The Ninety Day Wonder
Decades after he was in the Navy, when I was no more than six or seven years-old, my father tracked the weather as if he were still on the bridge of his supply ship. Clad in mismatched pajamas, a plaid robe and stark silence, if Dad stood straight enough he could still graze a chart at 5’7”—the minimum height for an officer.
The war was always with him and the weather forever obsessed him. Most nights, he’d look out my bedroom window—it afforded the best view to take in a weather report—onto the wind-swept fields of Saint Joseph College.
On blue-black nights the cold weather almost always set off an attack for me, an asthmatic. My coughing filled the house and Dad kept vigil. In my bedroom the menthol smell of Ben Gay mixed in with the scent of pipe tobacco trailing him. Every hour or so he’d reenter and refill my vaporizer, keeping my bedroom as humid as the tropics.
It is eternal twilight in the basement of Yale’s Sterling Library. I thread a film- strip—photo negatives, the color of my father’s morning Sanka, necklaced together—into a battered gray microfiche machine to read long ago issues of the Yale Alumni Magazine (YAM). I’ve come to the library on the advice of a friend of a friend to pore over a lifetime’s worth of Dad’s class notes beginning with his 1940 graduation. I’m looking to cull hints about my father’s Naval career during the Second World War and his unexplained travels in Latin America during the 1950s—events that happened long before I was born.
I always suspected that my father was in the CIA, so much so that it has become bone memory for me. The friend of a friend, an investigative reporter who wrote a history of the CIA, told me that in its infancy, the agency recruited men like my father—Ivy League graduates with the aptitude and attitude for intelligence work. He thought that Dad’s class notes might be studded with quirky, anecdotal information that would point to my father’s career as an agent.
My father has been dead for over a decade, but I know he would neither confirm nor deny his role in the CIA. Nevertheless, I hoped to string together any anecdotes I found in service to a bigger truth. As I squinted and read through the months and years and decades of Dad’s class notes, the reporter’s advice reminded me of a Talmudic maxim—It is not incumbent upon one to complete the work, but neither is one at liberty to desist from it.
I’ve inherited my father’s persistence, though he experienced my tenacity as that of a nudnik—the Yiddish for a pest, a nuisance. I can understand why I exasperated Dad. From the very beginning, I would ask him question after question about my world, his world. “Look it up in the dictionary,” he’d say. Or, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
I am not a nudnik. Nor am I a cat. I am an adult who has sought to learn about her father through the Freedom of Information Act, through search engines slow and fast, through his best friend who admitted to serving with Dad in Guatemala, through memorializing Dad in the Jewish prayer of the Kaddish for the dead and even through the supernatural intervention of mediums. During one of those sessions, a psychic told me that my father was hovering nearby. “He says to leave his story alone,” she said.
There, after all of these years, it turns out the man was hiding in plain sight.
When going through Yale 1940’s class notes became tedious, I rejuvenated myself with child’s play. The library’s microfiche machine became a time machine that transported me back to my father’s life. His world unspooled on the screen in black and white. On the day Dad graduated from Yale, German troops had been in Paris for a week and an armistice was in the offing to divide France among Germany, Italy and the French Vichy government. The American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James addressed the Class of 1940 about Britain’s brave stance against the Germans. In the next few months the Luftwaffe would blitz London with sustained bombings for over a year.
As American participation in the war ramped up, the need for officers became urgent. College graduates were given three months to absorb what midshipmen in Annapolis and cadets at West Point were allowed four years to learn. With his Yale diploma in one hand and a Naval commission in the other, my father reported for Officer Candidate School at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as a “Ninety Day Wonder.” He was fast-tracked to become an executive officer on a supply ship and for ninety days he was immersed in everything navy. He graduated the program saluting his fellow officers as an ensign.
Sometime in the fall of 1940 my father left his parents’ boxy gingerbread house in New Haven, Connecticut, to make his way to San Francisco. From there he would ship out to the Pacific theatre. He would not be back for three years. His mother took to lying down in her darkened bedroom—another space of eternal twilight—for days at a time, pressing cold compresses to her forehead.
Dad believed that a sailor lived and died according to how well prepared he was for the weather. On the summer nights of my childhood, he stood on the porch to watch lightning, to listen to thunder. He experienced those storms as another kind of blitzkrieg, lightning war. And his rules during them were absolute: No talking on the telephone, no watching television and no showering while lightning cracked the sky and lit the world the color of steel. I always wondered about my father and lightning. Had he or someone he knew been struck by it? Or was it simply that fear and respect were intertwined for him?
During a particularly window-rattling storm, Dad, worried that lightning might strike the house rushed our family—mother, sister, brother and me—into the ’65 Malibu, certain that a car was the safest place. He said that rubber tires provided the best grounding. On those wind-howling nights, the car didn’t move an inch on the driveway, yet my father belted my little sister and me together in the backseat. The silver buckle pressed against our bellies, making it hard to breathe.
When snow bleached the world, my father battled heavy weather and bad colds with extensive and thorough preparations. The night before a storm the house smelled like winter as he waterproofed our boots atop old issues of The Hartford Times. And it looked like winter as he propped shovels and bags of salt against the garage door.
Dad moved on to pile coats, hats and gloves on the living room sofa. Among them was the bearish coat he wore on the blusteriest of days. It was similar to the one he had decades before when he was stationed in Greenland. He found it bargain hunting at the Groton Naval Base, where he was crisply saluted each time he took us to the Officer’s Club for dinner. Groton was another sort of time machine—a place where Dad showed a worn military ID from his naval reserve days to recoup a few privileges from his former life.
The morning of a storm Dad doubled the dose of the chewable Zestab that colored my tongue red and the tangy Acerola that made my mouth water. He firmly believed that health was best maintained with Vitamin C as well as the cereal Product 19 he drenched every morning with skim milk and topped with a sliced, barely ripe banana.
When the moon passes over the sun, day becomes night.
On a bright Saturday morning in March of 1970, my father announced there would be a solar eclipse in the afternoon. As the appointed hour approached, he ordered the four of us to stay in the den. He explained that 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.
Dad bought us sunglasses at FINAST Supermarket—an acronym for First National Stores that had cost me points on a spelling test. I sat in the creaky brown tweed rocker, my feet sticking out at a ninety-degree angle. I wore round pink plastic sunglasses and shut my eyes tightly until I saw a galaxy of swirling light. Then I opened them 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 atop his head. He was wide-eyed and unafraid of the pure light disguised as night.
In the snapshot Dad sent to his mother he had been on duty somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Pacific for only six months, but his khaki uniform was already too big for him. He was below deck where it was windowless. His dreamy gaze suggested that he was drifting perhaps towards Greenland or Australia. But my father never drifted for long. Somehow he read the sky and righted himself to know exactly where he was going.
He must have punched extra holes in his belt. His hat fell below his ears as if from the weight of the brassy naval insignia. His Adam’s apple was prominent and his neck muscles taut. This was a man who had lost a lot of weight from adrenaline rushes and compulsory exercise.
Another long day of research, this time in my home office, reading over Dad’s naval records that I had requested. I’m surprised that the comments characterized an exceptionally stubborn young man, inexperienced, and always one of the youngest officers on the ship. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s naval file consistently indicated that although he was an average, somewhat naïve officer, he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism. The gap between his ability and his determination made him a ripe recruit for the Central Intelligence Agency. As a rank and file spy, he had more success taking orders than giving them.
In my father’s file there was also a copy of a note, which he wrote to his commanding officer. His handwriting was tentative compared to the bold middle-age print of his three-toned checks, the marquee-like envelopes he addressed to Miss Judith Frances Bolton for my birthdays and Valentine’s day, or even his grocery lists—penned in red or green ink—on yellow legal-size paper.
The Christmas after Pearl Harbor, Dad was still in San Francisco waiting to ship out. He wrote to his superior that he decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty. He thought the extra time would boost morale. More to the point, I think my father was a man who wanted to make friends while also showing his men that his authority was right, and real, and fair.
In the January 1942 issue of YAM’s 1940 class notes I came across another picture of my father with a mustache and in naval dress uniform. If Dad was green and inexperienced it was not apparent in this photograph. This was a picture of an officer who expected to win the war. I stared at my twenty-three-year-old father. Would this have been the photograph that might have accompanied his obituary if he had been killed in action? It was a few years after 9/11 and I remember how stunned I was at the time that newspaper articles referred to the photos of firefighters and police officers that died in the World Trade Center as their obituary pictures—pictures these men and women knew would accompany their death notices. Dad’s image floated on the screen among those of other handsome young men in their twenties who also looked older—the way people do in long-ago pictures.
In March of 1943, Dad casually wrote in to his class notes that he had not seen American soil for almost three years. He once told me how ironic it was that Greenland was full of ice and Iceland was beautiful and green. It turns out that my dad ran guns and butter to and from Greenland for the British between 1940 and 1941.
The small black and white photograph my father sent to his mother would have been a truer obituary picture. I framed a copy long before I landed at the Yale Library or found myself in the midst of his naval records. I framed a copy because I looked so much like my father when we were both in our twenties. I framed a copy and for all the times I stared at it, it was only a couple of decades after first laying eyes on it that I noticed my father held a cigar stub in his left hand. I had seen him at parties, at holidays smoking cigars that he paired with a drink. There was also a ring on the finger where a future wedding band would sit. I knew that ring. He kept it in a heart-shaped box that sat atop his dresser—a souvenir he brought back from one of his trips to Guatemala. It was like the ring of a monarch or a dictator—a chunk of silver stamped with Dad’s authoritative initials KHB—initials that stood for K. Harold Bolton.
I also saw the top button of his shirt undone, revealing a rim of white t-shirt and a shock of chest hair. I thought I could make out the chain of his dog tags, but then they faded away. I know those tags were stamped with an H that stood for the biblical-sounding descriptor—Hebrew. Dad told me that much.
Jewish soldiers fighting in the Second World War were identified with that H. I found the same word in old class notes from the earlier part of the 20th century. For example, my father’s cousin Jimmy Rosen, Yale Class of 1921, was described as belonging to the Hebrew faith.
My father, an assimilated Jew, passed on the opportunity to wear dog tags stamped with an O for Other. O like the universal blood type. O who accepted last rites from any religious tradition. That kind of ecumenicism was not for him. If he died, his obituary would note that he was a Jew.
By the time I reached 1944 in Dad’s naval records, I learned that he was remanded to quarters for twenty-four hours after going AWOL for a day. This rounds out a profile of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not want to become acquainted with them. Nor did he learn to use the sextant properly to do navigational calculations. Perhaps it was because calculations demystified the heavens and all Lieutenant Bolton wanted to do was romanticize them. My father, the romantic, cried when he listened to opera. My father, the patriot, cried when listened to John Philip Sousa.
Later, he would earn a living as an accountant.
Similarly, when it came to understanding why Dad was confined to quarters, anecdote mingled with fact. My brother is the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share and he says that Dad was never AWOL. The real story, John said, was that Lieutenant Bolton was considered to have fraternized with the black cook on the ship, Cookie, whose real name was Ernie. Dad stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity to put his arm around a man who had just received the news that his brother had been killed in action in Europe. Lieutenant Bolton had called Cookie by his given name. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform. And finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship, the USS Trinity.
From my bed I watched my father inhale the vaporizer’s steam originally meant for me.
He laid his hands on my windowsill as if he were about to do the pushups we, his children, had watched him complete every morning of our childhood on the green shaggy carpeted floor of his bedroom. But instead of exercising he stared at the snow falling in slants. By the end of the night Lieutenant Commander Bolton (there had been a promotion) was jetlagged from traveling through the decades to this moment in his late fatherhood. To this moment of stormy weather.
I stared at Dad’s snapshot—now his obituary photo—smiling at me from the microfiche machine. I breathed as deeply as I once did in my bedroom when my father was merely an outline in the midnight steam. And I printed out the photograph to have something solid to hold onto amidst the fog of memory.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Salon, 1966: A Journal of Creative Non-fiction, Brevity, Cognoscenti and other venues. She has also written a memoir, currently unpublished, entitled “The Ninety Day Wonder.” Judy lives and writes with her family outside of Boston.