|Jul/Aug 2010 Fiction|
In the spring of 1959 my father had his first encounter with Herman Kahn, the man whose Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) became the template for the Cold War. Their meeting in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton in Boston was no accident. Although my father even had a speaking role for a panel at this Third International Conference on the Policy Implications of Game Theory, he showed up dressed as a waiter. The other attendees had just finished the afternoon-long plenary session. They were tired, restless, and hungry. As the man who dared to think about the unthinkable, Kahn was the celebrity in the field. There was so much interest in his analyses of thermonuclear war that the conference had scheduled three different sessions around Kahn and his ideas. Kahn also happened to weigh three hundred pounds. My father approached with a tray of appetizers, the four deep circle of intellectuals orbiting the star of the conference parted, and it was Kahn who came to him.
It didn't hurt that my father also knew that the food at the Ritz Carlton was more about elegance than stomachs and palates. He had swiped twenty dollars from our mother's grocery money to load up his tray at Luigi and Mac's, the best deli in New England. My mother often reminds us that my younger sister Nancy and I drank powdered milk that month so my father could get a few seconds of Herman Kahn's attention. Her job as a nurse supported the family while our father finished his doctorate.
My father also put his thesis on that tray. No, he didn't plop a two hundred page typed manuscript (pre-xerox) between a row of smoked salmon canapes and a crescent of dried salami and aged-cheddar cheese skewered on toothpicks. My father's thesis took the form of two small boxes that each contained sixty slips of paper.
The red box held thirty slips worth twenty dollars each and thirty slips worth nothing. The blue box contained an unspecified ratio of twenty dollar slips and worthless ones. It could be sixty slips worth twenty dollars, none at all, or any quantity in between. In the terms of Kahn and my father's shared discipline, the two boxes were mathematically identical. Anyone had a fifty-fifty chance with either box of getting a slip worth twenty dollars.
As Kahn filled his plate with salami, my father turned the tray to draw the great man's attention to the two open-topped boxes at the center of the tray.
"What's in these?" Kahn asked.
"A choice," My father answered, "Isn't that why we're all here?"
Kahn laughed, as did six or seven bystanders.
"Are you really a waiter?'
"Does it matter?"
My dad then took a minute to explain the difference between the blue box and the red box. Kahn thought for a moment, then said, "So they're equal but different."
"That's for you to decide, Mr. Kahn." Dad was one of the few people who knew that Herman Kahn didn't have a doctorate.
"So if I choose red, I'm choosing certainty over possibility?"
"Again, that's not for me to say, Sir."
After making more of a show of his decision, the sated Kahn chose the red box, the one with the thirty twenty dollar bills in it, and happened to draw a blank sheet of paper.
"So, do I get to try the other one?"
My father shook his head. "No, Mr. Kahn. Everyone just gets the one chance, but if you want more food, please help yourself."
My father then introduced himself as David Levine, economics graduate student at Harvard. Because of the tray, the two men didn't shake hands, but my father had made an impression on the philosopher king of the cold war.
At the same conference, my father also found ways to get John Von Neumann and John Nash to choose a box. All three of the best minds of the generation happened to pick the one with the thirty blank sheets and the thirty slips worth twenty dollars. As it happened, Nash got one of the twenty dollar certificates and hounded my father to "pay up" until someone had to pull Nash aside with a promise to give him the money himself.
Over the next weeks, my father found ways to get every famous person within ten miles of Harvard yard into his sample. John Updike, Ted Williams, Bob Cousy, Leonard Bernstein, J.D. Salinger, and Milton Berle all chose the red box. Helen Keller, as it turned out, was one of the few individuals who chose the second box. As a joke my father asked her what color the box was, and Keller, who held her hand to his lips and throat (her way of listening), immediately said, "Blue." Noam Chomsky, then just a linguist, also chose the blue box along with Robert Moses, the builder of modern New York City. It surprised a lot of people that Jack Kerouac and John Coltrane both chose the greater apparent certainty of the red box.
Any other graduate student would have found 1,024 anonymous subjects and simply reported results. My father didn't just list names, he namedropped. Even more amazing, some of the names he chose to drop in the paper that became known as the Levine Paradox (the paradox was that rational individuals should have been equally likely to choose either box) weren't all that famous at the time of publication but then exploded into prominence.
Dad's discovery that even trained mathematicians preferred the apparently more certain of two mathematically identical choices by a two to one margin was in itself hardly an act of genius. My father's detractors frequently point out that John Maynard Keynes had written about a similar phenomenon a generation earlier. Any observer of America in 1959 would have figured out that most Americans of the time craved the appearance of certainty in ways that defied the supposed rationality of Adam Smith's invisible hand.
Eisenhower occupied the White House. GI Bill-educated husbands were buying homes, getting jobs with benefits, and buying savings bonds to send their own children to college in the shadow of stories about the hydrogen bomb. Even if a small percentage of adults still felt the need to howl, easily two thirds of Americans preferred the certainty of PTA meetings, attached garages, and all electric kitchens. In the meantime, Las Vegas was not yet a major city and my father, as brilliant as he was, didn't consider the possibility of covering the second box in neon and alcohol.
While Von Neumann invented game theory and the architecture of the modern computer and Nash, between hearing voices in his head, pinned down the mathematical vagaries of non-linear bargaining, my father was never passionate about the mathematics in isolation. He was no Herman Kahn, either. Where Kahn could calmly lay out the calculus of losses and gains for a theoretical thermonuclear war and discuss it as if doomsday was some kind of roulette strategy, my father couldn't divorce the numbers and flow charts from some deeper need to provoke people emotionally.
When Kahn invited my father to join him at his think tank in Southern California, my father told friends, "It wasn't my paper that got Herman Kahn's attention. It was the way I got him to pay attention to my paper that got me to Los Angeles."
Kahn had image problems at the time. The press had begun referring to him as "Doctor Strangelove." Where Kahn was portly and prone to talk in academic jargon, my father was handsome, well spoken, and flamboyant.
My mother seemed to agree. She had already started telling people, "If David's parents hadn't insisted that he be an academic, he might have been the greatest advertising man in America."
She never made it clear if she thought that might have been a better or worse fate for him.
My parents never called them our grandparents, and I only met them once when we stayed a day in Chicago on our way to California. Other than that, the only thing I knew about them was that my father's mother had pushed him to be a classical piano virtuoso. After his hands and ear didn't match her ambition, his parents settled for his simply being smarter than anyone else. The mixture of this, his frequent absences, his talent for provoking attention, and his need for validation—particularly from attractive women—served his career, but not our family. When I turned nine, Dad spent a year in Washington D.C. in a position one step away from the President's best and the brightest while we stayed in Los Angeles. When he came back, my parents made the separation official.
For some time, contact with our father consisted of movies and lunches at an ice cream parlor in Santa Monica owned by the family of one of his girlfriends. These were seldom ordinary parental visitations.
One time within minutes of asking us his usual questions about school, friends, and our mother, my father turned the formica table into a decision matrix. The salt and pepper shakers stood for two prisoners named "one" and "two." A stack of sugar cubes covered the middle of the table.
"Suppose you committed a murder," my father pointed to the salt shaker.
"Why would we ever kill anybody?" Nancy interrupted.
"We're just pretending that you did."
"But why should we pretend that we did something we'd never do?"
"Come on Nancy. Stop asking dumb questions."
"They're not dumb questions."
"This is something called the Prisoner's Dilemma," my dad explained. "The smartest people in the world work on this problem."
"What's the problem?" I asked anxiously.
"We try to figure out what's the best strategy if they ask you if you did it."
"Shouldn't you just tell them the truth?"
"Nancy, can't you just pretend?"
"If someone caught me and said I'd killed somebody, I'd pray or I'd call mom."
"Well, that's not one of the choices in the problem."
"I really don't know."
My father picked up the pepper shaker and started to explain that if both the salt and pepper shaker confess, they would each get twenty-five years in prison. If neither confesses, they both go free. If the salt shaker confesses and the pepper shaker doesn't, the salt shaker gets ten years and the pepper shaker gets the death penalty.
"So do you confess or not confess?"
I added the salt and pepper shakers from the next booth and moved sugar cubes around as I instinctively laid out a matrix.
"Richard, how did you know to do that?"
"Dad, can I go look at the toys up front?"
"Nancy, can't you be serious?"
"I am being serious. I want to look at toys."
Our dad nodded. She made a face at me, then headed for the counter.
"Your sister's younger than you."
He then walked me through to the inevitable conclusion that two rational prisoners would confess rather than risk the death penalty. At the end of which, my father said, "Richard, I had graduate students who couldn't always make sense of it as quickly as you did."
On those visits, my father took me through all of the major variations of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and I loved every moment. At one point, he bragged to us that his colleagues called him "Doctor Chutzpah" because he always managed to "win" the simulations. Oddly, because of our last name, people have always assumed that our family was Jewish. In fact, my Grandparents were born Jewish, but once in the American Midwest they became Christian Scientists. My mother was Catholic. When my parents married, my father agreed to raise us Episcopal.
Throughout my father's Decision Theory tutorials, Nancy continued to resist. She would talk about friends at school, cartoons on television, and interrupt with instructions from our mother about items that he'd promised to buy us. I just assumed that all of this was beyond her, and I liked it that way.
Over time my father started showing me the complexities of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and how it was really just a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Instead of anonymous prisoners, MAD used two countries with large numbers of nuclear weapons. Instead of not being able to talk to one another, the two countries weren't able to trust any of their communications. Both countries would clearly be better off and safer if they both disarmed. If both countries stayed armed, no one could actually be safe. Like the Prisoner's Dilemma, the "rational" decision for either country was to stay armed so the other country would not be able to attack without fear of retaliation.
At this point, we no longer needed salt and pepper shakers. Dad had by then supplemented our talks with copies of John Stuart Mill, Bentham, Clausewitz,, articles about Richard Oppenheimer, and clippings from the New York Times about the Cold War that sometimes included quotes from Herman Kahn. I'd bring the books home, show them to my mother, read what I could understand (I'd never admit to how little I did understand), then slip them into the bookshelf in my bedroom.
"This can't make any sense," I told him.
"But it does."
"Who cares?" Nancy said. "Mom said you'd help me buy new shoes to match my dress. I need them for Tuesday."
My father made a face and gently promised Nancy that he would come through later that afternoon.
"Dad, it's Sunday. You know the stores close early."
"Nancy, we're trying to talk about something important."
"And Jenny's birthday isn't?"
"What I don't get is that if you hold onto the nuclear weapons long enough, you eventually have some sort of accident that blows everyone up anyway."
"Dad, we've got to get going."
"Nancy, you haven't even finished your ice cream yet," I said in exasperation.
"This is so dumb."
"A lot of people are just really uncomfortable talking about things like this. It might be too scary for her." My father said it softly for my benefit.
Nancy stabbed her ice cream with her spoon but didn't eat it.
"Just because you don't understand it, doesn't mean it's dumb," I said.
"Of course I understand it."
"Sure you do, that's why you'd rather talk about Barbies and shoes."
"You're talking about choosing between chocolate and vanilla when anyone should know that ice cream just makes you fat."
I groaned. "You're so stupid sometimes."
My father, though, was silent.
"Actually, your sister's more or less right."
"Good, can we go get my shoes now?"
I didn't talk on the drive from Santa Monica to our house in Brentwood. Once through the door, Nancy showed off her new shoes to our mother. After our mother slipped off to her study to work on her psychology master's thesis, I went to the living room to catch a rock group on Ed Sullivan. Nancy came in to watch Disney.
"You don't even watch Ed Sullivan."
"It doesn't matter, I was here first."
"You're just mad because of the shoes."
"It's dumb to play Dad's games."
"He's making us his prisoners."
At this point, our mother had slipped into the room and the tv was on ABC, the network that had neither Disney or Ed Sullivan.
"He is not. That's just the name of the problem, and you don't get it."
"His job is to be our father. He's supposed to be asking about us."
My mother's eyes widened. She nodded, but she did not intervene.
"He's got you showing off for him. You'll always be his prisoner."
My body went slack on the couch. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that Nancy was smarter than me. She instinctively saw the whole box. In the realm of feelings, my sister Nancy was a Go master.
"Watch what you want to watch."
I got up and turned the channel to NBC, then went to my room and stared at my bookshelf but read nothing for three days.
A few weeks later, our father announced that he'd decided to serve a tour of duty as an advisor to a rifle brigade in a place called Vietnam. "If I'm going to give advice about the Cold War, I need to know what it looks like up close," was his only explanation before disappearing from our lives for another year.
After he returned, our visits were different. Dad had broken up with the woman whose family owned the Ice Cream distributorship. His new girlfriend came from a family that owned a bunch of delis. Mutually Assured Destruction and the Cold War disappeared from our conversations. He said little to nothing about Vietnam other than to repeat stories he had already shared more than once in occasional postcards about snakes and heat. He, however, didn't completely stop talking about Decision Theory. When he brought it up again, I leaned into the table, my eyes wide, and my brain in its starter's blocks,
"You've seen sit-ins on television?"
"Like with the black people in the south?"
"Do you ever think about why they worked so well?"
I thought for a moment between savoring the smell of pastrami and mustard.
"Because if they got arrested they got attention for what they were doing. If they got served at the lunch counter, they got what they wanted."
My father nodded approvingly.
"Some people are protesting the war now and trying the same things. Do you think it works as well?"
Nancy and I both shrugged, and we didn't return to the topic for several visits. Instead my father began taking us on separate outings. He took me to baseball games at the Chavez Ravine and occasional lectures at UCLA. He took Nancy to the ballet until a cigarette puffing red-haired choreographer started coming along and Nancy objected. He then started taking her to the movies.
To be honest, we weren't exactly sure why our father had come back to live in Los Angeles again. My mother was honestly surprised that he'd left the defense department where he was one step away from his long held dream of advising the president directly and that he'd instead returned to the think tank.
Never comfortable with small talk or the more normal fatherly check-ins, his conversations with us shifted from "decision theory" to ethical philosophy. Maybe this was the difference between a deli and an ice cream parlor—his questions became more passionate.
"Would you kill someone else's families to keep a million other families safe? How about just to keep your own family safe? Would you lie to get someone to do something because you knew that person couldn't understand the deeper reasons for doing it? Would you break the law to save others?"
Clausewitz and Von Neumann gave way to Thoreau, Gandhi, and the just assassinated Martin Luther King. Where he once waited for us to answer, he often started trying to answer his own questions. Perhaps because she was older now, Nancy sometimes participated in these conversations. Looking back, my father was clearly less interested in our answers to his questions than his own. It didn't occur to any of us then that our father was soon going to be as famous as any baseball player or movie star or that he wasn't talking about Gandhi as much as he was comparing himself to him.
So when did I know, or more accurately, when should I have known? Early in 1969, I came home from a visit with my father and bragged to my mother, "Dad's showing me how to run the Xerox machine."
"Why does your father have you operating a Xerox machine? He's supposed to be spending time with your sister and you, not working."
At that point, I had helped him with the Xeroxing several times. He never told me what I was copying for him, just that I was helping him do something important. I liked pressing the buttons on this magic machine the size of a Volkswagen that lit up, whirred, and reproduced in minutes what might have taken years to write and accumulate.
Other times, Nancy and I would visit him at his apartment in Culver City. We would sit on his worn green couch together, and he would have us cut "top secret" labels off the bottoms of what must have been seven thousand pages that I had helped him copy. It was fun sharing a secret with our father as we laughed along with his endless jokes about Richard Nixon and greedy defense contractors.
One night our mother argued with him about it. We could hear some of the conversation on the porch. Nancy and I watched the last episode of Bonanza together while mom said things like "I don't know what you're up to, but I know it's not okay. David, you need to be a father first."
Dad responded, "You don't understand. You never understood. All you ever see is the day to day. They're special kids. They're bright. There are things beyond homework and clothes that matter, too. We're not just their mother and father."
Mom answered, "If we're not that, then we're nothing."
She then slammed the door behind her, even though she was the sort who never yelled. After that, my father only had me help with the Xerox machine a couple more times. Each time he'd tell me, "Richard, it means a lot to me that you're helping me with this. Someday you'll look back and be very proud."
Other weekends he started to take us to anti-war rallies where we crouched in the dirt together eating potato chips, sipping from sodas, and chanting to songs where they spelled out swear words while the people nearby smoked things. Mom heard about it from Nancy and made him stop taking us along.
Two weeks before the New York Times published my father's copied histories of the leadup to the War in Vietnam documenting the series of lies that got the US into the war, two men in brown suits knocked on our front door. My mother opened the door part way but refused to let them inside. When they tried to look towards the living room where I was doing my homework, she motioned for me to move away.
"He and his sister aren't here today," she insisted.
I'd never known my mother to lie, especially to a police officer. My grandfather, her father, had spent thirty years as a police officer in Detroit. As the FBI agents visited over the next several days, my mother kept her own responses brief and careful, but she let them stay. It was as if she was reassured by their presence and repeated visits. One time they saw me but didn't insist on talking to me directly. I heard them say, "We do want to talk to Richard some time, but we assure you that nothing's going to happen to him. We just need some information."
My mother didn't say no, but I never did talk to them.
After the papers got to the New York Times and the Washington Post, my father disappeared. The attorney general, John Mitchell, got an indictment against him not only for betraying classified information but for treason. If tried and convicted, the penalty could have been death.
Three times we got calls from strangers who would tell us that they were friends of my father, saying, "He's all right and he loves you."
One time a man came up to me after my last class at the high school and passed me a letter from my father.
I miss you and Nancy very much, yet as we've discussed many times, we sometimes have duties and responsibilities that go beyond just being someone's father or husband. You know I would do anything to be able to see you both, but we have to do this for your future and the future of everyone who is your age.
I am safe and healthy for now. We will see each other some time soon whether it's in this life or some other.
That last sentence made me afraid to show the letter to Nancy. I did eventually hand it over to my mother, but only after I made her promise not to share it with the FBI. She then showed it to Nancy, who said nothing, then cried.
The next events happened so quickly and with so much publicity, that I sometimes have to look them up in history books to remember the details. My father reappeared to stand trial. Even though the papers actually embarrassed his two major rivals and said nothing about the current administration, President Nixon felt he had a personal responsibility to discredit my father. He authorized men to break into a psychiatrist's office looking for embarrassing things about David Levine. In fact, there were plenty of them. A few years later when I was nineteen, I had to read an account in a book about my father engaging in group sex at Esalen while on LSD. The burglary and the plan to discredit my father might have worked, but the burglars got caught and talked.
My father had made history. His new fame far exceeded Herman Kahn's.
What I remember most closely didn't make any history books. Because I had helped my father copy the papers, I, at fifteen years of age, had to testify before a congressional committee without a guarantee of immunity.
In a brief time alone with my sister and me before the committee hearing, my father tried to console us as we waited in the basement cafeteria between the hearing room and the Rayburn building. "I never told you what was in the papers so you could never be guilty of anything, yet you could still share in this historic act."
He moved to hug us, but Nancy wouldn't let him. As she moved away, the can of coke in front of me fell over, and it stained my suit, which I frantically tried to mop up with napkins from the black dispenser on the table.
"Is Richard going to have to go to jail?" she asked.
"I don't think so."
"But you can't guarantee that, can you?"
My father shrugged, and Nancy walked away. My Dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"Richard, history will be on our side."
I didn't answer. Instead, I kept mopping up the table and my suit though both were already dry.
I sat in a tall chair with a red leather back that my still thin upper body didn't fill. The committee members looked down from a raised dais and for the most part asked gentle questions.
"Was Nancy involved in any way?"
"No, she never had anything to do with the copy machine."
"Did you ever read what your father had you copy?"
"No, I was having too much fun figuring out how all the buttons on the machine worked, and I had to watch out for paper jams. I couldn't do that and read anything at the same time."
Then, the Republican Congressman from Houston asked me, "Was your father really sharing something with you, or was he using you to make it easier for him to get past security at the think tank?"
The lawyer my mother had insisted on hiring to help me hadn't prepared me for that question. I didn't have an answer. It occurred to me that it was perfectly possible, but the attorney stopped me before I could open my mouth.
"Congressman, young Mr. Levine (he stressed the young) can't speculate on his father's unspoken motives."
My mother never forgave my father for putting us at risk. She refused to attend his trial and wouldn't let us go either. When people essentially congratulated her after it ended, she would take a deep breath, shake her head, and tell them, "It was a mistrial, not a verdict of not guilty. If it hadn't been for the White House plumbers, it might still have been a crime. David was lucky."
Once free, my father became a kind of rock star. In fact, he began to appear with them at anti-war rallies and fundraisers. We met Joan Baez, Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones, Yoko Ono, Jane Fonda. My sister and I got used to having celebrities grab us by the elbow and breathlessly tell us, "You must be very proud to have a father like your dad."
At school, we never told friends about our brushes with fame. It wasn't that we thought other kids wouldn't believe us. It was just too much and too strange. Still, this was the happiest I would ever see my father. When he would get up on stage, raise his arms, and encourage others to stand up that day and every day forward, it was like he was dancing over the crowd.
Then one day in 1973, my father's celebrity faded. The crowd responded but not quite as vociferously. The emcee called them on it and someone shouted back, "The War's over, man."
My father grabbed the mike and said sternly, "The draft's over, the war's still going on. Innocent people are still dying."
There was scattered applause, but the invitations to appear at concerts slowed after that, then stopped completely. Ironically, once Nixon flew off in the helicopter, the celebrity that my father craved so fiercely ended, too. After that the music changed, too. It still sounded like rock and roll, but something slipped out of it.
A year later, our father remarried and moved hundreds of miles away. We got older, went to college back east and we began to see less of one another. At Harvard, I began to volunteer in a Catholic Workers' Soup Kitchen, where I became fascinated by Dorothy Day. I converted to Catholicism as result. Our mother became a psychologist who lives in the same house we lived in as teenagers. She specializes in pain management. We see her often.
The last time the three of us saw one another, we met at a café in Boston near the Ritz Carlton. Nancy was in town on her way back from Managua. She was giving a paper at a conference that my father declined to attend. At Yale (she purposely didn't go to Harvard to frustrate our father), she bowled over her professors in her few philosophy and political science classes who promised her fellowships and begged her to TA, but she insisted on public health and became an expert on healthy pregnancies in high poverty villages in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, where the infant mortality rate is now slightly better than it is in the United States. She uses her husband's last name.
My Dad had just published a new book where he compared the current war to the one that he had risked his career and life (not to mention his family) to stop. Our country has wandered back into making the same kinds of mistakes it once made in Vietnam. He'd come to Boston to do a cable interview about the new book, but as some have said, it's clear that my father's celebrity and greatness will never have a "second act." His single act of defiance will always define him. That may be what happens when less than great men happen to do a "great thing." God only gives them one glimpse of what might have, in the hands of a true saint, turned into a miracle.
I had come from upstate New York to see Nancy and to show Dad pictures of his grandchildren whom he hadn't seen in two years. I found myself reflexively telling my father and sister about my seventh book on the nature of sainthood in the modern world for a press owned by an order of nuns devoted to bringing the word of God instead of the words of Milton Friedman and the Wall Street Journal to foreign countries.
On this autmum New England evening, the twilight mixed with the streetlights to appear brighter than daylight. We sipped coffee and chatted amiably. I looked at my father. His hair had turned fully white. He was slightly stooped. As brilliant as ever, he attempted to engage us in a discussion of the Middle East, but his manner of speaking was noticeably less fierce. He did not look at the photos of his own grandchildren any longer than necessary.
As Nancy often pointed out, he was just not the sort of man who ever could be just a proud father or grandfather. To me, though, the father who sat with us that night appeared to feel some odd combination of sadness and pride. The sadness came from the fact that no one ever really read his "papers" or took to heart the lessons they contained. Instead, he was the man whose act of dissent indirectly brought down the presidency and arguably ended the cold war. The other sadness that few people mention is that this brilliant man didn't actually write a word of the papers for which he became so famous.
The pride was that we had grown up without him, led healthier lives, and even as we avoided him, our professional lives mysteriously echoed him or at least played in the same key.
He hugged us both that night and cried with a kind of happiness even as Nancy reprimanded him for talking about his own book for much of our dinner instead of asking about her kids or her conference. At one point when Nancy had slipped off to call her children, I finally asked my father a question that had only occurred to me in the last few months.
"Dad, in your famous paradox paper, you asked all these people which box they would choose. Which box did you choose yourself?"
My dad shrugged and looked off into the twilight, then laughed.
"I don't remember. I honestly don't remember."
"Well, which would you choose now?"
He didn't answer that question either, choosing instead to answer my question with a question, in a way that reminded me of our family's Jewish roots.
"Which one would you choose?"
I couldn't answer him. All I could see was an image of myself standing with one foot on either box.
"All I know is that your sister would have chosen whichever box was the one that I didn't choose."
We both laughed. It occurred to me, like it or not, that like my father, I didn't know enough about myself to know which box was mine. I had spent my adult life sorting and analyzing boxes instead. He then looked at me again and said, "I don't remember even thinking about choosing one myself."
It struck me that my father perhaps really didn't know the answer to my question.
Some say he did a "great thing" because he chose the possibility of uncertainty in his own life over the certainty and safety of going through the proper channels. For two years of his life, he solved the Prisoner's Dilemma and arguably played some role in freeing our country from a foreign policy based on Mutually Assured Destruction instead of mutual trust or interest. All that time he may not have made any kind of choice about the act that defined his life any more than he could have chosen to be a concert pianist.
I looked at him again and imagined the young graduate student at the Ritz Carlton. Even if no one currently said his name in the same breath as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, one could not deny that for two years in the early 1970's many people once did link him to these other secular saints. It occured to me that as wrong as it had been to include us, my father had tried to share what he perhaps knew would be the greatest part of himself.
Nancy would naturally disagree. As she says,"He was brilliant enough to see the shape of the entire world and what the war meant. He was also so far-sighted that he couldn't see his own family."
I believe that he loved us the way he could.
When Nancy got back to our table, our father toasted us. "To my children, you're far more brilliant than I ever was, and may your children be more brilliant than you."
To which my sister responded, "May they simply be happier."
A few months ago, a colleague and I went for drinks, and for whatever reason we began going on about our own childhoods. We talked about old movies, unconsummated infatuations, being humbled on the baseball diamond, and even sang theme songs from sitcoms. Only after this did he ask me the question that he had wanted to ask me in our four years of working together.
"Did you ever have your own copy of the papers, and what did you do with them?"
Forty three yellow bound volumes and seven thousand pages that tell the entire sad deceitful history of America's involvement in the War in Vietnam through the LBJ administration sit in a bookshelf in West Los Angeles. I have never read them all. My father and about twelve other people are the only ones who read them all the way through. On the inside page of the first volume, there's an inscription in a great, florid, blue ink. I once looked at a book of handwriting analysis and my father's script or something almost exactly like it was used to exemplify something called "ego grandeur."
To my son, thanks for helping to make history together. Love, Dad.
He then put his own full name in parentheses as if the volume itself might someday be a historical exhibit.
After Harvard and after my marriage to a woman even more protective than mom, my mother asked me if I wanted the books in my bookshelf. I took any number of things including books from my own childhood to include in my own home. I left the forty-three volume proof of my father's greatness, yet neither my mother or myself has ever considered the possibility of either selling or giving them away. Instead, they sit in an unfinished oak bookshelf behind the bed and next to the ironing board of what is now a guest bedroom in my mother's house, a house to which my father never returned after the papers became public.
When my mother dies, I suppose I will be faced with my own choice. I imagine though that I will then take my copy of the papers, my own Prisoner's Dilemma, home to upstate New York and place them on some bookshelf. I am certain, too, that when I die, no one will suggest any possibility of sainthood for me the way some once did for my father. Instead, someone else will have to answer the question of whether or not my own children will keep their father's copy of their grandfather's papers as they determine what stays and what goes in their own lives.