Finding my Father and the FBI ~ A Father’s Day Tale by Patricia Ann McNair

I am certain I know where to find it; I can see it in my mind. It is in that basket where I keep old magazines, in the sunroom. Or maybe it is in the file box in the back bedroom. Maybe in the drawer near the loveseat or under the side table next to the couch.

There really aren’t all that many places to look, and yet…

My father’s FBI file came to me by way of my half-brother Wesley who got it from my other half-brother Paul. I’m trying to think when I received it in the mail. 2008? 2009? Or was it after my (full) brother Roger died? When we, full and half-siblings were reaching out, grabbing what we could of what was left. And I read it, quickly then, because I was just curious, not too much, but enough to see what I might find out about him, my dad, in this way. See, I thought I knew him, knew his story, even this story, the FBI’s one about him being a threat to national security. And so I didn’t read very closely. And after I’d read it once, I stashed the file away. Somewhere.

Here is what I know for certain, what I have always known: my father had two families. Not at the same time, but overlapping a little. Married once and father of three boys (my half-brothers.) Married a second time and father of three more boys (my full brothers) and then me. Seven children altogether; five of us left now. I call all of my brothers just that, brothers, full or half.

My father died when he was 55 years old. I was fifteen years old. I am 55 now. Four decades.

FBI files are cool. They look like what you might expect them to look like: crummy photocopies with lots of things blacked out and blurry. In my father’s case, pages of notes from the 40s, the 50s, the 60s. I can’t recall if there were any from the 70s, would there have been? By then he was on his second family, his second life, just a middle-aged suburban guy, four kids and a cat and a dog and a mortgage and two cars in the garage and a camper in the driveway. An organic garden in the back yard: corn stalks that grew messily among the neat parcels of lawn adorned with prim little flower beds that made up our neighborhood. I don’t think our neighbors liked the garden, or the cornstalks. Or the large and fly-buzzed compost heap in what was once our sandbox, a plaything too childish for any of us when we first moved into the low-slung contemporary house with four bedrooms and a den and two bathrooms and a Florida room and a quarter-acre lot. I was nine then. Roger was eleven. Don and Allen (also full brothers) were teenagers.

What I can remember from the FBI file is that my half-brother Paul had written in its margins here and there, adding commentary. Clarifying what was blacked out, adding what wasn’t said. Stuff about his mom, (the one, I’ve come to believe, who first put the FBI on Dad’s tail,) my father’s first wife, a woman he married when he was too young, too poor, too unsure of himself to know anything different—that’s what men did then, married the women they slept with. Stuff about Paul himself, his brothers (my half-brothers.) “Finally, I found me!” or something like that scribbled in one place, Paul recognizing himself in the description of one of my dad’s sons. And when I read the file, it was Paul’s words in the margins that were most interesting to me, even more so than what the FBI had to say. Why is that, I wonder. Perhaps because Paul at least knew the man who was our dad. He knew him in a very different way than I did, there are twenty some years between us. Paul was a man with his own family when our father died. He wasn’t just a witness to my dad’s life, he was a participant. What he said mattered to me.

If I can find the damn thing, the sheets and sheets of photocopies gathered together and stashed away in my apartment somewhere, it will be Paul’s margin notes I will reread first.

What I sort of remember, but maybe don’t entirely because some of it had to be before I was born: Paul coming to live with us when he was a young man, his going to college in the city. Paul and Dad being drinking buddies, not just father and son. Paul and Dad, both newspaper guys at one time or another, writers, working together on story ideas. Paul—having moved in his thirties to a tiny town in Northern Wisconsin, a rural route for his address—coming back to the suburb where we lived when my father died, and getting lost for hours (was it hours?) just a mile away from our house because everything had changed so much. Getting lost in a familiar place. I know that feeling.

My dad and I were close, as close as a middle-aged father and teenaged daughter could be back in the 70s, an era when fathers worked all the time and wouldn’t think of missing a client dinner or late-night meeting to go to a daughter’s play or a parent-teacher conference. You know that show Mad Men? My dad was that kind of dad. Not the philandering kind (at least not during my lifetime, I don’t think) but the hard working, hard drinking, suit, tie, Brylcreem kind of dad. A stop-at-the-bar-before-he-came-home-for-dinner, bourbon-at-lunch kind of dad. Read-the-newspaper-on-the-train-to-work-from-the-suburbs kind of dad; office-in-the-city kind of dad. Smoke-too-much, work-too-much, drink-too-much, weigh-too-much, massive-coronary-in-a-Stop ‘n’ Shop-on-the-way-home kind of dad.

The FBI file says things about my mother, too, but I don’t recall exactly what. Did it name her? Or does it just tell of how my father left his first wife for this other woman, one interested in unions and socialism and communism like he was. A woman, no doubt, the FBI considered a national threat as well. Certainly a woman who was a threat to my father’s first wife, to his first family.

He was a different kind of dad then, no doubt, during his first family years. The FBI file, the one I can’t lay my hands on right now, made that clear. He didn’t know how to be a family man, I don’t think. He had been a farm kid who wanted to be something else, something important. So he was never around when the FBI tried to speak with him, off union building and rabble rousing, his wife and children home alone for days, weeks. My half-brother Wesley, a poet, writes poems about this dad (his dad, not my dad, at least not the one I knew.) The dad who left his family, my half-brothers and their mother, behind when he tried to save the world or something, left them behind when he took up with my mom (who also wanted to save the world.) I write stories about him, my dad, essays like this, and fiction. Only the fathers in my fiction aren’t exactly like my dad; they are mostly there in the story for a little while, and then they are gone.

Okay, they are exactly my own dad that way. There, then gone.

Where is that file?

What isn’t in the file, but what I was told: my mother and father fell in love at first sight. My mother told me this; my father told me this. This is a story I know for sure. He was speaking at an event in a tiny college in Vermont. Someone my mother knew who was involved in labor relations suggested she come to hear this man—my father, but not yet—speak. She walked into the hall where a group was gathered. She had on a beret. It was snowing. She had snow in her hair and on her shoulders and he saw her and he knew. And she knew. That’s what they told me. It didn’t matter that he was already married, not to them at least. They knew.

This is how things become true: in the file, early on, there is an allegation (presumption?) that my dad absconded with something like 500 bucks from a guy he worked for in Detroit. And for years after, that small detail was brought up again and again in those FBI pages. And with each retelling it became less allegation and more fact until finally, the FBI just started to call it a theft and my father was no longer innocent until proved guilty; he was, according to the file, just plain guilty.

When my poet brother Wesley was working on his memoir, he came to visit me, to read letters and documents my mother had saved and that were (after her death) passed on to me. We rode in the backseat of a car my husband drove through the country one afternoon; Wesley’s wife sat shotgun up front. We were talking about my dad, his dad, our dad, as we had been for days by then. Rather, Wesley was asking me questions—and if the answer I gave didn’t exactly match the information he already had, or the way he wanted the history to be, he’d dispute me. And suddenly, unexpectedly, I was crying. The green countryside swept past on either side of the gray strip of highway, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. “What do you want me to say?” I remember asking Wesley, struggling to keep my voice steady, my tears from falling. “I’m sorry if it’s not what you want to hear. But this is how I remember it.” He cried then, too; for me, probably, more than for my dad, our dad, his dad, the one who left him (abandoned him) when he was a child. What were we talking about just then, the moment before I cried? And what did we talk about after? Does what we said matter?

So back to how things become true: the retelling of things, over and over, fact or fiction, makes them more solid, permanent. Am I the only writer who, while making story, stops to wonder: “Did that really happen?” Or “Did I just make that up?” Or “Was that real?” The lines get blurred sometimes, the things we know, the things we create. The things we write down on paper. And maybe that is part of it, too, of what makes things true: words on the page, the act of capturing in ink on paper these myths, stories, allegations. I saw Dorothy Allison read from a novel and talk at a library once and someone asked her that question readers always have for writers: “Was that story true?”

“Aw, honey. It’s all true,” she said. “It’s fiction, but it’s true.”

It’s true that my dad was followed by the FBI. He was a card-carrying communist who was a union rabble-rouser in the 40s and 50s. To some, that meant he was a national threat: not true, not really. He was a bad father to his first batch of children, and—mostly—a better father to his second; this is true. The file, what I can remember of it since I can’t find it, pieced together bits of his life, mostly from years before I was born. Those bits don’t add up to the father I knew, the suburban dad with an organic garden who worked a day job in an office wearing a tie and mowed his lawn in shiny work pants and black socks and dress shoes on weekends. My dad didn’t abandon my family or steal 500 bucks from his boss or plan in secret meetings to overthrow the government with his commie friends. My dad took the train to work. The Skokie Swift. He sometimes left the office early on summer days to go to a Cubs game. He wrote books with titles like How to Get a Higher Paying Job Now, and New Careers for Teachers. He had nothing to hide, nothing the FBI needed to know.

My parents went to the USSR in the 60s on a sponsored trip by a national association of school board members. (My dad helped my mom get elected to our school board; he wrote her campaign flyers.) This trip behind the Iron Curtain stirred up the FBI, according to the file, years after they had finally realized that my dad was just that, a dad. It was sometime before the trip that the FBI finally got him, followed him and stopped him and “invited” him into a car with a couple of agents so they could interrogate him about—what? I can’t remember now what they thought he would know. I recall thinking, as I read this section of the file, that it was like the stuff you see on old tapes from the McCarthy era, them—the agents—asking questions about the people he knew, who was a communist, who was doing what. But this I remember for sure (I think): my father told them he would not say anything. They had no reason to bother him; he didn’t have any information. And even if he did, he would not give them anything. Why did they think he would?

The file said he was “uncooperative.”

And so they let him go. And later, when he went to Russia on a sponsored trip, the FBI buzzed about it a little in the file; then they let that go. School board. Visits to grade schools. That’s all. Nothing new here. No big deal. And less than a decade after that, my father died.

What am I really looking for, I wonder. I’ve gone through the basket of magazines, the drawer next to the loveseat, the piles of things under the end table, the file boxes gathering dust in the back bedroom and I’ve found nothing. What am I looking for? It’s not the file, I think I know now, not really.

It’s him. Forty years after the massive heart attack took my father (have I told you his name? Wilbur Frank McNair, Mac to my mom, to his friends, but he went by Bill McKee for work purposes. That drove the FBI a little crazy, two names, three sometimes) and I am as old as he was when he died. And like it is with the file, I am having a harder and harder time remembering exactly where I’ve left him.

This is what is true, this is what I can find when I look hard enough:

My father liked to cook things. Meatloaf with strips of bacon adorning its top. I see my father at the stove stirring a pot of fish stew made from powder, or chili mac made from scratch.

He had a winter coat bought from a resale shop (he loved resale shops, he loved bargains in general—bikes from police auctions, slightly used things from yard sales, twofers) that was made of bear skin, and he wore it to Chicago Bears games.

My father grew orchids in a greenhouse behind our home in the suburbs. On Saturdays, we would go to an indoor nursery to buy more. It smelled green and like wet earth there. I still love that smell.

Sometimes he came home drunk and grumbling.

My father could hit a softball all the way to the end of our yard while clenching a cigarette tight in his teeth, squinting through the smoke.

He never ran. Or at least, I never saw him run.

My father and mother too often had screaming fights in the middle of the night, moving from their downstairs bedroom to the kitchen, pouring drinks and rattling ice, while we tried to sleep one floor above them. Now and again I would sneak down the backstairs and hide behind a chair in the living room to try to hear what they were saying. The fights were usually about money. Sometimes about other people—men, women.

He was missing teeth (a farm kid’s bad dental hygiene in the first quarter of last century) but had a great, craggy smile.

He loved me. He called me “Trish the Dish” and sang Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” to me, about me.

There’s more, I know, about this man, my father, Wilbur Frank McNair. Bill McKee. Mac. Some of it might be in that file, but most of it won’t be.

This is not in the file: the night before the day he died, my father was up for hours writing a long letter to my mother about the exciting possibilities of their lives, of our lives. (The letter may or may not be among my mother’s things; I haven’t found it, either.) When I went to kiss my dad goodbye before I left for school on the morning of the day he died, he snored through the kiss. “He’s dead to the world,” I said to my mom.

By that evening he was.

What more can I tell you? What more do you (I) want to know?

He was a communist; the FBI had that right.

He was a union rabble rouser; true.

He was not a national threat, unless you consider trying to make the world a better place for workers a threat to the nation. I don’t.

He grew up on a farm.

He did not believe in God.

He was a tenor.

He was a writer.

He was a husband. Twice.

He—Wilbur Frank McNair, Bill McKee, Mac—was my father.

And this I know for certain: I, Patricia Ann McNair, am his daughter.

 

Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwest. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and taught aerobics. Today she is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, where she received the Excellence in Teaching Award as well as a nomination for the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year.

McNair’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, and journals including American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Other Voices, F Magazine, Superstition Review, Dunes Review, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and others. She is also published in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. She’s received numerous Illinois Arts Council Awards and Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction and nonfiction.

McNair divides her time between city and small town with her husband, the visual artist Philip Hartigan (www.philiphartigan.com).