A Novel of Historical Suspense
When I stumbled on my father’s secret, I was a husband, father, and college history professor whose retirement dreams of traveling and grand-parenting were finally within reach. And my name was still Steve Swete.Learning the truth hit me hard.
Learning the truth hit me hard. I grew up with a dad who excelled as a community leader, volunteer fireman, little league coach, and dedicated family man. I listened to his stories about our family’s journey from England to America in the late 1700s and accepted it all: my ethnicity, heritage, and the comfortable life provided for me. I don’t know which is worse: being betrayed by someone you love or losing your identity, particularly at my stage of life.
I had no cause to question my father’s integrity until April 7, 2002, the day which delineates the before from the after of everything I hold near and dear.
I was in my home office preparing a new undergraduate course on Alexander the Great when my wife poked her head through the partially open door.
“Sorry to interrupt the war strategist,” Lorie joked. “Is this a good time to take a break?”
“Sure.” I smiled and reached for the cup of tea she brought me. “I thought you were working on the family genealogy.”
“I’ve reached a dead end,” she said as she settled on the couch. “There seems to be a problem with your father’s birth.”
“Well, Dad is no spring chicken. 1904 was a long time ago.”
“Are you sure we have the correct year?”
“Absolutely. My grandmother wrote it in the family Bible on the day he was born: July 7, 1904.”
“Well, something is not right because I can’t find any trace of him until the 1920 Census.”
As I paused to sip my tea, another idea occurred to me. “Maybe it has something to do with being born on the family farm. When Dad needed an official birth certificate, he had to submit the Bible entry as proof.”
“But there should be evidence of him in church records or at least in the 1910 Census,” Lorie said. “Would you ask him about it when you visit today?”
I quickly checked my watch. Although Dad had become lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, he still seemed to know when to expect a visit from me. It was uncanny. “Thanks for reminding me, Honey. But don’t be disappointed if he has no idea what I’m talking about.”
I grabbed my hair cutting tools and drove the familiar five miles from our home in Sommerville, New York to Woodland Health Center, a facility specifically designed for dementia patients. Although all patient services are provided, I purposely took on the chore of cutting Dad’s hair. It made me feel I was doing something tangible to maintain the identity of the man he used to be.
Nurse Porter, a recent addition to the staff, recognized me immediately and pressed a button on her desk to release the door so I could enter. “Good afternoon, Dr. Swete. It looks like Paul will be getting a haircut.”
“Just a trim. Is he in his room?”
“Last time I saw him he was wandering down corridor B still whistling for his dog.”
We exchanged knowing smiles. My father’s illness often sends its victim back in time. At this point, my father thought he was bird hunting with his favorite Irish setter from fifty years ago.
As I approached Dad, it almost broke my heart to note the slight hesitation before his eyes lit up with recognition. “It’s about time you showed up, Stefan,” he said. “I need some help here. That darn dog will come soon enough when I fill his dinner plate.”
A couple of months ago, Dad acquired the annoying habit of calling me by a variation of my given name. Rather than risk upsetting him, I chose to ignore it. At least he was in the right ballpark.
“Let’s look over here, Dad,” I said as I guided him toward his corridor.
When we reached his room, I said, “Are you ready for a trim?”
All thoughts of the dog instantly vanished. Dad obediently sat down and launched into a story about helping his father stack wood for the winter when he was seven years old. The amount of detail he described from the past was amazing, especially since he couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago.
When there was a lull in his monologue, I said, “I may have mentioned Lorie’s research on the Swete family.” I paused. When there was no response, I resumed clipping around his right ear. “Well, she’s run into some kind of glitch. There is no record of you until the 1920 Census.”
The muscles in my father’s face tightened. He jumped to his feet and the chair went flying. I staggered backward, astonished he could still move so fast. With his mouth twisted in rage, he shouted, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you control your own wife? Did I raise a weakling?”
Dad ripped off the protective cloth and threw it in my face. Specks of white hair flew in all directions. If my instincts hadn’t kicked in, the framed photo he sent in my direction would have caused serious damage.
“Tell her to keep her nose in her own business! I don’t want to see you again until you do! Get out of here and don’t waste any more of my time!”
The noise coming from Dad’s room must have carried down the hall. Within seconds, Nurse Porter arrived with a young orderly. While he corralled my father, Porter pushed me into the hall and waved away the curious residents collecting outside Dad’s room.
“Are you are alright, Dr. Swete? This is so unlike Paul.”
My mind was racing. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“Tell me what happened,” Porter said as she carefully eased the scissors out of my hand. “Were you giving him bad news?”
I wiped the beads of sweat off my forehead and tried to breathe normally again. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “It all happened so fast. I was asking Dad about his birth and then . . .”
Nurse Porter’s back stiffened. “Have you discovered something unusual about Paul’s early background, something he may not want you to know?”
Even in my muddled state, her question seemed entirely inappropriate. I decided to counter with a question of my own. “Why would Dad react like that?”
Her eyes narrowed.
Did Nurse Porter recognize my dodge?
The mask of a concerned health professional continued to slip. Her lips curled in a sneer, and she spit out: “Dr. Swete, refusing to work with me will not help Paul. You know very well all concerned parties must cooperate to support a patient’s emotional stability.”
She turned abruptly and walked briskly down the hall. “I will code you out.”
Apparently, I was being dismissed.
Anger washed over me. My words rushed out too quickly and too loudly. “I want to see my father. I want to make sure he is okay.”
Porter stopped and whirled around. “Absolutely not!” She arched an eyebrow and with an arrogant swish of her uniform she said, “Of course, if you prefer to prolong your father’s distress . . .”
She had me, and we both knew it.
Before the door of the ward closed behind me, I caught a glimpse of Porter at the main desk snatching up the phone and punching in some numbers.
When I reached the car, I sat there in a daze. Should I report Nurse Porter’s bullying tactics or let the entire incident slide? Although her behavior was troubling, it paled in comparison with my father’s extreme reaction to a simple question. Based on his rapidly deteriorating condition, he should have been bewildered, not violent . . . unless it touches on a sensitive subject of enormous importance to him. I slumped in my seat. Maybe Porter’s question was valid. Maybe Dad was hiding something about his birth he doesn’t want anyone to know.
The extent of my naivety continues to haunt me.
After a successful teaching career in several public universities, I joined Hawthorne College in Albany, NY, as Dean of the Graduate School. It took only the first semester of dealing with the stodgy administrative duties of a private college, including securing reliable revenue sources, for me to realize how much I missed the spirited interactions between professor and student. Adding two undergraduate history courses to my duties each year helped keep me sane.
Although a fifty-mile commute from Hawthorne to Sommerville seemed excessive to my colleagues, I used it to neutralize the stress of my heavy schedule. But pressure from the job wasn’t worrying me on the Monday afternoon following the disturbing episode with Dad, it was what I spotted in the rearview mirror.
A black Cadillac Escalade with heavily tinted windows was hanging on my tail long after the normal suburban traffic thinned out, and it was still there when I crossed the bridge into Sommerville an hour later. Since there were no major highways nearby, chances of someone traveling from Albany to the same remote village were slim. Of course, if he was taking a round-about route to Lake Placid . . . I decided to check it out. I took my time filling up the Jeep at Jake’s Garage and grabbing a gallon of milk at the Village-mart. The Escalade pulled off to the side both times. He was watching me and wanted me to know it.
With my tolerance level at zero, I decided to call the guy’s bluff by dropping by Clarence Conover’s office. Besides being a good friend, Clarence also happens to be Sommerville’s Police Chief. After coming right to the point, I waited for his reaction.
“So, you spotted someone following you . . . all the way from Albany.” Clarence’s eyes crinkled and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Could it be an unhappy parent has it in for the mean professor who didn’t give his precious baby a decent grade? I may have to bring a Federal agent in on this one.”
I cringed and said, “Okay, maybe I’m overreacting a little. But I could swear the guy is rubbing my nose in it.”
Clarence casually walked over to his office window and glanced outside. “Tell you what, I’ll send two of my best men over to check on you later.”
“That’s pretty impressive, especially when you have only two deputies.”
We shared a laugh and, since the vehicle wasn’t anywhere in sight, I headed home. As my Jeep grunted up our steep, meandering driveway, I decided Clarence had been more than kind. On that nippy Monday evening, I was more concerned about Lorie waiting supper for me.
Around midnight I surrendered to sleeplessness and, leaving my wife blissfully purring away, shuffled down to the kitchen for some cookies and milk.
There is something soothing about our 1900 Victorian at night, like hot chocolate after a day on the ski slopes. Surrounded by a huge, pillared porch, it sits high on a hill like a faithful sentry overlooking Great Sacandaga Lake in one direction and the village of Sommerville in the other. Lorie and I fell in love with this house the minute we saw it almost thirty years ago and soon transformed it into a snug home for our three sons. Now, we were empty nesters and rattled around in its comfortable rooms with Sporty, our highly spoiled Lhasa Apso.
I finally ended up in my home office crunching cookies and staring at the framed family photographs covering one wall. I reached up to run my finger along my favorite: Dad with his arm casually wrapped around me. I was only a gap-toothed nine-year-old proudly holding up a smallmouth bass, but I can still remember how important Dad made me feel. His approval meant everything.
Comparing the vigorous father in the photo to the shuffling mass of confusion in the Alzheimer’s ward prompted me to admit the real reason for my insomnia, and it wasn’t job-related. I was still hurting from yesterday’s incident at the health center.
After opening my well-worn Bible and spending some time in the Psalms, I decided to give sleep another try. But first, I turned to look out the window: the waning crescent moon reflecting off the lake with the sturdy Adirondacks rising majestically in the background. It was one of those clear nights you can only capture with the camera of your soul.
Suddenly, an unexpected glimpse of light caught my attention. It was odd to see activity coming from the vacant cabin down the road. April is off-season, and most of the summer camps around the lake are still unoccupied. Funny how seeing the strange light prompted thoughts of the black Escalade. Even though the light quickly disappeared, I kept squinting toward the cabin for at least another minute out of curiosity. Finally, having decided it was probably nothing, I hurried back to the comfort of my warm bed.