My father was honorably discharged from the Navy on September 27, 1945.
The next document, in my possession, that bears his name is my birth certificate. It states that he is, indeed, my father and lists his occupation as “Veteran’s Hospital.” So far, I have been unable to determine what this designation means. Was he hospitalized at the time of my birth? Was he in a “day program” if such things then existed? Was he employed at the Veteran’s Hospital in Providence? There are no family stories that hint at an answer. Cards and notes congratulating my parents on my birth were saved. They were mailed to my grandparent’s home which is listed as their residence on my birth certificate as well. Then only silence.
My first memory of a hospitalization comes from September, 1952. He was not available to take me to my first day of First Grade, although he had taken me to my first day of Kindergarten at Brightridge School. During the summer of 1952, we went to see my new school, Bay View Academy. We looked in the windows and I marveled at the life-size stone statues of guardian angels that flanked the lobby. But he was absent on my first day of attendance. I remember climbing the front stairs with my mother. I remember the first friend I made, a little girl with curly hair, a large pink bow, and a mustard-color sweater. She said to me “My name is Kathy. Will you be my friend?” I took the school bus home to Ide Avenue in the afternoon. My grandfather met the bus.
Since my mother did not drive, my father was the ordinary escort on occasions big and small. That summer, prior to first grade, he had taken me to the beach at Narragansett. But he is not present in the photographs of my sixth birthday on August 11. Rather, his aunts, Kate and Mary, presided over the party at my house. There is no sign of my mother either. Were they at work? Doubtful. Why were the “Barry” aunts in the picture at all? We were much closer to my mother’s family. Where were my parents?
The next memory comes from later that fall. I was roller-skating in front of my grandparents’ home. Unexpectedly, I saw our blue and white Chevy drive up the street and stop. My father got out. With a rush of surprise, I remember running to him and being picked up in his arms. Attached to this happy memory is a much darker memory of an early evening at our Mountain Ave. house. We are sitting at the kitchen table. I am prattling on about things that had happened while he was gone. I recounted how my mother had heard noises in the basement one night and had been very afraid that burglars had broken in, so afraid that she woke me up and together we locked the basement door and sat in the darkened house. The effect of my revelation was stunning. My mother shouted at me to stop talking. My father became very upset and they had an argument. Later that night I climbed up on the chair where my father was reading the newspaper. I asked him “why his voice was so different now?” This innocent remark, at least in my memory, led to another outburst and more arguing between my parents.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving. It is dark outside. My parents are in the dining room talking in hushed tones with my uncle. My father begins to cry and pleads with my uncle “Ed, have a heart! Elizabeth,let me stay home for the weekend, with the television and my baby.” I saw and heard this conversation. Instinctively, I hid in the kitchen, clutching a box of crayons. Soon after, I remember being dropped off at my aunt’s house while my uncle and my parents went away in a car. Later I was told that my father needed to go to the hospital. With the exception of the telephone call that I reported earlier in this blog, I had no contact with my father ever again.
I have been researching the evolution of the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The condition was officially named and described in the Third Edition of the DSM in 1980. Acceptance by the U.S. military and the Veteran’s Administration followed, a development hastened by the influx of Vietnam veterans into treatment. Between 1964 and 1973, 700,000 veterans required treatment for delayed effects of combat exposure.
However, during WWII, “neuropsychiatric cases” or “nps” were variously referred to as “combat fatigue”. . .”exhaustion”. . .”war neurosis” . . .and “transient personality reactions to acute or special stress.” Post traumatic symptoms were initially reported in 1945. VA hospitals began to set up mental health clinics in the late 1940’s. Nevertheless, uninformed and often negative attitudes toward psychiatry in the general population prevented men and woman from seeking treatment. In a 1988 study of WWII combat survivors, 82% still experienced intrusive memories; 73% attempted avoidance of thoughts or feelings; 71% reported a foreshortened sense of the future; 40% reported survivor guilt.
The answer that I heard as I moved from childhood through adolescence was simply that “your father changed during the war.” No one in our large extended family ever offered more and I never asked. In 2004 I was told that he had become paranoid and abusive, on one occasion, threatening my mother with a knife. My “informant” said she didn’t remember anything about his surgery. What she remembered was that he was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and my mother had asked the family never to tell me. She attributed his condition to an experience on board ship when he was locked into a compartment during an enemy attack.
My next entry will consider descriptions of duty aboard a minesweeper in battle.