The Father Wound

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

They thought they were saving the world, but all Janet could see were dead rabbits flying everywhere.

And thus the history of post-World War II America encapsulates itself in the aching contradictions of one nuclear family: the Lipskys, of Morristown, N.J.

This story is crisscrossed by politics, but it is not about politics. What is luminous is its ordinariness, this story of a dad, as filtered through a daughter who loved and battled him all her life. I write about it as part of what I call the Dad Project, an occasional report from Inner America on that wound in the collective psyche the size and shape of fatherhood.

And I apologize at the outset for telling it, to the man who is at its center, Carl Lipsky — war vet and concentration camp liberator, Maytag repairman, nuclear physicist, Goldwater Republican, survivor, drinker, husband, father, doting grandfather — because he hardly would have shared his demons with the likes of me.

I mean only respect. This is a summoning of all the dads, in their full humanity, and an invitation to their children to take a moment now to honor them whether doing so comes gladly or painfully.

“My dad was so pro-government, he wasn’t even mad when his friends started dying left and right,” Janet told me — Janet Vernell, friend and correspondent, who has been fervidly antiwar since the Vietnam era.

This is the thing about her brilliant, often-remote and love-withholding father, who went to school on the GI Bill after the war and wound up working for Bell Labs: He was, in the ’50s, one of the guys who helped develop The Bomb. He made regular trips to the Nevada Test Site.

“He was right up close and personal, as close as he could get (to the bomb test),” Janet said. “They wore some type of gear, but it wasn’t enough. At that time nobody even cared about the wind blowing or affecting anything else in the area. When guys started dying, he didn’t believe it was because of anything he was exposed to.”

Once, she said, her father returned from one of his Nevada trips with a semi-illicit reel of 8 mm film of the work he was doing. “It bothered me,” said Janet, who watched it as a child, “because on impact I saw rabbits, etc., flying through the air. I thought they were nuts. They thought they were doing it to save the world.”

It was the ’60s generation gap in miniature, or perhaps the gap’s first fissure, a decade earlier — daughter and father looking at the same world and seeing something utterly different.

Dad: strict and tough. Janet has moxie and credits him for this. She wasn’t scared to make her way in the world; he gave her survivor skills. But Carl Lipsky was also dismissive of her, didn’t believe she was anything more than, well, a female. Those were the times. “He treated me like I’d graduate from high school and get married,” she said.

She recalls visiting her parents after she had become a successful accountant at a Miami department store. At one point in the conversation, her father turned to her husband and asked him a question about an accounting problem he was having. Her husband deferred to Janet, but Dad wouldn’t listen. “Oh, she’s just a pretty face,” he said.

This was the wound — the father wound — Janet bore for most of her life.

When Carl Lipsky retired, he became an alcoholic — “the kind that stays at home, alone, and drinks in his room.” These were the days when the demons emerged — certainly demons from the war, from the aftermath of the Holocaust that he encountered as a young GI. Maybe other demons, too. He became impossible.

About a year before he died, Janet, visiting from Miami, came by the house when Mom wasn’t around. There was her dad, playing solitaire. Surprisingly, he was sober.

“I talked to him for two hours,” she said. “In two hours it was my whole life — those two hours meant more to me than anything else. He spoke to me as an equal.”

Only then did Janet realize “he really always respected me and loved me.”

But now she knows it. That was almost 10 years ago. Her father died in 1997 at age 76, having outlived, despite the drinking, despite smoking three-plus packs of cigarettes a day, almost all his contemporaries from the Test Site days.

After his death, she kept his Eisenhower jacket, his only relic from the war. “If it could talk …” As a young man he saw hell; it set him on his life course, and in the name of peace he helped perpetuate it. He stood astride the history of the last half of the 20th century. But what transcends this is the fact that he was her dad, and he loved her.