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  1. Arts & Entertainment

My dad had an artist's soul, but a temper that left many scars

Published Jun. 2, 2014

I grabbed my dad by the swim trunks. He plunged into the Atlantic Ocean and began breaststroking along the beach with me in tow. When the bubbles cleared, I saw all kinds of fish through my mask.

I was about 6, too young to identify exactly what I was seeing, but I can still remember, all these years later, feeling overwhelmed by the number of fish, small and large, hundreds of them, that surged around us.

Miami Beach in 1955: an ocean clear and intimidating, fish beautiful and mysterious. My dad was intimidating and mysterious, too.

I owe my love of nature and Florida to him. Our days exploring the Everglades and fishing for snapper in the Keys imprinted Florida on me. I wouldn't be who I am without him.

A dad can leave another kind of imprint on his kids. When my dad lost his temper, which was seldom, he lost all control. I didn't get spanked; other kids got spanked. He beat me hard enough with a belt to leave welts, bruises and sometimes blood. I have spent years trying to understand the demon that possessed him in those moments.

Wade into the water, spit into your mask to prevent the glass from fogging. Adjust the snorkel. Take the plunge.

***

I'll be 65 on my next birthday. People my age grew up when everybody hit. My friends hit me, and I hit them back. I hit my brother, who returned the blows. The no-nonsense nuns who taught me in Miami never hesitated to slap, punch or wallop with a ruler. Once in a while, to encourage more efficient learning, a nun bashed student noggins against the blackboard.

My mother, with a hot temper of her own, hit me with her hands if I sassed her, but she'd also use a wooden spoon or even a pod from a convenient poinciana tree. She never hit so hard that I cried. Sometimes she hit me, I think now, so my dad wouldn't hit me when he got home.

Ernest Joseph Klinkenberg — everybody called him Ernie — was born in New York in 1918 and raised in Chicago. He grew up blocks from Wrigley Field and loved the Cubs, especially the great Hack Wilson. He fished in Lake Michigan for perch, camped with friends and baked potatoes buried in campfire ashes.

He learned to play the violin and guitar, but he was especially talented at piano. He shoveled snow, delivered newspapers and set bowling alley pins to make a down payment on a piano before he was 19.

In Chicago, he started a band. He played Tin Pan Alley tunes, big band, lots of Sinatra. He married my mother, a candy girl at the Bijou, in November 1941. A month later he was drafted and spent World War II in London and the Philippines as a technical sergeant.

I was born in 1949. In 1951, Dad somehow convinced my mother they needed to live in Miami, the land of dreams, where music jobs were more plentiful than coconuts.

We had coconut trees in our yard, but my dad worked like a dog to make ends meet. Between musical gigs in Miami Beach and Key West, he cut lawns and toiled as a handyman. He called himself "Ernie Bergen," hoping the shorter name might fit on a theater marquee. It didn't make a difference. Eventually the music gigs stopped coming.

In 1955 he got a day job, managing the half-dozen kitchens in the bowels of a great hotel. It must have been frustrating for a man with the soul of an artist.

He never turned on Florida. He didn't mind the heat or the rain or the bugs. He loved everything, especially the ocean, where he swam in the afternoons, and Biscayne Bay, where he fished for mangrove snapper on Saturdays. My mother hated everything about Florida, especially the heat, rain and cockroaches that spilled out of the silverware drawer at night. But she was a natural storyteller, very funny and liked to be in the middle of things.

Raised in an alcoholic family, my mother was always ready to fight. My father grew up in a histrionic family with a lot of drama — crying, arguing, breast-beating and even a dad who was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. As an adult, he avoided arguing with my mother. They loved each other, but I never saw them hug or kiss. When I got a rare good report card, I'd hear "It's about time" rather than "Good job" from my dad.

I've always wondered if those stuffed emotions led to those volcanic eruptions. I've wondered about so many things.

When I was about 6, my parents must have argued about something. It was scary enough to witness that I started to cry. Mom slammed the door on the way out of the house. When I tried to follow, Dad jerked me back and ordered me to stop crying, which prompted me to cry harder. He dragged me into the bedroom, ripped off his belt, tore down my pants and started hitting, all the while screaming, in a high, crazed voice: "Are you going to stop crying?'' I shrieked like I was being killed. I can still hear that voice.

A few days later, he brought home a model airplane we could put together.

Beatings happened other times, usually when my mother wasn't around. I was supposed to be weeding but ran off to play in a neighborhood baseball game; in front of my friends, my father dragged me home for punishment My friends heard my humiliating screams through an open window. Another time I was late for dinner, which made my father later for work. My mother was home, but she didn't intervene.

A few days after the whippings, he'd quietly ask to see the bruises and abrasions. No apology, just a guilty look.

Then he'd set up the electric trains. I got to be the engineer.

The last beating, I was about 12. During a spat with my little brother, I yelled "I wish you were dead." Dad exploded from the sofa while ripping off his belt. Yanking me from under the piano, he dragged me kicking and screaming — I knew what was about to happen — into the bedroom. My grandmother — his mother, who was visiting from Chicago — heard my terrified shrieks and hammered on the locked door.

"Ernest, you're killing him!'' she hollered.

***

Maybe it was shame or something else, but he never touched me again except to pat me on the shoulder to ask if I wanted to go fishing or camping or swimming or maybe go to a baseball or a football game. Perhaps we could get a chocolate malted on the way home.

He seemed to make an effort to become the ideal dad.

Whenever I played the latest Beatles album, he'd listen with his trained musician's ear and say, "Wow! They're really good.'' Then he might sit at his keyboard and play Yesterday or something for my mother, maybe Candy Girl, a song he had written for her when she was 19.

Those are the things I like to remember.

When he was 63, he lost his job at the hotel. You're too old, the new management explained. We want to bring in our own people. Today he might have grounds for a lawsuit, but he gently retired.

He baked apple pies for my mom. Played Satin Doll endlessly on the piano. Fished in the canal for bass. Let his grandchildren run his electric trains.

Two months after retirement, he was diagnosed with leukemia. As he lay dying, we talked about fishing and baseball and my three kids. It was a perfect opening. I could have told him about my many flaws as an impatient parent. I could also have told him that I didn't spank them as a result of what had happened to me. I could have made a joke. Asked, "Dad, what were you thinking?'' But I didn't.

He was 64 when he died of a massive heart attack. I wasn't at the hospital, but my mother said at the very last he cried out for his momma.

***

My mother died from alcoholism complications when she was 84. She was a pistol to the end, frustrated me beyond belief, pried into my business, loved to gossip, loved her grandchildren and her friends, who remember her fondly to this day.

About a year before her passing, I took her to lunch and finally got around to asking the questions that had haunted me: What made him hit me like that? Frustration about his career? Skeletons in his closet? Something else?

"I don't remember him ever hitting you,'' she answered, protecting him to the end. I was surprised but not surprised. We talked about happier days.

When we're little, we idolize our parents. When we're teenagers, we sometimes hate them. As the years go by, we begin to suspect that they're smarter than they once seemed. In middle age, as we experience our own bruises and failures, we might begin to see our parents not as icons but as flawed human beings. When we're old, we forgive them. But it doesn't mean we will understand what made them tick.

My hair is gray now. I have arthritis in my left knee. I take Lipitor for cholesterol and another pill for depression. I don't drink anymore, but I eat too many sweets. There are lots of things in my past I regret, but I try to live joyfully in the present.

Forgive the sin. Love the sinner.

He did some monstrous things that left emotional scars. But not for a moment can I consider him a monster. He was more good than bad. He was human.

***

Wade into the water. Spit into the mask to clear the fog on the glass. Take the plunge.

As the bubbles clear, I watch the beautifully striped sergeant-major fish streaking along the bottom and the frantic yellow grunt swirling around me like moths. I breaststroke through a great gray mass of mullet that parts just enough to let me pass and then closes back around me.

I always wonder if a shark might be lurking on the other side of those mullet.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

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