By William Locke Hauser
“The mass of men,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
That would hardly have applied to my great-grandfather, a New York City businessman of the mid-19th century. Born in 1816 to a farm family in southeastern Bavaria, he’d been the only one of seven siblings to leave their native village, at first to study horticulture in the ancient city of Regensburg (Roman Ratisbon) and then to train as a landscape architect in far-away Paris. In 1840 (the same year Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond), he crossed the ocean to America. Upon becoming a citizen in 1859, he changed his German-Catholic given names of Johann Nepomuk to John Nathaniel; and upon marrying the daughter of English immigrants, converted to Anglicanism, eventually becoming a vestryman of Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street.
Prospering as a florist, he built a chain of shops in Manhattan, with a flower farm out on Long Island. When his businessmen’s club supported the southern separatism that appeared to be leading to the Civil War, he led a patriotic minority in founding the Union League Club. His five children, whose graves now encircle his monument in Trinity Churchyard, revered him as a Teutonic patriarch. He died in 1897, shortly after making a nostalgic visit to his home village, where a plaque in the wall of the local Catholic church commemorates the visit and his gift of an endowment to the parish.
His son, my grandfather Louis Augustus, inherited one of the shops but not his sire’s business skills. Thoreau’s maxim applied all too well in his case, for in 1907, when my father, John Nathaniel (namesake of the patriarch), was a freshman at Cornell, Louis went bankrupt. For lack of funds, my father had to drop out after one semester and go to work as a laborer on a paternal uncle’s flower farm. He rebounded from this Dickensian setback by obtaining an appointment to West Point in 1908, where he did well, becoming a cadet officer and winning his letter as an equestrian gymnast.
I myself would regard such experience as a success story, in the American tradition of overcoming adversity. My father never spoke of those early years, however, which leads me to guess that his own parent’s business failure — after so favored a start in life — was a source of unutterable shame. In fact, though my father kept a portrait of the patriarch (full-bearded and gimlet-eyed, like some Old Testament prophet) on his desk, he displayed none of his father. I had to learn from my mother, who was his second wife (and from a sister of his deceased first), the story I am about to unfold.
After graduation, he served with distinction under General Pershing on the Mexican border; and though he did not get to France during World War I, earned such plaudits in training troops for the conflict that he was promoted to major at the boyish age of twenty-nine. He married Dorothy Ohmer, scion of a prominent German-American family in Dayton, Ohio (her father, a neighbor of the Wright brothers, had invented the eponymous taxi-meter), and seemed to be “on his way” professionally and socially.
In 1919, a year after the birth of a son, John Nathaniel Jr., he was ordered overseas, to postwar occupation duty in the Rhineland. Dorothy, who remained in Dayton, fell ill with appendicitis and died before he was able to make his way back by ship. Leaving John Jr. with the Ohmer grandparents while he returned to complete his duty tour in Europe, my father was then able to secure an ROTC assignment at nearby Ohio State University.
According to Dorothy Ohmer’s sister (who, decades later living in New York City, was kind to me while I was a cadet at West Point), my father was desperate to find a mother for his orphaned son. After being gently refused by that sister-in-law, he proposed to my mother, daughter of the judge advocate of the Army’s regional headquarters in Indianapolis. They were married in 1925, when my half-brother John was six years old. My brother Chuck was born in 1929, and I followed in 1932. John — whom I never knew well because of the thirteen-year difference in our ages — entered West Point as a cadet in 1937.
I cannot recall my father’s ever playing with Chuck or me as a child. I was conscious of being sent with other boys’ fathers or with my father’s military subordinates to go camping, to ride horseback, to fish and hunt, to play sports and attend athletic events. I used to think it was because of his being middle-aged when Chuck and I were small; but now I’ve concluded that he just didn’t know how to go about being a father to kids.
Though never actually unkind, he was given to stern monologues on industry and thrift. I was later told by my mother that the bankrupt Louis, who had spent his last years as an indigent living with our family, was a “miserable old man,” consumed with self-pity and intolerant of us little children. It may have been the contrast between Louis’s weakness and the patriarch’s strength that established my father’s pattern of disapproving rather than encouraging, as a technique of motivation.
I witnessed this once memorably, when brother Chuck, then about twelve, came home with a gashed knee. “I was sitting in the locker room at school,” he said, “when this kid walked by swinging his ice skates.” Our father, instead of sympathizing, scolded him. “You shouldn’t have been sitting,” he said. “If you’d been standing, the way a man ought to when putting on his clothes, that wouldn’t have happened.” Perhaps Chuck caught him in an exceptionally bad mood, but I suspect the contrary, from a general memory that our father, whenever either of us might express discouragement, would urge: “Be a man.”
In the spring of 1940, during John’s junior year at West Point, he had an equestrian accident. Emulating our father’s gymnastic success by attempting an acrobatic dismount-remount from a gallop, he fell under his horse and was kicked, fracturing his skull. He spent months in the hospital, and when he came home on summer leave, his jaw was still wired shut, requiring him to take nourishment through a straw. When we attended his graduation in June ‘41, he seemed to have fully recovered; but my mother, shortly before her death almost fifty years later, let slip to me that John was “never again able to think really straight.”
Had it not been a time of impending war, I believe he would have been discharged as psychologically unfit for military duty. Whatever the case, he was commissioned with his West Point class. On his first troop assignment, with an airborne division in North Carolina, he tried his best but (according to a contemporary with whom I later served) “just couldn’t hack it.” He was transferred to basic-training duty in Mississippi. I saw him only once more, when he visited home in 1943, while our father was overseas in the war.
John committed suicide on May 4, 1944, by putting a bullet in his head from an M-2 carbine. It was our father’s fifty-fifth birthday.
I was eleven at the time, and believed what Mother and Chuck told me, that John had died in a training accident. It was not until my own cadet years, visiting Dorothy Ohmer’s sister in New York City, that I learned the truth. According to her, my father had “lovingly bullied” her nephew into accepting commission as an officer. Suddenly, the awful significance of that date dawned on me. I never spoke to my father of this during his lifetime, nor to my mother or Chuck during theirs. Nor did I reveal to Chuck that I had come upon John’s suicide note when sorting through our mother’s effects after her death in 1989. I destroyed the note after a single reading, but its muddled cry of anguish is burned in my memory.
I cannot condemn my father for the role he may have played in this tragedy. It is enough that he seems to have condemned himself. At the time he got the dreadful news, he was head of a support command for the U. S. Fifth Army, halfway up the Italian peninsula. It was later confided to me, by the colleague (and old friend) who succeeded him in command, that he broke down into a state of abject depression. He was flown back to the States for John’s funeral, served briefly in Washington, and was then ordered to service in India for the balance of the war.
My father had a quick wit (indeed, “was too fond of irony for his own good,” that same old friend told me), with a ready supply of apt quotations, humorous quips, and comic rhymes. He was proud of Chuck’s heroism in the Korean War and success thereafter as a journalist, of my graduation from West Point and early-career progress, and of the grandchildren we each presented him before his death in 1967. He loved our mother and was grateful for the zone of comfort she created in their marriage, her hard work as a librarian (she was much younger than he and in better health) to supplement his military pension, and her outgoingness that made up for his brusque inability to suffer fools gladly. He proclaimed himself a happy man, but always, even on the merriest of occasions, I could always detect a profound sadness behind the joy.
If there is indeed a heaven where individuals meet as the individuals they were in life, I believe that John has forgiven our father and that our father has forgiven himself.
After military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of writing fiction. Twenty-nine of his stories have been published, most recently in Rosebud Magazine (“Das Schloss,” Spring 2015) and Conceit Magazine (“Heaven,” June 2015), and forthcoming in Stand (“Nice,” Spring 2016). Originally from North Carolina, Hauser and his wife reside in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons.