06/17/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

My Father Was Billy the Kid

My father grew up in the Frogtown Neighborhood of St.Paul, and attended Cretin High School. Half German, half Irish. He was a little guy, but good with his fists. He had boxed in high school, despite the fact he was two years younger than his classmates, having advanced two grades in elementary school. They called him "Billy the Kid." He was a fighter, but never hit me once. However, when I did something wild (which was often) he'd say, "Don't start anything; I've got at least one good fight left in me!"

I still have his Cretin High School yearbook. He once went through it with me and pointed out all of his classmates who died in WWII, and the many were maimed. "He was captured at Bataan, and later went blind from the malnutrition." "He volunteered for a suicide mission and was the only survivor in his unit." "He lived in a state hospital for five years from having battle fatigue."

May father joined the army before the war began, became a lieutenant in the combat engineers. He landed in Africa in 1942. He dismantled minefields (high causality rate), worked with explosives, and constructed Bailey Bridges. He was with the invasions of Sicily and Italy, and later, the southern invasion of France. He was overseas for three years. When he finally arrived home, no one was at the Union Depot to greet him. He took a cab to his Frogtown home.

He met my mother at the 1946 St. Paul Winter Carnival. My mother had served in the WAVES during the war, and had been stationed at Pearl Harbor. She rode in a float with other veteran servicewomen, and a friend introduced them.

My father was a salesmen for a small oil company that was wiped out by price wars organized by the "majors"--Standard, Texaco, Mobil, etc. He used to say it was his affiliation with the independent oil companies that destroyed his future in that occupation, though I'm not really sure if that was the case. He worked a low end clerical position with the State of Minnesota, where he stayed until retirement.

My mother and father were both patriotic. I remember being told that I would go into the service after either high school or college, because that was the "law of the land," which was true. They were liberals, and I remember my father taking me to see John F. Kennedy at Holman Field during his presidential campaign.

By the time I was in high school, my father, who adored the military, worried that I'd be drafted for service in Viet Nam. "That's crazy, what they're doing," he said. "These poor bastards get sent to Asia to walk around in the jungle until they get attacked? That Westmoreland...who chose that clown to lead that thing? You'll not be dying for that prick."

He should have been a writer. He told the best and most vivid stories. Funny anecdotes, where he'd pick one detail that summed up the story. Once, during my days playing drums in rock and roll bands, an irate ex-sweetheart, with whom I had shared an apartment, hammered out the windows of my '67 Buick. I drove the windowless jalopy to my parents' house in air-conditioned splendor. Many years later, my father said "The morning after you came home, I looked out the window at your car -- and a piece of glass fell off."

He never fully accepted my becoming a musician, and always referred to my instrument as "Those Goddamned Drums." Our exchanges during those years always ended in a spray of shouted epitaphs. He wasn't trying to be cruel, though I thought so at the time. He was worried about a lifetime of being broke, which pretty much turned out to be true. He just didn't know how to express his fears for me.

We patched things up in his later years. I was glad he lived long enough to see his grandson, whom he dearly loved. Once, during the time I worked as a newspaper editor, he said, "I miss hearing you play the drums," which caused me to choke, then cough out a mouthful of salad.

I told him I thought I'd never hear him say that, about my playing the drums. And he said, "You were always a different sort of kid. I remember when you joined the Boy Scouts, and you said they met at St. Stephen's. I asked what kind of church it was, and you said 'brick.'"

Sleep well, Pops.