My father likes to claim kinship with the Vikings. According to Dad, if Erik the Red had veered off course, just a tiny bit, he could easily have been an ancestor of ours. If you scoff, he’ll drag you off to look at the map, point in the general direction of Iceland and then in the general direction of Latvia. “Only a few inches apart,” he’ll say. “On the open seas, what would that be, a day’s journey? It could easily have happened.” If you still don’t look convinced, he pulls out the big guns, his indisputable evidence: “Jews eat herring, no?” He’s proven his point.
Dad likes the Vikings. Sometime in his boyhood, when he was still wearing short pants and playing stickball in the street, he heard about, or read about, those intrepid sailors, and it’s stuck in his mind. Whenever he’s feeling nostalgic for his good old days, he tells the story of how some lone Viking ship could have pulled up anchor outside the walls of a Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe. I don't know why, but it seems to make him feel better.
But my father takes even more pleasure in talking about subjects that make him feel worse. “Don’t talk to me about the lone gunman,” he’ll say, apropos of absolutely nothing, because nobody has been talking about the lone gunman for a long, long time. But to my father, President Kennedy’s assassination could just as well have happened yesterday.
“I’ll tell you something,” he goes on, “we’re not going to learn the truth in my lifetime. Not in your lifetime, either. Not in your children’s lifetime.”
He looks me in the eye as he says this. He knows I have no children, I’m not going to have any children. It doesn’t matter. It troubles him that my non-existent children will never know the truth.
It’s better not to say anything at all in response. Dad doesn’t like discussions, they make him nervous. He prefers to simply tell you things, and in case you don’t believe him he has experts to quote. His experts are the people who host call-in radio programs. Woe unto you if you criticize any of these guys. My father is less fond of criticism than he is of discussion.
“You should listen to these shows once in a while before you go voicing an opinion you know nothing about,” he tells me. “You and your commie pinko friends, shut off your NPR and listen to something unbiased for a change.”
My father’s latest obsession is with life on other planets. More specifically, the presence of that life on this planet. The world as we know it is just too much for him. Better to think of other worlds. When I saw him last, he was telling me about alien abductions and I made a major tactical error. I said “You don’t really believe that, do you Dad?”
“You think you’re so smart,” he said. “Just because it didn’t happen to you, you think it couldn’t happen to anyone else.”
“Did it happen to you?” I was thinking: maybe that explains it. Could aliens have taken over my father’s body? But no, that would be too simple an explanation.
“It didn’t happen to me,” he conceded, “but I know plenty of people — plenty — who have been tampered with, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
I turned toward my mother for confirmation. She shook her head and signaled I should change the subject.
Later, Mom took me aside and explained that my father doesn’t actually know any people who’ve spent time in a spaceship. “It’s those damn radio shows,” she said. “He gets very involved. They’re all a bunch of crackpots but your father is devoted to them. He listens late at night when he can’t sleep. I think that’s why he can’t sleep. He’s got his ear up to the radio and he’s very impressionable. When he’s in that state of mind things sink in and he can’t shake them out again.”
“Oh, Ma,” I said, “this is sort of awful.”
“Sort of? It’s completely awful. Your father’s brain is a big sponge. Any cockamamie idea that’s going around eventually lands on it. But I don’t want you to worry. Put it out of your head. Don’t give it a second thought.”
Naturally, I haven’t been able to put it out of my head. I have this image of my father’s brain as a Venus Flytrap — open, eager, inviting. Ready to latch on to every paranoid conspiracy theory that comes floating down the pike.
Once my father gets a hold of an idea, it’s his for life. The same goes for words. Words that, for some inexplicable reason, he cannot pronounce.
Years ago, my parents were invited to have brunch with their friends Mindy and Sol. I say friends, but my father hated them. He hated Mindy a little, but he hated Sol a lot. Sol wore turtle neck sweaters and khakis. Nothing irritates my father more than a man in a turtleneck sweater.
Anyway, Mindy was being adventurous in the kitchen. She made a quiche. My father didn’t like the sound of that. “French?” he sneered, “who needs anything from the French. A bunch of Nazi collaborators, every one of them. The so-called Resistance was a hoax. There’s documented facts to back me up.”
“Shut up and eat your food,” my mother said, or words to that effect. Dad took a bite. “It’s an omelette, nothing but a glorified omelette. Why don’t you just call it an omelette and be done with it?”
Sol piped up: “Actually, I’m very fond of this dish.”
Need I tell you? Dad detests the word actually. “Oh you are, are you? You’re very fond of kweesh . . . actually.”
My mother told me this story. She said he pronounced it kweesh and no one corrected him. They thought he was being sarcastic. But the thing is, ever since then, he’s always pronounced it kweesh, and he doesn’t seem to know it’s wrong.
He can’t say millennium, either. Throw your mind back to the year 1999. Every other word out of everybody’s mouth was millennium. My father couldn’t say it. He wasn’t embarrassed. He just talked about the upcoming manillium — with great authority. He said it like he was right.
This is what it means to be a white man in America. A big man, an intimidating man. A man who looks, when he’s dressed up in a suit and tie, like he could be your congressman. Even though he mistrusts all politicians.
But it’s not about what he thinks, or even about what he says. It’s about the way he says it. With confidence. With vim and vigor. Without leaving the slightest room for doubt.
We could be related to the Vikings, kids.
Don’t even thinking about bringing a God-damned kweesh into my house.
If you happen to see a UFO parked on the street, walk the other way . . . as fast as you can.
Life in the new manillium is even worse than life in the old one.
Can’t you just hear him?