Ernie Drew – Letter to My Past Self

Dear Ernie,

Being the oldest of five children comes with a set of responsibilities.  Dad being a traveling salesman and away from home Monday through Friday on most weeks has taught you the management skills required by a large family. If you reflect back to 1949 when mom had cancer, you were eight years old and had to become involved in the upbringing of your 6 and 3-year-old brothers. You by default learned a lot about what it means to be a member of the family but felt cheated because you were not doing the things that other friends were doing. And then your sisters were born adding to the responsibilities.

You have a problem that is recognized by many around you and by family members. You have become disassociated with the immediate and extended family.  This problem does not affect you directly. You get through each day as you wish with a disregard for the feelings of others. 

When you first got to high school a major decision, made in the ninth grade, permitted you to take college preparatory classes even though Dad tried to dissuade you. High school also gave you the opportunity to join the cross-country team and eventually the indoor and outdoor track teams as a long-distance runner.

In high school you got a lot of advice as to what to do going forward. Dad recommended that you immediately go into the workforce as a dental salesman or enlist in the Navy. You are not encouraged to go to college. I realize there is tension between you and Dad on a daily basis, “when he is home.” You both refuse to recognize the other’s position. Dad knows that his position is correct and that you should do what he wants. Any discussions end with raised voices and without resolution.  You will wrestle with emotions concerning the balance between self and family.

You figure out a way to go to college with the help of a track scholarship.

When you leave for college you don’t look back and never realize that you should. You are only 35 miles from home yet seldom make an effort to check in with family. You perceive that being at home was chaotic and therefore go home less and less.  You are a loner, not socializing with many people, and in particular immediate family.  The extended family think you are standoffish.  If you listen, you will hear some members of the family say with disdain that you believe you are too good for them.  During your junior year you will make the decision to apply for Aviation Officer Candidate school in the Navy. At this time much of your communications with the family will be through Mom.

By the time you graduate from college Dad will have expressed that you should be disowned. You are oblivious to the pain that you are imposing on your family members and in particular mother, who has acted as a referee for the last 20 years.

You are accepted into flight training and leave for Pensacola.  You will graduate from Aviation Officer Candidate school as an Ensign and go to flight school.  During your first annual physical for the Navy, you fail an eye exam and are declared ineligible to fly. Ten days after failing the eye exam you are given orders to a F4B squadron stationed in Oceana. When you check into the squadron the CO tells you leave most of your stuff packed because in five days you are go aboard the USS independence to deploy to Vietnam.  You become the squadron’s aviation intelligence officer with no formal training. You possess a vast storehouse of “useless knowledge.”  The ability to see the big picture will allow you to be a successful intelligence officer.

During your time in the fighter squadron, you develop an understanding of the reliance on others. As the briefing officer, for many of the missions, the air crews rely on you to give them the information needed to keep them safe for their two-hour sorties into Vietnam.  The orders to Vietnam temporarily changed the relationship with Dad, a WWII Navy veteran, in that they are to a combat zone. You return to Norfolk feeling close to the others in the wardroom, but things have changed with your soon to be wife.

You will get married 10 days after returning to someone who had a very different set of experiences while you were gone. It took 17 years to resolve the issues that were created in the time you were deployed. By this time, you will have two children, a boy, and a girl.  You remain in the reserves and are away two days a month as well as at least one two-week active duty for training period each year. Joining the reserves compounded issues that became apparent after returning from Vietnam.  Choosing between self and family is not an either-or decision.  One choice should not exclude the other.  Be careful to understand the sensibilities of the family dynamic. Taking a path not taken by others will create questions and in some instances resentment. You must start by building personal relationships based on trust. These relationships include family and friends. The divorce will strain the relationship with your daughter which will take years to resolve.  Your son does not appear to be phased by the divorce.

 You will slowly attempt to become part of the family again. This will become a lifelong challenge.

There is a single event that put this challenge into focus.  

You do not know when you will have run out of time to repair some relations. There is a night when Dad is 59 years old where most of the family has gotten together and you are taking photographs.

Here is the last picture you take that day. As usual there is a disagreement between father and son that ended without resolution. You go home. You will get a phone call at 4:00 in the morning from your mother saying that Dad has died. The opportunity to resolve these differences had been lost. You will still have the picture, knowing he passed away about four hours after it was taken. I don’t know if the relationship could have been repaired, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do it. I recommend that you enter conversations with Dad and see where compromise can help the relationship.  If you can normalize your relationship, you will not, as I do every day, wonder what could have been done better.

Within two years you will have remarried. You will marry someone who is politically liberal and fiscally conservative compared to you being politically conservative and fiscally reckless.  Overtime there will be a regression to the mean and the relationship works. You and your wife will adopt two girls.  You will consciously improve your interpersonal relations and become aware of the needs of others. Your wife will take an active part in your quest to repair your relationship with your family. She suggests that you take your brothers and sisters with their spouses on a cruise with the one requirement being all sit down to dinner together every evening. As an outgrowth of this cruise, you have started a tradition of brother’s breakfast once a month.  You take the two older children, spouses, and their children on a cruise to Alaska with the same rule about dinner time. This was the beginning of a closer relationship with the children.

Having avoided classes that, I predetermined were too esoteric or boring, I avoided the humanities which created a deficit in my thinking. At 80 years old I was made aware of a humanities course for veterans called the Providence Clemente Veterans Initiative.  I’ve learned many things in the course, and here are a few lessons that I’d like to pass on to you before you hit 80.

We started with the ancient Greeks.  In “Crash Course Theatre: Aristotle and Tragedy” from PBS, I listened to a discussion about Aristotle and his thoughts on catharsis. Aristotle perceived catharsis as being one of two states:

  1. Wakened emotions
  2. Triggered deep emotional thought

I believe that before I took the course my emotions had been wakened concerning the personal dynamic between myself and my other family members.  The materials presented in class, along with the discussions between the faculty and veterans has given me a deeper understanding of the emotions that I have been feeling for at least 65 years.

Our trip to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum started in the European gallery and the first two paintings we viewed had as one of their themes, family relationships.  The earlier painting “The Death of Camilla, 1785” shows a brother who has gone off to war with an allegiance to the state returning home to find his sister in a relationship with one of the state’s enemies. In the painting the brother has just killed the sister for her relationship with the enemy. The painting shows that one of the siblings chooses the state over family.

The second painting, “Portrait of Latour and His Family, 1806” shows the father instructing his children about the importance of family. He is pointing to his father’s memorial stone which says, “he lived and died without reproach”.  Both paintings also have as a theme, veterans. Each veteran took a position concerning family that is diametrically opposed to the other.   My personal relationship with my family has been evolving and will continue to do so.  Don’t wait to mend and strengthen your relationships with your family and look to the humanities to enrich your understanding of life. There are many lessons to be learned.  Develop communication skills. Bounce ideas off friends, family, and those close to you.  Use the input of friends and others to help you chart your path. Start keeping a diary daily, even if it is only a paragraph or two each day. There will come a time when you may want to talk about your past to children and grandchildren and anyone else that wants to listen, and a diary will help stimulate those conversations.


Your future self