Fiction Page 11
Lawrence R. Dagstine
Jack Kellegher was still an exuberant youth given to wild parties, but his mind was maturing and his understanding of the world and its affairs was increasing fast. He had a completely two-sided approach to life. It was unquestionably possible for him to dislike the society he lived in and at the same time continue to admire the material advantages that only they provided. He lived rather moderately, for he had no money outside of his small salary. This relative penury may have had an influence on his mental outlook and sudden approach to things. As he was much the most promising child, his strong-minded mother's hopes were held of him, a portion of the available money, some of it provided by old family friends, spent on furthering his career. He was the youngest paid welder in all of Brooklyn, and came to take this privileged occupation rather for granted.
He was, however, a happy enough boy when at the age of seventeen he went off to Centereach, Long Island, to teach others in the art of welding, where he was reputed to be a skilled young teacher. He was short and thin, good-natured and shy, with grayish-blue eyes and an overbearing conscience that caused him agonies of remorse over nothing more than silly shenanigans or schoolboy sins.
A sidelight on Kellegher's heartwarming but still puerile character at this time is that, although he was doing no serious work--most of the heavier tasks being left to his older brother--he always carried with him an imposing bundle of learned-looking books, unread copies of popular literary reviews, and lurid pulps. His mind was set at an early age. He didn't want to weld canopies or hammer metal his whole life. He wanted a more scholarly profession.
He wanted to be a writer.
Jack was born in a small, dim-lighted basement apartment in Bensonhurst on May 5th 1947, into an Irish Presbyterian family which, oddly, was of Neapolitan and Celtic descent. His mother, who he always seemed closest with, was a non-religious Italian woman that spent most of her days cleaning and sewing and taking care of the kids. Jack's father was a hardworking Irish immigrant, who was not only the head of the Welders Union in Brooklyn but in his spare time a nickel and dime shoemaker for the neighborhood. Jack once said that he had been a great man; certainly he was great in character, a man of infinite goodness, piety, and fortitude. It was just a shame that Jack never really got to know him. The burden of having cancer at an early age lay too heavily on his mind and, when he died and Jack's mother moved to a cheaper place in Canarsie, Jack turned out to be the most heartbroken.
But Jack's emotions were strong, and it became clear that he was developing a deep empathy for writing. He disliked the profound after work social life he was leading, and the difference between the unconscionable conversation of most of Brooklyn's upscale crowd and the arrogant wealth of the Manhattanites outraged him. As he hit his twenties he preferred quiet evenings at home; that was the beginning of his disappearance from society. He worked out of his Greenwich Village apartment in later years, a conscientious and hardworking servant for a political newspaper, although he was usually utterly opposed to its policies. Most of the time, he enjoyed writing fiction, even if it meant editing or rewriting other people's fiction. Sometimes he enjoyed sitting in a dark room by himself, so he could gather his thoughts.
Jack, with his sometimes-cynical attitude, represented the intellectual side of life where blue-collar work was out of his depth. He was part of a literary circle--during the 60's a major part of it--but there were apparent indications that it was a part he would in normal circumstances have been ready to give up had he not graduated writing school, or been making a steady income, at an early age, at welding.
Then, in 1968 he received a notice in the mail. It seemed that his birthday had been picked out of a lottery of hundreds of thousands of other young Americans' birthdays, in an effort to recruit average civilians for the U.S. Army. He had been drafted, and ended up in Vietnam three months later.
During the Nixon era it was easy enough to look out across the world and ask for a behavior pattern similar to your own; but these were only outward reasons for peace. Vietnam was different. It was the necessity for a broadly based army, representing all sections of an intransigent country. The error of confusing the laws of the jungle with silly U.S. politics and one's own tribal customs.
In 1970 Jack was appointed to infantry communications. He even served the military as a press aid; he could not have written about the tragedies of Nam had he not experienced it firsthand. Yet he could still contemplate that long, hot difficult summer of 70', and the steps that had brought him to this position. The continuous outbursts of war found him struggling to breathe life into an army newspaper with a frail circulation in North Saigon and Laos, which his superiors had founded on returning from Washington.
Jack was doing exceptionally well at infantry, but his articles in the newspaper showed traces of irritation. He had even said to one of the high-ranking soldiers, "I know I'm only a temporary journalist and soldiering comes first, but being in charge of a jungle gazette won't get me a job in Washington…that is, if I live that long. This job doesn't even give me a peek at the intelligence reports, and these men want the news. They want the truth, and Washington is just telling the platoon a pack of lies." The rest of his words that followed were jerky and rambling, but his field sergeants got the outline of it. Jack wasn't stupid. He was fighting a war without a purpose.
Washington showed a disappointing lack of interest in what Jack had to say. News about the war was coming in all the time, and it didn't matter whether it was good or bad. Eventually, Jack quieted down, but not without first having made a nuisance of himself. A matter of fact, while hunting for the Vietcong, Jack's nights were haunted by dreams. But who was he to blame these dreams on the U.S. government's raw policies or secrets?
He could have written everything he needed or wanted during these years, for there were ideas all around him. But most of his ideas came from his dreams. Whenever he would wake up from one, which he could not exactly define as a nightmare, beside his sleeping bag would be a pencil and pad. It was obviously there to jot down formulas for his fiction; war stories mixed with elements of horror and fantasy. He was just describing in his own words what was horrific or fantastic about the war. Although not much was fantastic. Then he would lay there with the pencil in his mouth, peering up at the sky, or staring at the expressions of his fellow platoon members who could not sleep. Sad as they were, their faces told a different story: melancholy, astonishment, fear, emotional appeal seemed to follow one another so rapidly that they merged into what was almost a grimace.
After returning home in 1972, Jack received a Medal of Honor for his dedication to the army newspaper all those years. He moved back to New York. He had many stories to tell by now, ones he wanted to share with the rest of the world, but his writing wasn't taking off like it should have. A picture of him at that time would show a man with a limp, soaking himself day in and day out in shallow drunkenness. That following year portrayed Jack as a short, fair, rather carelessly dressed man of twenty-six, slightly remote, often too restrained, usually sitting low in an armchair, with one leg crossed over the other, commenting with cynical humor on the obtuseness of war. His relations with people seemed entirely amicable, if slightly condescending, almost mocking; for he clearly took no interest in the political problems of the 70's, where in the 60's he discussed them firsthand.
Then, in the high summer of 74, with the shadows of Vietnam already clearing, Jack packed up all his belongings and moved to the West Coast. New York no longer offered the same opportunity it was once known for, and by that time there was nothing to suggest that he was likely to win a Pulitzer Prize. There was also nothing to suggest that he was likely to become a world-famous author or newspaper journalist. It seemed that all those years of literary talent had left him. The magic was gone.
Was it some inner struggle that sent Jack to seek relief in alcohol? His peers didn't know, but it was in San Francisco that he really began to drink heavily. Under the influence of hard liquor this quiet, amiable man became violent in word and in action and seemed to lose all control. There was an even more dangerous result of Jack's drinking, which his friends and family preferred not to discuss, but it was still an integral part of his tragic history: when drinking he exhibited homosexual tendencies. This side of his life became official a few years later, and it was just one of the problems he took to the psychiatrist to whom he went after his breakdown.
Jack's vulnerability was now exposed. Here was a journalist, a former welder, a soldier, known to be at odds with society and still more so with the behavior and actions of a free country; a man who believed in and was ready to fight for peace; a reformer with a deep urge to help the underdog; a man who was down on his luck, and who had homosexual leanings and was a heavy drinker.
Jack's main tragedy lay in the fact that his qualities of mind and character and his passionate interest in the rights of ordinary men fitted him to be a liberal. But because of socialism, the world had little use for liberals. It had become too unadventurous for the young intellectuals of his day; apart from a normal preoccupation with the writing, the affairs of the world in which he was living passed him by. Jack was of the ill-starred protest generation whose impressionable years were lived beneath the fearful shadow of war and social equality, which was obtaining a serious hold on literature at that time, and leading a man with a brilliant, spirited mind, to doubt his own talent and to look elsewhere for an audience. And this, added to the powerful sway of his emotions and beliefs, made him easy game for irresponsibility, especially where his sex life was concerned.
It was during the late 70's that Jack's sexual irresponsibility began to manifest itself. He had gotten sick, what doctors called a "rare" virus or flu bug, causing him to get one bad illness after the other. It wasn't until a few years later that the virus became more open and widespread, and he was diagnosed with AIDS.
Throughout the course of his sickness, Jack wrote irregularly. For the first two years he appeared to be living quietly, but gradually he began to see his literary agents about working on a novel. He also started drinking heavily again. It has been said that during the summer of 83 his appearance was frightening. The following winter, Jack's mother received a desperately discouraged letter from him, doubting that after his frustrating bout with failure he would never return to New York to visit her.
A couple of days after its receipt, Jack's mother flew to San Francisco. It wasn't just a formal visit; she informed Jack that she would be spending a couple of weeks with him. Her frank enthusiasm--Mrs Kellegher was a poor liar, but she meant well--left her action open to two practicable interpretations: either she was going to be in San Francisco longer than a couple of weeks, so she could start a new life for herself, while at the same time try and lift Jack's spirits, or maybe she was just there for support. Jack's doctor convinced her that without emotional support her son would be completely lost. With some uncertainty she agreed to resume the mother-son relationship. She had already lost her husband; now she was facing the challenge of losing her son.
But the final mystery in Jack Kellegher's life and career as a small-time writer is why did he want to achieve such inaccessible goals? He had undoubtedly loved writing once, but he had shown little affection for it throughout the 80's, right up until his death. There seem to be two explanations: first, that Jack wanted to be a novelist; or second, that the reading public did not want him as their author.
Jack's instincts were strong, and his desire to have his writing published globally may have well grown stronger during the years of his terrible sickness. He must have realized that the only way of getting out there and being known was to do so in death.
And so, in 1990, after Jack Kellegher had been gone for almost five years, his mother came out with a book of her own. It wasn't a book with words or thoughts in it, but more or less a book about him. A book about an amazing man and his career: a journalist, a welder, a soldier, and a damn good drinker. And you know what? It went global…
Just how Jack would have wanted it.