- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005


By Tom Mathews

Broadway, $24.95, 292 pages


In a recent interview, the hugely productive and obscenely successful novelist James Patterson (34 titles in print and $40 million in income in just the last year), described what it was like to be the son of a cold and emotionally distant man: “The Army was a role model for him on how to be a father. That was true of that generation, I think. They all brought you up as if they were preparing you for another war. You had to be tough.”

Unknowingly, Mr. Patterson had written the jacket copy for Tom Mathews’ fascinating book, “Our Fathers’ War,” a close-up look at the lives of nine men and their fathers who lived the truth of that sad observation. And, the author maintains, one can probably extrapolate their existence into a small army of unhappy fathers and sons. First and foremost, however, Tom Mathews is writing about himself and his own father, Thomas Richard Mathews Sr., and the mainly miserable relationship they had for (almost) their entire lives.

The beginning of that relationship was poignantly inauspicious: “I don’t remember anything about the young rock climber and skier who shipped out with the 10th Mountain Division to fight the Germans in northern Italy. He left a few months after my first birthday. I never think about him. To tell the truth, the only thing that piques my curiosity now is his uniform.”

As the author sets the scene, it’s 1945, he’s now two, and he awaits the return of his warrior father, “… perched on the roof of a garage behind a small brick house on Mill Creek… . The idea is to get a good look at my father without getting too close too soon. My observation post isn’t really a garage, but I don’t know that yet. Topping out at about three feet tall, I’m still short on inches and nouns.” His father immediately comes toward him “at a fast clip,” and tells the boy to jump into his arms, that “It’s okay, Tommy, I’m your father.” The boy, frightened by his commanding tone — and presence — hesitates once, twice, and then refuses to jump. “The soldier wheels abruptly and storms across the yard” saying, “No son of mine is a coward.” And from there, the relationship goes straight downhill.

Flash forward almost 60 years from D-Day, and the son, like his father a gifted writer, sits down to try and make sense of it all, if he can. As it turns out he can. Despite the greatest-generation subtitle, which all but flashes “Brokaw spin-off,” “Our Fathers’ War” is a sobering, somber, and yet very moving account of what happened to young men like Tom Mathews Sr. who went to war and saw — and did — too much killing and then, not having had the time or perhaps even the inclination to sort it all out, had to come home and be “good fathers.” That’s half the story. The other half is what happened to the sons these men had to try and raise as best they could in their damaged state. As Tom Mathews Jr. makes painfully clear, their best not only wasn’t good enough, it was not very good at all.

Tom Sr. became a star journalist, a political consultant, the first public information director of the Peace Corps, one of those present at the creation of Common Cause, Lincoln Center’s first PR czar and then a financially successful direct mail and nonprofit guru on the political left of the political spectrum. But the same black dogs that plagued not just Churchill but so many others who experienced World War II firsthand continued to nip at his heels throughout his life, and at times he lost major battles with alcoholism and depression. Somehow, he persevered and survived, in a rare example of doing well by doing good.

(Disclosure: 20 years ago I had the pleasure of knowing and writing about Tom Mathews Sr. who told me everything about the troubled past that he had arduously willed and worked into a very positive future — everything but this part of his story. Imagine my interest.)

In 1999, Tom Jr. (for almost 30 years a Newsweek senior writer, foreign editor, arts editor and New York bureau chief) left a movie theater more than a little confused. “So far as I could see, everyone else came out with a lump in the throat, but after the movie I drove home wondering how so many heroes could return from whipping the Germans and then turn into such Huns as fathers.” Not long after that, at his local health club a man on an adjacent treadmill suddenly blurted out that he’d never had an open talk with his father about WWII: “‘Not once. Not one single time.’” And when it happened again, this time with a clerk in a hardware store, the inquiring mind of a seasoned journalist who’d been asking himself that same question all his life took over, and “Our Fathers’ War” was born.

Over the course of the next several years, Mr. Mathews heard different versions of the same story involving other combat vets, vets with names like Murray Greenberg, Ed Persan, Richard Vincent, Arthur Nelson, Michael Savino, Spann Watson, Frank Martinelli, Louis Simpson and Hollis “Red” Ditterline. All of the men had sons; all of the men gave their sons a hard time; and all the sons, and some of the fathers, attributed it to the war. In case you were wondering, the Louis Simpson Mr. Mathews found and interviewed is indeed Louis Simpson the renowned poet, and as a result of Mathews’ fine writing and Mr. Simpson’s ability to put complex emotions into simple words, that chapter fairly glows. But each chapter, and each family story, is worth reading, and the cumulative effect on the reader is a fuller and deeper appreciation of the men and events depicted.

There was also a cumulative effect on the writer. In 1993, Tom Mathews tried one more time to make peace with his father, and the last chapter is a beautifully-told recreation of a trip they made “alone together” to Italy to revisit the WWII battlefields of Tom Sr. When they met at the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome they hadn’t spoken more than a few words to one another in several years.

Tom Jr. writes: “Remembering how Steven Greenberg and Josh Vincent had pursued their fathers only to lose them, I felt a tingle of good luck. The old paisano was dressed right for the land of bella figura: a dark blue blazer, light blue cashmere turtleneck, soft brown corduroy trousers, and hiking boots. He was walking with a slight limp and he had put on some weight. That made two of us: I had a mutinous hip and was hiding my love handles in baggy pants. Neither of us was in any shape to bolt from the starting gate. A hundred yards down the corridor, he pushed the handle of his carry-on into my hand. ‘All right, Brigham,’ he said. ‘You pull the wagon.’”

The Utah-born Mathews was harkening back to his Jack Mormon roots. Getting the feeling things are going to turn out okay? You might be right. But there’s a lot of ground to be covered, both literally and otherwise. In addition to the deep hurt Tom Sr. had inflicted by his inability to show paternal love, there was also the pain he’d caused when, as the author writes of his parents, “They celebrated their Golden Anniversary by getting divorced.”

There had been a few other halfhearted attempts at rapprochement in the past that didn’t work, but this time both father and son are trying. They walk and they talk, a lot, and the father drinks (some) but the son, also a recovering alcoholic, does not. And then, at long last, Tom Sr. tells Tom Jr. what he did in the war, what it was that made him go so far back into himself, and there’s nothing pretty about it. It is a tale told by a wiser man, full of sound and fury, signifying everything. I won’t spoil the ending by quoting any of it. You have to read it.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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