Do you really know him?



We were having lunch Friday with our sister Ann and cousin Mary, who were on their way to visit another cousin doing family history work in the ancestral haunt of Emmetsburg.

“And you know Dad had a child during World War II in Italy,” Ann declared.

John, 68, had just been discussing getting his regular heart checkup at Mayo, and nearly had the Big One right there over a ham sandwich.

“Oh. I thought you knew.”

Well, thanks, Ann, I just got the bound galley for my new book and it would have been handy to have a clue.

She had been telling about how one of our cousins had a DNA test done and BINGO it hit a match for a long-lost half-brother in Wisconsin. Those stories that were never told.

Like the one about Dad.

He was tall, handsome young man from Whittemore who played football and baseball at Emmetsburg Junior College. He had been offered a scholarship to Drake but the Great Depression got in the way. He ended up part-owner of a men’s clothing store in Algona, drove a Lincoln Zephyr, and was quite the man about town. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps when they bombed Pearl Harbor. Because of his advanced education Pat Cullen was made a captain in charge of a parts depot at an Allied air base in Sicily.

Dad never talked much about the war. I never knew, for example, that after conflict eased in Italy and shifted to Germany he was reassigned to rebuilding churches damaged by war. I suppose he was in charge of getting materials and labor lined up, since that was his job on the air base. He would have been out of harm’s way in a small community on a hill that Ann later visited. He would have had his evenings free.

You could imagine something happening. Books have been written about siring a child amid war — The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, where every day was lived in the moment, sits on Dolores’ bookshelf.

The war ended and Pat Cullen returned to Algona.

He found Eileen Murray Kelly in Bancroft with a toddler son, Tom. Her husband, Omer, had been shot to death in a Chicago bar. Mom never, ever talked about that. Tom never knew until he confronted her in a pre-adolescent rage when suppressed memories of being called Tommy Kelly bubbled forth.

Pat and Eileen married, the perfect young post-war family. They had five more children. I am the youngest.

Dad contracted tuberculosis while in Sicily. Everyone thought he would die. I was two. He was mythic and heroic, the guinea pig in Madison, Wis., for the cure that had been developed in association with his best friend from Whittemore, Dr. Lloyd Roth of the University of Chicago. He lived another 14 years as a paragon of virtue, far as I could tell.

Little did we know that he had made arrangements for a check to be sent to Italy every year until he died, in 1974. Mom knew about it, because she told Ann. I knew about the checks. I thought they were going to an orphanage to which Dad had become attached, or something like that. Brother Tom had heard the same thing. On a phone call Monday, the story started to resurface for him. He said he is good at suppressing memories, like being called Tommy Kelly.

It finally dawned on both of us that Mom would not have been too keen on sending a large check to Italy when there were six mouths to feed in Storm Lake. And, there was always St. Mary’s Church and School if you want to be generous. That is what she would have said, now that we think about it. And there is no question that she ruled that roost and its finances.

But we don’t know if this is true. Ann said so, and insists it is not a fishing tale. It is plausible.

Likewise, Tom (Kelly) Cullen knows about as much about Omer Kelly as was described in the paragraph above.

All the players are dead.

Except, for maybe a sibling in Italy who would be just about Tom’s age, 74. With freckles and red hair, like that Irishman from Iowa?

Ann has been to the community where he restored the church and said she felt like that was the place. I said that if there were a tall woman who laughed and snorted like a donkey she would know it was her older sister.

The fact is that we were reared under a Code of Silence that did not brook discussions of these things.

Oh, well, yes, I may have been previously married but go outside and play and never ask about that again or I will wallop you. And, you know our Dad may have had a relationship in World War II and you could imagine anything you would like about it because there is nothing more to say.

Tom knows next to nothing about his biological father. He played football at Notre Dame and Creighton. He was a brawler and a drinker.

I might not know my father that well. If Ann is right, and I think she is, it is something of a moral weight off my shoulders. He was on a pedestal when he died and stood there ever since. He took the Catholic sexual moral code written by St. Augustine and tightened it up a few ratchets. I could have made a fair argument that the Cullen children were conceived immaculately. Until Ann laid that fact right on the napkin dispenser.

Dad’s sister, who shared ownership of a house in San Francisco with another nurse, could not have been gay. That was a question never asked. We all had a good laugh over that. Ann has a gay daughter, and Cousin Mary a gay son. They were off to meet our gay, married cousin from Oregon who was a tremendous television journalist.

It’s better that we can tell our family stories completely today. I wish I could, but I can only imagine with the knowledge that he tried to do what he could. That is a much more human story. And certainly interesting.