Is James Herndon my father?
This story has it’s roots in post war Germany 10 years after the war to end all wars. My mother was a student at Heidelberg, my adaptive father was an Army translator, and my biological father a (as told to me by my mother) was the author, James Herndon.
What makes this complicated is that I have never met him, spoke on the phone once with him where he acknowledged that fact, have tried to meet his ex-wife Fran Herndon, and have two half brothers that don’t believe my story.
I would have a hard time believing the story if I hadn’t called his home in San Francisco and listened to his halting, nervous voice once he recognized my mother’s unforgettable name, Ingeborg Hinderschiedt, and realized I wasn’t just a fan.
That phone call happened in 1976. He has died since, and I never got the chance to meet him.
The following is the beginning of this tale…
Right before High School:
My mother came home from a cocktail party – buzzed yeah, a little plowed under.
I was 14, pretty much a colt, so it was a beginning of a story here. Not a moment of clarity or otherwise, no song to refer to. There isn’t a single thing that you see in the movies traditionally that sets you up for the conversation we had. I don’t think it was the buzz- maybe the moment or the need to man-up. I don’t know what she was thinking to be honest. And honesty wasn’t really part of the mix here, it just came up as a simple statement, perhaps a catharsis on her part…
“What would you say if I told you that ‘Daddy’ wasn’t really your Daddy”.
I know there should be a question mark after the last sentence, but it was so unreal to me at the time, grammar became as absent a consideration at that moment as the last 14 years of my home life that had just now simply slipped away.
So in that sinfully unaltered moment of un-earth shattering delivery, my life was inexorably altered. The planet moved not. The market didn’t crash. What was left was me standing there, a juvenile hulking frame- taking it in.
It was a large statement. Maybe a little consideration should have been put into the mix, and that particular message not so casually disseminated after an afternoon of drinking.
It altered everything for me. It called back to my first impression that was now to be forever burned into my mind- of my father Max. Yeah, that moment of a 6 year old boy just delivered from a foreign country (Germany), having flown a 12 hour transatlantic plane flight midwinter in December, to arrive at Chicago O’Hare airport, disembarked and following my mothers pointing arm to the man suggested as my father.
The man who’s namesake I carry, ultimately the name of the man that my daughter and wife carry as their last names. And he held a teddy-bear from the second tier of O’Hare. My first instinct was surprise, when viewing him. He didn’t look like who he should be based on my child eyes. It was brief, but never forgotten. An instance of childhood surprise and perhaps more so- intuition from the soul.
And then became the responsibility. I heard the words, “Daddy isn’t really your Daddy”, some other skinny guy- not a professor at Purdue, but a guy who wrote novels was “That Guy” my father. His name: James Herndon.
A litany of books were written and subsequently read: “The Way It’s Spozed to Be”, How to Survive in Your Native Land”… I read all of them.
And then you make a decision- I think any child does that in terms of who he will in his heart of hearts- consider his father. It was done immediately. There was no option. As swift as an arrow- my choice was never a choice. Circumstance overrules blood.
There is no recipe for how to absorb that. In a seconds notice, so many thoughts go through your mind. A moment before, life was what it was- transient yet secure. 14 years or so of whatever- whatever happens with your parents, but they were still your parents. And now it became an afterthought of an alcohol mediated “fess up” ?
All of a sudden I had lost my father, and at the same time had to prepare myself for having a conversation with the man that I thought was my father for the last 14 years, and protect him as well as myself from the fact that “it really didn’t matter” but it really did- especially because it had been a lie for a long time. Totally lost on that one. I was totally lost on that one.
If there was ever such a thing as a “Year of Living Dangerously”, that would be me, in my Freshman year of high school.
It had a cruel and unusual ferment to it, as during the summer, a Senior in the same school had made it pretty clear that my soul was to be harnessed to all sorts of hounds from hell prickling on the horizon for the upcoming semester due to unsavory comments I had laid to the pipe earlier that summer back when I was young and stupid.
A rational man would have fear, but me- I was petrified. He was as big as big gets by size and reputation. That deer in the headlights look, well that was me all summer. Just waiting for the beat down.
So it all began with an August summer trip up north. Although my epitaph had been written a little bit earlier, my emancipation from that total and utter fear was to rest pretty, in a small cabin, unreachable by any soul on earth except by boat, and the global positioning expertise of the navigator of said vessel.
However, my feelings of dread consumed me at every stop sign as we traveled northward.
And of this northerly journey what is to be said? Well putting aside an insane rendition (in an attempt to bridge the gap from darling nephew to sinful adolescent) of “are we there yet”, I watched the Indiana dunes dissolve to wooded highways, which were buttressed by huge windy trees, and then suddenly abandoned to shrubs as the sands of the northern Michigan shores rose to greet us to the upper peninsula once the formidable Mackinaw suspension bridge was crossed, ushering us to the other side of what had now become the southern lands.
The upper peninsula prepped us for the next half of the journey as we crossed into Canada, and then the land became primeval and majestic. Thin roads, big trees, bigger critters.
So how does that work? Me almost 15, they at 50 something, one a college language professor, the other my science teacher, traveling up north, and all I can concentrate on is my own personal hell? Meanwhile the country side transitioned to the cool wet air and lushness associated with big water and lots of moisture. Macgregor Bay was upon us!
On this path to some sort of emphatic pity party for all that was missed in my world, well it was missed. Gerda Stout was true to her last name, a young German survivor of world war II, my 7th grade science teacher, and harsh assessor of missed educational concepts. There was no way I would share my fear with her although she was closer than family.
The next 2 weeks, well I grew up, but it was a transition waiting to happen as an island on Macgregor Bay, a bay that separates Ontario from Quebec, was to become my proving ground. The land of Vikings, explorers, and soon to be dead fools, is where I was to to be rewritten.
The proof was really established early. I was on an island after all, and at soon-to-be 15, three or four acres of boundary land becomes a sort of dry run to prove your antlers, more so, the rocky shores start to smell like salt for a deer lick, and the water beyond… well that’s just a dream if you have 4 legs, but a forgone conclusion if you are a a budding teenager.
So I swam. Like a fool I swam to neighboring islands, through unknown currents, troughs of icy cold water, but I swam because I was scared, I swam to run, and swam faster to hide from fear. I swam to prove myself, I slipped past the scales and forays of monstrous pike and muskellunge, I swam through danger because I was afraid.
I didn’t swim enough to erase all that, but for the time being, I conquered something. I still don’t know what, but at least everything beyond the particular barriers before me was an anticipation of nature’s rough, and not of fear.
This Canadian water was colder than cold. It stunned you at the knees, embarrassed at the hips, and was utterly your master at the chest. However, my saving grace as always, was a warm and ridiculously strong heart savaging away at whatever remorseless energy was laid to discourage a southern journey to it. And should that falter, well it couldn’t, it just couldn’t.
No fear of a beating fist can match or overcome the calm that becomes a body glove for you as you absorb that first moment of definition.
My first dive, as breathless as it was, was to overwhelm fear. The cold black windy lady was going to have to wait today. The fish were hers but I was not.
And it was cold but my lungs were warm, and I could see underwater because your eyes don’t really care how cold it is down there anyway.
My Uncle, A tug boat, a large wave, a bad angle… and the cold water
That thing where you see the women of Viking villages send off their warriors , reminded me of the very early sunrise morning as Aunt Gerda watched as Uncle Harry and I left the shore of the island, to fish away. Typical confidence. Go out on the boat, hook the fish, expose yourselves to natures whim, and resurface on the beach you left from.
It was the tugboat that changed all that. It passed before us at a distance of 3/4 of a mile, just cruised and tugged as it should.
This morning was charged with a promise and more than a whisper of light, it had the blessing of our matron as well as all the selected visions suggested to ourselves by ourselves, as the moment to strike with that spear of decision was finally at hand. We were going fishing.
However, there was a wave heading in our general direction, that had in it’s own mind a similar point of view. A discussion that would not be mated by indecision.
The tug boat passed from our immediate horizon, it’s wake was undefined and certainly didn’t ring any door bells, but laid out a shadow.
Well that goes down like bricks. Yeah a small darkened shape develops wings and girth, you consider the source and distance, see a crest, recognize that the nose of the canoe is at 45 degrees, see what was once a little ripple, become a darkish green wall shimmering from a taste of foam, and try to casually mention to your uncle that you see IT, and wonder if the angle is bad.
Wave hits, canoe goes up, fails to crest the top, and is overturned. And we are spilled like pancake syrup from a pan. Slathered from the canoe’s edge in an awkward slow motion, slow enough for me to witness the disbelief on my uncle’s face, and then the horror of the incipient freeze, and the guaranteed breathlessness.
Gone was the tackle box, fishing rods, and my Uncle’s glasses. On was the freeze.
Overcome that and live.
Before I hit water, the restlessness in my life came to bear in the rescue that ensued.
It was a process of evaluation. He spilled, I followed and as I swirled down beneath the boat, it was clear that he would be stunned to breathlessness. I had already established for myself that I could swim from island to island, and though the nearest looked far, I was certain that I could land us their, Uncle in tow.
My initial decision was to stay near the capsized canoe, but I was clear in my mind that the attempt to make it to land was only a step away. I had no doubt.
And then a boat came. It saved my Uncle.
The next day was my 15th birthday, and I slipped into that semi adult venue at an abandoned island near ours. It was my first attempt to become fearless, sleeping alone on a seriously northern Canadian island, so close to the shore and the empty hulk of a cabin long ago abandoned by an insane murderous killer yet to be captured. (According to my Uncle).
Took it to myself, my fears, and the Aunt and Uncle by canoeing there solo the night before 15.
Managed to do the entire night with a hunting knife in my hand as I slept on a blowup mattress, went out at dawn the morning of, and caught 53 blue gill / slash / bass.
That afternoon the feast was ready, so many 2-3 pound bluegill, mingled with some pretty large perch all filleted, buttered, and fried up in flour and cornstarch with the trimmin’s. Quite the birthday.