I never think much about my Irishness. My parents were not the “kiss me, I’m Irish!” types, though they were both very proud of their immigrant grandparents, and from them learned of the ugly anti-Irish sentiments when they first got off the boat. In 1850s and ’60s New York -- that is, Ellis Island -- Irish men were, more often than not, drafted immediately into the Union Infantry, where they mostly became cannon fodder. My father made it clear to me that we were Americans before anything else.
When people would make comments to my father about being Irish, he would pointedly declare that he was an American. My father’s cultural identity was about this country through and through -- this was the one his ancestors fought so hard to get to. He was a WWII vet who invaded Okinawa, and on days like this, I think of his unflagging courage and innumerable sacrifices in this life -- for family, for country. He was always serving some purpose besides his own, he and my mother both.
It has been 12 years since my dad died, and his ghosts, fear and sense of duty still have an active purchase on my own psyche. Recently, HBO started re-broadcasting its new series, “The Pacific.” I watched the first episode of “The Pacific” with some trepidation. My dad never discussed the war with me until the very end of his life, and even then not in great detail. Suffice to say it had a lasting effect on him. Every time a flashbulb went off, every time a car backfired, every time there were sudden bursts of light, I think my father revisited that dinky, ashen island full of heat, dirt, flies and death.
I take every opportunity to tell my kids of my father’s service to his country -- to tell them that 60 years ago, he and 3,000,000 other 19 year olds saved the world. I remind them that their Irish great-great-grandmother made passage here when Abraham Lincoln was still president. I tell them that the Irish use language better than anyone else on the planet, with the exception of Latin writers; that’s a tie.
Swans are like beautiful black veils of death for me.
My father and I had a complicated relationship; I put many gray hairs on his head. I got in an immense amount of trouble, and was the only one of my siblings to do so. He and I fought each other with words and fists; his love could be brutal. I rejected the Catholic faith that he and my mother held dear, I hated school and authority and I thought my teachers were mostly dipshits. (With a few exceptions, I wasn’t wrong.) I only wanted to draw pictures and be left the fuck alone. The world my father represented didn't make a lot of sense to me -- and in a lot of ways, it still doesn't.
My father and I often battled at the dinner table. He would tell me that when he was my age he was off fighting a war, and that I didn’t know a goddamn thing about the world. The invasion of Okinawa was a bloody, bestial engagement in which Americans took the islands inch-by-bloody-inch in some of the ugliest warfare ever. I never knew the extent of the horror, and my father never gave details; he didn’t discuss the war other than to assert that I had “no idea.” He was right.
The day my father’s ship, the U.S.S. Noble, approached Okinawa, he saw a number of black swans lolling on the bloody water off Okinawa. He remembered them like Black Death Flowers, rising and falling like tides; throughout his life, he recalled this image whenever he was afraid.
At the end of my dad’s life, when he was in hospice, I would visit him every day and try to have conversations with him. It was difficult, given that he was on a morphine drip. He would often tell me there was a Japanese soldier in the hallway. I thought maybe my father was mistaking one of the doctors for the soldier -- but he said no. He kept insisting there was a Japanese soldier lurking in the hall. Finally, I asked him why he thought he was out there and my father replied, “To forgive me.”
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.