There was a comedy team fifty years ago which put out an album entitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Have you ever had such a moment (or moments) in your life wherein that seemed to be the case? Perhaps everything you knew wasn’t wrong, but you had your eyes/mind opened to the fact that you were completely wrong about something or someone.
For me, such a revelation came the night before my brother’s wedding in 1976. I was sitting up late with my uncle Paul–my father’s youngest brother–and we were getting sloshed on gin and tonic. Paul mentioned something positive (now long forgotten) about my father’s sensitivity and I responded sardonically with something like: “You are talking about JC Lawson, my father and your brother, aren’t you?” Paul was not amused and gave me the ‘Lawson look’ before he spoke. I have never forgotten his words: “Your father is the most sensitive man I have ever known.” As the saying goes: “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
Bit o’ background. The photo above is of my father on Okinawa in 1945. He was in VMO-7, attached to the 3rd Marine Amphibious Artillery. His group flew artillery spotting, aerial photo reconnaisance and perhaps most importantly–because of the capacity of their aircraft to take off and land in 100 metres–they evacuated badly wounded Marines. Paul, on the other hand, was too young for the war, was sophisticated, lived in Washington, DC and was gay. All I knew of my father was post-war; but Paul remembered his very sensitive older brother before he went to war. I knew my father as a tough-guy Marine, heavy smoker and drinker, with an explosive temper. That temper was the only ‘sensitive’ part of my father to which I had been exposed. One could never be sure what would set off my father’s anger. (I didn’t realize I tiptoed whenever I was indoors until I was 27.)
Paul was talented, an amateur actor with a fine singing voice, knew fascinating people and threw great dinner parties. I loved going up to DC to stay with him. So you can imagine my reaction when he described my father as the most sensitive man he had ever known. In truth, it wasn’t a case of everything I knew about my dad was wrong; I just didn’t know enough. I had pigeon-holed him. Having never been to war, suffered kamikaze attacks or evacuated the bloodied, broken bodies of my fellow Marines, I couldn’t know firsthand what happens to a very sensitive young man in a savage war.
Thus began a journey of father-discovery, as well as self-discovery in psychotherapy. I was a prison chaplain at the time and worked with a lot of Vietnam vets. It became clear to me that pain, suffering and grief–if not dealt with openly and honestly at the right time, come out as anger or violence at the wrong or inappropriate time. We can train our military to fight and kill, but we can never train them not to feel anything when they see their comrades die or they take the lives of others. Those emotions go deep inside, but they will eventually come out. We now know it as PTSD.
It was three years after my conversation with Paul that my father and I finally ‘met.’ I had decided to visit my parents and spend some time with dad. We went out for a few beers, but when we arrived back at my parents’ house, dad made no move to get out of the car. I remember the emotions more than what was said that night. As we opened up with each other, all the sensivity that my father had suppressed–since the war and since becoming a father–came out in a flood of tears. I was almost in shock as I held dad in my arms while he wept on my shoulder. I learned that his fear of showing his emotions appropriately had been rooted in the fear of not being able to ‘control himself’ once they started to come out. I don’t know how long we stayed in the car; but it was long enough to alter my perception of my father forever. Dad died 36 years ago. The last time I saw my uncle Paul, I thanked him once more for giving me the chance to alter my perception and come to know my father.