Book Review: My 85-year-old Dad Wrote A Memoir...And It's GREAT

The ordinary, extraordinary story of how George Dufresne survived before, during, and after the Korean War.

Men named “Dufresne” cashed checks from the Los Angeles Times from April of 1955 to December of 2016.

The father drove a truck for 38 years while the son started on the loading docks in 1976 and later worked in editorial for 34 years.

He was a sportswriter.

You might think the FIRST book published by tandem-house would come from the journalist, but that’s not what happened.

The book was written by the truck driver, my father, who turns 86 in June and wanted to clear some things off his dashboard.

Not for money, or fame, or Oprah’s book-of-the-month-club. My dad wanted to leave his story behind for his four surviving children. Mom is gone and so is Valerie, the second-oldest.

There is so much we didn’t know but this is not, in itself, unusual.

A lot of combat veterans don’t talk about war experiences and my dad was no different. Plus, he worked the graveyard shift for years, and then 4 to 11 p.m. on the swing shift, so the dad we knew growing up was mostly sleeping.

He apologizes in his book for missing all my high school wrestling matches.

What I know now, for sure, is that my dad killed people in the Korean War, which sort of figured since he was a machine-gunner on the front line.

Seeing it in print, though, took my breath away.

How he got to the front, near the Chinese border, was the result of getting into more trouble than Gomer Pyle.

Going to the front was his BEST option after a bumpy U.S. Army start that included going AWOL with a nurse, “accidentally” stabbing his commanding officer during bayonet training in Japan and then doing nearly a month in the brig.

The choices presented after he came out of the hole were “court martial” or “next boat to Korea.”

Dad said the officer suggested Korea.

Then again, how my dad got drafted into the war, at age 17, is just insane. He had lied about his age to join the National Guard in 1948. Sounded like fun, plus some weekend camping, but he only attended one meeting.

Flash forward a couple of later to when my dad and his buddies are on their way to Venice Beach and he tells them he has to stop by the Army Recruiting office in L.A. to clear up all these mistaken draft notice letters he had been receiving.

Dad told his friends to keep the car running he’d be right back. Dad never left the building and, two hours later, he was on a bus to Fort Ord.

“But I need to go home and pack!” my dad told the sergeant at the front desk.

“Don’t worry,” the sergeant said. “We have clothes for you.”

I’d like to see your dad top THAT induction story.

As kids we would sometimes ask to see the 15-inch zipper scar that split his chest, or the gunshot wound that punctured his wrist as Sgt. Derting carried him out of a snow bank with the Chinese army chasing.

Dad still has grenade shrapnel in one of his lungs—but we didn’t know the half of it. I know now his near-mortal wounds were inflicted on Hill 747.

In fact, I’ll put my dad’s life, from birth to 18, up against anyone I know.

For my money any book that contains this sentence is worth a harder look: “I started smoking cigarettes at 11 years old. To be more honest, the first cigarette I smoked was a piece of wicker chair.”

My dad was born in Maine (1933), lived in Oregon for a while, but grew up, for the most part, on the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

He wasn’t an orphan but he also wasn’t far off. His father, Napoleon Dufresne, a symphony orchestra conductor, split the scene for good in the early 1940s.

My grandfather was a musical genius, but also a drunk and as I know now, an A-hole.

Nap's wife, my grandma, the only grandparent I ever knew, had a nervous breakdown.

And that left my dad, for large swaths of his childhood, living on the streets, sleeping in unlocked cars, hanging out with some shady cats, eating leftovers off back porches and smoking wicker chairs.

He writes about all this candidly, with whimsy and humor: pot smoking, pill popping (Bennies) and also of his first sexual experience with a street-sign post named "Ellen Dale." There was also car-hopping, side burns "Elvis stole my act," petty theft and stealing his wardrobe off the clothes lines at USC fraternity houses.

“We called it ‘Midnight Laundry,’” my dad writes. “…we thought it was their way of giving to the poor.”

That led to morbid stories like the open-casket tale of street-buddy Glen Bobo, killed in car accident involving my dad's best friend, Bob Phillips, who was the driver.

Glen was buried in property lifted from USC frat row.

Dad whispered to a friend “Don’t let Mrs. Bobo know he is being buried in a stolen shirt.”

A lot of the book, which took more than a year to compile and edit, was my dad handing me pages of single-spaced typed pages in all lower, or upper, case.

It was a “manifesto” style the Uni-bomber would be proud of, or the author of a very detailed ransom note.

Dad wrote it in longhand first, then transcribed it onto a personal computer he cursed until the day he shipped it to my sister in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

It was either that or smashing the computer, to bits, with a hammer.

The book-compiling continued with me massaging his raw copy into a word document and me calling him back for more information.

“Dad, holy shit, this can’t be true…”

“Dad, whoa, you’ve got to tell me more…”

Sometimes I’d sit with the phone in my ear and transcribe as he was filling in the holes.

One time I asked: “Dad, where was your father while you were split open in a MASH hospital in Korea telling the medics not to wedge that dog tag into your teeth…?”

That led to a most chilling, heart-crushing, unforgivable transcription. I wrote it straight into the book, his words straight to the page.

He said he never heard from his father, before or after, the war. He didn’t know if his dad knew he was in Korea. He last saw his dad in 1946 and never again. Napoleon Dufresne died in 1960.

“Never a word, never called, never a birthday card, never a Christmas card,” my dad said as I typed his words into his own story. “He just didn’t give a damn.”

Gulp.

My dad’s story ends in his early 60s, the age I am now, when he retires from the L.A. Times after 38 years in Transportation.

Dad offers great newspaper stories that includes one about publisher Otis Chandler, who kept some of his race cars parked at the truck garage on Alameda, drinking beers with the drivers. There are also harrowing tales of dad delivering papers through the Watts and Rodney King riots.

My father writes most candidly and honestly about his own, early years. The first 100 pages read like prize-winning fiction. We almost subtitled the book, “The extraordinary, ordinary life of an American,” because that’s what it’s been.

Dad holds back on his life as a father and a husband. I tried to pry and nudge him about the hard times I remember growing up. He opened up a little about his separation from my mother, right after I graduated high school.

They got back together and were married for 60 years.

For the most part, though, dad said he did not want to hurt any of our feelings.

Ultimately, this is his story, not ours, right?

I wish every child had a chance to experience what I’ve experienced through this book-writing process.

My wife, Sheila, put in hours of proof-reading, designed the front cover and is wholly responsible for the scanning and formatting of the picture section.

Thank you, dad, for writing “Rear View” for you but also for us: your living children Laura, me, Renee, Dawn, grandchildren, extended family and friends.

I know it was difficult for you each time we had to update the book after one of your remaining friends died. Just in the last few weeks, Art Wickens and Jack Rose.

Your book, though, will live as a lasting legacy to them, to you, and to us.

Gracious, padre.

Comments
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Herb Gould
Herb Gould

Editor

I love everything about this, Duf. . . Just to be clear, is that a photo of you or your dad? LOL. Talk about spttin' image. Or spit and image. Whatever the heck that phrase is.

Redskins4
Redskins4

Great story put me down for a copy



Chris Dufresne
EditorChris Dufresne
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Chris Dufresne
EditorChris Dufresne
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Chris Dufresne
EditorChris Dufresne
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