(Working on) Waiting for the Train, Part Two

(The first entry of this blog series is located here)

Robert L. MacDonald, known as Bob or Mac, worked as an English teacher and non-profit educator up until his death in 2014. His relationship with his father, as the youngest son of three, was a source of great pain for Bob. His focus on his father’s journal lasted most of his adult life, although years would intervene between efforts to organize and publish it. At one point, Bob wrote an introduction to John MacDonald’s journal, describing his last meeting with his dad.  The occasion was the death of his older brother, Willard, who had suffered acute appendicitis and was unable to receive life-saving treatment. Willard died onboard a British hospital ship during a World War II campaign in the Pacific, June 1945.

The ten years recounted in the journal (1934-1944) bridge the time between John’s estrangement from his family in 1932 and Bob’s encounter with him in August 1945.  

Here’s Bob MacDonald’s reminiscence of his last meeting with John:

In 1932, when I was four years old, my mother and father separated. He was suffering from the effects of shell-shock and gassing from his experiences on the fields of France during World War I. I saw him on only four occasions in my life, the last being when I tracked him down in New York City to tell him of the death of my older brother in World War II. This was in August 1945.

The only person in our family with whom my father communicated was my older brother. I remember occasionally a postcard arriving in the mail from various cities around the country. Like most men who were drifters during the Great Depression, my father sought warm climates in the winter because he lacked adequate clothing and shelter. The Southwest and California were suitable places.

The last correspondence from him placed him in Tucson, Arizona, but I had no known address for him. I was seventeen years old in 1945, with no experience in finding missing persons. I took my story to the Missing Persons Bureau of the New York City Police Department. There, a friendly, experienced Sergeant told me that if I involved the police in my search, I would probably drive all those who might know my father’s whereabouts underground. He told me to go to the Mills Hotel in the Bowery section of New York City and tell my story to the manager. The Sergeant was certain that the manager would set in motion a network to locate my father.

The Mills Hotel was a place where drifters could find room and board for a very low price. Men drifted in from all over the country. These men would provide the network that the Sergeant told me about. I went to the Hotel and told the manager my story. He said that he would begin the network to find my father and that, sooner or later, someone would check into the Hotel who had recently seen or heard of my father’s whereabouts.

It did not take very long. Within a few weeks, my father was located in New York City and I made contact with him. I was told to meet him at a Bickford’s Cafeteria at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street, at an hour and date which I have since forgotten. I knew the area well, for I had walked it many times when I was a chorister and student at Grace Church School at 10th Street and Broadway.  His eyes brimmed with tears when I told him of my brother’s, his oldest son’s, death.

I have said my mother and father separated because of his war experiences, but there may have been other reasons. One of the last words my father spoke to me that day in August 1945 was to the effect that he and my mother might have made it “except for those people in New Britain.” Throughout my boyhood my mother had always told me that “Daddy was sick.” I clung to this reason for the absence of a father in my life. When other boys asked me where my father was, I was able to account for his absence by saying, proudly, that he had been wounded in WWI and couldn’t live at home. But now, in this cold, strange, sheetrock cafeteria, he was hinting at other reasons, and, at age seventeen, I could neither understand nor respond. We said goodbye and walked out onto Sixth Avenue together. He turned to the right, I to the left. When I had gone a short way, I stopped and looked back at him. He was walking slowly, bent over. It was the last time I saw him.

“I ask the questions, but seek no answer from any who may read this.  Any except one who no longer can answer.”

Waiting for the Train, a journal of the Great Depression, will be published later this year by Warner House Press. 

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