Here's a father portrait I particularly liked. It's the memory of a man of a particular generation--it has been called "the greatest"--who is capable of stepping up to decisive, selfless action in an emergency situation, but is compelled to bury its emotional impact deep inside. There is something genuinely moving in the way this man internalizes what we suspect must a mixture of deep disappointment and perhaps some guilt at the failure of his intervention to save the life it was intended to save. And something especially moving in the lasting memory the action triggered in his son.
Barry Markowitz is today a painter, video and performance artist whose work has been widely exhibited in Southern California; he is also co-chair of Visual Arts at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Of this story, he notes: "This is a real hero who happened to be my father. That makes all the difference, I saw him as a person, not a figure, after that apartment fire. His automatic and instinctive response to help had a great influence on my life. "
By Barry Markowitz
I pushed my way through the slight opening between my mother’s and sister’s tightly wedged hips. I shoved my head between them as if emerging from a birth canal. Popping through, I could see that the orange glow enveloping our small kitchen was merely an introduction to what lay outside the cramped tenement. It was hard to make out what they were looking at, but slightly beyond us and just across the narrow alleyway, there were smoke and flames shooting from a fourth floor window directly opposite to ours.
“Mom, where’s dad? Mom!” I tugged at her housedress. “Where’s Dad?”
My mother leaned out the window, craning her neck as far as it could go; transfixed by the flames, she could not hear a word, much less respond.
Minutes before I had been asleep in the small bedroom I shared with my older sister Shelly and my brand new sister Linda. A wash of heat in the shape of an ash-filled orange cloud poured into the bedroom. waking me. I got to my feet, stumbled across the room and down the hall into the foyer that opened into the kitchen. The orange cloud, heavy with wet heat, clung to my mother and sister as they crammed themselves into the windowsill. They were hypnotized by the burning building across from them.
It was Shelly who finally answered. “Daddy is in the alley with your uncle. They’re moving burning pieces of the building, they’re trying to get people out of the alley and into the street.”
As I craned to look I could make out my father’s shape: the top of his head, his broad shoulders, and even from four stories up I could make out his thick sausage-like fingers as they grabbed and tore at the burning debris. The cloud of ash and heat moved through the air with a will of its own, an alien creature released from the depths of our world to wreak havoc among the mortals.
And at the center of it all was my father.
As the fire burned a woman appeared at the window of her fourth floor apartment. She looked down and then up and then down again. Without warning she stepped out onto the thin ledge to the right of her. She grabbed the wall behind her, inching down the ledge far enough to momentarily escape the flames that were shooting from her window. Her face was lit comic book style. Colors separated into primaries, each casting its own shadow. The woman was animated all right, her hair flying in all directions, her hands flailing like Octopus tentacles trying to press her nightgown to her legs, keeping her hair from whipping her face and clutching the building all at the same time.
For all the chaos of the moment, I remember it moving slowly, clearly, like a staged event or high opera—an amazing cinematic achievement replete with pathos, bathos and awesome pyrotechnics.
Up until that night I knew very little about my father. Before that moment he was more of a hazy image, negligible, a mystery man. Now he had come into focus. I saw him and he was in his element: arms in motion, body in motion, talking, leading, directing everything at once. And when that woman stepped out onto the ledge my eyes remained focused on him. He was shouting up to her, “Jump, we’ll catch you.”
Impossible! What was he saying? “Jump, we’ll catch you!” he yelled over and over.
Nathan Abraham Markowitz was pure blue-collar, never finished public school, hauled ice for a living, broke his back doing it. Later he took up bagging groceries at the corner store, and then came the war. He had a slight heart murmur, which was why the Marines, Air Force and Navy turned him down for active duty. But then there was the Army. It was easy to get into the Army. He passed his physical by bribing his way in, and before anyone could say a word about it, he was given orders to join a Calvary unit at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Nathan Abraham Markowitz promptly married Sylvia Cohen and got her pregnant, making sure she wouldn’t stray too far while he was gone. He loved her.
“NOOOOOOOOOOO I can’t!” she screamed. “No, no no no no I can’t!” she cried and muttered over and over and over. She was crying, begging for this not to be real. Screaming now as the flames moved to the outside of her window. Screaming now for a choice that made sense—not the maniac down in the alley, yelling up at her to jump.
My dad had grabbed a blanket from his bed as he raced down to the alley. The blanket was about six feet in length and five feet wide. Now he and uncle Sid were moving towards the burning building with the blanket, positioning themselves directly underneath her. “Jump,” he shouted, “we’ll catch you!”
The woman stared down into the alley as if she was trying to make out what it was. She was dazed, defeated and scared to death. Suddenly she turned away from the alley and looked directly at us.
“I’m coming,” she screamed, “catch me!” And she jumped.
She took off feet first toward the ground, toward the two smallish figures holding a blue blanket, toward my father’s voice. As she hit the air the fire came out to meet her. It caught the bottom of her nightgown as she passed by the window. The nightgown ignited, exploded, and she went down like a meteor entering earth’s gravity.
Below my father and uncle Sid braced themselves in anticipation of her arrival. They pulled the blanket taught by wrapping the ends firmly around their wrists, leaving enough room for their fingers to grab on. Her body fell fast; the whole thing took a few seconds before she hit the blanket hard and they collapsed. The weight of her body tore through the blanket. My dad went down, my uncle went down and the woman was dead the moment that she landed.
My father’s wrists were wrenched, his fingers burned, his arms broken. Uncle Sid incurred multiple fractures to his forearms. Remarkably they managed to grab what was left of the blanket and cover her body.
My dad went into shock. He was wounded, tears filled his eyes and he became stricken with grief for the woman he didn’t know. He and Sid lay in the alley motionless. They were done. All their strength and energy was focused into that one moment, and it was over, and they were done.
My mother left the window and ran from the apartment, down four flights, out the door to the alley, rushing to my dad. She helped him up and moved him away from the falling debris.
At the hospital Sid and my father were treated for shock, broken bones and second degree burns. I wasn’t there, children were not allowed into emergency rooms. At the house my Mom said, “Your dad didn’t talk about it. He said nothing about the woman, nothing about the fall, nothing about his pain, he just wanted to go home and sleep.”
Once he was home, she took off his shoes and loosened his belt. With his arms in casts and his fingers dangling he ate some food, drank a soda, and sat in front of the TV until he fell asleep. Later my mother led him to the bedroom, got him undressed, put him to bed. And that was that.