Mornings on the LLoyd Thomas were the worst. I would wake up and remember what was going on and I would put the pillow on my head and refuse to rise. Several times Lowell would call early just to make sure I was up and would make the officers’ morning staff meeting. “We can get through this,” he would say in his boyish, mid-west optimism. Lowell was Lutheran and he had faith.
One Saturday in late summer he called and in a soft voice asked, “Can you get down here? I think that I have found our man.” When I arrived we were the only folks at the JAG office but even so Lowell closed the door behind me after I entered.
“I hired a local civilian lawyer friend of mine to do some snooping. Sometimes they can open drawers we can’t. Well my friend tells me that there is a Marine Corps colonel in the Secretary of the Navy’s office who has it in for you. This is too bad because John Chafee, who is the Secretary, is a pretty decent guy and might side with us on this. But this Marine has put your file in a very dark place where it will not see the light of day. Our colonel is banking on you cracking, doing something drastic like leaving the country.
I smiled at the memory of my last overseas trip. It was Easter past, I’d been slipping in the ‘faith’ department and took two weeks leave that I had coming. It was completely illegal for an active duty military person to leave the continental US without permission but I just boarded a flight in civilian clothes from Boston to London and moved into a friend’s flat in Cadogan Square. I had been an exchange student here in the early 60’s and wanted to see if I could live in exile in my old stomping grounds.
I visited pubs and coffeehouses where American GI’s who were now deserters enjoyed celebrity status from the Beattles generation. Men with pony tails and women with nipples popping through their blouses would buy these American GI’s pints of lager beer, praising them for their courage but expecting graphic depictions of the blood, carnage and rape in return. Where these Brits saw courage, I saw fear. I had planned to sit and talk with these soldiers but in the end I could not.
On Good Friday I went to Westminster Cathedral and sat in the front row, the very seat I had occupied just seven years before when I was at a school down the road. For the first time I began to appreciate the sacrifice that Jesus made. He believed in something and was willing to die for it. In my mind, Easter Sunday paled in comparison. As I made my way through the streets of London that night, I realized with certainty that my battle would be fought at home, not in some far off British pub or Parisian coffeehouse.
Lowell politely cleared his throat. “So Pete, you need to live a squeaky clean life now. Stay close to here. No speeding tickets, no bar fights. Don’t provide them with an excuse. We need to find a way to get your file back out in the open. We need some time.”
I was now living with another officer from our ship in a small apartment in Newport. It was the summer of Woodstock, of Joan Baez marrying David Harris and it seemed that revolution was in the air. One night I felt this overwhelming need to see my parents. They lived two hours away and were having some problems of their own and I needed to check in.
Cohasset’s postmaster, Gerard Keating, had lost his son in Vietnam. Word had finally reached home of my provocative actions in the Navy and now people were avoiding my parents in public. Gerard and my father had worked side- by- side posting my families’ business mail every day for over 20 years and now Gerard refused to look at dad in the face. My mother was in the Central Market when a longtime friend refused to talk to her. I learned all this from my brother John. They were not about to burden me with their own issues.
So failing to heed Lowell’s advice, I headed off the base, changed at the apartment into civilian clothes, and watched in the rear view mirror for an escort as I traveled the back roads into Massachusetts. It was a gorgeous late summer sunset that greeted my arrival home and after saying hello to my surprised folks I went for a swim. Mom cooked up some fish and we sat on the porch, catching up with our respective news. It had been months since I had seen them. Dad said that he had watched the Lloyd Thomas sail by Minot’s Light on its way south to Newport. We were staying away from all the difficult stuff when the phone rang and dad went to answer it.
“Hello, is this the Hagerty residence?”
“Yes,” replied my father.
“Mr. Hagerty, my name in Hines, John Hines and I am a Military Police officer stationed at the Naval Base here in Boston. If you are Francis, then perhaps I was a neighbor of yours growing up on Hillside Ave. in Dorchester. “
“Yes, I remember your older sister Joan,” replies my father.
“Mr. Hagerty, we have reason to believe that your son is visiting you there this evening. Is that true?”
“Yes, we are just finishing supper”.
“Well, I am afraid to report that there are two MP’s coming down there to arrest your son.”
“The charge is that he is Absent Without Leave from his base in Newport.”
“But my son is off tonight and chose to come here to have supper with my wife and me and will return to the base by morning. Officer Hines, why are you calling me and telling me all this?”
“I recognized the name and as a courtesy I am giving you a heads up.”
“Well, Officer Hines, my son has done nothing wrong. And if your associates are coming here to arrest him, you tell them to be sure to bring two sets of handcuffs”. My father then hung up the phone and stood looking at the floor.
Both my parents were Republicans. My father used to joke that if they were Democrats then the fire department might not come if his factory caught on fire. I had never seen my parents stand up against authority. Tonight my dad said that he was going to jail with me.
My mother began chattering, then screaming, then moaning. She walked the hallways of our house cursing me. My dad excused himself, went up and lay down on his bed and began having mild chest pains.
Mom took some Valium and I went to sit on my dad’s bed. I wanted to tell him how proud I was of what he had done. He had come to my rescue like I had always hoped he might. Instead I asked him for a story.
As a child, every night he would treat me to the adventures of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. So this night, as we awaited our jailers, he transported me back to a forest clearing where Friar Tuck was battling the Sheriff of Nottingham with a large pole while Robin Hood once again escaped to be with Maid Marion. As the words rolled out his breathing eased and when the story ended, he fell into a deep sleep.
Sitting by his side I felt totally responsible for my parent’s trauma. When will I be able to make decisions in my life and not feel the weight of responsibility for others? Where does their life end and mine begin? I would not come close to answering this question until the day I had my own family.
I waited until 2 am but the MP’s never came. I never knew if it was a bluff or whether the Navy was not prepared for the arrest of a 42-year-old father of two. I have always preferred the latter. Years later at my Harvard 25th reunion I told this story of my father’s courage to 800 of my returning classmates and it brought the house down. It seems that many in the room had desperately wanted this kind of support from their own parents but it was not to be. That summer night I had seen my father face fear head on and not turn and run. For this I would love him forever.