I was born in March of 1941, and over the next half a decade, as only a young child can, became vaguely familiar with the fact that there was a war going on.
I still remember seeing the seemingly endless military transports, men and weapons in camo, parading through the small and relatively insignificant town of Centralia, Illinois, centered in the corn and soy bean fields in the southern half of the state, about an hour due east of St. Louis, Missouri, the East-West axis metropolis; and complemented by Chicago on the North-South axis, where I would later pursue higher education and find the love of my life.
One of the clues was the boxes of things stored in our attic, which my bedroom abutted, on the second floor of the house my parents rented on a 20-acre farm in southern Illinois. Amongst those curios were cartons of exotic art supplies, such as fine drawing pencils and erasers, the smell of which I can remember to this day. Nothing like this had ever been seen in the small town we lived in, and cannot even be found there today. This was big-city, heady stuff.
It may be that that early exposure to what, in my world, were rare, mysterious items, later led to my interest in art; and fostered my higher education and professional career in art and design. I was, of course, aware of the ubiquitous #2 pencil we used in school, but 2B, H, 4H, and other, dark green, fine pencils, were out of another world. The husband of my mother’s youngest sister, aunt Jeannie, was a commercial artist, uncle Dick. But now, he was in the United States Navy. And his professional equipment was in our attic.
In my upstairs room, at the back of the house, where no one else stayed (the other bedrooms for my two sisters, older brother, and parents, were on the first floor, toward the front of the house, off the living room separated by pocket doors), hung on the walls was a collection of Native American (we called them Indian in those days) arrowheads and a couple of tomahawk stones, mounted on warm wooden, framed plaques in almost religiously symmetrical arrays. I think these belonged to my Uncle Ira, who was now in the United States Army. After it was over, they went away, along with uncle Dick’s art supplies. Both constituted my first lesson in covetousness denied.
Uncle Carl (Junior) was in the Navy as well, and Uncle Bud was, I think, in the Marines. Oldest sister Aunt Marie, and my mother, Lucille, second oldest, rounded out the seven siblings of the Fox family, on my mother’s side, honored members of “the greatest generation.” Their parents, grandpa Jim, and grandma Nelly Fox, were my first models of self-sufficient, self-reliant, salt-of-the-earth Americans, with whom I later was privileged to spend my summers in the depths of the Missouri Ozarks.
My dad, Armon (“Kinky” or “Curly,” after his beautiful hair) was grounded in America during the war, as part of the Signal Corps, for physical reasons I do not understand to this day. His only and older brother, Arnold, was in the Navy. Their mother, grandma Gerva, and her husband, grandpa George, provided the balance of the older generation to my upbringing. George Sanders, was dad’s stepfather; his biological father, grandpa Elliston, a conductor on the railroad, died long before I was born.
From these intimations of mortality from early childhood, I found my grounding in what would eventually become manifested as the highly pragmatic, yet highly devotional, aspect of Zen. Without knowing anything of the treasure of Zen, these folks were living examples of it in their greater, down-to-earth wisdom and compassion. In some ways.
Uncle Ira, for example (I inherited his American flag from his funeral), had fought in the Pacific Basin, and later Korea, purple heart and other awards for bravery, including making field lieutenant. But after all was said and done, he had no animosity toward the Japanese, nor the Koreans. He did advise me personally, when I asked him directly, to do whatever I had to do to stay out of it, as he thought it was simply madness.
Another warrior that I knew as a dear and sympatico client, working for Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron, Ohio, was completely and irredeemably opposed to anything Japanese, as a result of the atrocities he had witnessed during the war. The contrast between these two attitudes, two men of my parents’ generation that I admired so greatly, informed my understanding of suffering in the Buddhist sense, and of the difficult nature of Buddhist compassion.
Funny story about Uncle Dick, after the war, when he and Aunt Jeannie came to visit. They drove a Crosley, perhaps the first compact car in America, so compact it could drive down a sidewalk. Which, of course, uncle Dick did frequently, and with perverse pleasure. He and aunt Jeannie showed up at the farm to retrieve the art supplies, much to my preteen chagrin, sometime after 1945.
I witnessed, but did not remember, conversations that my dad later related with a measure of considerable angst (festered within a basic level of angst over the relative post-war heroic status of his in-laws, when he himself had not been directly engaged in overseas missions), concerning stories that uncle Dick would tell, apparently with great relish. My dad considered them egregious exaggerations, if not outright lies. One such narrative was that uncle Dick had become so familiar with his pre-war daily route to work (I think in Los Angeles), that when leaving home in the morning, accompanied by carpoolers, he would fall sound asleep at the wheel (presumably of the Crosley) and make his way to work without incident, stopping safely at all the stoplights, and finally arriving at the office, where he would regain full consciousness.
My dad regarded this with the same incredulousness that he held for the prospects of poor aunt Jeannie’s future with such a compulsive liar. It wasn’t long thereafter that they were divorced. But I always valued uncle Dick for introducing me to a certain event horizon of art, something larger out there, my much-anticipated world of art and design.
In recognition of my burgeoning interest in the visual arts, uncle Arnold would later present me with a birthday gift that expressed his understanding of my aspiration, in the form of a “paint-by-numbers” kit, including a canvas-wrapped board and prepared tubes of pre-mixed oil paints, the smell of which I also remember to this day. I completed the painting, a scene of boats at harbor, if memory serves. Even at that age, eight or nine years old, I recognized the misunderstanding of what art was all about, inherent in the paint-by-numbers fad, but did not hold it against my uncle.
So in memoriam, this Memorial Day weekend, I recall a rich and complex mix of memories and connections that are difficult if not impossible to sort out. They all add up to a sense of deep and profound gratitude to my forebears in the culture of my immediate family. But I also recall an overwhelming sense of humility toward my Zen master, Soyu Matsuoka-roshi, who came to America in 1939, endured internment in the camps during WWII, yet emerged as an international proponent of building bridges of peace between the USA and Japan.
Let us dedicate ourselves and our practice to the continuance of this great rapprochement between East and West, which of course, do not really exist, as such. This is one of the great answers to the eternal Zen question, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”