His father was big, but not athletic. He was well read, but not formally educated. He was intellectual, but given to talking in platitudes. He was introverted, but not afraid to lead, an aesthete without complexity. His art was first realistic, then cubist, non-objective, and finally only bits of color. When he died, the son saw a bright light fade, like a brush going back and forth over a canvas with diminishing effect.
It had been forty years since his father had passed, leaving behind an army uniform in a yellowed plastic cover, and a small green suitcase. Back then, his mother handed him the uniform and he briefly examined it in the old family living room. On the left front were two stripes for a corporal, a pin with a figure of a soldier shooting a rifle, and colored bars. The old wool smelled of mildew and showed the rounded shoulders of old use. His father was only nineteen at the start of American involvement in World War II, and pictures from basic training showed a very thin young man—a stick figure behind a machine gun with legs spread on the ground. His father had a smile then, long before he actually went to battle. "I never saw the face of anyone I shot at," he had told his son. In the context of the Vietnam War era, the uniform was discarded and the mysterious suitcase stored away. The son later acutely regretted not keeping the uniform.
One Saturday afternoon while cleaning his garage for a trip to the Salvation Army, the son came upon the small green suitcase. He clicked the two clasps and swung open the top. It had a small mirror on the inside top, and seventies orange-pink ruffle lining. But instead of holding makeup or women's clothing for an overnight trip, it contained five crisp and neatly arranged manila folders, and old family photographs. The son picked up one picture of his smiling mother and father together on what looked like an anniversary date at a tropical-themed restaurant. He then pulled the papers out of one of the folders. Each page was laid out as draftsmen used to do with titles, text, and illustrations held in place with little strips of tape ready for production. In addition to full hand-typed pages, there were slips of paper cut out and fastened with masking tape. It was a book manuscript. He flipped the title page and saw the dedication: "To You." There was a sketch of a woman. It wasn't the son's mother.
Who was the woman in the sketch? He looked closely at the drawing—the hair style and clothes were from the sixties. He did not recognize her as a family friend. A co-worker?
Lakewood, California had an extensive archive of its city history. As he drove through the place of his youth, the son saw that the town had updated its motto to, "Changing city, same values." The son pulled up in front of City Hall, and went inside the library. He remembered the first adolescent sports novels he had read there, usually involving new kids at school who are first outcasts, then proved themselves on the gridiron, winning the game and the girl. Same story over and over, with different character names and hometowns.
Along with thousands of other G.I.s after World War II, the son's father and mother landed in Southern California. They promised themselves after the war that they would create a world like nothing from the past. No false gods, no imperial governments, no horrific leaders. It would not be like the old America of the East Coast or Midwest—no twofaced values, no institutional religion, no boring farm life, and no smothering potato salad picnics. They promised themselves that this time it would be different. The future would be realized. Science, technology, and rationality would lead the way.
Lakewood was a techno-community for the future built in an ideally flat stretch of land. One-story buildings, small and spread out. In less than three years, empty fields were filled with over 17,000 new homes—one house completed every 7.5 minutes. The perfect little homes were mass-produced in assembly-line fashion using specialized work crews for the different stages of construction. Viewed from the sky above, the buildings were laid out in a perfect grid, just like the graph paper the architects had used to design them. Advertising flyers pitched homes designed for families as "a new mode of modern living amid ideal surroundings in which to work, live, learn and play." There were nine different floor plans, twenty different exterior choices. His family lived in Plan Twenty-Six—three bedrooms, a thousand square feet. The price was $8,525 total, with no down payment for veterans.
One of the first regional shopping centers, the Lakewood Center, was built for the automobile. Developers saw that people would want to drive to shopping destinations, and that traditional downtown areas would not have enough parking. Soon after, Disneyland arose with "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." As a child, the son rode his bike past the crocodile farm to the second biggest attraction, Knott's Berry Farm, where there were chicken dinners, fake Western ghost towns, panning for gold, and a remembrance of the past.
Many of the residents, like his father, were employees of the mammoth Douglas Aircraft Company, where huge hangers were camouflaged from the air to look like the suburban homes that surrounded it. "Aerospace," the word, was a command of direction, liberating, the future with an arrow pinned to it. The huge hanger doors stood open and ran twenty-four hours a day. Armies of men worked around the clock under fluorescent lights that poured down like a new man-made techno sun. The state-of-the-art complex rolled out thousands of C-47 transport planes and B-17 heavy bombers starting right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. School children at the perfectly designed elementary schools nearby played on grass-less yards, and practiced for nuclear bomb drills. Duck and cover from incoming nuclear warheads. "If there is a war, they will target us because our flying machines are the finest in the world."
Seated in the library, the son looked at photos of a mass of workers coming out of the colossal hangars, and drawings of bombers and fighters including the famous DC-8 passenger jet. Then in one folder were pictures of employees at holiday time, with hundreds on bleachers in panoramic view. He found the files for the years when he guessed his father worked for the company. In one was a staff photo with a tall man in the back wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Santa hat perched rakishly to one side. In front of him a group of office staff women were laughing, one in a Christmas sweater embossed with reindeer flying in a semi-circle over her breast. It was the woman from the drawing. On the flip side of the photo was a listing of employees, left to right, back to forward. Clara Maguire.
He had asked the son to get the order for them when they stopped to buy burgers from the stand for dinner. The son was surprised because he had never been asked this before. Something was clearly wrong. The son looked over and saw that his father's hands were trembling as they gripped the steering wheel. "Here," he said, giving the son a twenty. "I don't feel up to it today." The son could barely make out his father's eyes behind his dark green sunglasses. The son now realized how fragile his father was, that he took pills from a bottle he left on his bedroom dresser top. He must have had dreams, spiritual and carnal. "This is the man most like me," the son had thought. The day before, he had seen his father have a heated conversation with his mother in the backyard. His mother never cried, but she was crying that day.
Is that why his mother remarried so quickly after his father's death, and why there were no pictures of his father hung in her home? Why she never spoke of him? Had they made a deal?
After a time in California, they decided to move back to Minnesota and build a dream house in the country; the son remembered that his father had carefully drawn plans of the home. Had his mother and father recaptured something? We're they going back to Minnesota homeland after giving up on the aerospace, Lakewood utopia?
The son took the back road past horse stables to Manor House. The retirement community was pushed up against the base of the foothills. It had been established fifty years earlier as an enclave for the infirm from neighboring wealthy neighborhoods. The son visited his mother most Sundays, took her for a walk under the California oak trees nearby, and played a game of gin rummy.
They stopped and sat on a bench near a large manzanita bush, with its hard red branches in the sunlight twisted like a sculpture.
"I've been looking through some of Dad's things."
"I was reading his book manuscript."
"I remember him working on that," she said, between breaths from the exertion of the walk.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"I guess so," she said, turning to look at him.
"Were you happy in Lakewood?"
"Your generation talks too much. Why is everyone so pre-occupied with being happy?"
"I don't know."
"We did what we had to do."
"But Lakewood was all about the future, 'As New as Tomorrow.'"
"It was a fantasy. Your father liked to dream."
The son reached into his pocket and felt the drawing of Clara, but instead took out the photo of his mother and father on their anniversary date.
"I thought you might want this," he said.
Title image "Utopia" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.