I am in the grey Midwest on Thanksgiving night for a visit to my dodgy father. My mission is to learn about his time in WWII. I want to find something to compensate for his unfatherly behavior. This is the guy who told me I had a cute ass when I was ten. So, an act of heroism might replace some of the disgust and fear I’ve felt toward him all my life. Something redeemable, like a delicious dessert after an inedible meal.
I’m 40 now and a visitor in my father’s home in northwest Indianapolis, near Broad Ripple, an upscale artsy area with ethnic restaurants and candle stores. His one-story house is set on a narrow hill, with a steep driveway. His young wife’s leased Saab gleams in the one-car garage.
The brick house feels cool inside. The fall afternoon sun sheds soft light on the entryway of rust-colored tile. The foyer is arched with high ceilings. They bought this house for its deep backyard as a playground for their three dogs. The ground is fresh around the engraved headstone for Max the Doberman, a bipolar pet with unpinched ears.
We’re in the den, fronted by a sun porch with a large bay window. The football game on TV continues in muted chaos. Dad slinks into the boxy recliner in his beige den. His sweater cuff is stained and his baby finger digs into his ear. The dog, Abby, ate his $900 Miracle Ear; he says he won’t get another one. He cups his ear with a hand when he wants to hear.
In my childhood, he always announced his arrival home by honking the horn. At the sign of the red record light on my tape recorder, he announces: “My name is Arvin K. Rothschild. Jane has asked me to outline my career in the army, particularly my stint overseas in World War II, but first I thought it appropriate for me to introduce this proceeding with songs played by me on my new Baldwin. I hope you like it, Jane!”
As a young girl, I thrilled to his mime of putting a nickel into our piano, hitting the piano with the flat of his hand, and playing the sounds of mechanical nickelodeon music. Now, he starts with a jazzy “Heart and Soul,” moves to “Stardust,” both hands riffing, shoulders hunched, rolls on to “Mack the Knife,” and shouts “Now, get ready,” before launching into “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
The tape recorder functions as a fence. I stay on my side, censoring the discomfort that runs me like a car’s engine. I’m breathing shallowly on his soft brown sofa, trying not to mesh with the dog hair. My feelings are confusing, like a fire in a changing wind. There’s a kind of attraction in the repulsion I am used to with my father.
I entered adolescence through my father’s wolf-whistling, lust-coated, sexually filtered world. As an adolescent and a teenager, I behaved like the sexualized daughter he wanted.
At a party in sixth grade one humid night, I got my first soul kiss from a crew-cut blond named Carl, the popular son of a doctor, who lived in a two-story house at the end of a long, paved driveway on the river. Someone said I looked like a “hot tomato” in my fiery red bathing suit. The swimming pool in the backyard played music underwater and a Cabin Cruiser, the “Stream Dream,” loomed by a wooden dock in the St. Johns River, famous for flowing north like the Nile. Across the river, we could see the lights of the Naval Air Station. It was 1958 and, if the Russians dropped a bomb, we would get it first. Our slippery tongues were like unwieldy vacuum cleaner hoses and we swayed into the barberry shrubs, embossing my legs with hot red lines. I had launched my way to becoming known in the family as the one with all the boyfriends.
When my father’s last song ends on the piano, I don’t applaud. I’m reclaiming my interview as he slips back into his chair smiling like a showman.
“So,” I begin, “Where were you stationed during the war?”
His eyelids squeeze closed as if it were a strain to remember. Thick silver Brylcreem’d waves roll backwards from the top of his head to behind his ears, long enough to touch the crewneck at the back of his ill-fitting cashmere sweater. He appears neckless and looks nothing like the photos I’ve seen of the lithe, green-eyed soldier in his Army service uniform.
Using his best emcee voice, he mentions how he’d been made a sergeant two weeks after being drafted because he was a college graduate. He was first stationed at Camp Blanding, where he’d been recruited into a new unit that trained illiterate inductees. I look him in the eye and am relieved to hear something good.
“I was in Panama from November 1944 until June of 1946. I went to the military police officer candidate school because that was the path into the allied military government in Germany, which is what I wanted. It would give me an opportunity to get even with the Nazis, but the European war was nearly at an end when I was commissioned at Fort Sam Houston. So, I was sent to Panama as a second lieutenant in a military police battalion based in Quarry Heights, which was the Caribbean Defense Command headquarters guarding the Panama Canal zone and the canal locks.”
On the military ship to Panama, he says he played in a poker game that lasted for three days. “There’s a helluva lot of illiteracy in the military,” he told me. “But one guy who couldn’t read or write taught me how to cheat at cards. He was brilliant.” Thinking about my oversized scrapbook at home, with the news articles I’d saved about his arrest for gambling in 1975, I stare at the wide-plank wood floors, wondering if they are antique oak. His whole life he bet on everything: football, horses, lotteries, basketball, even the length of the rabbi’s sermon.
Throughout my college years in the ‘60s, flying home from Vermont to Florida on his dime, Dad made me buy airplane insurance sold in the airport at kiosks. He mailed me $25 to purchase it and list him as the beneficiary. If the plane crashed, he would get a quarter million. Around six times a year for several years, he bought a chance to bank me. As a gambler he didn’t mind the odds.
“Is this how you started as a gambler?”
“In college I gambled a little bit just man to man, maybe on the World Series, something like that. A dollar, two dollars, five dollars would be a big bet. One year, I booked the World Series for my fraternity brothers and the Yankees won four straight games. I cleaned up.” In my childhood home he regularly sat in front of two TVs with a radio nearby and talked to a bookie on the phone while he marked up his yellow legal pads in pencil with plus and minus signs. I always laughed when he used to say, “I hope I break even ‘cause I need the money.”
I never found out why my mother didn’t attend his weeklong trial, but he was acquitted of bookmaking. The last newspaper headline about him in the local paper said “Rothschild Made Bets: That’s All.” At the same time, his name made it to President Nixon’s White House enemies list for his association with a big Democratic supporter, which I found thrilling. Or, maybe his leadership of the community’s Anti-Poverty and Head Start programs had rendered him worthy of the list.
If Dad were a dog, he’d be a Jewish collie. With his long narrow nose and smooth olive-skinned face, he exudes warmth. After the gambling trial he divorced my mother, married Vickie, a woman 33 years on the May side of the marriage, and moved back to Indiana from Florida. He never lost his irreverence and humor. Once when I asked him about his future plans, he said, “I’ll be home sewing name tags in Vickie’s camp clothes.” “We went to school together,” he’d tell anyone, “She was in kindergarten while I was in college.”
“What was it like in Panama City?” I say. “Were you okay being Jewish there?”
“In 1944, the population of Panama City hovered around 600,000. The tropical weather suited me. There was a nice Jewish community of primarily merchants. I was allowed to be at the Union Club, which was a swank elegant club, with Jewish friends of mine in the community. When I got promoted up to battalion adjutant, the major told me I was the only Jew he ever liked.”
Dad’s job ensured that American servicemen—soldiers, sailors and marines—were properly protected when they had liberty in the Republic of Panama. Prostitution was legal and nightlife teemed with what he called Panama’s main commodities—sex and liquor.
Why was it important to protect the American servicemen?
“If a soldier or sailor was drunk the Panamanian police, who were also the Panamanian Army, beat him on the head with a club. If that happened our MP’s put that place off limits.” He insists he never took a bribe to reinstate a nightspot. “One time I was offered three cases of scotch to put a place back on limits, at that time worth more than $1,000, but I never took a bribe.”
He did get into trouble for believing the whole concept of ranking was ridiculous. “I became close friends with most of my guys and I was accused of fraternizing too much with the non-commissioned officers.”
As a child I loved it when he drove through a lingering red light and insisted that it must be stuck. Then I became a rule breaker. On a Girl Scout field trip, I got caught stealing a nickel bottle of green ink. My mother made me tell him what I’d done. He said, “If you’re going to steal something, steal something worthwhile.” I skipped away from the dining room table jubilant with relief. After that, I got caught at everything, from skipping school to being arrested for possession of pot, which was then considered a felony. A guy at a party turned me in. “Don’t you know stool pigeons are police informers who trap people?” Dad said. He paid for the lawyer who got me off with two years’ probation.
Even the military couldn’t prevent his eschewal of boundaries. The location of the canal locks, which Dad deemed “exciting and fun,” extend to each side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “If I wanted to get rid of a certain officer for a day, I’d put him on a ship that he couldn’t get off until it came back into the Port of Colon.”
“Couldn’t you get into trouble for doing that?” And then I ask him about the photo of him with a woman he sent home from Panama, his early womanizing documented in the family album. He and the blonde civilian stand in a speedboat with the sea in the background, an American flag on his right. She is behind him within a whisper of his back. Her smile spreads to the narrow scarf tied behind her left ear.
Who was that woman in the picture?
Though long divorced, he says, “I don’t want your mother to know this.
“Elizabeth could never pronounce my first name, she always called me Rothschild. She was the wife of a sergeant under me, a big fat guy who use to be a deputy sheriff in a small county in Tennessee. He was bigoted and stupid, but he had a pretty young wife. Neither he nor she had ever known a Jew. On the day of this picture, I’d assigned him to a ship going through the Canal and he couldn’t get off that ship for 12 hours until it got back to the Atlantic side of Colon,” he said, laughing. “You want me to level with you, right?”
I press my thumb into my forefinger. My mother’s work as an artist took priority over relationships and home life. But his cheating began so early in the marriage. For years, his infidelities didn’t appear on her radar. On a relentless quest for flattery from women, he barely hid his indiscretions.
He gave me money, the implicit way he commanded loyalty. Once, I had been called home from New York because my mother’s mother was dying. On an outing with Dad, he took me to meet Vickie, his tall thin ash-blonde girlfriend on the side. She looked like a dumb version of Liv Ullman. We had bought cantaloupes that were in the car. Dad offered them to her and she accepted, which made my throat swell into a hot hill of hate. What despair I felt over two lousy cantaloupes.
So, when my grandmother died, I found the old Cadillac Eldorado on the same beach street with weathered wood houses fluted by Sego palms. I saw Dad and Vickie on the second-story deck having a five o’clock drink. I got out of the car but he just sat there. They both wore sunglasses. I yelled across the lawn. “Daddy, come home, Granny died!” I felt like a character in a Tennessee Williams play.
An older model of the Cadillac in her driveway is what he drove when he took me to junior high in the mornings. The dewy bitter grass on the lawn swished my ankles as I’d follow him to the car. The blast of cold air from the defroster made me yelp, “Dad, I’m cold.” Radio news played. He could change the station with his foot by mashing a hidden button on the floor of the car. Once, at a stoplight he turned to me and asked, “Are you a virgin?” I pressed myself against the car door and murmured “yes” to shut him up. Whatever the truth, nothing about me belonged to this man.
With little hope that Dad’s heroics will extend beyond whorehouses and bars, I stiffen up inside and soldier on.
What was it like to patrol the nightclubs and houses of prostitution?
“The racial aspect was interesting. Down there, there was no such thing as black and white; it was all gold and silver. The American soldiers with U.S. cash were welcomed into the government-supervised houses of prostitution. The cost was anywhere from five dollars in the cheap places to fifty dollars in Villa D’Amour, the house of love.”
He pauses to sip his beer and swipes the foam from his lips. “You’d sit on the rattan furniture in parlors set with white orchids. I remember walls covered with paintings of humming birds and tulip trees. They’d parade the mostly Spanish, Mexican and Oriental girls and you’d pick the one you wanted.”
The “girls” were supposed to be examined once a week. If certain places were not following the “health check” rules, they might be raided by Dad’s guys in the U.S. Military Police.
“One beautiful Panamanian woman—half Costa Rican and half Chinese— taught me a lot about life in Panama.” I swallow hard and idly wonder where Vickie is. The salacious inferences are discomforting. I pat a dog and sip water from a red glass, which is the one deemed mine for the duration of the visit.
He goes on to tell me about the American dancer he befriended at a nightclub called Kelly’s Ritz, run by a guy from New Orleans who “treated the troops real well. I use to see her with rich Panamanians and tease her. You make great moves on the dance floor, but I wonder if they’re that good when you’re not on the dance floor.”
Though considered strategically significant to the Allied war effort, my father’s tour of duty in Panama is hardly History Channel material. His stories about the “Blue Moon Queens,” who sold watered-down “sucker” drinks for three dollars and split the income with the bar owners, elicit zero patriotism. Preventing venereal disease among the troops, carrying home passed-out soldiers and bailing the armed forces out of bar fights are not wartime heroics.
Near the end of his stint overseas, Dad was waiting for someone at police headquarters in Panama City when a revolt started. He hid under a desk as bullets careened around him. “It was scary as hell. A guy named Arnulfo Arias Madrid was trying to regain power from the National Police. But I was only in danger once or twice. I was lucky to be in Panama. I had good food all the time.”
I push stop on my tape recorder. The interview is behind me as the late afternoon engenders talk of dinner plans. I escape down the basement stairs and open my suitcase on the cot where I sleep. I’m flying home in the morning.
I didn’t find the redemption I hoped for. The details of my father’s role in WWII are sordid. So much of his behavior appalled me. I wanted to feel safe with him, more like a daughter and not just another woman. But he is the sympathetic parent, the one who jokingly threatened to break the kneecaps of the boy who broke up with me. He is the only person who ever called me Janie. He listened when I complained about a teacher, asked if I wanted to move to another classroom. I inherited his smooth tawny skin and white wavy hair. I found his silliness and irreverence endearing. Once he dropped his chewing gum on the sidewalk and said, “Let some anti-Semite step on it!”
After he died in 2001, I kept his ashes in a cardboard box and moved them with me from Michigan to Illinois to Florida. I stored him in the back of my closet like a little-used evening bag.
During a downsizing into what is likely to be my final home, I finally realized a way to deal with the detritus of my father. I bought a black urn, the size of Dixie cup, to keep a small idea of him on my bookshelf. I could keep what I liked and trash the rest.
Jane Rothschild has published nonfiction in the Columbia Journalism Review, fiction in 13th Moon and numerous book reviews and feature articles in newspapers and magazines in Florida where she lives.
A true page turner
From reading this story I feel
Like I know the man (and I don’t like him)
Dark humor, incisive observation, difficult truths –– this is a gem of a story.