By Jeff Hodges
When my father attended Columbia University he lived in an apartment you could only get into through a window. This gave him the license to say he made it into Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road because of the line that appears near the beginning of Chapter 10: “And at five o’clock in the morning we were all climbing through the window of another apartment and another party.” Dad, a returning WWII veteran, always maintained that he and his drinking buddies felt that fledgling Beats Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg were a little too unseasoned and flighty to be taken seriously.
In 1946, after my father returned from the Pacific theater, he was browsing through some college catalogues in his hometown and found one from Columbia University that looked promising. He got on a bus, disembarked at the admissions office, and announced he was ready to matriculate. The staff found this highly amusing, and eventually the director of admissions came out of his office to investigate the sniggering. “This Hoosier came all the way from Indiana and thinks he can just start classes!” he was told.
The director noticed my father was carrying a recently published book, A Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie. He invited Dad into his office and they chatted for a while about Wylie’s vitriolic attack on the American lifestyle. Then he came out and told his staff to go ahead and enroll the GI from Terre Haute.
Ill fortune and fortuitous luck ran together in my father’s family. Dad told us the men often died with their boots on, and it was true: lumbering accidents, drownings, shootings, and other fatal misadventures hang in the family tree. When our ancestors, émigrés from England, decided to fight on the American side during the Revolutionary War, their father, a wealthy landowner in London, disinherited them forever. During the Great Depression, when Dad and his brothers were shooting pigeons off the telegraph wires for dinner, they would joke that the letter from England saying “All is forgiven!” could still arrive any day.
When my father’s first two novels were published they sold around five thousand copies and were fading into oblivion when two shysters took them to Hollywood, claiming they owned the rights. As a result, my father picked up a couple of movie options that set him up in Key West for a number of years.
When Crown Publishers declined to buy his third book, mainly because of his combative and uncooperative attitude, he sold it first to a small publishing house in Maine and then to Reader’s Digest. After expurgating the sex scenes, the Digest published it worldwide in a dozen different languages, and that kept Dad beachside for another couple of years.
He died early one morning in hospice, and after I got the call I went back to sleep. He immediately appeared to me in a dream. Judging by the barren landscape, we were in Purgatory.
“Well, Dad,” I asked, “How do you like being dead?”
He replied with characteristic contrariness. “I’ll tell you this,” he said, “whoever is running this show has a lot to learn. We’ll have to see about making some changes, that’s for sure.”
My daughter says my father’s funeral was one of the best parties she ever attended. After the memorial service, we put his cremains on the bar of his favorite drinking establishment, crowned him with a shot glass, and drank to his memory. At the end of the night, we drunkenly left him on a bar stool and had to go back the next morning to retrieve him.
I don’t think he minded all that much.