On a glittering Vermont morning, my father showed us how much he enjoyed bloodshed.
During those August days in the late 1950s, our family vacationed in an old wooden farmhouse just north of Brattleboro. Mornings started pretty much the same — cocks all around the foggy Connecticut River Valley began their clamor, Grandma made us pancakes, and then my sister Mary Jo and I dashed outside to practice croquet.
On this morning, the grass was heavy with dew, and our sneakers got soaked. The humidity made the exposed skin of our thighs stick together. The sun bore down on our sodden surroundings, assaulting our nostrils with the stink of fungus. Mary Jo and I tired of it, and as we trudged back to the house, we heard a ruckus.
“Oh, my God!”
“Hah, hah, hah!”
This last phrase came from deep within the throat of my father, a noise so passionate and uncouth, I wondered how he could have uttered it in front of my grandmother, who stood with her yellow-on-gray floral backside to the door, protectively blocking our path inside.
“No, now children, please, please stay out, stay out, please…”
But it was too late, for we could look around her through the screen door. He stood in the kitchen, the inky stubble of his unshaven, ruddy face upturned at the barbeque fork he held in his hand. He’d skewered a rat through its midsection with the tool we used to toast marshmallows. He held the wiggling rodent high, staring at it, his eyes swelling.
Because I knew I’d witnessed something forbidden, I couldn’t take my eyes off the writhing rat. The animal’s blood poured off Dad’s fingers and down his wrist. My eight-year-old mind flipped like a circuit breaker. My father had been transformed from the bedrock of my life into a seething killer, and I just didn’t get how that could happen.
This scene led the highlight reel of my childhood. It spotlighted how Dad passed his trauma on to his brood. It would be decades before anyone understood that the trauma of war could be passed on to the family of the warrior. Naturally, no two of us became traumatized at the same time or in exactly the same way. Yet all five of the McBean children eventually suffered from at least one symptom of Secondary Trauma Stress: panic attacks, anxiety disorder, alcoholism, depression, and attention deficit disorder.
Today, millions of American soldiers just like my dad have returned home from Middle East battlefields, many with PTSD. They are having children, some of whom won’t have the sheltering resources of the McBean clan. They will face homelessness, prison, addiction, and untimely death.
No one ever mentioned the rat incident in my presence. Typically, no one ever tried to explain my father’s behavior. Dad revered J.P. Morgan and attributed to him the old chestnut, “Never explain, never apologize.”
After all, why should he ask forgiveness for the emotional scars he suffered while saving our country from Hitler?
Thus, it fell to his children to explain the strange things that happened in our house.
For much of the time when we were young, an unearthly sound somewhere between a scream of terror and a bellow of aggression awakened us in the night. Sometimes it would last five minutes, and although we knew Dad was the culprit, the house was very dark and it was hard to convince ourselves there was no danger.
At first, the sharp eruption of a man in imminent fear of death reverberated through the walls. Then there would be desperate snarling, the kind made by an animal caught in a leg trap. Sharp commands that didn’t take the form of words but nonetheless sounded like warnings were broadcast from their bedroom, followed by the soft incantations of my mother as she tried to get him back to bed.
Then silence would once again settle over our house, and we children would wonder if Mom had prevailed or if the troll that seemed to live just behind my father’s eyes had triumphed. Yet when the early sunlight again set the tree limbs in relief, they’d both appear, dressed and ready, as if nothing had happened.
If the nightmares had served as the sole manifestation of his PTSD, perhaps our relationship wouldn’t have gotten so badly off-track. The use of whiskey to suppress his symptoms, however, brought out his anger, and much of his wrath fell upon me, his oldest child and only boy.
When Dad and I reached the crescendo of our power struggle in 1961, my mother, hoping to calm her household, offered to let me read the letters he wrote from the European battlefield. She brought the old brown envelope containing the correspondence to my bedroom and pleaded with me to read them, but I turned my nose up in the way only an angry teenager could.
Thirteen years later, in 1974, Dad died at fifty-five. His medication, Black & White Scotch Whiskey, along with tobacco, killed him. My mom died in 1993, basically from the same medicine, and the letters passed into my hands.
I thought I should read the correspondence, but I just didn’t want to. It would mean thinking about him, and he had fallen into the dead letter file. He needed to stay there. Sometimes I wondered what I was missing. Maybe the letters were as good as Mom said — but I’d shake off the thought. Thinking about our broken bond still brought up painful bile.
Decades went by. I worked as a newspaper reporter for twenty-three years but decided to quit journalism in favor of commercial real estate. Time to make some money, I thought, but the mere pursuit of cash became entirely too boring, so I got involved with housing the disabled. I became mired in government rules and rule-makers as I struggled to build an altruistic kingdom; I hired and fired employees; I floundered to save myself from drowning in an ocean white-capped with paperwork.
During these years, I had various personal vexations, including a big problem with alcohol. Yet I kept my life more or less on track. I stopped drinking at forty, I hoped for good. I became much more honest. Anxiety never left, though. It was my constant companion, telling me something about my past needed to be addressed.
Then, more than fifty years after Mom offered to let me see Dad’s letters, I heard a story about World War II veterans on National Public Radio. The piece described five former servicemen, all of whom were very successful in their postwar careers and all of whom committed suicide in their mid-fifties.
For the first time I thought about how PTSD might apply to men who fought in the “Good War.” I pondered my father’s demise, and although it wasn’t a conventional suicide, it did occur by his own hand — the hand that brought whiskey to his lips thousands of times as I grew up.
I thought hard about where I might have put the letters. I hadn’t seen them in fifteen years, and my Denver home had many deep closets and a dank cellar. For a moment I panicked, but after taking several deep breaths, it came to me. The old brown envelope sat no more than fifteen feet from me, in the back of the closet off my study.
I began reading with a firm goal in mind. I wanted to see if I could pinpoint the actual time and place where Dad’s reoccurring nightmare began.
Although he never discussed the nightmare, Mom and I talked about it just before my departure for college. As I packed, I came across the brown envelope as I rummaged around in a closet looking for something else. I wanted to know what all those letters said and thought quizzing my mom would be easier than reading them.
I sat at the kitchen table as she bustled about, getting dinner ready. A yellow apron covered a purple crushed velvet dress. One of the ministers from Christ Church, for whom she had great fondness, was to dine with us. My parents came back to the church late in life and behaved like newly minted converts.
“Mom, does Dad still have that dream?”
She gave me a guarded look, as if to say, “Since when did you care?”
She didn’t answer immediately, but after taking the hot casserole from the oven, she removed her thermal mitts and gave me her full attention.
“It happens occasionally, but not nearly as often as it once did.”
“Do you know what he was so scared about?”
“Yes, Bill, I do know.”
Because cocktail hour had finally arrived, she took her glass of sherry from its hiding place in a kitchen cabinet and sat down across the table from me. She gave me the weathered look a parent saves for an intransigent child.
I suspected she wanted to remind me of how I had behaved as a teenager but decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead, she began talking about Dad dreaming that he got lost in Northern France’s hedgerow country and wandered into a German trap.
Before she could provide details, the doorbell rang. Mom ushered in the priest and sat him in our living room’s most comfortable chair. The tinkling of ice cubes followed, and the storyline went unfinished.
Now, decades after our talk, I wanted to try to answer those questions myself. Obviously the dream had no literal truth to it. Dad hadn’t been captured by the Germans. But what had happened? Did the letters actually address the genesis of the nightmare? Could I learn what caused the tectonic plates of my dad’s mind to shift so violently, or did his yelling and screaming arise from a hodgepodge of shelling and machine gun fire that caused a frightened mind to erupt?
I cleared my desk and emptied the brown envelope of its contents. In addition to letters, out tumbled pictures, official Army paperwork, and maps. Decades had corrupted the correspondence. Although Dad wrote many of the letters on sturdy Red Cross stationery, some of them were on low-quality scrap paper that had turned yellow and crumbled at the margins. Rusting paperclips held some together.
Over the next couple of weeks, I photocopied the letters and placed the originals back in the brown envelope. As I reproduced the letters, I haphazardly read a few, hoping I would get lucky and find an answer to my question.
I didn’t procrastinate often, yet in this case I knew I might learn something about my parents and probably about myself. Thus, instead of diving straight into the letters, I got to work on research to help me understand what the times were like when Dad finally returned to New York in 1945.
Nearly everyone coming home from World War II faced enormous pressure. Dad’s father sent him an application for Columbia Law School when he was still fighting in Europe. Two weeks after his return, he found himself sitting in a classroom.
Nine months after that, he had a child to contend with (bellicose, ungrateful me). One of New York City’s swankiest law firms hired him, and he became a fast-talking cash cow who commuted more than three hours a day and revisited his battlefield horrors only between lights out and the alarm.
In the decades prior to the Vietnam War, if you had a battlefield-related mental problem, you handled it with alcohol, the only medicine commonly available. If your contemporaries saw the war’s aftermath had mastered you, your choices were stark: hit the road or get locked up. Many men found it vastly preferable to ride the rails; even if there wasn’t any dignity in it, there was at least freedom.
Others were so crippled by their crazies they were shipped off to gulags run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. By 1947, the Vet had about one million “psychoneurotics” incarcerated. They occupied about half of all available VA beds. Yet America abounded with guys like my dad. They liked whiskey, and they put it to good use. Its sedating effect kept them in the box — but it never allowed them to tell their stories. Or more accurately, it never let them express their feelings.
Today, more than seventy-five years after World War II ended, researchers have established that having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcohol problems at the same time can make both problems worse. While today’s treatment can make both ailments better, it was largely unavailable in 1945. My father could have sought out an infant organization called Alcoholics Anonymous, but he didn’t want to quit. Twenty years later, a heart problem forced him to put the plug in the jug, but even then he wouldn’t confess to suffering from anxiety and depression.
After deciding I wanted to write a book about PTSD and my experience with it, I interviewed veterans I found in the parking lot of a VA facility in Lakewood, Colorado. Most said they never talked about the battlefield. Some said no one wanted to hear it, and others said even if someone did, most people couldn’t understand how being afraid day after day turned you into an animal, how it changed your perspective on everything. People tried to understand, but they just didn’t. How could they possibly comprehend it if they weren’t there?
Dad believed that no one appreciated how many rats there were in the world and how badly they needed to be killed. He thought that few truly comprehended how bad the Nazis — indeed all Germans of that era — were, and how much they needed to be eliminated. He thought almost no one recognized how much he had to change himself to get that job done.
So when Dad saw the rat scampering across our farmhouse floor that morning ten years after the last wartime bullet had been fired, he leaped into action. He killed the rodent and held it high for his family to see. It was an ancient ritual performed for an audience that had become far too civilized for such rites. His mother told him to bury the thing in the vegetable garden.
The rat episode represented the earliest example of my father’s aberrant behavior I could remember. Many, many more episodes followed, but until I sat down to write about those early years of my life, I’d compartmentalized Dad’s conduct and my reaction to it.
As I began to read his letters, my defenses departed as abruptly as air escaping a vacuum-packed can. I realized I was about to embark on a project that would help me understand why my life had been such a persistent game of hopscotch on land mines, such an unconscious exercise in self-destruction.
 Thomas Childers, Soldier From the War Returning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, p. 232.
 https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/problem_alcohol_use.asp (8-8-19)