When I told my dad I planned to go to Paris, he was very excited and told me to be sure to go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa.
And of course I planned to see it. But I also had something very specific I planned to do once I was at the museum.
Dad was drafted into the army during the Korean War in 1952. He was 21 years old. When he was 22, he was shipped to France. For many months he worked a construction crew building an airstrip in Dreux (pronounced “Drew”) located about an hour and 10 minutes west of Paris.
He spoke fondly of his trip to the Louvre with his army buddies on a weekend leave. They gave him the nickname “Tex” because he wore a cowboy hat when he was out of uniform. He still wears a Stetson wherever he goes.
When dad visited the Louvre, it occupied only the portion of the building you see here (without the pyramid, of course.) In the intervening years it would expand into the right side of the building (out of photograph) and then during the 1980s the Offices of President Francois Mitterand were moved to another building and the Louvre took over those buildings on the left (also out of view.)
The museum has more than tripled in size since dad’s visit and currently occupies the entire U-shaped structure.
The museum is about the art, of course, but also the architecture that includes intricate marble design and exacting attention to detail. The Louvre is epic in size.
It’s also a madhouse of thousands and thousands of people; so many, in fact, they hamper your ability to fully enjoy the experience. We wandered room to room; each one was packed with people taking selfies. Sometimes it seemed that very few were taking time to look closely at the artworks.
After a few hours, Bill was exhausted and seated. I started looking for a place I could believe was still the same as when dad was there.
I wanted to picture my father at 22 years old — a kid, really, I understand that now — and in these halls beside me. I tried to imagine his response. How overwhelming it must have been! To my knowledge, this was dad’s sole outing to a major museum.
Dad’s sister, my Aunt Tommie, brought in the mail the day dad’s draft notice arrived. She was 16 years old. When she ran to the house crying and holding a letter, he knew. Of the seven brothers — dad made eight — all but one served in the military. All of them returned home safely.
Already my father mostly supported his parents, and every month he sent home part of his soldier’s pay to help them make ends meet.
Over the years and during the expansions, the collections of the Louvre have been moved around. The Mona Lisa was in a different room when dad saw it. But I believe that the wing where the Roman antiquities are housed is probably my best bet for being in a place that dad also visited.
I sat on a marble bench and looked around. I tried to picture him feeling the awe that I felt about everything around me. But I also thought of how frightened he must have been to leave home for the first time, and how mind-boggling it must have been to find himself in a foreign country.
I also thought of him as he is today.
The relationship with my dad has been a complicated one. I think this is almost always the case with fathers and sons. My dad is a driven person, self-disciplined and unusually focused. Along with that comes frustration when others struggle to keep up with him. It was an aspect of his personality that drove me nuts when I was growing up.
But now that I’m in my 50s, I see how much I’m like him. I’m glad about the positive things I’ve learned, and am trying to accept the negatives — the occasional sharp tongue, the impatience with others who are slow on the uptake.
Dad took a lot of photographs when he was in the Army using a camera lent to him by his brother. A couple of years ago at Christmas, we pulled out family photos and went through them, but not the Army pictures. They’re probably in boxes at the very back of the closet.
My dad is 6’1″ and became a large man, topping the scales at 240 by the time I left home in 1980. He would turn 50 that year. He would slim down to 190 in his late 70s. But he was very thin when he was growing up. His induction papers show he weighed only 125 lbs.
His given name is Bobby but the Army personnel believed it was his nickname. Because he was unable to convince them — he didn’t have a birth certificate — his military documents, including release papers, list him as “Robert Rawlinson.”
I will visit Texas in late June and early July and I plan to go through those Army photos with dad. I’ve seen them before, but that was years ago when I had no real perspective. They were pictures of “dad.” Now, though, I’ll see them as photos of a young man with thoughts and feelings, with fears and hopes and dreams. In short, as a human being.
It saddens me to think how many years it has taken to see him in this light.