My Father's Secret War: A Memoir

My Father's Secret War: A Memoir

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by Lucinda Franks

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In this moving and compelling memoir about parent and child, father and daughter, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lucinda Franks discovers that the remote, nearly impassive man she grew up with had in fact been a daring spy behind enemy lines in World War II. Sworn to secrecy, he began revealing details of his wartime activities only in the last years of his life as he…  See more details below


In this moving and compelling memoir about parent and child, father and daughter, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lucinda Franks discovers that the remote, nearly impassive man she grew up with had in fact been a daring spy behind enemy lines in World War II. Sworn to secrecy, he began revealing details of his wartime activities only in the last years of his life as he became afflicted with Alzheimer’s. His exploits revealed a man of remarkable bravado -- posing as a Nazi guard, slipping behind enemy lines to blow up ammunition dumps, and being flown to one of the first concentration camps liberated by the Allies to report on the atrocities found there.

My Father’s Secret War is an intimate account of Franks coming to know her own father after years of estrangement. Looking back at letters he had written her mother in the early days of WWII, Franks glimpses a loving man full of warmth. But after the grimmest assignments of the war his tone shifts, settling into an all-too-familiar distance. Franks learns about him -- beyond the alcoholism and adultery -- and comes to know the man he once was.

Her story is haunting, and beautifully told, even as the tragedy becomes clear: Franks finally understands her father, but only as he is slipping further into his illness. My Father’s Secret War is a triumph of love over secrets, and a tribute to the power of the connection of family.

Editorial Reviews

For years, journalist Lucinda Franks had been estranged from her infuriating, impenetrable father. But when he faced eviction at the age of 80, she reluctantly stepped in to pick up the pieces of his chaotic life. While cleaning his apartment, she discovered a box of Nazi memorabilia that aroused her reporter's curiosity. Soon Franks was off and running on the investigation of a lifetime, as she gradually uncovered the key to her father's emotional remoteness in his secret wartime past. In this touching memoir, she recounts how she grew to love and understand this brave and complicated man at the very moment he was slipping away.

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Miramax Books
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6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

My Father's Secret War

By Lucinda Franks


Copyright © 2007 Lucinda Franks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-5226-4

Chapter One

My father hadn't the pleasure of receiving his own eviction notice. It came to me instead, special delivery. "You will be forcibly removed from your apartment ...," it read, and for one cold moment I imagined that it was I who would be put out on the street. Then I saw the signature of my father's landlord, one of the world's most kindly souls. What horrors had driven him to this course of action? I could imagine his sympathy, his patience, hardening into desperation, the usual course of emotions that my father-a man so paradoxical he was almost an impossibility-induced in others. Rent unpaid, apartment overflowing with detritus, he had undoubtedly given the landlord my address and then run for cover. This was nothing new. Tom Franks had been a barnacle on my life for as long as I could remember.

It has never mattered what I do for my father: He sabotages it. I hire a cleaning lady; he fires her. I assemble the forms for veteran's benefits; he never files them. I ask him if he wants me to come up to Massachusetts and help him get organized, and-to my relief-he says no. Yet when things fall apart, I am the one he turns to.

For years, I'd closed my eyes. A respite. No cries of distress. No calls from creditors. Dared I hope that I might finally be free ofhim? But no, of course not. The eviction notice is followed by more warnings. His electricity, his phone, his gas are about to be cut off. He's been living in a firetrap, a health hazard, and an eyesore, and unless I come to the rescue, his next address-he, the perfect gentleman-will be a city shelter.

How can a man so vigorous he can still win state shooting championships in his eighties, fail to open his own mail? How can someone who so stubbornly dotes on his independence put himself in such jeopardy?

Furious, I take my six-year-old daughter, Amy, leaving my husband and son behind, and drive from New York City to my father's home in the little town of Milford, which lies forty miles northwest of Boston.

My father opens the door and gives us each a bear hug. Even though it's early afternoon, he's wearing a blue terrycloth bathrobe so full of holes it looks like it's been sprayed with a machine gun. Stubble sprouts from his chin, his fine brown hair sticks up at odd angles. I have to admit that even with his knobby knees peeking out from below his robe, there's something fortifying about my father. He's 6'3" and big-boned, with a big forehead and big chin, his moist blue eyes magnified by his glasses, and a Roman nose gone bumpy with age. His half-moon smile, topped by a frog-like upper lip, lights up his face and has inspired unbecoming behavior in even the most durable of women.

"Oh, you don't know how good it is to see you," he says. Then he ushers us into the kitchen with, under the circumstances, comical gallantry. I push past him into the next room, following a narrow path that winds from the study to the living room; it is essentially a canyon bordered by teetering towers of cardboard cartons. My heart sinks as I look at the piles of newspapers and flyers covering every available surface, save for a small space on the sofa reserved for his recalcitrant bottom.

He puts his hands on my shoulders and quickly guides me back into the kitchen, clearing a stack of Styrofoam takeout containers from a kitchen chair. "Won't you sit down?" he asks, pushing the chair right to the back of my knees.

I'd forgotten about this, his chivalrous persona. Even now, he hasn't lost it. He's always ceremoniously opened doors for women and rapidly surrendered his seat to them. "Please" and "thank you" fall frequently from his lips. It occurs to me now that these flourishes are a kind of salve, for he is exceedingly grateful for the attention they bring.

"Please," he entreats me, "let me offer you something to drink."

"No thanks, Dad," I say. What could we expect to find in his refrigerator? Sour milk? Rancid orange juice?

"Mom," Amy yells, holding out an open box of Wheaties she's found on the kitchen counter. "They're moving!" We proceed to unearth a half dozen other open boxes of cereal, all crawling with weevils. On top of the cartons there's a parade of plastic bags. Out of curiosity I open them. The first bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. The second bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. The third bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. I'm in a movie that keeps rewinding.

"Dad," I sigh, turning to the man who stands there smiling obliviously, "what have you done here?" I'm about to cry. "Why do you do this? Just look! Look at this mess."

His neck comes out like a turtle's. He peers right, peers left, peers up. "Whatever do you mean?" he replies.

My father was born Thomas Edward Franks in Champaign, Illinois, an only child in a prosperous but unassuming family. His father, a morally erect man, owned an insurance firm and served as mayor of the city. His mother was an accomplished pianist who, when she found out her son was tone-deaf, lost interest in him. He seemed not to care. He was too busy teaching himself a multitude of skills. He perfected his marksmanship by shooting woodchucks and squirrels for local farmers. He built a chemistry lab in the cellar and set off explosions in a field on the edge of town until the Champaign police put an end to that. By the time he was nineteen, he was paying his way through the University of Illinois, majoring in chemistry and engineering. General Alloys, a specialized metal-casting firm in Chicago, recognized his gifts and hired him straight out of college.

My parents met sometime in 1940, when Tom walked up to the counter at Marshall Field's where Lorraine was selling silk stockings. Mother said that he was considered a great social catch: tall, handsome, clever, and aloof. Her roommates in Chicago all vowed to snag him, but she, who played hard to get, was the one who did. She'd been born into a prominent midwestern family, the Swannell-Leavitts, who had once all but owned the town of Kankakee, Illinois. Her antecedents included a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a Connecticut bishop, and a London hatmaker. People would describe her as pretty, with her full lips, large blue eyes, and lively personality. They would also say she was smart, merciless, and beneath her insouciance, possessed of a deadly wit.

They married on November 17, 1941. Tom entered the U.S. Navy in late 1942 as an officer candidate and was commissioned as an ensign a few months later. After the war, he worked his way up to first vice-president of General Alloys. Then, after years of pregnancies gone wrong, I was born. Six years later, they produced my sister, Barbara Penelope. Choosing a stylish suburb of Boston, my mother moved us into a sprawling Tudor home in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Mother was the brains behind a half dozen charities. Gay and funny, she gave out gifts for no reason, offered help freely to friends in need, and was in general much admired. My father, by contrast, was considered a hermit, more comfortable puttering at his basement workbench than cruising the social circuit. However, he was an elegant dancer, did a mean Charleston, and squired Mother around town on demand. They swept into Valentine Balls and Boston Pops benefits in their chiffon ball gowns and white tie and tails, and graced dinner parties from Wellesley to Boston. My mother was head of the Boston Opera Guild under Sarah Caldwell and got her husband to act in several productions as an extra. She loved to tell the story of how, wearing a priest's hat and brocade robes and carrying a tall crucifix for a performance of Boris Godunov, he stumbled down some steps and nearly speared a bishop.

Years later, after Mother died, Dad, then in his sixties and unemployed, dropped a bomb on me and Penny: He was almost penniless. Our parents' finances were a mess, we'd known that, but not that the situation was so dire. We had to sell our beloved childhood home and we had to sell it in a hurry. Penny and I packed up some one hundred cartons that held not only the contents of the house, but the memorabilia of three generations of grandparents on both sides of the family. We saved every ivory button, every cracked ramekin. Over the years, Penny and I have emptied some of the cartons, but most of them accompanied my father first to his new little house in nearby Hopkinton and then, as his financial circumstances worsened still further, to this smaller apartment in Milford. As I squeeze past the cartons, it appears that he's never opened one of them.

After we arrive, I hire local boys to clean out the bulk of the spoiled food, scour the kitchen, and lug the newspapers out to the dumpster; my father follows them around, bellowing in protest, "I can do this myself!" That's always been his mantra. He's walled off almost everyone from his life with his obstinacy-his wife, his daughters, his friends, his co-workers. I've been forced into an impossible position, a nagging figure against whom he must play the game of deflect, hide, duck, and resist. I hate being the side of my own mother he and I both detested.

Since my son, Josh, was born thirteen years ago, my father and I have tried to reach some kind of accommodation, though every word we share feels forced. My husband, Bob, and I invite him often to come to our apple orchards in Fishkill, in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Yet he's always canceling at the last minute: He's sick, he's tired, he isn't up to the drive. Is the divide between us too painful for him? I'll never know, for he's certainly not going to admit to anything. He ducks Penny the same way, seldom flying out to California to visit her. I know that he'd rather be with us and his grandchildren than anyone on earth. But he's always been afraid of something; it makes him glue himself to his Queen Anne sofa, once my mother's pride, now torn, its velvet brocade worn smooth. It makes him open the door no more than a crack when the neighbors come to check on him, makes him quickly dispatch them with a nod and a smile.

After the initial cleaning frenzy, Amy and I begin coming up every weekend to work on my father's apartment. We want to make it more livable for him, and frankly, it's a relief to get away from home. It's the girls against the boys back in New York City. Josh and I have always been extremely close, but when he hit the age of thirteen, he made it clear that just talking to his mother was as much fun as having a Cambodian root canal. The strife between us has sent Bob in the other direction, but when pressed, he takes Josh's side. He's an older father, after all, and he loves to have his youngest son's approval. Amy, on the other hand, is my special pal. We've begun to rather enjoy our trips up to Milford. My father loves his quirky granddaughter, with her Alice-in-Wonderland hair and heart-shaped lips. This unsmiling man comes alive in her presence. Sometimes he'll make his hands into birds' wings and flap them at her. Sometimes he'll put his thumbs in his ears and wave. She rewards him by breaking out into giggles. Sometimes he'll just look at her and say, "My little princess."

I was his little princess once upon a time. Just he and I and a huge white telescope in the middle of the dew-soaked lawn. He bought it for me when I was five. Spring, summer, fall, winter, we would go stargazing, peering cheek to cheek through the large lens he had ground himself, like twin stars huddling in the Northern Crown.

January is our favorite month. Although the cold sometimes brings on my asthma, that's when my favorite constellation is high in the sky. He lifts me up, shivering under two blankets, my eyes widening at the wonder of the galaxy. "Look, Cindy, look to the left. Do you see the three bright stars? What are they?"

"Orion's belt, Daddy!" The Mighty Warrior slowly emerges as Daddy points out each star, giving life to the head, the bright knee, the red cloud of gas that is his tummy: Orion, sword drawn back, so tall he can wade through the deepest sea.

"Uh-oh, I think he's going to get Taurus the bull this time."

"No, Daddy, he's going after the rabbit, he's going to chop his head right off."

"What's the name of the rabbit, Cindy?"

"Lepus!" We tour the dancing Pleiades sisters, the scuttling Cancer, the Canis hunting in a pack of two.

Sometimes the stars, shimmering like the sequins on Mother's silk gown, make me short of breath. I try to muffle my wheezes, but Daddy always knows. He hears the cats meowing in my chest and carries me away, leaving our beloved galaxy for a bed clammy with steam.

By age nine or ten, I can stand on my own two feet and look through the lens. Bulls and swords give way to nebulae, asteroids, quasars, celestial explosions. "Dad, what's beyond the universe, what does it look like?" The thought obsesses me, makes me shiver. "What do you think nothingness is?"

"That's a very good question, and I just don't know the answer."

"Dad, I think maybe God is beyond there." I'm an Episcopalian, indoctrinated by Mother, and he's something she calls a "damned atheist."

He unscrews the lens. "Maybe you're right," he says gently.

As I grow older, we hurtle out of the orbit that held us together. He's away from home more and more, on mysterious business trips. The telescope slowly rusts in the garage. There are a few perfunctory kisses on the head as he goes down to his workbench. We play a board game or two, but he drifts off in the middle. He acts with me as he acts with all adults: remote, emotionally impenetrable, a voyager to places I cannot reach. I become caught in a conundrum: My father acts as though he loves me, but if this is so, why is he so far away? Like someone whose real self has been sucked up forever into the jaws of a big black hole.

Every carton I unpack now is a reminder of the puzzles and pleasures of my childhood. At the bottom of one, I find old records: Dixieland, Rag, the complete collection of Knuckles O'Toole albums.

I hear the rhythm of Daddy's footsteps as he comes home from the office, tossing off his hat, heading for the record player, which Mother had disguised as a French Provincial lowboy, taking off her Ezio Pinza LP, and dropping on Knuckles O'Toole. His favorite rag-time player could move his fingers up and down the keyboard as fast as a hummingbird's wings. Daddy would stand over the phonograph, tapping his foot and snapping his fingers. You always knew Daddy was taking a shower when you heard his sonorous bass booming "bum-bum, bum-bum." Unfortunately, he only had two good notes, which was why he confined his singing to the bathroom.

Sometimes, he'd take me to New York to hear bands like the Dukes of Dixieland. We'd sit in some smoky dive, my feet dangling from a barstool. The reticent father I knew from home would vanish, replaced by an animated man who joyfully beat his hands on the mahogany counter in time to the clarinets and saxophones and drums. Now he doesn't even listen to jazz. The phonograph is long gone, and he's never replaced it. If Knuckles still exists, he's somewhere in my father's head.

Another box contains a mishmash of chipped china wrapped in strips of pink insulation, decks of cards, papers, pennies, a butterfly net that my father had made out of green mesh, and a number of homemade bullets rolling around on the bottom. Bullets and butterflies, such a bizarre combination of hobbies. I let the lead slugs sift through my hand.

Smells of childhood: pea soup simmering on the stove, wet dog, hot radiators, sweaty socks, lilies in the living room. All the scents I never had. Instead, the warm, bitter odor of gunpowder and molten lead had wafted up from the cellar as Dad, in his murky lair, meticulously cast his ammunition. He melted old bullets on a special hot-plate, slowly tapping the gunpowder into the rows of indentations in the mold. A champion marksman, he insisted that his homemade bullets shot more accurately. The acrid smell permeated everything, as my mother crossly strode about the house, squirting eau de cologne into the air in a futile attempt to mask it.


Excerpted from My Father's Secret War by Lucinda Franks Copyright © 2007 by Lucinda Franks. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joyce Bean is an accomplished audiobook narrator and director. In addition to being an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, she has been nominated multiple times for a prestigious Audie Award, including for Good-bye and Amen by Beth Gutcheon.

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