My uncles and the few friends my father always approached him like he was an unexploded bomb that they were supposed to defuse. Her replies to everything he said were one version or another of “You’re absolutely right Jack.” Only his father, my grandfather, dared to blame him when he mocked my brother or me and pleaded in the only Yiddish that I understood: “Yankel, lozn im aleyn!” “Jack, leave him alone!”
I entered my youth and feared that there were only two kinds of men, those like my father and those he thought were weak. If there were men who were somehow both strong and gentle, I had yet to meet them.
That began to change in 1945 when the war ended and my friends’ older brothers came home. The last time I saw them they were street fighters, members of the Fordham Baldies, a gang that made our Little Italy neighborhood unsafe to outsiders. Now they were even stronger and hardened as marines or paratroopers for years. But below that strength was something else. Instead of pushing me aside as in the past, they called me and expressed amazement at how big I had become. Their voices were affectionate when they asked about my mother, who had learned from her mothers how to cook southern Italian dishes. They had left their boasting overseas somewhere and had a gentleness about them that I had never seen.
I found the courage to speak to one of them, someone who, before signing up, seemed to be following the streets rather than walking them. I asked why he was no longer sitting outside the barber shop where the gamers and their collectors met. He said, “Bobby, I don’t have to prove how tough I am anymore.” If the military could convince a dreaded street fighter it would be sure to reveal a soft side, maybe it could teach me.
The day I graduated from high school, I went downtown to Whitehall Street and joined the army. The men who trained me and later led me had jumped to Normandy and survived Bastogne. If there was a masculinity test, they’d passed it in dangerous places. These were deadly men who would take you behind the barracks and hurt you if you don’t respect their calling. But if they had the feeling that you had seen something noble in the soldier, they would look at you appreciatively, maybe even grab your shoulder. When my first sergeant was notified by the division chaplain that my mother was hospitalized with breast cancer, he called me into the order room and said, “I’m taking you home today. One of our planes goes to Mitchel Field, New York, and you are “He had won the Medal of Honor for Killing People, but he cared more about me than my father.
I saw why my friends’ older brothers no longer had to prove how tough they were. Men, tougher than them, showed them that it was safe to express meekness when it appeared in them. I knew I had learned the same lesson when my train sergeant said, “Goldfarb, you will be one of us.” His words felt like a blessing anointing me to the brotherhood.
Two weeks after returning from service during the Korean War, I met Muriel, who quickly made it clear that if I remained my father’s son, our marriage would not last long. It was enough for her to see one of my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. She insisted that we deliver the turkey for our first Thanksgiving dinner and that I do the carving. I didn’t share their trust, but I knew that sitting at the table and watching my father at work would make me the scared boy again. I had earned the trust of men I admired and was no longer that boy.