Down with this Cobb!
—Sporting News, September 1909
As was his custom, Cagney let himself into his father’s house with the spare key he’d kept since his teen years. Cale, who was sitting on the sofa, glanced at Cagney, startled, then looked at the high-backed chair across from him.
“What ...?” he said.
“What is it, Dad?”
“I was just talking to you. You were there, in that chair.”
Cagney sighed. Cale’s doctor had told them this day would likely come. Now that he was off treatment, the cancer was left unchecked, to run rampant. Cale had hallucinated a conversation with Cagney. Had the cancer metastasized to Cale’s brain?
“Well, you’re here now,” Cale said, an effort to downplay the episode. Then, pushing himself into a standing position, he added, “I’m hungry, let’s go eat. I’ll get your mother.”
“Dad,” Cagney said. “Mom’s not here, remember?”
“Oh,” Cale said heavily, punctuating his statement by dropping heavily onto the sofa; the sofa groaned in protest of its burden. Cale looked up at Cagney, a moment of distrust seemed to gleam in his eyes, and Cagney wondered if the basis for his distrust might be Cagney’s mere presence—that his father feared he might be hallucinating—or that he was loath to believe what his son had told him about Iris being deceased. The moment passed and Cale looked at the floor, between his feet.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’m here,” Cagney said to reassure him.
“I’m fucked up, Cagney. Been seeing a lot of things that just aren’t there.” Cale looked up. “Isn’t that what the doctor said I could expect, at the end?”
“Yeah, Dad. That’s what he said.”
Cale let out a long sigh. “Ah, Christ,” he said.
Cagney waited, throughout the drive to The Broken Egg, for his father to bring it up; Cale remained mute.
A waitress came with two glasses of water and asked for their order. Her nametag said her name was Karen. Cagney asked about Sheila, whom he hadn’t seen the last few times he’d brought his father to this dinner. To his knowledge, she still hadn’t read Vito.
“She got a job at La Dolce Vita. More money, better tips.”
Cagney pictured Sheila in the short skirt and tight, low cut blouse she would be required to wear and wondered if the tips were worth it to her—being ogled by the likes of Ron. Charlie insisted that no woman relished being leered at. Apparently, for a few extra dollars, some women would consent. Cagney recalled a piece of dialogue from Vito in which the title character had hit on a woman in a drinking establishment known to be a pickup joint. Mandy, a loose woman who dressed loosely (figuratively speaking), told Vito that if he expected her to invite him back to her place for the price of a couple martinis he was sadly mistaken. Vito had replied, “Now that we’ve determined what you are, we’re left to dicker over price?”
Karen left with their lunch order—a club sandwich for Cagney and a burger for Cale, cooked rare. Cagney refrained from advising his father against eating undercooked beef.
“Dad,” he said, “Don’t you think it’s time we made a decision?”
Cale refused to meet Cagney’s eyes, and Cagney was certain his father knew all too well to what he was referring.
“The decision is yours of course, but we agreed that when this day came, you would consent to moving to hospice.”
Cale met Cagney’s gaze and it took a moment for Cagney to recognize what he saw. He couldn’t recall ever having seen fear in his father’s eyes. Cale blinked away the fear, replaced it with defiance.
“Can’t wait to bury your old man, eh?”
“You know that isn’t so, Dad. We agreed you’d receive better care at hospice. Mother did.”
Cale seemed to relive those last days, as Iris waited for the inevitable, and Cagney watched the fear assail itself once more in Cale’s blue eyes. Again Cale blinked it away, and Cagney saw evidence of what Murphy had described as the bravest marine with whom he’d ever served.
“It is what it is,” Cale muttered to himself.
“I can’t trust myself to make decisions. If you think it’s time, then it’s time.”
They returned to the house in time to catch Once Upon a Time in The West on Turner Classics. As westerns went, it was one of Cale’s favorites. Before the opening scene, in which Henry Fonda, playing the darkest character of his illustrious film career, wipes out the frontier family, Cale had nodded off.
A short time later, Cagney gave in to Nature’s call. In the bathroom, he found his father had left a mess on the floor when emptying the contents of his colostomy bag. Sighing to himself, Cagney relieved himself and left to find a bucket, a mop and a sponge in the basement.
When he returned to Once Upon a Time in the West, he found Cale awake.
“Thanks,” was all Cale said, and Cagney tried to recall a time when he’d heard that word from his father.
The next day Cagney arranged for his father to move to Angela Hospice.
Angela Hospice became the first freestanding inpatient hospice center of its kind in Michigan in 1994, and received the Governor’s Quality Care Award in 2000. Composed of 16 rooms, the facility is staffed by 16 nurses and eight nurse aides, all with special certification in hospice and palliative care. Each room is private, and daytime staffing is at a ratio of one nurse and one aide per four patients. An on-site chef prepares meals according to dietary needs or patient preference. As many as 500 volunteers provide a variety of services, including companionship, assistance with meals, respite care, and spiritual support. They also provide, at no cost, bereavement support to family.
Cagney’s mother had made it known, after her first stroke, that she did not wish to be tortured into being kept alive. Shortly after her last stroke, she’d slipped into a coma. Rather than keep her on life support indefinitely, Cale and Cagney agreed to move her from hospital to hospice, where she would receive much better care, her level of discomfort, even while in coma, would be monitored, and she would be given morphine whenever she needed it rather than on a strict two-hour regimen. As assisted suicide went, it was the best Cagney could do for his mother.
Cagney was fortunate to find, for Cale, several available beds at Angela Hospice.
They packed one small suitcase, mostly underwear, a robe, slippers and Cale’s shave kit—a badger hair brush, bowl and soap, double-edged razor and stand, all in brushed pewter. A much more elegant manner by which to shave, Cagney always thought, in a much simpler bygone era. On a whim, Cagney also thought to bring the Christmas gift he’d bought for Cale last year: a scaled replica of the Hopkins Special that Bill Vukovich drove in the 1955 Indianapolis 500. “Vukie” had won the previous two 500s and was a threat to become the first driver ever to three-peat.
Vukovich was leading just past the quarter mark of the 1955 event when he couldn’t avoid the three-car wreck of Al Keller, Johnny Boyd, and Rodger Ward. His car went airborne and over the wall on the backstretch, landing upside down and in flames. Cale was at the race that day, sitting in the bleachers on the backstretch. He once recalled for Cagney watching the pin-wheeling car, before it went over the wall, with Vukovich strapped in, likely already dead, his arms flailing like those of a ragdoll, his white T-shirt stained crimson red.
Cagney had struggled with buying a Christmas gift for someone who likely wouldn’t live to see another Yule. When he saw the replica on an online store that sold sports memorabilia, he threw all caution to the wind and opted for the frivolous rather than something practical. The replica, one of only 50, came with a number of authenticity as well as a display case. Also included was a framed black and white reprint of the car on pit road, a smiling and helmeted Bill Vukovich behind the wheel, his nine-member pit crew standing behind the car, all smiling. The photograph had been taken on race-morning, just hours before the crash that claimed Vukie’s life.
Cagney recalled looking at the photograph before wrapping it, the smiling faces, hopeful of making history at the world’s most storied race track. It’s true, he’d thought then. Life really does balance on a knife’s edge.
Still, on Christmas morning, Cagney held his breath, not sure how Cale would react. He was surprised when no verbal chastisement was forthcoming, nor had Cale asked how much money it had cost. What surprised Cagney most was the childlike look in his father’s eyes as he admired the craftsmanship, the minute detail of the replica, the half-smile he couldn’t keep from his mouth. Cale looked at the photograph and the half-smile disappeared as he nodded once, perhaps reliving the event in his mind’s eye. He said nothing as he set the photo down and looked at Cagney. As thanks went, it was the best Cagney could expect.
Once they were at hospice, Cagney unpacked his father’s suitcase—underwear in the small bedside dresser, shave kit in the bathroom—while Cale sat in one of the room’s two chairs, out of breath from the walk from the parking lot. Cagney stood in the bathroom a moment to admire the shave kit, a gift from his mother to his father during happier times, likely before Cagney came along.
Cagney came out of the bathroom and took the replica, in its case, from the bed and set it on a shelf recessed in the wall near the room’s lone door. He turned to see Cale looking at him, his breathing no longer labored.
“How much did that set you back?” he asked with a rare grin.
Keeping with his father’s levity, Cagney sat in the other chair and said, “I’ll tell you if you tell me about Okinawa.”
Cale’s smile immediately disappeared. “No deal,” was all he said.
“But why not? Even your pal Murphy said I should hear it from you. What could you have done that you’re so ashamed of?”
“Taking another man’s life shouldn’t be shameful?”
Cagney always suspected his father had killed during the war; to Cagney it was always a question of how many. But this was the first time Cale had acknowledged it.
“It was a war, Dad. Kill or be killed. You followed orders. I understand the Japanese were ordered to kill medics on-sight, to prevent them from rendering first aid to the wounded. That’s against the rules of engagement.”
“Rules!” Cale spat, and Cagney was surprised at the strength of his father’s vehemence. “War’s a dirty business, no matter how you try to sanitize it. Let me tell you, I saw a lot worse than unarmed medics being shot down while tending the wounded, and from our own.”
“I know, Dad.”
“Yeah, you know, from reading some text book.”
“Not a text book, Dad. Eugene Sledge was there on Okinawa, with you. He tells it like it was.”
“He tells it,” Cale aped. “Words on a printed page.”
“He doesn’t glorify it, the way Hollywood did with The Sands of Iwo Jima. I didn’t have to be there to be appalled by a marine removing the teeth of a dying Japanese soldier with his bayonet for the gold fillings. With the Old Breed should be required reading in our schools.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“What, Dad? What am I supposed to get? That all wars are politically motivated? That they could be avoided if the leaders of two disputing nations agreed to meet in the center of a boxing ring to duke it out? Tell me.”
“George Bush was quick to say that God was on our side in the fight against terrorism. And the Muslim world thinks God is on their side.”
“What, you think God takes sides?”
Cale waved aside Cagney’s question. “You think Hitler thought that what he was doing was evil?”
“You’ve seen some of the old newsreels. Hitler had the support of millions of Germans.”
“I know, and after he was killed a German couldn’t be found anywhere who admitted to supporting him.”
Cale sighed. “You spoke earlier of following orders. You don’t think the Japanese weren’t following orders, too?”
“The Japanese were expanding their empire. If we hadn’t stopped them we might all be speaking Japanese.”
“Yeah, they were. So did our forefathers, pushing west, taking land from the Native American Indians.”
“And I recall reading that John Wayne said we were right to do so, if the Indians couldn’t hold onto their land.”
“Our might made us right,” Cale said with a nod.
“The original quote, by August and Julius Hare, is ‘right is might.’”
Cale looked at Cagney and Cagney thought he caught a glimpse of acknowledgement, that maybe, in his father’s eyes, he’d attained some higher level of esteem. What he said was, “Another man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”
“I heard that, in the aftermath of 9/11.”
Cale nodded. “Wars are started by leaders of nations, but they’re fought in the trenches. We were indoctrinated, fed propaganda, of the evil Japanese empire, like Bush’s evil axis.”
“No doubt the Japanese soldiers were told of the evil West.”
Cale nodded again and Cagney felt that, maybe for the first time, they were actually communicating.
“I saw what some of our marines did to our POWs, just as I saw evidence in some of the caves on Okinawa what the Japanese did to their POWs. As squad leader, I made sure our POWs received humane treatment—because it was the right thing to do.” Cale’s eyes brimmed with tears over some distant recollection. “I could see the fear in their eyes. I knew I’d be terrified if I’d been taken prisoner. So I reached out. We had a translator in our unit, and I had him talk to our prisoners, assure them that they’d be cared for. These prisoners were with us only for a short time, maybe half a day, before they were moved to the beachhead, but I had the other members in my unit share some of their K rations with them, and you know what? I could see in their eyes the realization that we weren’t nearly the evil people they’d been told we were. We were no different, really, than they were. We were merely following orders, fighting in a war we didn’t start any more than they did.”
Cagney fought back his own tears. It was the most his father had ever shared of this time in the service.
Cale: “You’ll find in my footlocker, in the basement, all you need to know about my service with the Corps. It’s padlocked, and the key is not so well hidden that you won’t be able to find it after I’m gone.”