Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.
Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?
I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.
Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.
One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:
“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”
Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.
In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.
The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.
At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.
Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show. My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.
Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)
Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.
Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.
At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.
But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.
To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.
As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.
I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.
Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.
In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.
In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.
“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”
At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.
I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.
Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.
Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.
Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.
Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.
Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.
I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.
Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.
Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.
As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.
I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.
The Soldier on the Hill
I talked with the soldier on the hill today,
We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.
The bells rang true, the trees stood free,
A breeze swept past to welcome me.
Shadows filled the landscape then,
Tempers rose without his pen.
Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,
All without a change of scene.
Now the soldier rests with them,
Hand in hand—all blessed again.
They greet another trailing soul,
Who makes the journey past the knoll.
August 27, 1996
More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.
S-C-R-A-B-B-L-E … and it’s been that way for Tom and me for the past twenty-three years.
Back in the fall of 1996, I was a single dad. At the time, Nick was twelve; Kirk was seven. The divorce decree called for my boys to spend half of their time with their mother at her home and half with me at mine. Both of us lived in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
It was far from the perfect parenting scenario for my sons, but at least I was able to see them regularly, attend school and sports events, and have an influence on their lives. I’m thankful for those years and my life as a dad, though it was a tumultuous time for all of us. It’s difficult for me to believe my sons are now thirty-five and thirty, but I’m forced to realize it’s true. When I pass a mirror, I see the 2019 version of me. (By the way, if you’re a parent, you may have an interest in reading my book An Unobstructed View.)
Meanwhile, also in late 1996, Tom and I were beginning to build our relationship. We realized we needed to have at least one time a week when we could count on seeing each other … while juggling two independent demanding careers and honoring my desire and commitment to be there for my sons.
So, we concocted a scheme. On most Sunday mornings, we left our respective homes. They were seven or eight miles apart. We met at a coffee shop in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for a few hours of creative wordplay. We devoted our Sunday mornings to each other and Scrabble. Each week we formed new combinations of words on our portable game board while cradling hot cups of coffee. It was our time then and it’s our time now. We’ve been repeating this refrain for twenty-three years in Illinois, Arizona and places in between.
Scrabble will always be our magnificent obsession. On bright days and dark ones, our creative oasis is our escape from the traumas of our world and Breaking News. Just the two of us producing endless combinations of vowels and consonants and laying them out across a compact board.
Yesterday was no exception. We drove to The Coffee Bean in Scottsdale and carried our portable Scrabble. With the game midway between us, we consumed two cups of coffee and shared a blueberry scone at a table outside on an eighty-degree, autumn-in-Arizona morning.
Unfortunately for me, Tom was victorious as he is at least fifty percent of the time. On this occasion, his thirty points (a double word score on the word pique near the end of the game) sealed the deal. The final score? 294 points for him; 278 for me.
But the outcome really never matters. What counts is that on good days and bad ones we’re keeping our brains nimble and our Scrabble tradition alive. Our weekly propensity to manipulate tiny wooden letters in a tray will always be ours … and I’ll be forever grateful for the memories of our Scrabble Sundays. From A to Z.
It was nearly two years ago that I found myself lying on a gurney at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. It was July 6, 2017. My sixtieth birthday. I had just suffered a mild heart attack and entered the vast and unfamiliar world of emergency room doctors, cardiologists, attending nurses, and multi-syllabic medical procedures.
I had two wishes that day: to survive the ordeal with my husband; and to speak with both of my adult sons to let them know I was okay. Thankfully, both of my wishes came true.
Late in the afternoon of July 6, Jacob, an EKG technician in his early thirties, turned me on my left side. He applied a cooling gel and ran a device across my chest to record images of my heart.
At that moment, Jacob gave me an unexpected gift that carried me past the immediate task and my pain. He confided in me that he was a new father adjusting to a sleepless existence. Working to raise and protect his newborn son. Overwhelmed by the sudden changes in his life.
Strange as it was–with my health hanging in the balance–Jacob and I entered a new landscape. We talked about something we had in common. We were both dads. It was something like staring into a painted desert of fatherhood (like what you see here in Arizona) where unexplored layers of possibilities abound.
As I spoke with Jacob, I conjured fleeting memories of my two sons as tumbling toddlers and testy teens. I told him to hang in there and relish the early years. To try to realize that the heavy lifting of fatherhood would fade over time.
I told him there would be meaningful moments ahead with his son. Moments I cherished with my sons. Moments he might cherish with his boy too when he looked back over his life.
Occasionally, over the past two years, I’ve thought of Jacob and wondered how he was coping … knowing we will likely never meet again.
Now, with Father’s Day upon us, I wish I could offer him more ideas on what it takes to be a good dad. To that end, I’ve composed the following list … friendly advice from a fellow father who’s looking out for all the Jacobs in the world who are striving to be the best dads they can be.
Love your son … and tell him you do.
Listen to and validate his dreams.
Provide him with an honest and safe home.
Buy him nutritious food and encourage him to exercise.
Cheer him on when he succeeds. Encourage him when he fails.
Don’t spend a lot of money buying him new things. Spend it on shared experiences instead.
Teach him the importance of lifelong learning and saving money for a rainy day.
Show him what it means to respect animals, nature and diverse people.
Explain to him that it’s a sign of strength to ask questions and show vulnerability.
Love your son no matter who he loves. Remind him you’ll always be his dad.
With Father’s Day approaching, I had been intent upon finding a home for a short piece I wrote about my dad and me. This morning I got the answer I hoped for. The editor of The Drabble contacted me to say they wanted to publish In His Shoes.
If you follow the link, you’ll note that the last line of my bio at the bottom includes this sentence: “I write to pay tribute to vivid people and memories.” Certainly, my father was a vivid person. A peace seeker. A kind and troubled man. A patriotic, but wounded soldier. A playful and unfulfilled poet. If he were alive, I know he would have cherished this moment with me, because he knew how tough it was to get your writing published and be recognized for your creative ideas.
I imagine he also would have applauded last Saturday as I stood with my husband Tom behind a table with my three memoirs fanned out before me at StoryFest in Mesa, Arizona … wearing this nametag, working to capture the attention of attendees as they sauntered by, and managing to sell a half dozen books before packing the rest away.
At any rate, “paying tribute to vivid people and memories” is where this post, my newly published story and Saturday’s event intersect.
Shortly before noon at StoryFest, a woman about my age approached my table. I said hello as she flipped through the pages of my latest book, An Unobstructed View. When I told her about my journey west and our quest to create a new home, I felt our eyes lock. It was clear to me she had something important on her mind. She proceeded to tell me her life was in flux. She and her wife had recently decided to end their relationship.
As I listened to her story of uncertainty, I felt her pain. I also thought my book might help her heal and build a new life. My tears began to surface when I explained how challenging it was in 2017 to say goodbye to our Mount Prospect, Illinois home … where Tom and I felt loved and welcomed … especially after surviving a health scare. Yet less than two years later we are happy in our new home and community in Scottsdale, Arizona.
By this point in the conversation, I already felt a kinship with this stranger. This vivid person. When she confided she wanted to buy my book, I felt joy. I knew we’d made a meaningful connection. Before she left, I tucked a card with my personal email in the book and wrote these words inside the flap:
“For Colleen … Enjoy the Journey … Mark Johnson.”
To be sure, my exchange with Colleen reminded me how important love and security are in all of our lives. And that we need to pay tribute to the vivid and vulnerable people who impact our lives each day–whether they be long-gone fathers, newfound friends or somewhere in between.