Better or verse
In 'We Didn't Come Here For This: A Memoir In Poetry,' Troy native William B. Patrick writes about his family's early years
Author William B. Patrick is right about old photos, the way they capture people, who, in their happiest, rosiest moments, are ignorant of what is to befall them.
Fifty-three years ago, Patricks' parents, Betty and Jim, dressed in their Easter best, cozily posed together on the backyard lawn of her parents' home. They were not yet even married, so Betty, in her orchid corsage, and Jim, in his impeccable argyle socks, could not know what lay ahead: five sons, one of whom would die in infancy, another, David, who would develop cerebral palsy; and a lengthy marriage that would somehow unravel.
One of their sons, William, would become the chronicler of these pivotal events, as well as the smaller moments, like dad playing Santa or Gram freaking out when young Billy, covered in ketchup, feigned a mortal wound.
Armed with almost 50 years of hindsight, hours of interviews with his parents and a novel approach to the memoir, Patrick vividly reconstructs his early family life in his new book, "We Didn't Come Here For This: A Memoir In Poetry'' (1999 BOA Editions Limited, $12.50).
Patrick, 49, can now reveal in verse the very complex, imperfect people behind the spit and polish of that 1946 photo. The reader knows that Betty had actually once considered another man the love of her life.
Freddie lives in a third-floor walk-up with his father, who's a lawyer.
I can't hitch my star to Freddie.
Jim's more of a go-getter.
We also learn that Jim's smile hides the horrors of World War II.
He recalls how his buddy seemed to enjoy a bit too much killing a young Nazi collaborator.
It was bad. I saw how scared the kid was.
I could have said, I don't know, "Charlie,
let's go,'' or . . . I could feel that kid like he was breathing INSIDE of me, feel
him just aching to stay alive, but then
Charlie sprayed him, up and down, fast, with his Thompson. It was BAD.
A Troy native, William Patrick returned here from Virginia in 1993 when the creative writing department of Old Dominion University, where he taught, was eliminated. He rediscovered here a city, at once grimy and historically rich, where he rode for 18 months with city firefighters to gather material. From it, Patrick produced a radio play, "Rescue,'' broadcast in 1997 by the BBC, a screenplay, "Fire Ground,'' and nonfiction book, in the works, "Saving Troy.''
(Previously, Patrick also had written a novel, "Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family,'' which blended poetry and prose, and made news in 1996 when he and his brother sued Eddie Murphy and Universal Pictures, alleging the defendants stole the screenplay "Brand New Me'' and used it in the movie "The Nutty Professor.'' The suit was confidentially settled.)
Patrick, now living in the airy, large, contemporary home where he rents part of the house from his mother, again uses Troy, circa 1950s, as the backdrop for his new memoir. By writing it in verse, and creating a strong interplay between vintage photos and text, Patrick wanted to achieve a compressed work, like a play, that puts the reader as close as possible to the experience.
The verse memoir, which Patrick believes is unique, blends almost wholly factual material with some creative license as the author molded events and invoked verse to inhabit the thoughts of others.
He set out to give his family members each a voice.
The Patricks were an ordinary young family, coming of age in 1950s Troy: Betty Patrick's dad owned W.H. Bumstead Inc. -- there is a Stewart's store at that Congress Street lot now -- and her husband took over the highly successful Chevrolet dealership in the mid-1950s.
An average world
Patrick the author plumbs this average world, laid out in black-and-white photos, of his first Communion and the class photo of Our Lady of Victory, Grade 1, 1955-56, to find the extraordinary.
Jim and Betty Patrick may have suppressed their emotions following the death of 10-month-old Tommy in 1952, for instance, but Patrick shows the heroism of that stoicism. ". . . You can't, with little kids, carry on like madmen,'' Betty Patrick reflects, via her grown son's poem about Tommy's death, from a viral infection. The death, Patrick now believes and the poems relate, would take a painful toll for years on the marriage and family life of the Patricks.
Jim Patrick, a top-notch car salesman described by the author as a "strong personality'' with a favorite phrase, "Even when I'm wrong, I'm right,'' nonetheless remained a scarred, abused child at his own father's deathbed. Jim Patrick broke that cycle of abuse, never repeating it as a father, his son said.
"I think they were heroic in many ways. I'm in no way judging these people.''
Patrick hopes these events, and their time, will resonate with readers.
"At least for baby boomers, an awful lot of us are looking at our childhoods and asking, 'What the hell did happen back then?' This is my small attempt to weigh in, in that retrospective crush,'' said Patrick. Too, Patrick expects readers will empathize when they experience an ordinary family, revealed.
"Whenever you lay bare your soul in this way and expose all the family secrets, a lot of things happen to the reader. I think it's freeing for the reader.''
Both of his parents, divorced since the mid-1970s, signed off when the publisher sent early copies of the book, Patrick said. "But I think that was loyalty.''
He may be right.
Betty Patrick, now 76, said she approved of the book because her son "loves to write and likes to write about personal things.'' By supporting him, she was, in fact, being a mom. "Above all, I am that.'' (Jim Patrick, retired and living out of state, could not be reached.)
Patrick said he didn't write the book to embarrass, but to unearth pivotal events that deeply affected his family. To do that, Patrick through his verse wanted to inhabit each of his relatives.
"The most important thing I can say, and the hardest thing for me to do, was to become them.''
A staged reading of "We Didn't Come Here for This'' will be performed at 7 p.m. May 10 at Capital Repertory Theatre, Albany.