My father left in 1969, when I was six and he was forty-ve.
He got a VW microbus, a nineteen-year-old blonde, andstarted making up for time lost on the three kids and the
drunkard wife back in Maine. He was chasing hard afterthe tail end of the ’60s. I always supposed it must have
been a tough time for a man to be tied down—watching all
that chaos out there, while having to stay home and diaperthe kids and pay the bills.
He left a few things behind: some tools, a handful of warmedals, and a fantastically detailed lithograph he’d bought
at a yard sale. It was dated 1918 and called Over the Top.
It showed a company of steely-eyed doughboys storming
a trench, their bayonets xed and the ag waving abovethem. The Germans looked scared and slightly evil in theirpointy helmets. One American was falling, looking skywardas his comrades killed the Huns around him.
I used to stare at the print for hours, studying it as if it werea religious talisman, searching the images—the smokefrom the cannons, the charging soldiers, the blood dripping
from men’s bodies—for some clue I’d missed. These menhad the answer to a question I wanted to ask. I just wasn’tsure what the question was. I wanted to know why men
go to distant places to slaughter one another, and how
that becomes something noble. But there was a deeperquestion beyond that.
Some of the medals my father leftbehind were from the First World
War. They had belonged to hisfather, my grandfather, Bob Kamber.The most beautiful of his medals
was a rainbow-colored campaignribbon with brass bars inscribed withthe names of the battles he’d fought
in: St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, AisneMarne, Belleau Wood. I used to runmy ngers over the names like ablind man reading Braille.
My father also fought, in the SecondWorld War, with
the 5th Marines. He celebrated histwentieth birthday in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima. I hadhis medals, too, and a tattered fatigue jacket with a front
pocket bearing the Marine Corps logo—the globe nestled
on a rope and an anchor.
My grandfather hung out at the VFW and was a proud
member of the Disabled American Veterans. But he nevertalked about the combat, and neither did my father. If Iasked, they gave vague responses.My father never really t in anywhere. He fought
through life, never held a job for long, ran through four
marriages (one before my mother and two after), surroundedhimself with guns, occasionally threatened other men—
“I’m an ex-Marine, you know.” It was only later, after I’dbeen to war, that I began to wonder, Did he live with thingshe’d seen that never went away?My daughter was born when I was nineteen. I was
transmissions in a small shop in Asbury Park, New Jersey,during the day and working in a restaurant at night. Therewas a waitress there with blonde hair and a tight uniform.
I got her pregnant one night in the backseat of my ’67
Mustang. A few months after my daughter was born, I wasin the supermarket buying Pampers and formula when Iran into my boys. They were buying beer for a night on thetown.
I was ashamed I wasn’t out chasing women and getting
drunk. I felt I’d failed a vision of manhood that I’d inherited,both as my father’s son and simply as an American male.
I’d lost my independence to roam, to seduce women, and,
most important, to inict or endure violence.
I contemplated going to Mexico, like I’d seen guys in the
movies do, just running someplace where no one knew meand I could get a clean start. But I’d never been fartherwest than Ohio, so I stuck it out in New Jersey and slept
on my girlfriend’s mom’s couch, until the mother, seeing I
wasn’t going to marry her daughter, threw me out.
I did raise my daughter, after a
fashion. She stayed
with me onweekends and for a month or twoin the summer, and got my phone
calls from the road. I put her throughcollege and grad school. I learned
from my grandfather that you workhard and you take a certain amount
In all fairness to my father, he tried
to keep in touch when I was young.
It didn’t help that my mother had a
warrant out for him. In my teens Ilived with him for a time, but he wasa violent, bitter man, and we fought constantly. The dayafter graduating from high school, I was gone.I never set out to cover wars. I saved some money at thetransmission shop and went to art school in New York to bea ne art photographer. My daughter and her mom stayedbehind in New Jersey; my daughter’s mom still waitressesin the same restaurant where I met her twenty-ve yearsago. I dropped out of school when the money ran out,and I started trying to make it as a photojournalist—a jobwhere I could combine my love for photography with myfascination with history. I worked construction during theweek, then shot on the streets of New York at night andon weekends, peddling pictures to the wire services fortwenty-ve dollars apiece.
The most beautiful of his medals was a rainbow-colored campaign ribbon with brass bars inscribed with the namesof the battles he’d fought in:St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, Aisne Marne, Belleau Wood.