(Click here for part one)

In the summer of 1977, when I was 17, I came as close to hating my father as I ever had before. All I saw was a whining, violent, self-pitying drunk who blamed the world for his failures in life—and who saw his life as a wasted one.

On this day, the Fourth of July, my mother had taken my then-seven-year-old sister Gayle Ann to watch the big parade downtown. I had been out partying with some friends the night before, and had come home at four in the morning to crash on the sofa.

I was awakened sometime around ten-thirty by my father falling on me. So drunk he could barely maintain his balance. He’d gone through all the beer and was putting a good dent in the contents of a whiskey bottle.

“Can’t sleep,” he kept slurring at me. “Can’t get to sleep. C’mon, get up and let’s go make some breakfast.”

I rose, groggy-eyed and cotton-mouthed, from the sofa, went into the kitchen, and—at Dad’s request—micro-waved a couple of TV dinners for breakfast.

I sat at one end of the kitchen table, Dad at the other. I began to eat. He started rambling on about the way his mother had treated him and my Aunt “Boots” when they were children; about the war and what had happened to him; about how he was too old and too tired to face another twenty-five years on another line at another plant. (He’d once told me he’d wanted to raise chickens for a living when he was a young man; how he wished he’d been able to do that. It was his dream, and it meant the world to him, and it just broke his heart that he and my mother never had the money to buy a proper farm for raising chickens.)

I remember all of this very clearly because, when he first began to talk, I looked up and saw the business end of a 7.65mm Duetsche Werk semi-automatic pistol pointed right at my face. I knew this gun well. Dad had taken it from where one of the SS officers who’d discovered the remains of his unit had dropped it in his haste to get away.

He ate very little of his TV dinner. But he drank the whiskey. Even used it to chase down some painkillers, as well as his heart and blood-pressure medicine—none of which were supposed to be taken at the same time, let alone with alcohol.

And he began unraveling right in front of me.

He began calling me other names—Stan, Wille P., “Slim”—all members of his deceased unit. He began talking about what had happened as if it were happening at that very moment and they were still alive to remember the experience with him. A couple of times he started crying and saying things like, “But I don’t have any money for a hotel, Mom!” He began looking around the kitchen, whispering, “Shhh, shut your mouth, Stan! Can’t you hear ‘em?”

It was at that moment that I did what was probably the first genuinely wise thing I had done in my life; very quietly, with as even a tone of voice as I could muster (surprised I could find it in me to speak at all), I said, “Hear who, Frank?”

He jumped up from the table, threw his chair aside, and started toward the back porch door. He grabbed my arm on the way past and said, “We gotta get ‘em first this time.” He pulled me out onto the back porch and forced me to squat down beside him as he aimed the gun. “The trees,” he said. “They came out of the trees.”

I remembered him telling me that earlier; how he’d seen the SS unit emerge from the snow-covered trees and move toward the detritus of his unit.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that. Once I thought he was going to pass out, but just as I was stupid enough to reach for the gun, his eyes snapped open and he stood up and plowed four rounds into the tree in our back yard. The dog next door barked and nearly got its head blown off for the effort.

To counteract the wise thing I had done before, I did something supremely stupid—I tried to pull the gun out of his hand.

“The trees,” he kept saying. “The trees.” And plowed off two more shots.

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of those shots went through my shoe and blew off part of my big toe (to this day, even in the worst of summer, I won’t wear sandals because of that injury).

Finally, Dad hit me on the side of the head with the butt of the gun and ran inside. By the time I staggered back into the house he’d reloaded the clip, pulled out his rifle, and was loading it.

I walked into the living room and said something to him—I don’t remember what—and the sound of my voice startled him; he screamed, fell backward, and fired a shot that missed me by a good three or four feet but felt like it had come a lot closer. I dropped to the floor in tears, hating myself for being so scared.

Dad crawled over to me and said that it was gonna be okay, we’d keep an eye on the trees, that his mom would be proud of him because he got a medal and everything. (He received a Purple Heart and several other medals. They now hang in a display case next to my desk at home.)

Shortly after this, the police showed up, armed to the teeth and in full riot gear, tear-gas grenades at the ready – which they did not hesitate to use.
What followed was a six-minute battle between my father and the police, one that ended with four officers and one attack dog injured, and my father in handcuffs (it took 6 officers to subdue him, and all the while he was screaming, “Get your hands offa me, you Nazi bastards!” He was still back in Austria, in the middle of the burning pile of bodies).

I ended the day with two cracked ribs, three crushed fingernails, a broken collar bone, a dislocated shoulder, cuts on my head, arms, and chest that garnered a total of twenty-six stitches, a badly sprained left arm, powder burns on my temple, and two “official” gunshot wounds. I remember all this when I think I’m having a bad day now.

During the worst of the violence, I managed to drag myself through the kitchen and down the backstairs into the basement. I stayed down there until I heard the last of the officers leave the house. I pulled myself back upstairs and peeked out through the remains of the front window.

And this is where I was given a gift from God that I did not know at the time was a gift.

There were three ambulances and four police cruisers parked out front, visibar lights flashing to beat the band. Neighbors lined the street on both sides the length of the entire block. The police officers could have put Dad in any one of nearby cruisers—there was one right in front of the house!—but they chose, instead, to walk him all the way down the block, parading him past the neighbors, to a cruiser that sat at the far end of the street. Dad was in handcuffs. He was sobbing. He had thrown up on himself. He kept apologizing to every neighbor he was dragged past.

The worst of it, though, was that my Dad’s pants had started to fall down in the back, revealing what some people laughingly refer to as a “workman’s crack.”

He was completely, totally, and utterly disgraced.

That moment is forever frozen in my memory, and I knew right then it was important for me to memorize everything I was feeling—the shock, the sick-making sadness, the pain, the helplessness, the sudden, unexpected, mystifying, overwhelming love I felt toward this man who once wanted to be chicken farmer but spent his life on the factory line, instead.

I wanted to mark this moment, and to remember it.
And the anger.
And the anger.
And the anger.
Thank you, God, yes—the anger.

That was the moment that set me on the path to becoming a writer of dark fiction. I promised myself that I would always try to convey in my stories at least some small sense of what I felt at
that moment during the summer of 1977 when I watched the police haul my father down the street.

I wanted to create something more than stories that simply let emotions both light and dark bleed all over the page. I wanted to create something that would convey the genuine sense of tragedy and fragility that hangs over all our lives. I know now that what I experienced that moment, looking through that window at my father as he was made a mockery of, is what all forms of creative expression strive to convey: the terror, tragedy, sadness, anger, and soul-sick absurdity of violence and grief and how we struggle from womb to tomb to reconcile those things with the concept of a Just universe, watched over by a loving God, where even the most trivial and mundane of our daily activities carry some greater meaning.

Sometimes a hand reaches out from the shadows to protect us, to lead us toward safety and acceptance; sometimes this same hand grabs your throat and begins to squeeze; and sometimes no hand reaches out at all, we’re just left cowering in the basement, alone with the coldness and the darkness and the injuries, bleeding and scared and helpless.

I was changed that day, in that moment from the summer of 1977. It defined me as a human being, and that bleeding, frightened, rage-filled teenager defined me—and defines me still—as a writer. That day – with all of its violence, pain, brutality, terror, bloodshed, all of it – was a gift from God. Look at this pain, He was saying to me. Look at it and taste it and remember it and know it as well as you do your own reflection, so that you may recognize it when it comes around again. And then ask yourself: What can I do to ease it?

The scrim was lifted from my eyes that afternoon – I no longer saw the world only in terms of how it affected me; I saw it in terms of how I might come to affect it, to help it in some small way.

There’s an old saying: “The devil is in the details.” I prefer to side with Albert Einstein, who said, “God is in the details.” I see God’s details all around me, in laugher, in music, in tears, in art, in kindness and autumn and science and the way a beam of moonlight slants through a Venetian blind at 3 in the morning; I see it in disguises such as regret, sadness, and loneliness – all of these are God’s details, His gifts, and I thank Him every day for having given me the faculties to recognize them, and the ability to try to convey some small part of their greater meaning through the little stories I tell.

I do this for the memory of my mother, and that of my father, both of whom thought it was just wonderful that I manage to make a small living from writing what they called “scary stories.” I do it as a way of one day forgiving myself for all the years that I did recognize others’ pain and loneliness. I do it to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed on, and those I haven’t yet met. I do it to honor and to thank God.

I do it because, as Heinrich Hein said, “All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.”

Hidden within the horrors of that day during my 17th summer was proof of one man’s unselfish love, a love that until that day I had been too foolish to recognize. But I recognize it now, and carry it with me always. After that day, my father and I became more than father and son; we became friends, and the love between us only grew stronger. I don’t know if that would have ever happened had not we been plunged into the nightmare of that day that had been in the making for nearly 40 years. Were it not for that time of horror, I would never have known a deeper love between myself and my father.

That is why I write horror fiction, and that is why I feel God’s presence as I write it. In my heart I know this is what I was intended to do with His gift, and I hope when the time comes for me to meet Him, that He’ll smile at me and say, “Your mom and dad keep talking about your stories. I want to hear them. All of them. Don’t worry – we’ve got the time.”

I’d like to leave you with a quote from my father’s favorite comedian, Red Skelton, who closed every show with the following words:

“Thank you. And may God Bless.”