“Hi Dad. Are you writing more these days?”
Entering my father’s small assisted living apartment, emotionally armored up to prepare for the experience, I am derailed from my scripted visit by the sight of several pages of typewriting, with tortured but legible pen edits all over them. This is a sight familiar from my childhood, when most of our house was covered in such sheets; my father, a freelance writer and author, was constantly surrounded by a minimum of five to eight projects in various stages of completion. Fortunately for everyone, he had been trained early in his career as a journalist to include a title, draft and page number atop every sheet - so his writing process was able to survive a wife, two sons, numerous cats and even a pair of peripatetic diamondback terrapins who roamed the house.
“Yeah. (Insert crazy partner name here) is pushing me to write more.”
It’s almost enough to make me accept that fact that she exists in our world. My father has been through an awful lot recently, his health precarious. He has a neuropathy that attacks the motor nerves in his limbs, which means his balance is bad and he has had significant trouble walking. As a result, it’s difficult for him to maintain his musculature, and his increasing frailness makes the problem worse. He recently spent a month in hospital and rehab hospitals after a pneumonia, during the course of which his confusion was so bad that he was convinced that he was being held in prison and had shamed his family. I have to admit that the rehab hospital environment was so stressful and depressing that it’s not hard to understand his confusion there. On the flip side, unlike other facilities he has been in, the staff there were attentive, caring and responsive and he was near enough to his partner's home for her to visit him regularly, which was critical.
Anyhow. I lean over to look at the top sheet, sitting under the lamp, next to the now-antique IBM Selectric typewriter. My brother and I, after trying for six months to get him an acceptable typewriter, finally decided to have his own old typewriter restored, and my brother found an obsessive typewriter restorer to do the job. His golfball Selectric 71 being of tank-like construction, it worked fine once it had been cleaned and a couple plastic parts replaced. Turning it on results in a THUNK and a hum in its metal frame as its motor (motors?) spin up.
I see the phrase “There was a sign posted by the boarding ramp to the ship, the S.S. Negbah, that read ‘HAIFA $40’.” I looked up, surprised, at Dad. “Dad, is this…is this about when you went to Israel from France?”
Carefully, feeling like I was in danger of spooking him, I said “You’ve never told me about that time.”
“No, Dad. I just know you were in France, then you went to Israel, then you vanished, then a couple of years later your friend S--- met you in Havana during the Cuban Revolution.” S---, in this case, is a college classmate of Dad’s, and is the friend who introduced my parents - so that’s how they met, because S--- had lost track of Dad until meeting him in a literal revolution and then later introducing the two of them.
“I feel like anyone who cares about that story already knows everything.”
This is crap, although he might actually believe it. I have carefully surveyed his family, all his contemporaries, asking them all if they know what he was up to that couple of years, and uniformly, I get back the couple of sentences above - he was at grad school at the Sorbonne, he dropped out of sight, and then he turned up more than a year later in the US, working as a journalist in New York City. “Nope, Dad. I mean, maybe other people, but you never told me.”
“Oh.” He seems reluctant to say anything else.
I wait for a bit, then- “Can you tell me about this ship?”
“Oh, sure. The Negbah. She was a rustbucket.” He laughs, then pauses. He’s sitting on his bed in his assisted living unit, with his walker in front of him in case he wants to or needs to get up. He has fallen several times over the past two years, enough that all of us tense up and get wary when he tries, but he just fiddles with the walker and drops his hands. His eyes are unfocused and I realize he’s recalling things. “She took ten days to get to Haifa from Marseilles.” More fiddling. “I remember getting off the ship in Naples and wandering around trying to buy, to buy…” he gropes for a word. “A switchblade, but one where, you know, the blade comes out straight?”
“A stiletto? Wait, no, it’s a kind of switchblade, I think.” (I am sort of right, it’s an ‘OTF switchblade’ but whatever, who cares.)
“Yeah. Stiletto. I tried to buy one.”
“Why? Did something happen on the ship?”
“No. Just seemed like the kind of thing to have, you know? I was headed for Israel, no plan, wandering.”
We both fall silent for a bit. I am marveling at this entirely new picture of my father, who I have pictured up to now as a somewhat weedy intellectual kid in his early years. I knew he had a tendency towards strong independent moves, though - smothered by his mother, he had withdrawn from the University of Chicago without telling her after applying to and gaining entrance to the nascent Brandeis University, decamping from their home town of Chicago and vanishing into the (to her) faraway wilds of Massachusetts without a word. Some weeks or months later, his sister my aunt once told me, he sent a letter home telling them where he was and not to worry. That was the beginning of his lifelong and nearly-successful struggle to escape his mother. I knew he had gotten into the Sorbonne for graduate study but never even really started, that his vanishing act had happened mere weeks after arriving in Paris.
“Anyway, I got off the ship in Haifa, and spent a month with a guy and his family I’d met on the boat, then I wandered around Israel for a while before ending up at the kibbutz.”
“Oh, Gesher…Gesher something, Gesher HaZiv?”
I am frantically phonetyping. I pull up a picture. “Gesher HaZiv, yeah. It was founded in 1949.”
“Yep, when I was there, it was tiny and really, uh, rough.”
I show him another picture. “Is that the ship?”
He squints at my iPhone through his glasses. “Yes! That’s her. She was a junker.” He laughs. “But she got us there.”
I read a bit and find that the Negbah was acquired by the nascent state of Israel, used to supply - read, smuggle - arms and volunteers into the country during the 1948 War for Independence, and tell him so. “That sounds right. The crew was a pretty tough group. Nice guys, but you wouldn’t want to mess with them.” At the time, she was on a Haifa-Marseilles-Naples route, bringing immigrating Jews to Israel, but she would be scrapped a year or less after my father sailed to Israel aboard her.
We sit for a few moments. Then it comes out.
He starts talking about his time in Israel.
He talks about the girls he was with - a desert nomad named Tirtse (“Therese”, he says, the emphasis his). And another, another European there to ‘see the holy land.’ I find out he took ship, a year or so after arriving, from Haifa to Turkiye, and in Iskenderun he hitchhiked to Ankara with an American who turned out to be the commander of the new US Airbase at Adanah - now Incirlik Air Base - who had come to collect the monthly payroll. “We drove back with $45,000 in an envelope on the front seat,” he laughs again, a sound I had missed.
And his journey back to Paris, and then to the US, afterwards. I learn where he was living in Paris ("Near the back side of Notre Dame, on the Left Bank, a block or so back from the docks at the port.") He tells me about hitchhiking back from Ankara via a somewhat random route ("I spent a month with a girl in Thasos...") and about his few weeks in Paris settling up with his landlady and reclaiming or dumping his stuff before making his way back to the US. I learn that he 'self-assigned' to Havana during the run up to the revolution; I've heard the other side of that story of S--- meeting him there from S--- himself ("And there, sitting by the pool, a glass of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other, I found (Dad), contemplating the revolution.")
I have never heard this part of my father’s life. I am struck by his impulsive escape from his parents and his life, but not his upbringing; the trip to Israel, it turns out, was unplanned but was driven by the need of a young Jew to see Israel; to see the place the fighting had happened to give his people a home in the world.
I have never done anything that unplanned, that life changing. I suspect I never will. I realize, with some sadness, that I won't have a story like this to tell my nephews when they are my age.
My father changed in my eyes that day.