For Dad

May 17, 2014

My father, Robert Taylor Kiefer, died this morning.

He was 88, and he had been fighting cancer for several years. Doctors thought he would be dead a long time ago, and I have joked, as recently as yesterday, that he was as hard to kill as the mesquite tree in my back yard, which has fallen over twice and though I’ve sawed it up, it keeps growing back.

Bob Kiefer could be a generous man if he liked you, and he probably liked you from the start, unless you gave him good reason not to. He liked to tell jokes and give you the needle. He could be extremely difficult.

I know a lot of you are thinking  that sounds a lot like me, but it’s probably just a Pennsylvania Dutch genetic trait. My mother adapted an old “Dutchie” adage and said, “You can always tell a Kiefer, you just can’t tell him much. I’ll admit that we fought bitterly for many years.

Before he got out of the Army, my father had been a drill sergeant, and he thought he wanted to be a physical education teacher. He played football and basketball in college. But when he started interviewing for teaching jobs and they told him he couldn’t smoke or drink, he decided to go into some other line of work – not that he was a smoker or drinker, mind you, he just didn’t want anyone telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

Instead he went into sales, but he remained a jock, and I remember all during my childhood and young adulthood that he played softball and basketball and tennis and handball. My mother said that, even as an old man, if she didn’t know where he was, she’d look for the nearest ball game in the neighborhood, and find him there watching.

My father was a large man, more than six feet tall, and he weighed well over 250 pounds for most of his life, though the cancer whittled him down to my size at the end. He asked to be cremated, and my mother and my brother want to have a military funeral for him and have his ashes interred in a veterans’ cemetery in Cape Cod, where he spent his last years.

When I was a kid, I used to look at the medals in his closet, a couple of bronze stars that he’d earned in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a nose gunner in a B24 bomber. His leather bomber jacket hung in the closet. On the shelf nearby he kept a photo album from the war, full of tiny little black-and-white photos with scalloped white edges of his crew and his plane, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” with its requisite nose cone painting of a scantily clad All-American babe.

My father and I had both attended Lafayette College in Easton, PA, where my grandfather had been an administrator. When I went past the shoemaker’s shop or into the butcher store, they would ask about my father, though he hadn’t lived there in decades. We actually shared one professor, my grandfather’s friend, Sam Pascal, a gnarled little, one-armed Italian dynamo, who taught me to speak Spanish and Italian. When my father came back from Italy after the war, Dr. Pascal told me, he had asked him several questions in Italian, which my father understood, but answered in English.

But my father never told me how he earned the medals, because I think it scared the shit out of him.  It took my mother half a lifetime to convince him to go back to Europe for a visit. My mother told me that at one of the squadron reunions they attended later in life, a man my age approached my father and shook his hand reverently because his own late father had talked about him

When I was in my early 20s, my parents invited my brother’s girlfriend’s parents over to the house for dinner. They were Germans, and the girlfriend’s father had spent time here in Phoenix at the prisoner of war camp during World War II. After the war, he made his way to New Jersey, where he settled down to raise his own family. At the dinner table that night, the talk turned to the war. My father explained that he had flown in the daytime air raids on the oilfields of Ploesti, Romania. Heinz, the girlfriend’s father, replied that he had been an anti-aircraft gunner at Ploesti. There was a long silence, and then the two men started laughing.

Two and a half years ago, I was in Assisi, Italy, eating dinner in a small trattoria off a side street from the main piazza and enjoying a glass of Montefalco red wine. The couple seated across from me was from New York via California. Their waiter had brought them a carafe of wine but had forgotten to give them glasses. They called the manager, who could only shrug and turn his palms up to say, "No Eeng-leesh." As he walked by to fetch the waiter, I stopped him and translated. He smiled, the New York Californians got their glasses, and everyone was happy.

I chatted through dinner with the couple, and they mentioned that a museum in town had an interesting exhibit about Assisi during World War II, and how the Assisi Underground had sheltered Jews who might otherwise have been sent to concentration camps.

I told them what little I knew about my father’s service in the Army Air Corps during the war, how he celebrated his 19th birthday in Naples, that he'd seen a prodigious number of planes go down on his first bombing mission over Ploesti. I repeated the few stories he had told me, about bullet holes stitching down the glass of his turret, where he had nowhere to duck, about seeing German jet prototypes zipping past the lumbering old propeller-driven bombers, about how they would return from missions in the freezing early morning hours and line up on the tarmac for a shot of whiskey poured into a metal mess cup, about the need for constant vigilance on the ground, never knowing which Italians were on which side.

Three Italian couples were seated at a nearby table, and one of the women seemed to be listening to our conversation. When they got up to leave, the woman said good night to me. I asked her in Italian if she understood English.

"Yes," she said. "Tell your father, 'Thank you.' "