Friday, August 13, 2010

In Memory of Kleemo 5/30/10

Six years into their marriage, my parents had an argument and my hot-tempered-drama-prone-mother packed up my sister Joy and my brother Jim and went home to her mother.  She was seriously contemplating divorce.  It was early 1943.

My father, not to be out-done on the drama front, immediately enlisted in the US Navy.  It was war-time and federal laws made it tough to divorce absent servicemen, so he figured that this was the best course of action while my mother's temper cooled. 

The fact that their original fight was over his desire to enlist was an ironic piece of family trivia that I have always enjoyed.  As the father of two, my dad was exempt from the draft.  But he was also only 27 years old and like George Bailey he somehow felt he was both shirking a responsibility and missing the biggest event in history. 

He wanted to go.  She did not want him to go.  She threatened to divorce him if he went.  He said he was going.  She left to divorce him.  He went, and by going kept her from divorcing him.  If you cast their doppelgangers: Frank Sinatra as my father and Roz Russell as my mother...you'd have a 1940's romantic hit.

And thus it was that my father became a WWII vet.

James Robert (Bob) Householder served aboard the  USS Cebu as a Machinist Mate in the Pacific Theater.  He fixed engines and built clocks; helping the Navy to both propel forward and navigate their journey (clocks were a navigation tool). 

Bob was 28 years old when he stepped aboard his ship, discovered he was 9 years older than the average sailor in the Pacific, and was immediately given the nickname "Pops."  Pops at 28.

Most of the Cebu's primary activity was focused upon repairing other ships that had been damaged by air attacks, including kamikaze missions.  When things were slow they built clocks, when things were really slow, they made jewelry, knives, and clocks for themselves and each other out of the excess stainless steel and acrylic.  My father was a stellar machinist and mechanic, but it was at some of these other endeavors that he really excelled.  A designer by nature, he could fashion artifacts of great beauty out of the left-overs from the true business of the ship.

Pops was a  cut-up with the confidence of a man rather than the uncertainty of a teenager.  He was popular among the young men around him.  They sought him out for advice, counsel and loans.  His letters home, when not trying to woo my mother back to him are filled with stories of these boys.  This one has a broken heart, that one drinks too much, another one has nightmares and calls out for his big brother in his sleep.  Pops took his nickname seriously and tried to help them, protect them and with some, educate them just a little bit.  Which brings me to Kleemo.

Kleemo was a very young sailor who served with Pops.  Kleemo was apparently not the sharpest tool in the shed.  When he was having some trouble with a calibration, my father exasperatedly asked him, "Kleemo, how many thousandths in an inch?" To which Kleemo replied, "Geez, Pops, there must be a million of those little sons-of-bitches in an inch!"  You get the picture.  Kleemo could not keep "righty-tighty-lefty-loosey" in mind and spent his service leaving things either ajar or so tight that a blow torch had to be put into service.  

Kleemo's mom had signed the papers for him to enlist at 16.  He was 18 or 19 at this point and had never raised in rank in the 2-3 years he'd been serving.  He was a klutz and a screw-up.

After my father returned from the war and reconciled with my mother he would call my oldest brother "Kleemo," whenever Jimmy screwed up.  Pretty soon, given Jim's habit of silly mistakes, the nickname became his for good.  By the time my brother was a teenager my family had forgotten about the young sailor who inspired the name, and just thought of Jim as Kleemo.  Jim HATED the nickname.  Who could blame him? 

In 1965 my mother and I were in an Ace Hardware store in the suburbs of Chicago. She was paying for her purchases with a check.  The man behind the counter looked at the check and then at my mother and said, "You wouldn't be related to a Bob Householder, would you?  A guy who served in the Pacific during the war?"

"My husband's name is Bob Householder, and he served on the USS Cebu during the war" she replied.

The man behind the counter gave out a "WHOO!" that filled the store.  He came around the counter pointing to himself and said, "I am Joe Kleemo!  We served together.  I cannot believe this.  How is Pops? We called him Pops!"

And my poor mother had to tell Joe Kleemo that her husband, my daddy and Kleemo's "Pops" had died the year before, two months shy of his 49th birthday.  My mother had yet to learn to speak of him in the past tense.

Joe Kleemo put his hand to his mouth and then he sat down on the floor.  My mother bent down to speak to him and when he looked up at her he was crying.

"I never would have made it through the war without Pops" he said.  "I was homesick and always in trouble and Pops took-up for me many times.  You know, I stayed in the Navy, I stayed for 20 years.  Pops taught me how to use tools, how to fix things.  I became a good mechanic because of Pops."

My mother sat down next to Kleemo on the floor of the Ace Hardware and the two of them cried together.  I was 11 and was mortified and horrified by this display.

In a couple of minutes they were laughing.  Kleemo was telling a story of mischief or mayhem that Pops had caused.  How he had teased and tormented the boys and the officers aboard that unsexy, unsung repair ship.

I was fascinated by the fact that there was a real person named Kleemo.  However, this person did not reconcile with the nickname for a screw-up that had plagued my big brother.

In the car on the way home I mentioned this dissonance to my mother.  It was always impossible to tell what would upset her in the years after my dad died, so I was a little nervous about whether I should have brought up my confusion.

"Honey," my mother said, "your daddy didn't call Jimmy "Kleemo" because he was making mistakes, he called Jimmy "Kleemo" when he was teaching him something.  Your daddy must have loved teaching that young man....he teased him, which he only did to those he loved.  He loved Kleemo, like he was a little brother.  And when he came home he called his own little boy by that lonely young sailor's name, every time he was teaching him."

I think of Kleemo every Memorial Day.  Every year since that day in 1965 I think about the lonely young men, far from home, some so young they turned the 28 year old's around them into father figures.  I think of Kleemo because he is my father's brother in arms and my brother in loss.

James Robert (Bob and Pops) Householder is buried in the National Cemetery in San Bruno California overlooking the San Francisco bay, my mother, Rita Naddy is with him there.  They are both buried under a single headstone that details his service in a war in which he was not obligated to serve and which threatened their relationship.

Today we remember all of those who served and all of those who begged them not to go.

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