Going Through Dad’s Things

So … tough week. Lots of phone calls made. Things sorted through. I have all of dad’s important papers and a few things I want to keep. But it was difficult.
Difficult because as my father got old and then got sick, he stopped caring for himself. And his apartment. There was no organization to the papers, and documents were scattered, letters unopened, piles and piles of them. Financial information scattered, tax returns and pay stubs going back more than 20 years. It was an excavation. I had to hack into his computer (there was nothing of value on his hard drive or his browsing history). I had to shred a lot of documents. I think I have caught everything but I won’t really know until his mail starts arriving at our place in Moses Lake and I see exactly who was paying him (he had several annuities and two pensions) and who he owes.
My father was a very clean and organized man once. The pay stubs from his jobs in the 1990s selling tarps and running the recreation department sports leagues with the City of Rialto and then enumerating with the U.S. Census were well organized. His tax returns precise. And then, as time wore on, he began to make errors. This man who could do math in his head faster than I could on a calculator began to make mistakes. Yes, his taxes got complicated, with annuity payments and whatnot, but I could see the IRS letters pile up. Simple things, nothing lasting, but still, mistakes.
The apartment, which he’d lived in for 21 years, was a disaster. He stopped vacuuming. He stopped dusting. He stopped cleaning. There were years of cat hair everywhere. And everything was coated with a dry, gray dust. The place smelled of decay. Everything was dirty. In the days I spent there, I never felt clean. I couldn’t tell if my dad smoked indoors or not, but it smelled of stale old cigarette smoke. The first night I slept there, my throat was raw. This morning, I awake with smokers hack, and actually coughed up a little brown stuff. And I don’t smoke. It was a toxic place. I’m surprised it didn’t kill him earlier.
I said I found everything I wanted to find. That’s not quite true. I looked for photos of my dad from Vietnam. A picture of him in a sandbag bunker laughing as he’s getting a shave from a Vietnamese barber. Pictures of nameless Vietnamese, faces hidden under their nón lá, walking by the side of a dirt road. Water buffalo. Rice paddies. A truck full of soldiers. A much younger version of my father as the copilot in a small observation airplane flying over South Vietnam and calling in artillery strikes. A picture of him in a helmet and a flak vest, cigarette dangling from his mouth, playing with a small tabby kitten besides a giant, 155mm howitzer. A kitten that had the nasty habit of walking along the top of the sandbag wall that protected their artillery pieces. A kitten that happened one day to walk right in front of the muzzle of howitzer just as it was being fired.
And my favorite photo of him, a young air defense artillery officer at White Sands, sitting on a desk, speaking, looking authoritative. The man I want to remember.
I could not find those photos. They may be in some envelopes I grabbed. I found the treasure trove of his Army career, his nameplates, his medals, his commission, his rank, a funny paper hat made for “Cap’n Feathers” that I’ve never seen before, bearing unit insignia I cannot place. But … I expect the photos I want are gone.
I also couldn’t find his master’s thesis from The Naval Postgraduate School. This is not such a loss, since it should be on file there, and I should be able to get a copy from them.
I did find the big blue saké bottle he recovered from a sunken Japanese warship while diving in the lagoon at Kwajelein in the early 1970s. And the beer steins he and my mom brought back from Germany in 1967. And a treasure trove of painting by Grandpa Featherstone and his sister Marion, landscapes of Idaho and New Mexico. And my father’s charcoal cat drawings.
And things his mother kept, things he inherited when she died. His high school transcripts, academic papers, his senior yearbook, the newspaper report of his commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Army. Letters to his parents from Vietnam, from Kwajelein. What will I learn about my father? He was a private man, a mystery, an enigma, he kept so much to himself.
And now … all that he held close, all that he never spoke, all that he kept secret, is gone.
It’s interesting how our lives are reduced to several pounds of ash or dust and some paper abstracts. I have multiple copies of his DD-214, the document the armed services issue when a service member is discharged. I have bank statements, college transcripts, an unsubmitted job application to the New Mexico Military Institute, a guest ID badge for Los Alamos National Laboratory, and most interestingly, several completed security clearance applications. I have a fistful of passports. A man’s life, reduced to paper. To numbers. Filed away. One more bit of data to be sifted through centuries from now when graduate students from polities yet uniformed will comb through our archives trying to make sense of who we were.
All I want to say right now is that Charles Leslie Featherstone lived. I want to scream that to the heavens, to the cosmos which not only brought him into being but has now taken his life. He was a man, and he felt, and he saw, and smelled, and he thought, and he remembered. He told stories. He did good, and he did evil. He killed. He loved. He taught math. He bowled and played golf. Yet I know a day will come when I will only sometimes remember him. And others … not at all.