hit him in the arm.  I took half a puff on a stolen cig at age 13.  I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to look cool.  But there was always an impenetrable barrier between me and cool, so I never continued.  At 18, I put the $1,000 in the bank.

When I went off to college and mingled with people of other cultures, I learned to hug people upon greeting them.  Sometimes I even did something unthinkable: Kiss them on the cheek.  I started doing that to Dad, and it threw him for a loop.

“When David hugs me,” he once told my mother in private, “I don’t know what to do.”

“Hug him back,” she said.

But something within him made him unable to return the hug.  I just kept doing it, though.  Hugs never hurt nobody.  I figured I was converting him to a new way of being in the world.  After a while, he came to expect it, although he never got really comfortable with it.

Later, I learned that he had served in the bloodiest battle of the Korean War, Chosin Reservoir, and had seen hundreds of his buddies slaughtered.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking.  His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking. His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

“I learned pretty quickly,” he told my mother when they first got married, “that you don’t make close friends, because as soon as you make a friend, he gets shot dead.”

Maybe that’s what taught him not to hug people, the way he’s doing in the photograph above.

At 29, I would come home occasionally to visit my parents.  I was a freelance journalist writing for the likes of American Health, Psychology Today, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like.  Good health was my beat, and I followed all the best health advice.  I was so healthy that my sweat smelled like lilacs marinated in noni juice.

One day, I visited my parents and saw my Dad sitting on the carpeted stairs with his shirt off.  The sight shocked me.  That wasn’t my father, not the athletic, muscular hero I used to punch in the arm when I was 11.

“Dad, you’ve lost a lot of weight,” I said, trying to quell my rising alarm.  “You need to see a doctor.”

His smile suddenly left his face.

“I can take care of it myself.”

“Dad, it’s not normal to lose so much weight.  There’s something wrong with you.”

And with that, he got up and walked into his room and closed the door.

I talked with my mother and sister, and we all agreed that he should see a doctor.  He had smoked for over 40 years, after all.  So my mother promised to “work on him.”

“Leave it to me,” she said.

For four years, my father ignored our impassioned pleas to see a doctor.  When we got onto the subject, he would walk out of the room.  He would snap at us.  He would lock himself in his bedroom.

“I’m taking care of my own health,” he once angrily told us.  “I’m listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio.”

My father approximately age 58

My father at age 58

But I didn’t dare hit my father in the arm anymore.  I tried once and he cried out, not playfully, but in real pain.


He had become too frail.

Then one day, he was dead.  In the months that followed, I would suddenly cry at odd moments.  In line at the grocery store.  Dead at 59.  While driving, hearing a lyric on the radio.  When you comin’ home dad?/I don’t know when,/But we’ll get together then, son/You know we’ll have a good time then.

“I tried to quit 150,000 times,” he told me on his deathbed.

A few days later, I saw my father walking from the bathroom to the bed, and his paper robe was open in the back.  I was shocked.  There were no traces of the mesomorph left, nor of basic health.  Smoking had withered him down to something I may have seen in news reports about famine.

One image of my father remains from my early childhood, and I’m not sure why.  I was four years old.  We were in the front yard.  I was convinced that I had figured out the secret to running fast: All you have to do is move your legs faster than the other boy.  Armed with this brilliant insight, I challenged my father to a race.  To my astonishment, he creamed me.  In my mind’s eye, I see myself running fast, moving my legs like a cartoon.  They all told me that young people were our future; that meant me.  I was growing stronger every day, and very soon, I would overtake the older generation, I would be dominant, I would be strong.  But on that day in my youth, my father was the strong one.  Muscular, handsome, swift of foot.  I lost that race and he was a god.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

Thank God No Sonuvabitch Lives Forever

Since my father never talked about his service in the Korean War, I went on a research binge a couple years ago to figure out what he went through.  I devoured seven books on the subject.  I tried to be there with him.

To my astonishment, I discovered that Dad fought in the bloodiest battle of the war, The Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which nearly 6,000 soldiers were killed and nearly 12,000 wounded in only two weeks.  Compare that to the 6,300 American dead from the eight years of the Iraq War.

Family 260I can’t tell you exactly why, but discovering what Dad went through was like unearthing my own hidden roots.  I wanted to know if he was in the thick of battle or protected from it.  I wanted to know how he was formed by the experience.  I wanted to know what he knew about courage.  I wanted to know if courage is a sham.  I wanted to know how he behaved when he was at the end of his tether.  I wanted to know what he cried about.

I didn’t get all of my answers, but in the end, the story of one Marine who made it into the history books summed it up for me.  It was the story of Lieutenant John Yancey, who was in the 5th Marines, same as my Dad.  (His story is told in Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.)

In November, 1950, the Marines were marching into North Korea towards the Yalu River, which for centuries has separated Korea from China.  Mao Zedong (nee tse Tong), who in 1949 led a successful communist revolution in China, had vowed to join the North Korean forces against the U.S. if MacArthur approached the Yalu.  But MacArthur considered the Chinese an inferior force–“a bunch of laundrymen,” as he put it–so he pushed forward, anyway.  He wanted to reunite the two Koreas that he been split five years earlier.

As a result of MacArthur’s thrust, Mao drafted millions of Chinese soldiers at gunpoint and sent them on a suicide mission into North Korea.  They were inadequately armed, fed, and clothed.  The weather ranged from -40 to -20 degrees F.  Eventually, over a million Chinese died in this suicide mission.  They wore white jackets and pants, and whenever a U.S. reconnaissance plane flew overhead, they all dove face-down into the snow and blended in.  MacArthur’s Army and Marines met at the Chosin Reservoir.  By November 27, the fight was starting to get hairy.

“A shot rang out at long range and the spent bullet grazed Yancey’s right cheek and lodged in his nose.  Calmly he removed one glove and plucked it out,” wrote Martin Russ in Breakout.

Yancey: ‘Blood was oozing down my cheek into my mouth, but then it froze up.  I didn’t say anything about this to anyone.’”

After thinking about this for a long time, I can’t figure out how someone can get shot in the nose and just pluck the bullet out.  The fact that it was a “spent bullet” (one that is going at a velocity that doesn’t do much damage) apparently had something to do with it, but the idea seems weird on the face of it.  Obviously, though, it happened.

The fighting was so intense that some men broke.

“To Marine officers in command posts among the positions at Yudam-ni, it seemed that every unit in the two regiments was reporting itself under attack that night….[The 3/5th’s company commander] ‘froze’ in his position, and his men could not be moved until another officer was hastily dispatched to take his place.  All through the hours of darkness the Chinese hurled themselves again and again upon the company positions of the two Marine regiments.  It is a remarkable tribute to the quality of units reconstituted only three months earlier, heavily manned by reservists, that they mounted so dogged a defense under the most appalling conditions.  Almost every man who returned from the hills above the Chosin Reservoir brought with him an epic story of close-quarter combat amid the flares, mortaring, grenade and small-arms duels.”

Certainly Dad must have brought back some of those stories, as well.  But we will never know them.  We will only get a taste of them by reading of other soldiers’ stories.

Easy Company of the 5th Marines was parked on Hill 1282.  They’d been idle for a couple of hours when they began hearing odd noises down at the bottom of the slope, “like hundreds of feet walking slowly across a big carpet of cornflakes.”  They tried to shoot up some illumination rounds, but the cold weather slowed their burn rate, and they hit the ground before they flashed.  Suddenly, the company heard an Asian voice shouting shrilly in awkward English.

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Lieutenant John Yancey had a violent reaction to those words.

“I decided he must have learned his English at a Christian missionary school.  The son of a bitch had been fed and sheltered and given a good education by Americans—and here he was leading Red troops against us.  That annoyed me.”

Finally, they got up an illumination round.

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Wrote Russ: “Yancey spotted the officer in front of the first rank of troops, holding a machine-pistol in one hand.  The Marines were shocked to see several ranks of Chinese arrayed behind him, spaced ten or fifteen yards apart, the whole formation ascending the slope.  The battle of 1282 began in earnest….”

“Thank God nobody lives forever!”

Lieutenant Yancey yelled back: “You’re damn right nobody lives forever, you renegade bastard!”

With that, Yancey shot the lead Chinese officer with a burst from his carbine.  The enemy soldier hit the ground, but other soldiers continued to ascend, wailing another chant in a minor key:

“Son of a bitch Marine we kill.  Son of a bitch Marine you die.”

Soon, Lieutenant Yancey was moving from foxhole to foxhole, passing out ammunition, when an explosion blew him off his feet.  When he regained his bearings, he realized that he had sustained a strange injury: a piece of shrapnel had pierced the roof of his mouth.

“After that, blood kept trickling down my throat and I kept spitting it out,” he said.

Grenades were coming into the 5th’s lines so heavily that “they looked like flights of blackbirds,” according to Yancey.  At one point, a Chinese grenade landed in the snow beside Staff Sergeant Robert Kennemore.

“Kennemore scooped it up and sidearmed it down the slope before it exploded.  Another landed nearby and there was only time for Kennemore to put his foot on it, driving it into the snow, as a third grenade landed beside it.  Kennemore, willing to die to save his fellow Marines, dropped his knee on it and absorbed the force of both explosions.  The three crewmen were temporarily deafened but otherwise unhurt.”

Miraculously, Kennemore survived both blasts but lost both his legs.  They whisked him off the medic’s tent and shot him up with morphine.  At one point, Kennemore awoke and asked with concern if his genitals had survived.

“What the hell,” the doctor said, “you wouldn’t worry about half a tank of gas, would you?”  Kennemore eventually fathered seven children.

Out on the battlefield, Yancey was continuing the fight when something strange happened to him.

Author Martin Russ: “A Chinese soldier about twenty yards away fired a burst in Yancey’s direction, and one of the rounds hit him under the right eye, jarring the eyeball loose from its socket and knocking him over.  With his left eye Yancey saw the soldier crouch down and jam another magazine into his weapon.  Yancey groped around for the carbine and, not finding it, took the .45 from under his armpit and pumped two rounds into the soldier.  Then, as carefully as he could, Yancey removed his gloves and pushed the eye back where it belonged.  ‘It was like pushing a hard-boiled egg into a knothole, but it went in and stayed there.’”

Despite the three exotic injuries, Yancey continued to fight.

When the moon went down behind the mountain, Yancey had a reaction to the sudden darkness: he thought he saw ‘all sorts of boogeymen.’  The Chinese corpses down below came to life: wriggling, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, getting to their feet—turning into nightmare monsters,” writes Russ.

At a certain point, Yancey dislocated his jaw, as well, although he was never sure how it happened.  To hold it together, he tore off a strip of blanket and bound it up, then continued fighting.

Finally, Yancey spotted Captain Jones.  He walked up to him.  It was his duty, he thought, to give him a briefing on the status of Hill 1282.

“[Yancey’s] face was covered with crusted blood, one eye was closed, and he was groggy from all the concussion grenades.  Captain Jones took one look and told him to join the walking wounded being escorted down the hill,” wrote Russ.

When Yancey reached the aid station, they noticed the bleeding from the roof of his mouth.  They had to keep him upright so that he wouldn’t choke on his own blood, so they tied him to a tent pole and took care of the other soldiers first.

Many old soldiers now consider Lieutenant Yancey to be a hero.

“None of us would have survived the night if Yancey hadn’t been there,” said Corpsman Claypool.  “No one else could have bullied his troops into standing and facing almost certain death the way he did.  Sometimes I wonder if maybe Yancey singlehandedly saved the Marines at Yudam-ni, not just the Marines on 1282, because if the Chinese had taken 1282, they would have poured through the breach and overrun the 5th and 7th Marines command posts.  All I know for sure is that the Chinese would have overrun 1282 if Yancey hadn’t been there.”

My father was in the midst of that chaos.

For a long time now, I have pondered the events of November 27.  I wonder if he knew Yancey, Kennemore, or Claypool, who were all in his same regiment of up to 4,500 soldiers.  I think of what he might have seen, and marveled at how seeing things can scar you.  Feeling things can scar you, tie you up in Gordian knots, rip off your skin.  Dying can scar you.  Not dying can, too.

When I was growing up, I didn’t think of Dad as scarred.  But knowing that he was helps explain much about the stoic relationship that he maintained towards the family.  My father was an exceedingly decent man.  He was without guile, and to this day, I am drawn inexorably to the guileless like a moth to the darkness.  He didn’t plot or manipulate, the way my mother sometimes did.

I remember Dad coaching my Little League baseball team, dressed in his black baseball cap with a B on the front.  I was proud of him.  I remember playing catch with him in the backyard, using the same muscles that had thrown grenades.  I remember us all watching “Star Trek” in the living room and him raising his eyebrow like Mr. Spock.  He was sitting on his easy chair in the same way that he had sat on the frozen Chosin ground on November 27, 1950.

At family parties, Dad would stand apart from us all.  He would lean on his elbows on a railing, sitting outside of the group, watching it all but not letting himself be drawn in.  He loved us, I know, but I also know that he didn’t want to love us too much.  He loved his buddies dearly, too, and he learned all too quickly what happened when you felt too strongly about people.

For other posts about the Korean War, click here: