Not long ago I read the entertaining memoir/biography of Hugh Nibley, Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D: Memoir of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, covering his years in the service during World War II. A particular pleasure for me was that it was co-written by his son, Alex, whom I home taught while attending the U. of U. When I knew him, Alex would sometimes share interesting anecdotes about his father and family life, and spoke of animated, esoteric converations at their dinner table. In the memoir Alex interjects here and there, adding historical background to events his father recalls, giving each story a little extra scope. I envy the collaboration they shared, and I wonder how much Alex discovered about his dad that he didn’t know before.
Reading the book made me think of my own father, a war child from Estonia. He was also a colorful man and a survivor of the Nazi war machine. However, instead of being tempered by the tragedies he endured, he allowed them to consume him. It left him a wayward vessel of wanderlust, an alcoholic consumed by ulcers and nightmares that ultimately killed him when I was seventeen. Shortly after he died, I took his last personal diary to a woman in Provo who was also Estonian and a convert to the Church. As she translated the thoughts my father penned during his last days, her eyes filled with tears. “That war,” she said, “killed so many people… it’s still killing them.”
When Dad died, though, he left a lot of things unanswered. Under the spell of drink, he shared numerous stories with me when I was a kid. Some were wild and fantastic, others comical, still others just plain sad. Many of these stories my grandmother– a woman who had little patience for fiction– corroborated. For some others she just clammed up. She was a sometime compass who left us seven years before Dad, and when she was gone there was no telling what was real or not anymore.
Here are some of the stories. I’ll note the ones that were confirmed by my Vava (grandmother):
My father was born in Estonia in 1930, the son of a strict music teacher born of royal lineage (he was a music teacher from a long line of music teachers and organists; the royal part I, as yet, have been unable to confirm). During the war my grandfather snuck information about Nazi activity to the Russians, was caught and subsequently shot (corroborated). At age 9, Dad killed a sleeping German guard so he and his mother could escape to Russian-occupied territory (not corroborated– they did escape, though). While practicing English he was caught by a Russian soldier who took him for a spy and arrested him. A Soviet officer who was fond of my grandmother ordered him released (the officer was courting Vava, that much was true). He saw Hitler give a speech (absolutely not true). At the end of the war, they fled back to Germany and were put in a relocation camp (corroborated). In 1948 they arrived at Ellis Island. While they pressed together with a herd of immigrants waiting to be processed, someone urinated in his coat pocket (unfortunately true). He became a member of the legendary street gang, the Bronx Tigers (absolutely not true). He was the head butler for William Fox, founder of 20th Century Fox. One Christmas old man Fox offered to buy Dad a house in New Jersey. Concerned about the man’s senility, Dad graciously declined and received a gold Omega watch instead. The chauffeur got the house in Jersey (All true. Dad was married to my mother when all this went down, and he was still employed by Fox’s widow when I was born. I now own the watch). Dad had ex-Nazi soldiers come to his home for cocktails & sharing stories of the old days (absolutely true– as a toddler I would drink from their glasses before stumbling into my room to pass out). He befriended an ex-SS officer who slipped into the U.S. and reinvented himself (absolutely true– one Halloween the man lent me his war medals after I swore I wouldn’t say where I got them). During a stint as a limo driver, Dad drove Sophia Loren, Hugh Hefner and Darren McGavin. Hefner was supposed to have given him a Playboy Club card, which Dad gave away because Mom didn’t approve of it. He harbored a dislike for McGavin ever since because the actor stiffed him on the tip (who knows– about any of it?). As a butler at another estate he met Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, and got his autograph (True. I was 9 at the time and saw the Duke & Duchess, myself. We also have pictures. As for the autograph, Dad gave it to me but I never authenticated it). Dad falsified a resume when we moved to Utah and became an engineer. The few college courses he took as a young man– and his affinity for math– covered him (absolutely true). He died a civil engineer seven years later.
Despite his flaws and penchant for the tall story, I loved my Dad. He was tender, gregarious and giving– and he DID lead a very colorful life. My experiences with him, though, certainly handicapped my perception of our family history– and history, in general. How much of it is true, how much fable, and how much distorted from memories of those sharing it? I think this is something progeny should consider when picking up their family histories and reading about their ancestors’ exploits. It’s probably all true (hopefully most progenitors didn’t embellish their pasts– can you say “Don Draper”?) . On the other hand, some of it might be the fancies of someone who wanted to be more interesting than they thought they already were.