American Icarus

Journalist Pythia Peay tracks the history of her larger-than-life father, Joe, from a Dickensian childhood during the Depression, to his years flying planes for the Air Transport Command in Brazil during World War II,  then running a farm in the Missouri heartland while raising four children. This is a searching portrait of a man who was never at home in his own skin, or with the sheer ordinariness of daily life.  This story puts a man’s aspirations in a larger context, considering our American fascination with heroes and high-flyers, and their inevitable crashes.  It has been adapted from American Icarus:  A Memoir of Father and Country, published by Lantern Books, New York.

Joe Carroll stood six foot one inch tall , with blue eyes that could impale a person at a glance and a washboard stomach as hard as a balled fist.  Zeus-like, he reigned over my childhood. Master of the stare-down, he could fix you motionless without a word.  Once my brother Steven refused my father’s order to get on the tractor and mow the alfalfa field; mouthing off with a smartass, “Fuck you.”  No one ever crossed my father, much less swore at him, and he backhanded my brother across his face hard, breaking his nose.   

My father wasn’t born a tyrant. In his youth he was beautiful, with a round and vulnerable face framed by neatly combed wavy brown hair.  He had a deep dimple in his chin,  full lips and wide eyes as bright as a pair of newborn stars.  In one photo from the family album, he is a cocky, dapper lad leaning his elbow on a tree trunk beside his brothers and uncle. In another, he is a commanding young aviator standing on the runway with his flying buddies as they prepare to board a Douglas DC-4. 

In yet others, he is a fresh-faced young husband coming to his wedding cake with his curly-haired bride standing next to him.  Or a new father with his arms wrapped protectively around the chubby baby: me. Like a 1950s Life magazine ad, Joe Carroll’s sparkling intensity leaps from these pictures radiating the hunger for life, raw optimism and, against-all-the- odds courage of an America that emerged from the depression to win World War II. The very air around him seems to vibrate with the bravado of a country about to enter the jet age of which he would be a part as a flight engineer for TWA.

What made Joe’s moods hardest to figure out was that they did not emerge full-blown at the onset of our family life. No, they unspooled over the years like a mountain climber’s rope staked to rock that unwinds slowly until, loosened, it snakes wildly out of control, dropping the person over the edge. Aimed straight at constructing a new life out of a childhood misshapen by the shock of loss and strange fortune, my father was at his strongest in the early years of our family. And so it was that my first memory of him as a little girl is that of tender love and exuberance for life and all its warm-earth sun-drenched beauty.

Joe Carrols working on the farm, Shalom Acres.

The very best days were the ones when Joe was getting ready to leave on a trip, or immediately after his return. Then there was a reassuring measure of order.  There would be no scenes.  The bottles of beer and vodka vanished and the house bathed under the clean clear skies of sobriety. Preparing to leave, Joe whistled, shaved and packed.  “Sheila!” he would call out to my mother, looking for the clean socks and pressed handkerchiefs he needed for his suitcase.  Long into adulthood, I remember the lime aroma of Cannon aftershave and the crisp chemical smell of his newly dry cleaned TWA uniform.

On a bad drinking day, it didn’t take him long to get started. First came the Catholic grace over six bowed heads. “Thank you, Father, for that which we are about to receive,” we would pray in unison, paying homage to the big daddy in the sky as well as at the table, and then it would begin.

“Stupid Lazy Hostesses!” he might say referring to the crew on his last flight, his eyes darting around the table.  “Old Fat Cows!”  he would mumble, glancing in my mother’s direction hoping to draw someone into a showdown at the Carroll corral, then “Sheila! Lazy pig, where’s the goddamn garlic bread?” he would bark, sending my mother flying from the room in a gush of tears.  Mostly I sat hunched and mute before this gale force of paternal fury. Other times I took the bait, hurrying to the defense of my mother or the brother or sister or who had refused his I -dare-you-to-disobey-me order to eat every last morsel of food on the plate.

 The trickiest times of all, however, were when  the good days collided with the bad, and my father became a dangerous brew of high spirits and brooding melancholy.  When these high and low pressure systems came together my father was at his most charismatic: a pure force of human nature that combined everything terrible and wonderful at once. At moments like these, his starlit eyes flashed a rare brilliance that irradiated everyone around him with waves of energy.

One Sunday after mass when I was about 11, Joe theatrically  unveiled his latest purchase: a new kind of electric sandwich maker that had long handles and a round press that neatly chopped off the edges of the bread, creating a perfectly spherical hot sandwich. With great flourish and fanfare, holding the press over the gas flame like a conductor waving his baton, dad cooked up his version of the Reuben sandwich. As a rule I hated the bitter taste of sauerkraut, but something about Joe’s juicy good humor made me love his corned beef and rye concoction, dripping with grainy mustard and melted Swiss cheese. My sister detested the hypocrisy of the Sunday morning brunches and wondered skeptically why Joe was suddenly trying to play the good father. But I loved them, carried aloft by my father’s beguiling brand of wizardry that could turn a mere sandwich into food that I thought was fit for immortals.

There was nothing remotely mild or pallid about Joe. He met life full on, with everything he had. He could grind a field mouse beneath his heel, flail the horses with his long whip, and pick up the cat by its tail and hurl it across the field, causing me to squeal in fright and disgust.  Or he could tenderly help my sister care for a litter of abandoned kittens, whistle an Irish ballad, or tell me a bedtime story with such pathos my eyes would fill with tears. He could, in equal measure, be boyish and happy or bullying and morose, generous and goodhearted or bitter and stingy, charming and loving or vindictive and hateful. He was a mess of contradictions and impossible to figure out.

As the years passed, the original masterpiece that was Joe’s face became encrusted with the thick pigment of paranoia and despair.   The more he drank the more I struggled to comprehend this increasingly difficult man Fate had chosen as my father. As a teenager, wild a little unhinged from the uncertainty of it all, I would yell, cajole, and act out to get Dad’s attention, doing everything possible I could think of to save him.

When none of my schemes worked, and my own sanity seemed at risk, I knew it was time for me to get a life of my own. So I left—angrily and impetuously—willfully intent, if not on rescuing my father, then on saving the world instead. Swept up in the swelling counterculture movement, I glimpsed an opening to a new destiny.  Driving from Missouri to California, I moved into a commune, found a spiritual teacher, and god.

The Man and the Myth

Icarus's Dream by Sergey Solomko. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Icarus first soared upward, he only had eyes for the sun. But since then, the French launched the first man in hot air balloon. In 1783, flying had transfigured how we see Earth. During that first flight, one of the two pilots onboard became so distracted by the expansive view below him that he momentarily forgot his duties. As he stood up in the middle of the gondola, he found himself lost “in this spectacle offered by the immensity of the horizon. When I took off from the fields, the sun had set for the inhabitants of the valleys. Soon it rose for me alone.” 

But as much as flight would reveal Earth as a geographical wonder, a stupendous mystery, it would also show something else: its slow destruction. From space could be seen deforestation, oil spills, smog and urban sprawl.

When I reflect on the question my father pondered in the last days of his life—whether he was a flyer or a farmer—I wonder if I missed the larger point. In my mind, the real question that should’ve been asked was how flying shaped Joe’s psychology, as well as his relationship to the land itself. Did flight inflate his dangerous tendency toward mania, urging him to take on more than his inborn limits would allow? Did it weaken his connection to the farm itself, causing the fields, barns, animals, and his wife and children to shrink in proportion to his life in the sky?

When I was around 15, an aerial photographer stopped by the house and proposed shooting a picture of the property from the sky. Joe loved this notion. At dinner that night, he spoke with animation about seeing the finished results. When we received the black-and-white photo, and after all of us had oohed and aahed over it, I proudly pasted it into a family album, with a hand-written caption, “The Carroll family Farm.”

Even before flight, America had from its beginnings had trouble being rooted in the land.  Of Joe’s twin loves, I realized it was flying that had come easiest to him; walking on the ground of his own life had proved the more difficult art. Ultimately, the farm would turn against him, and he too, would turn against the farm. I can’t really blame my father for how things turned out. Besides, by living out the American dream of progress as fast and as hard as he could, he’d thought he was doing the right thing.

I keep on my writing desk two mementos from my father; his TWA wings and his tie clip, embellished with an image of a rocket lift off. Emblems of his career, they call me, still, to the rim of the weightless horizon. Just as Daedalus fit his son with the wings and feathers, and taught him the rules of flight, so my father imprinted on me the patterns of his life-myth.  As my father had been smitten with sky-daring heroes like Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes, so too, had I gravitated to the edge of my time. Joining up with the raucous revolution of the 60s had been my way of following in my father’s footsteps—even as I fled from home and tried to sever myself from his values. Where change was, where risk and excitement was, there I’d be. Sure enough, just as my father eventually crashed, so I also flew to near the blazing sun and fell back to Earth, a newly mortal teenager in a lonely hospital bed far from home.

The story of Icarus still speaks to us across the centuries because we recognize the familiar parable of flying high then falling low, rising to success and sinking to the nadir of failure; working hard and crashing; we’re either flying high or being stone cold sober. The Greeks recognized this stance of extremes as the endless up and down of life.

The urge to touch the sun, to be greater than we are, is an especially exaggerated American trait. It is celebrated in every technological breakthrough, presidential inaugural speech, or American Idol contest. It is our spectacular, defining genius.

But it is also our tragic flaw. Through its lens, our history comes into focus. It is the Founding Fathers  enshrining the principle of individual liberty in the Declaration of Independence. It is the genocide of the Native Americans and the sin of African American slavery. It is astronaut Neil Armstrong taking humankind’s first step on the moon; it is the Challenger exploding into space.  It is New York City’s twin towers rising to touch the sky; it is terrorists in jets reducing them to rubble. It is a capitalist free-market that turns a poor cab driver into a wealthy entrepreneur—and then melts away his savings in an economic turndown, putting him back on the streets as a cabdriver once again.

And it is my father, sailing through the air in a jet only to return home to sit through the night drinking and grieving in darkness over the daughter who fled his house.  As I learned from my father’s life, we could begin to balance our culture of striving with a culture of healing and deepening, reconciling our compulsive drive for change with cultivating what we already have—in honor of that vast land we claim to love. 

To do this, however, would mean overcoming our distrust of the inner life and embracing self-examination and even suffering, old-fashioned and anti-American as this may sound.

The Value of Family Biography

Writing this book about my father’s life was a years-long journey of discovery, with many unexpected twists and turns—almost like a Raiders of the Lost Ark experience in the sense of recovering something precious—even holy. As a child, I had dreamt of being an archaeologist; as a journalist, how a nation is psychologically shaped by its past became my primary focus. When I began to research and write about my father, not long after he died, all these interests converged.  

 Drawing on conversations Joe had with his Hospice nurse about his childhood growing up during the Depression, I began to retrace the story of my father’s  life. From the time I got into my car to drive to Joe Carroll’s birthplace in Altoona, Pa., to conversations with cousins I’d never met, interviews with military and aviation historians about his career as an aviator during the war, I realized there was much I didn’t know about the man who’d raised me. Had my father been involved in undercover work for the FBI during World War II, as more than one aviation historian had alluded? Though told that this could never be officially “confirmed or denied,” the very notion significantly shifted my idea of who my father was, and the secret life (or lives) he’d lived. Where before I had judged him for his silent withdrawals, erratic moods, and especially his drinking, I came to understand the link between his addiction and the PTSD endured by veterans of war, and the horrors they have seen, but cannot talk about. 

Learning these things made me feel deeply sad that I hadn’t been more sensitive to the conflicts Joe had wrestled with while he was alive.  “Was I a farmer, or a flier?” he asked me during one particularly long and restless night, near the end of his life. “I’d really like to know.”

 As I learned researching this book, my father’s conflict was not his alone, but reflected a larger American struggle between the heights of outward success and achievement, and the depths of feeling associated with family and nature.  As I wrote, I found myself drawing closer to my father, and, as he came to me in dream after dream, he drew closer to me as well.      

Pythia Peay is known for her writing about psychology, spirituality, and the American psyche.  Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and she is the author of America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. She makes her home in Washington, D.C.

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