Wednesday, May 12, 2004
My birth name: Stephen (for maternal grandfather) Gerald (for my dad) Johnston
by Steve Johnston and read in class 5/12/04
“Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?” was a question I asked countless times beginning in my teen years. The first time that I can remember it happening was the summer I was 15 -- 1957.
I was totally unaware of four members of my extended family until one summer day in my 16th year. This occurred when Patricia, my half-sister, and my nephews, Dan and Michael, plus Pat’s husband Tom paid a visit to our home in Plymouth MI.
“Dad, why did let me believe I was your first-born when Pat had been born 13 years earlier?” The answer was anything but satisfying, to my view. He had had a family before ours. Back in the mid-20s he was doing well financially, so it was a natural thing that he would give up his bachelorhood at 26. Dad’s second family came into being when my mother and father married following his divorce, in 1940.
When did my idol begin lying? There’s no one alive to tell. I’m reasonably confident that he was born on June 14, 1901 in Shelby County OH. Sarah, his mother, would have been 18. Dad was raised in poverty; in his youth the safety net consisted of an orphanage where he spent a short period of time. (His mother was alive and well, yet unable to care for him.)To begin his life anew, on the day he turned 16 he enlisted in the US Navy amid WW1. (I have it documented in his military record of 34 years that he was born in 1900, a lie he concocted and the recruiting officer chose to overlook.)
During his18th year he was aboard a US warship in French waters. One of the ship’s lookouts spotted a floating mine dangerously close. Without directive Seaman Johnston jumped into the waters and pushed the deadly ordnance a safe distance away. (It was subsequently detonated by rifle fire.) And the telling outcome, a factor in all his later years, is that he was awarded the French Coeur d’Guerre (a high medal of honor and bravery) when only 17. He was an instant hero.
In his mind he must have peaked at that moment, leading him (I have no doubt) on a fateful odyssey through a second world war to achieve such heady distinction once more. I blame that event for precipitating the two lives he led thereafter.
Two versions of a much later war story emerged ages apart. I remember how Dad pointed to his leg and showed me the small dark shape in his flesh. He explained that he had suffered a shrapnel wound during WW2 when his B-17 out of Guam was set upon by Japanese Zeroes; and how he managed to shoot down two of the enemy from his belly gunner position.
Mom’s story differed in all the critical details, but she waited until after his death in 1978 to say otherwise: ‘Your father was in public relations for the Army, and at times he traveled into war zones.’ (He was to receive a chain of promotions ending in his Colonelcy.) ‘Accordingly, he had an assignment which took him to Guam. However, he saw no combat and had no war wounds which might have merited a Purple Heart. Besides, they had younger men to fly those planes -- no one your father’s age.’ His military records seem to bear Mom out.
Until I came to questioning his truthfulness, I had always thought of him as an honorable man, a war hero, a self-sacrificing patriot...and an enviable role model. For a time I lost track of those too-rare attributes and focused on my father, the inflated ex-Air Force officer.
How easily I lapsed into reviewing past explanations he had been called upon to tell. A capable, dramatic storyteller, he had a heartrending tale of how my pet cocker spaniel Star had died: Star was getting on in age at the same time my hormones were drawing me to girls and away from my faithful companion of my youth. He was plainly ill at the time Mom took me from our small town in Missouri to Chicago. Oh, the travel by Streamliner and taxicabs; the skyscrapers, the Hayes Planetarium, plus other wondrous sights.
Once home the joyful feelings I had were forgotten the moment Dad told me Star had died. He asserted that he had taken the car into Kirksville on an errand; and when he re-entered our street, he could see Star lying watchfully in the middle of the dirt road. Dad took Star in his arms before he died. As customary, Dad buried him on the property, then marked the grave with a piece of concrete. My preferred scenario, decades hence, was simply that I was sent away after which Dad took Star in his final illness to the vet and had him mercifully put to sleep.
I greatly wish that Dad had not recoiled from my delicate questioning of his version. I don’t believe he saw himself as ever having lied. Wasn’t that denial?
I ceased asking that question of Why? sometime in my daughter’s final years in school. I can now say that the issue is moot. Dad overcame tremendous difficulties early in life. He was largely self-educated. He was clearly interested in the education and well-being of my two kid brothers and me. He was a faithful husband and a good provider, this in spite of having failed twice as a business-owner.
Years before marrying my mother Dad had been a successful pulp-fiction writer. Some of his 400 published Western and mystery short stories continue to show up on eBay, traded among collectors of pulp fiction magazines of the period 1924-1934. Collectors’ copies of Stampede Range, his 1931 full-length novel, can be found on www.alibris.com.
Dad was a Chessmaster, once playing 31 simultaneous games of chess, winning 29 with one draw. (Aside: I ended competitive efforts at chess after becoming the chess champion of my chess club when a senior in high school; that was one of the few times I tried emulating one of my father’s skills.) As to his having been a fiction writer, a weekly newspaper owner-editor and news photographer, a public relations pro, and a frequent correspondent with me, I avoided more than occasional displays of my own such skills. As to his illustrious military career, I turned to the streets as an anti-Vietnam War protester.
Now, from the vantage point of age I permit myself to tell this truth: as happens, the father has outshown the son rather than the reverse. So I salute my father, J.R. Johnston, whom I further honored during his centenary three years ago. I now recognize him as a human being who has completed the Circle of Life, who has gone where I have not yet gone.
On those occasions when I think about it, I most certainly don’t want my daughter asking, after I am gone, “Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?”