Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crime Fighter Dominick Dunne RIP: A Savvy Superman

The Story of His Life Beat All His Fiction

Writer Dominick Dunne (1925-2009) died this week of cancer.

Dominick Dunne's life was the stuff of Shakespeare, and I think he would love the fact that I said that. I was so sad to learn of his death recently from cancer. He was the kind of crime fighter Superman would have been if Superman had been real.

The word drama doesn't even do justice to the story arc of Dunne's life. Son of a wealthy Irish-Catholic surgeon, he attended the nation's most elite schools, starring in school plays with his friend Stephen Sondheim. He fought in World War II and returned with a Bronze Star. Then he went to New York and Hollywood where he went straight to the top, first as the director of the successful "Playhouse 90" and then as vice-president of Four Star Television.

But alcoholism and other personal demons caused him to lose it all. He knew everybody and then one day it was over. His addictions caused him to lose his marriage, his house, his savings, his career, and his family. He was fifty years old, an age at which it is challenging to make a comeback. He and his wife Ellen divorced. He wasn't in any shape to see much of his three children.

With borrowed money, driving a junky car, he headed to Oregon where he spent a year in a cheap cabin struggling with his demons and--miracle of miracle--writing his first book. It was like the deus ex machina in Greek tragedy. Something--God, his inner strength, AA--picked him up and brought him out to the clear air of hope again. The book was The Winners (1982). It was a success. He was clean and sober. He was back.

But the strange drama of his life continued. The year that first book was published, and just as he toiled on his next, which turned out to be a blockbuster (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles) his daughter, 23-year-old actress and rising star, Dominique Dunne (Poltergeist), was strangled to death by former boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, who had stalked her. Dominick Dunne, who attended the trial, was devastated and stunned when Sweeney was given just a six-and-a-half year sentence.

Actress Dominique Dunne (1959-1982)

This time Dunne did what healthy artists do: he used his anger. He spent the rest of his life writing best-selling novels and articles for Vanity Fair and other publications about murders among the rich and famous--often murders in which the rich and famous used expensive lawyers to avoid justice.

He covered the trial of OJ Simpson. He continually stood on the side of victims of violent crime who had to fight to get the wealthy into court. When defendants like Claus von Bulow, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, and the Menendez Brothers saw Dunne in court, they knew they were in for a tough time.

His brother was writer John Gregory Dunne. His sister-in-law, Joan Didion. He had a good pedigree. His career, family, and years in Hollywood and New York meant he knew everybody. He hobnobbed shamelessly and used it constantly in both his fiction and non-fiction. He clearly loved beautiful people (unless they were criminals) and beautiful things. When he anchored his show on Court TV (now Tru TV), Power, Privilege, and Justice, I loved seeing his bespoke suits, and Turnbull and Asser shirts, and Hermes ties, and the glimpse of the Sister Parish-like decor behind him in his antiques-filled penthouse. He was a character.

And he was a character with a heart. His sons Alexander and Griffin (the actor) will miss him. And I join them. I'm going to miss him too. And the rich and famous bad-guys? They won't miss him a bit.

Dominick Dunne Biography Wikipedia

The Murder of Dominique Dunne

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

That Great Big Plumber in the Sky

Gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky
That's where you're gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You're gonna go to the place that's the best

Norman Greenbaum
Written/recorded 1969
No. 333 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

My mother and father for their church picture just a few years ago. You can see the beginning of my father's illness in his face and in the way he is standing.

My Dad had a really bad day on Thursday. I think some new medicine we gave him to help him sleep better had the residual effect of making him more depressed during the day. You have to watch your patient's medicine all the time for side effects.

Anyway, something was troubling him that day. He cried and said his life was all but over and we should all forget about him. I tried to talk him out of it, but that didn't work and I couldn't bear it for long, so I had to just hold his hand for a while, and then I had to leave.

The next day, Friday, after we laid off the sleeping medicine, he was feeling brighter. That afternoon the family's long-time pastor came by for a visit. I had been there in the morning, and I was doing paperwork for the family trust in the afternoon, so I didn't see him. He comes by about once a month, a wonderful thing for him to do since he is now retired and almost as old as my father. He was my pastor when I was confirmed into the Lutheran church lo those many years ago.

Today, my Dad told me a funny story. He said they had been having a "tie up" or a "clog" in their lines (they did not have this, but I listened on) and that our Pastor H told my Dad they should pray about it. And my Dad said they did pray about it and ... the clog went away! "It was amazing," my Dad said. "I'll bet the Plumber's Union would have been mad if they knew." We laughed together.

His brain was speaking to me metaphorically I think. He knows there is something wrong with him and I think he and the pastor prayed that he might be better, and barring that, that he might have the strength to endure it. Suddenly my Dad felt better: the pastorial Drain-o had done its job and my Dad transformed his problem into a plumbing issue, something an engineer like my Dad could understand.

And he was much happier today and we were singing again. Always a really good sign.

The Pastor might be surprised if he knew the plumbing story my Dad is telling. But maybe he would tell me that a Higher Plumber had actually done all the work.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

"We will stay in this house until we die ..."

"Don't get around much anymore."

We are having a huge debate in our family, about what is the best thing to do for Dad. This is happening all over America now and has in the past and will in the future. With his ability to walk failing, with his ability to read our notes slipping away (it is the only way we can communicate with him because he is deaf), with his interest in food beginning to fade, and with eight or ten medicines a day to deliver to him at the proper times--should he be in skilled nursing care?

His doctor gave my mother a firm lecture last week that he does. "Mrs. Chapman," he said, "I know your heart says no. But you must make this decision with your head. Your husband may fall, and if he falls now--its over. Please, please think this over carefully. Mr. Chapman needs to be in nursing care."

I'm with the doctor on this. Or am most of the time. I know Dad isn't safe at home, regardless of the 24-hour care, for which we pay a fortune. The job is too complex and the house has no ramp, no hospital bed, no lift chair, no comfortable couch from which it is easy for him to rise. Ive asked Mom if she would make these changes and remove the dangerous rug in the kitchen and she told me, after our visit to the doctor last week: "No! I'm still in charge of this house. That is a stupid doctor. Your father and I will stay in this house until we die."

Your first instinct is to say; "Okay, let's get to it. Shall I strangle you now and bury you in the backyard?" But you take a deep breath and realize that in her place you might want to do the same thing. Who wants to leave home? Have a spouse leave home and be left alone?

But what is best for him? He is confused these days, but he knows he's at home and he knows my mother is there with him. Sometimes, it is true, he thinks she is running a boarding house there, but it doesn't seem to bother him. He thinks she's amazing to be able to manage it all. Once, he asked me to show him the annual report of the boarding house so he could see how it was working out.

In nursing care his medicine would be dispensed more carefully and on a more regular basis. He would have nurses on hand and appropriate equipment to ensure he did not fall. He would have a visit from a doctor on a regular basis that would not require the now-painful work of getting Dad to the car, into the car, out of the car, into a wheel chair and up to the doctor's waiting room, each move creating a risk we might injure him.

Mom is adamant right now so it doesn't matter what I think. But my sister and I have decided that we will have to step in and incur the wrath of one and the sorrow of the other if we feel either of them is in imminent danger.

Ashley and Faye at McDonalds just a few months ago. We don't take him there anymore because it is just too hard for him to get around. I bring his favorite hotcake order home to him, in the famous Mcdonalds take-out bag.

This is a very difficult line to walk. You want the best for a loved one and there is a solution out there that you should take/make use of. But having him miserable for the last weeks or months or years of his life: is that a good solution? Or would he adjust, and live a decent life there and gain some weight because he would have more food available to him than he does at home. Mom has an eating disorder and still at the age of 88 and the weight of 98 pounds, counts their calories. Dad's weight has dropped 9 pounds in the last few months.

Meanwhile I'm the one that needs Valium and a rest home. I wonder if I'll live to care for them, or get an ulcer, have a heart attack, lose what is left of my mind, and die of the stress.

What to do, what to do? My sister and I wait and hope the answer will come to us, like an epiphany, and like an epiphany we hope for a little Divine help while we're at it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New California Tags and Such Fun at the DMV

The Swedish Car, posing in front of a California bungalow, on her first day in her new state, back in, um, well, legally, to avoid a fine, that official "resident" arrival day was August 1, 2009. But back then it was coolish, and it seemed like February.

The Swedish Car is now sporting her California tags. Actually just one of them, though that should change today. Florida is a teensy bit backward re auto safety and law enforcement and there, they only require license tags on the back of a vehicle. California requires them on both the back and the front. So the Swedish Car doesn't even have a bracket on the front and we have to pop down to the Volvo place shortly to get that taken care of. Another gillion dollars for a half-hour-labor-fee of bracket-installing and the Swedish car and I will be just super, thank you.

She thinks she can now vote in California and I haven't the heart to disabuse her of this.

It was a laugh riot getting this simple task--vehicle registration for an out-of-state-car--completed. I don't import these things. I just drove the one in.

It takes all of about five minutes in Florida. In California you have to fill out two forms: 1) your application to be so lucky as to register your car in the Golden State and 2) another long sheet, called a VIN inspection on which a specialist must make sure the car you are registering is really the car you say your are registering. Okay fine.

The application I found on the Internet said you could have a peace officer do the VIN inspection, so before facing the lines at the DMV office (no lines in Florida, I swear) I stopped by my local PD and asked for a VIN inspection and got a local peace officer to fill out the page--as the law said he could. It included not just the VIN, but the mileage, Florida tag number, title inspection and Florida registration number, and other really incredibly complex stuff only a specialist could report onto a form. Seemed to me any idiot could do it and as it turns out I was partly right.

Successful smog test form in hand along with application form, inspection form, and identification and California insurance cards (Did I need a passport to come to California? I brought it just in case. These guys sounded tough.), I headed to the local DMV office, where I stood in line to get my number. That's a new concept too. Very slow line to get one's number so you can wait again. Then I waited about forty minutes for my number to be called, which was okay as I got to read this month's Vanity Fair, as usual, jammed with great articles including another one about Bernie Madoff the Crook and one about Farrah's creepy last few years, and same same about Michael Jackson. Riveting. (Farrah looked great even a year before she died. I hate her.)

They called my number. The very snippy, dark-haired lady behind the desk looked at my VIN inspection form and asked me who had done this abomination? My local PD, said I. Well it will have to be redone, he has filled it out incorrectly. How so? I asked (I thought) very nicely. Well for one thing he has filled out the mileage, but he has not checked whether it is in miles or kilometers. You will have to go out, bring your car around to the side of the building and wait for the inspector to do this again, correctly.

I'm registering a car from Florida not France, so one might presume one could just go ahead and check the "miles" box and be done with it. "Are you suggesting to me that you know more about my job than I do?" She asked me this very quietly but I could see she was going to strike me very soon, especially if I dared to ask her another question. Maybe they are all grumpy here, I thought, because the Governator is making them take three Friday's off in a row without pay to save the state some money. I'm crying for them. Really.

So, I went 'round the building and wasted another half an hour on another inspection. (It was "miles" by the way. What a nice surprise! I'd suspected it all along! And it really was my car! A revelation!) Returned to the line, finally got waited on by a very nice lady this time, who had even kept her patience while explaining to the illegal alien ahead of me how to fill out a cheque. So as it turns out, I did not need my passport after all. Almost though. I still think I could be deported for disrespecting that DMV officer by asking her something.

All this fun cost me $300. Seems high, but here we are.

The Swedish car thinks the tags here are much prettier as they are red, white and blue. Nothing like an immigrant for patriotism.

Best line of the day came from the Volvo guy when I stopped by, post registration nightmare, to make sure they had a bracket to install for my new plate on the front. I was born here, I said, apropos of nothing. They would have the bracket the next day, he said. "And welcome back." I love the sound of that.

Everything is better, it seems in California. The weather is better; the people are thinner and healthier; folks are going "green" all over the bloody place; everyone has nice white veneers on their teeth so they all photograph well; and everyone rides his bicycle with a complete outfit and a matching helmet. But there is this one thing:

The DMV and Tag Office work better in Florida.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Little Boy Lost Part II: A Visit to King City

The late afternoon sun casts my shadow on my friend Keith's marker as I take this photograph.

I went to visit my childhood friend Keith today. He was an adopted boy who lived just down the street from me when I was a child and was my very best friend. Then, his mother died of cancer. Then, his father remarried. Then, his stepmother wanted a new home across town. The summer they moved, he died in a swimming pool accident. He was just eleven years old.

My family and I were away on a summer vacation when it happened. We missed his funeral and we never spoke of it. I tried to go see his father, whom I also loved, when we returned from vacation, but Brownie (that's what we called this World War II-hero-turned-PSA-pilot, though his name was really Exline) couldn't come into the living room to see me. I could hear this big bear of a man crying. After that, the Brown family, no longer living near to us in the tiny world of a child, seemed to vanish from our lives.

Since I've returned to my home state, I've wanted to visit Keith's grave. I looked it up on the Internet and discovered it is in King City, where his father's family was from. His mother, Elma, is buried there too.

King City, California is about 120 miles from Los Altos, so it hasn't been easy to carve out the time to make the four-hour round trip to visit Keith. But on Friday, a really nice mechanic told me the Swedish Car flunked her California Automobile Registration Vehicle Emissions Test (aka the "smog test") simply because I hadn't been doing the correct thingee with the gas cap. Now that he had demonstrated for me what I should do, he said, I needed to put about a hundred miles on the SC to recycle her computer so she'd pass the ST.

Good chance for a Road Trip to King City. Highway 101--El Camino Real--the King's Highway--heads right down there. It began as a trail that connected all the missions founded by old Junipero Serra himself. I used to travel on that ribbon of highway quite often when I went to college in Southern California.

Across this field and to the left you can see the smoke obscuring the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance.

It was a smokey ride south into the Salinas Valley. Down past the National Steinbeck Center and the farms and the new housing developments. The fields are green this time of year and the hills are golden. But, there is a forest fire burning in the Santa Cruz mountains and ten square miles of dense growth up there is in flames. It brought a haze to everything and you could smell it in the car.

Before you get to King City, the floor of the valley begins to rise, and you enter the edge of the foothills. A good place for a farming center. I took the Broadway exit and the cemetery was just two-tenths of a mile down the road. Broadway was a somewhat optimistic name for the main street of this little town. It was a warm, windy, dusty place on this Sunday afternoon in August.

The Swedish Car pauses near Broadway in King City, California.

I'm glad I had looked up the cemetery on the Internet and found the actual location of the Brown plots. By the time I arrived at the King City Cemetery at 4:45 p.m., the place was closed and the gate for vehicles was locked. There was no one on hand to answer questions, if a person had needed help. But, lucky for me, they keep the pedestrian gate open after hours, so I was able to park by the gate, off this dusty road, and walk in. I found myself in a lovely place.

The King City Cemetery dates back to the 1870s, and is meticulously maintained by Monterey County, California.

I looked at the big cemetery and down at my little map and wondered if it would be hard to do this thing. One of the plot maps I had printed out was very small, and one showed only the two Brown plots, so I had to merge the two in my mind, survey the territory like one of those soldiers on a map exercise, and make a sortie. I walked down one row and didn't find them, and then walked back, and just where the map said they would be, the two markers appeared. Keith and his mother Elma were buried side-by-side beneath identical grave stones.
There was a rose, in bronze, on each of the markers. I remembered, then, how Keith's mother had loved her rose garden. Brownie and his family had remembered Elma and Keith with love and grace and dignity.

I returned to the car, drove to the nearby Safeway, and bought some flowers. I would like to have given both Keith and his mother some roses. But the wind in King City was blowing at about 15 knots and I didn't think a bouquet of roses in a vase would last very long, at least not in an upright position. So I bought a happy yellow mum and brought it back to them.

I set the mum down and rose. And then it hit me. I had not planned it this way at all, but I had come to visit the cemetery where Keith was buried, exactly fifty years to the month from the day Keith died. On that warm August day, half a century ago this year, we lost him. It had been just the time for me to stop by and see that all was well. "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me."
II Samuel 12:23

My friend Keith, my sister Kimberly, then me (posing as usual), and, at far right, our friend Gene, on a visit to the San Francisco Zoo. Keith is waving, so we've caught his hand in motion, frozen for all time at that happy moment. I learned just recently from his death certificate that he was born in San Francisco.

King City, California, Cemetery

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Windmills of My Mind: or The Day I Was Almost Killed

Robin, during the time of our story. A time she doesn't really like to recall.

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of it's own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream.

Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes on it's face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Les Moulins de Mon Cœur
by Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman
From The Thomas Crown Affair

I've had a lot on my mind lately. After two decades, I heard this week from a friend who, with his wife, was one of my closest friends during my years in Washington D.C. He and his wife are both writers and my husband, Phil, and I saw a lot of them in those days. They are wonderful people, classy, talented and kind.

We didn't have a falling out. But I had to intentionally lose touch with them for a reason I'll explain.

The Writer sent me an email last week and told me about the death of another Aulde Acquaintance. I was a little shaken. The Aulde Acquaintance had died after what sounded like a terrible bout with cancer, and though I did not like the AA, no one wants to hear about a death like that.

And saying I did not like the AA is putting it very mildly. I was very afraid of him. And with good reason.

My friend the Writer and his Wife introduced me to the AA shortly after my husband flaked out and disappeared. The AA was charming and funny and smart and successful and very generous. But over the months that I knew him he became somewhat less charming and more controlling. When he got angry, he called me ugly names. I told him he could not do that, thank you very much, and then he would be abject in his apologies. Then he would do it again.

He gave me gifts when he apologized. Gifts that overwhelmed me, so that I felt like a jerk being mad at him for calling me a dirty name. Down was starting to be up, and up was starting to be down, like the world behind Alice's Looking Glass. This is the world of the sociopath.

Then he punched a hole in my door. "You cannot punch a hole in my door," said I. "So, you can't come around here anymore if you are going to do that." He was abject and repaired the door. He acted as if it had not happened. He bought me a beautiful ring. He bought me a fur coat. How could I be offended if he just lost his temper one teeny little time? It had been repaired, after all, and he was terribly sorry.

These are all, I later learned, the classic behaviors of an abuser. I had been raised in an environment in which one parent had a Jekyll and Hyde personality, so it did not seem unusual to me. Jekyll and Hyde characters were characters I knew. Thus I enabled him. That was my part in this.

I broke up with him repeatedly. But he would end up on my doorstep, ringing the doorbell late at night. Ringing the telephone endlessly. It wore me down. He was apologetic. I always gave in. Maybe I was afraid of him then, too, and was in denial. I don't really know.

I'll make this sordid story short. Fast forward to a day I went to his house to go out to dinner and take home a teapot I had left there. I don't know what set him off--I almost never knew--but, he took my car keys and blocked the doors and wouldn't let me leave. This is what is known in the penal code as False Imprisonment. He chased me from room to room, as I tried to reach a door that would enable me to escape. Eventually, I managed to lock myself in a room with a phone and call 911. The police came and were able to give me back my car keys.

Foolishly, they departed before I did and after they left the AA blocked the door again and I couldn't get to my car.

Finally, after a struggle, I got to the front door and slipped out. He flung open the door, then took my teapot, a silly thing I loved that I had bought in England--and threw it down as hard as he could onto the sidewalk. It shattered, the way a skull might shatter.

Then, as I stared at this in astonishment, he drew his hand back and hit me so hard across my face that my left ear began ringing. He was quite tall, and as I held my hand across my face in pain and looked up at him, I saw the most terrible expression I have ever seen on the face of any person.

"Look! Look!" he screamed. "Look what you have made me do!" In that second, looking into his face, I saw something I'd read about, something that gets into murder mysteries and true crime stories, but I never expected to see with my own eyes. I saw in his face that he could kill me.

I ran to my car, with the keys the police had retrieved for me, and I got the heck out of there. I drove to the nearest police station and swore out a warrant for his arrest on the charge of assault, and then I drove home. He lived in New Jersey and I lived in Washington D.C. so I had a long ride home. I arrived just as the sun was coming up over the capitol of the free world.

I only saw this man one more time and that was when I had to meet him in court to testify in the assault case against him. I told my story, the policeman who saw me that day with the swollen faced and black eye testified, and the Aulde Acquaintance testified. He was scornful and admitted hitting me but said: "It was nothing. I've been hit harder than that in football," he told the judge.

"That's enough," the judge said, and then continued, in these words:

"I think there's reason for serious concern here because there's been at least two episodes; and Mr. ----, I will tell you now, that I don't think there's justification for striking anyone ... and having done it once, it would seem to me that that lesson should have been learned: and having done it twice it makes me wonder about whether or not--that there's problems here beyond what are evident to me ... I will say this, that if there's another charge of this nature [in my court] ... I will strongly recommend to you that you bring a lawyer because the next time I won't say that jail is not a possibility. Striking is out, or you will be struck out in the County Jail." (From the transcript.)

God bless that judge. He imposed a fine on the AA, and gave the AA a criminal record. My sister, who had come with me, fled with me in my Audi down the New Jersey Turnpike.

For three years after that, he stalked me. I did all the things you are supposed to do: got a P.O. Box, told only my family my real address, sold my house, moved in with the mother of one of my friends, and finally, took a job in Florida because it was as far away from him as you could get on the East Coast and still be in the Continental United States. I hadn't spoken with him for more than a year at that point.

I walked into the Orlando, Florida, newsroom that morning with a smile. People were happy to see me. I had a great new job. It was October and the Florida weather was beaming.

I had been at work for a couple of hours when the newsroom secretary told me there was something for me at the front desk. I walked out there and sitting on the desk was a huge bouquet of pink roses.

They were from him.

For many years I kept a certified copy of the transcript of his assault trial in my briefcase, just in case he appeared and I had to call the police. Police need to see the record and in those days records were not all computerized and easily shared from state to state. So I carried the transcript around like a St. Christopher medal.

That Christmas a Christmas card arrived with a letter from him, chatty and friendly as if nothing had happened. As if we had just spoken the day before--which, believe me, we had not. It arrived at work, as I had successfully prevented anyone except my family, from having my home address. It happened again on my birthday. And the next Christmas, and the next birthday, and the next.

Finally, after four years, the communication stopped. I assumed, as the experts tell you, that he had become obsessed with someone else.

But every time I was in an airport, or a crowd in a big city, and would see a face that resembled his, or the back of a head that looked like his, I would stop and look around for a security guard or a police officer. I was creeped out for a very long time.

So, when I heard he had died, I had a very strange feeling. Yes, I felt sad for him, and for his parents and siblings. They probably never saw the side of him I saw. Abusive men can be very normal around most people. His death from cancer at the young age of 60, and after a three-year struggle sounded really awful. But I felt something else that day. That day I heard about his death.

I felt relieved.

"Declining to hear 'no' is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. If you let someone talk you out of the word 'no,' you might as well wear a sign that reads,'You are in charge'" G. De Becker
The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. New York: Dell, 1997, p. 73.

Domestic Abuse Web Site

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dad and Nagasaki

Before I had ever seen this photo, my father described to me his eyewitness astonishment at the the devastation of Nagasaki and the "leaning smokestacks" he saw there in September/October 1945.

On this August week in 1945 the world was changed forever with the release of the atom bombs at Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).

We could debate forever the efficacy of the decision to use these terrible weapons; but one thing you can say--nobody has been foolish enough to start a world war in the sixty-four years since.

My father was on Ie Shima, a tiny island less than a mile from Okinawa, when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The American fighter pilots, who flew from the airstrip he had built and was maintaining under daily bombings by the Japanese, said they could see the mushroom cloud that day when they went up on patrol.

Over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. The A-bomb there ended the war and thus may have saved at least a million lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. But the end still came at a terrible cost.

It was all over very soon after that, and my father--on standby to be part of the invasion of the Japanese home islands (scheduled for November 1945)--was relieved, along with the rest of America, that the horrible war was finally at an end. On September 23, the U.S. Marines came ashore at Sasebo to begin the Occupation and shortly afterward (and before the typhoon hit on October 8, 1945) my father and his Army Corps of Engineers aviation battalion also came ashore in Sasebo to occupy and improve the airfield there.

My father on steamy Ie Shima, July 1945.

He never spoke much about the three months he spent in Sasebo. He and my mother had married in Spokane, Washington in 1944, after a rather brief courtship. When they met, Dad was getting ready to go overseas to be part of the Battle of Okinawa. When he came home in November 1945, she reports that all he said was: "The Japanese children were really cute."

It wasn't until many years later, when I was visiting my grandmother in Spokane and we were paging through her scrapbook, that a newspaper clipping caught my eye and began to fill in some of the blanks. Dated September or October 1945, it was headlined something like this: "Captain Chapman Visits A-Bomb Site" and told about my father's visit to Nagasaki, quoting him on the destruction he had seen there. I wondered what he had been doing there? I wondered why he had never mentioned it? I wanted to ask him about it. But until recently, I did not.

In recent years, with the onset of his illness, my Dad has been talking much more about his memories of World War II, so I've begun to research the War's end in the Pacific, the part of the conflict about which I've known the least. Sasebo, where my father was part of the first days of the Occupation, is just 29 miles across a very small bay from Nagasaki.

According to the Marines Corps archives on the Occupation of the Sasebo/Nagasaki area, dated September 1945: "Lieutenant Colonel George L. Cooper later recalled: '[Nagasaki] Ground zero appeared to have been a rather large sports stadium [actually ground zero was bounded by the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and by the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (Torpedo Works) in the north] and all of us were categorically ordered to stay out of any place within pistol shot of this area. The result of this order was that everybody and his brother headed directly for ground zero as soon as they could, and in no time at all had picked the area clean of all movable objects."

Which explains why my father toured Nagasaki. The war was over. He, like every other G.I., was bored and wanted to go home. He, like every other G.I., wanted to see the most amazing site in the world that was, in his case, just a jeep ride away. He went sightseeing. And what he saw there was so terrible he didn't speak about it for sixty-four years.

What was there, I asked him recently? "What was there? Nothing was there. It was flattened. Just those tilting smokestacks. Nothing else."

In May of this year, my father was diagnosed with leukemia/lymphoma. We're not yet sure what the treatment will be since he has a number of other ailments, but this week, during a visit to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, I told the doctor of my father's visit to the A-bomb site at Nagasaki. She raised her eyebrows. Leukemia/lymphoma can sometimes be connected with exposure to radiation. So we're looking into it further.

My father is going to be 90 in four months and, according to his doctor, something else is likely to take his life before this new disease does so.

But the connection is food for thought. He may be paying the price for a soldier's curiosity. He was very surprised to still be alive at the end of the War, he says. He probably thought he was now invincible.

Captain Chapman (third from left, back row) with his men on Ie Shima. Behind the group, you can see the small channel of water that separates Ie Shima from the hilly terrain of Okinawa. Behind the group of men on the other side, you see what looks like a rice field surrounded by a white picket fence, topped by a tall flag post sporting an America flag. Those are graves and the white wood are the crosses. July 1945.

Securing the Surrender: the Occupation of Japan

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