My Father’s Silence

A few years after my father died in 2002, I sent away for his naval records. K. Harold Bolton, who served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, never talked about his time in the U.S. Navy. His silence about everything made me a snooping little girl, which turned me into a curious adult. There was nothing more I wanted to know than what my father had seen from the deck of his supply ship.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. A recent New York Times front-page article bore the headline: “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.” These children who span the generations want the same thing: to crack open their fathers’ silence about their war.

My father’s silence and his subsequent secrets have haunted me all of my life. My father, who was part of the “Greatest Generation,” is also a member of what the Times describes as the “Quietest.”

His records arrived in a thick packet wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. As I avidly read them, the information that floated to the top was that he was exceptionally stubborn, inexperienced and always one of the youngest officers on any ship to which he was assigned. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s file consistently indicate that although he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism, in the end, he was an average, even naïve, officer.

This was not the answer I had expected when I examined the mystery of my father. Although I was thrilled to have the status reports, solid evidence that revealed facets of the man, they surprised — and ultimately, disappointed — me. I was so sure these reports would confirm that he was larger than life and, at last, make him understandable. Instead, the reports didn’t mesh with the man I thought he was. From the few pictures I had seen of him in uniform, I expected a capable officer who comported himself like a much older man.

Maybe this is the way most children see their parents — through a lens of time and story that ultimately fuses into lore. My father was the man who did push-ups every morning on the green shag rug of his bedroom. He was the man who walked a brisk two miles a day, even in winter. He expected his orders to be followed as he gave them. Yet blue-back nights when my coughing from asthma shook the house, my father stood guard by my bedroom window, gazing out, one of the few times I felt secure and loved.

I found a handwritten note in his file in which my perceptions of him as a young man became clearer. In the letter to his commanding officer, my father laid out his reasons for disobeying orders. He had been waiting to ship out in San Francisco the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor and wrote that he had decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty to boost morale. At the very least, that unilateral decision must have incurred a reprimand.

I also came upon a punishment meted out to my father. It happened toward the end of the war, when his commanding officer remanded him to quarters for 24 hours for going AWOL for a day. Disappearing like that didn’t seem in character. Yet the information rounded out the profile I was putting together of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not “wish to acquaint himself with them.”

My father’s stubbornness also surprised me. He never properly learned to use the sextant for navigational calculations. According to his file, he was resistant to acquiring this new skill. But a spiritual part of me thinks that perhaps it was because those kinds of calculations demystified the heavens, while my father wanted to romanticize them. Over the years, I had seen glimpses of Dad, the romantic, who cried when he listened to opera on Saturday afternoons. Dad, the patriot, who cried when he listened to John Philip Sousa’s crisp, booming marches. Dad, the accountant, who finally, reluctantly, learned to follow established routines.

My brother, who became the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share, had another version of Dad’s punishment to supplement the Navy records. Our father was never AWOL, he says. The real story is that Lt. Bolton had fraternized with the ship’s black cook, called Cookie. Our father had stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around a man who had just received news that his brother had died while fighting in Europe. He called Cookie by his given name, Ernie. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform.

Finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship.

Contrary to the jumbled, sometimes discouraging, naval reports, there was a promotion for my father by the end of the war. By the time the Navy honorably discharged Lt. Cmdr. Bolton in 1945, he had proven himself an exceptional man.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/14/my-fathers-silence-world-war-2-navy-judy-bolton-fasman

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My Father’s Centennial

This year marks my late father’s centennial. He was born in January of 1919 in New Haven, Connecticut on the second floor of a two-family house. Woodrow Wilson, the stony-faced Princetonian, was the president of the United States, negotiating placebo treaties in top hat and tails.

This was an era when modernity and Puritanism mingled as child labor laws, pure-food laws, free love, free verse and Prohibition were all in play. The gross national product had tripled and the national debt had gone from one billion to 24 billion dollars. A jury acquitted eight baseball players from the Chicago White Sox of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, but barred them for life from playing baseball.

Mobility was on the rise — faster cars, changing neighborhoods, increased consumption. Toys, stocks and birth control were for sale; my grandparents bought all three. Energy was abundant and houses were wired for electricity. Cars reached speeds of forty miles per hour. Life was moving fast and my Grandpa and Grandma were early adopters of the changes that went with it.

By 1919 the First World War was over, but the Bolshevik Revolution was in full swing. My father lived his entire life with Russia menacing him. He inherited his patriotic DNA from his father. America was everything to my grandfather, who changed the family name from Bolotin to Bolton to ensure that his children assimilated even further into American life. This was a country that had enabled my grandfather, an immigrant from Ukraine, to receive a high-profile education at Yale and in time to send his only son to the same institution.

Beginning in the summer of 1919 my grandparents rented a beach house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut — a town name that sounded fresh and breezy. A town that accepted the Boltons over the Hurwitzes, relatives who tried to rent there too. My grandfather had the chutzpah to pass, the nerve to hobnob with the sons of Connecticut Yankees.

My grandfather did well in the stock market. He drank illegal liquor to keep warm at his alma mater’s football games. Walter Camp, the father of American football and the coach of the Yale team, introduced calisthenics and packaged them to America as the daily dozen. Hemlines rose, although my grandmother still could not vote.

The tango was a forbidden dance. Ragtime was considered “black music,” yet too good to not to be played; a Jew named Irving Berlin wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Thirty years later he sealed his fame with a song called White Christmas.

My father lived his entire life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but he wanted to distinguish himself from his father who was exempt from serving in World War I. The Second World War was my father’s grand, personal adventure. He served on a naval supply ship in WWII, drifting and dreaming and ultimately steaming ahead on the Pacific Ocean to magical places like the Philippines that his father could only imagine.

He married my Cuban mother who was two decades younger than he was. She periodically inspired him to set aside his American ways and allow the dream-laden music of Spain to animate his soul. The clashing percussion of bullfight music and rousing zarzuelas brought out a life force in him he otherwise rarely showed the world.

He took his love of Spanish music to the airwaves for two hours on Sunday afternoons to broadcast a show simply called “The Music of Spain.” My father had somehow collected hundreds of imported records with covers showing bullfights and ladies dressed in mantillas. All of this happened from the Hartford, Connecticut studios of WEXT, a country-and-western music station that donated space and time for community programming during an otherwise dull, blue-law day of the week.

In a black-and-white picture of my father as a DJ, scattered white lines break up the photograph’s glossiness. My father wears a no-nonsense white shirt, black pants and a five-o’clock shadow even though the clock in the picture is just coming up on 12:15 p.m. In his left hand is a stopwatch. Behind him are consoles with large buttons and instruments to gauge sound levels — instruments that look as if they belong in a war room rather than a radio station. Two turntables unfurl the music. There is a record cover propped in front of him, announcing in a ribbony script: Suspiros de España, Spanish marching music that has an accompanying pasa doble, a two-step dance that acts out the drama of the bullfight. My father is smiling, a toothy grin that announces his happiness born of music and memory.

“Caballeros y damas,” he says into a large microphone suspended from the ceiling. Gentlemen and Ladies. His voice pours out of the radio and fills the house; his heavy American Spanish so distinctive from my mother’s light velvety version. We three children gather around the radio with my mother and thrill to the sound of my father’s voice. In that moment, he is a celebrity.

Solar Eclipse: A Short Excerpt from Asylum Avenue, A Memoir by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There was a glimmer of my father’s naval life of stars and moons and discipline on a bright Saturday morning in March of 1970. My father announced there would be a solar eclipse that afternoon. I was a big fan at the time of Lost in Space, along with most anything to do with space. Each week I watched the Robinson family in their sleek space suits act unfailingly lovingly toward one another despite their predicament. I was thrilled that the oldest daughter was also named Judy. Maybe I, too, could be a Robinson, a member of their dream family. Here on earth I was bound to the Boltons.

As the appointed hour for the eclipse approached, my father ordered us to stay in the den. He explained that the moon would pass over the sun so that, for a moment, day would become the perennial night of the moon. The inversion fascinated me. Outside there would be no light, no glare to enable us to gauge the intense, prolonged rays emanating from a hidden sun — rays that could burn through our retinae and blind us, as my father reminded.

To demonstrate the rarity and import of the event, Dad bought us sunglasses at the FINAST supermarket. In his world, sunglasses weakened young eyes, and yet here he was adjusting round pink plastic sunglasses atop our noses. I sat in the creaky brown tweed rocker, my feet sticking out at a ninety-degree angle, and shut my eyes tightly until I saw a galaxy of swirling light. Then I opened my eyes narrowly, like the thin beams of light that streamed in between the slats of the venetian blinds. My father faced the shaded window, his sunglasses perched on his head. He was wide-eyed and unafraid of the pure light disguised as night.