Thursday, August 13, 2009

Searching for My Father


My father died when I was four months old. He was only 20 (in fact, a week after his 20th birthday). The year was 1977. December. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother told me that he'd died in a car accident. Tragically, my mother's brother died that same year - only three months after my father. It was a banner year for my mother. She'd lost her husband, her brother, her grandmother and her dog, all in the same year. Hopefully, my birth took some of the pain away. Actually, she’s told me several times throughout my life, that had I not been there, she might have killed herself - she was that depressed. So I guess, in a way, I saved her life. In a way, she also saved mine. But I'll get to that later.

In any case, her brother had died in a car wreck three months after my father. As I grew up, she told me they'd died under similar circumstances. Until I turned 15. That summer, I was doing some cleaning and organizing in my mother's basement, when I found a large box full of papers and items about my father. Included in those items was a newspaper article about my father being shot and killed at Scott Air Force base in Belleville, Illinois (where he was stationed). The article suggested he was murdered, and not by a car but by a shotgun. This stunned me for about a half an hour, and then I asked my mother about it. She cried, and we had a lengthy heart to heart. I asked her why she'd told me it was a car accident. “Because a lot of people thought it was suicide”, she answered. This information also surprised me because the newspaper made no mention of it.

I asked her what she thought, and she cried some more and said he'd been very depressed, and that the military was an awful place for him, and she wished he'd never joined, and then, she didn't come out and say it, but it seemed that she believed it was a suicide. That was the last time we discussed it for many years. That same day, I returned to the large box and pulled out a letter, dated one day before the shooting, and the letter was very depressing and sounded much like a suicide note.

Based on my mom's reaction, and based on that note, my 15-year old brain was convinced he had killed himself. Oddly enough, this thought actually helped me get through some difficult times in my life. I have experienced a lot of depression in my life - particularly in my teenage years, and thoughts of suicide would enter my head regularly. So when I discovered this information, I made the decision that I would NEVER take that way out.

It sounds odd, perhaps, but when I saw the pain etched on my mother's face, because of what she believed was my father's suicide, I realized I could never do that. I could never put her through that kind of agony again. No matter how bad things ever became in my life, I realized I could never kill myself - if only because of that look on my mother's face that day we discussed this.

In a way, it was a blessing. Had we not had that discussion, who knows what I may or may not have done to myself? I had really never discussed this with anyone until my mid- to late- twenties. I just carried it around inside. It seemed odd, disrespectful, and frankly, uncomfortable for me to discuss it with anyone. So I kept it hidden. If anyone asked about my father, I calmly stated that he'd died when I was four months old and that I didn't wish to discuss it. If they persisted, I explained that he'd killed himself and it was a sensitive subject. That usually shut them up. Sometimes, depending on the person, I might say, "Well, he died under mysterious circumstances. Some say he killed himself, others say he was murdered. It was never solved."

In my mid-twenties, I wrote a play entitled "Georgie Gets a Facelift" which was a thinly veiled parody of my own suicidal thoughts, plus a bitter take on the manner in which I believed my father had died. The action of the play is very different than the actual events, but in spirit, I was channeling the energy of those events - as I saw them at that time.

About two years ago, a friend of mine was visiting my grandparents (my father's parents) with me, and much to my chagrin, he asked my grandfather directly about how my father had died. I didn't wish to discuss it, but Papa was so convinced that my father had been murdered, that it made me question what I had believed for at least 10 years at that point. He mentioned something about my father investigating illegal drugs, which were apparently prominent at Scott Air Force Base during the 70's. And he insisted that my father was murdered because of that investigation. I had not heard this part of the story, and it seemed intriguing.

However, I was so convinced by my own theories that I assumed my grandfather was just protecting his son's memory - and possibly protecting me, so I didn't believe him. I loved my grandfather, but did not trust his recollection of events.

That was the last I discussed it with anyone until I discovered some files at the Ohio State University about a month ago. While doing a Google search on my great-great uncle Milton Caniff (the famous cartoonist of the 40's and 50's - His comic strips "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" were some of the most popular comics during World War II and after). When Caniff passed away in 1988, his estate was willed to Ohio State University, including almost all of his artwork, and many of his personal letters and artifacts. Milton himself was a celebrity in his day - on par with Charles Schultz and other comic book giants. Unlike Charles Schultz, however, Milton was primarily famous in military circles, due to the nature of his comic strips. In fact, there are photos of Milton shaking hands with every president from Truman to Gerald Ford, smiling and laughing like they were old high-school buddies. He was such a celebrated figure, that a small town in Colorado even changed their name to Steve Canyon (to honor his most famous cartoon character), erected a gigantic statue of Steve Canyon in their town square, and donated a gold mine to Milton Caniff to thank him for his "military service" (which I am incidentally now a proud part-owner of). Ironically, Milton never served in the Armed Forces, due to a disability, but he loved American soldiers so much, he devoted his life to entertaining them, and inspiring them, and depicting them in heroic battle situations.

At Ohio State University, Milton had folders upon folders of letters and correspondences between fans, family, friends, military leaders and more. One particular folder caught my eye. It read:

"Box MAC.P302 / Folder 14 // Guyton, Daniel J.\A1c USAF, [1977] // Materials related to the death of Daniel Guyton including reports and correspondence to and from Milton Caniff regarding the investigation."

I contacted Ohio State and ordered copies to be mailed to me, and unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), they did not arrive before my most recent trip to visit my grandparents. However, when I mentioned the files to my grandfather, he became very engaged, and we talked again about my father (for the first time in many years), and about that time period. He opened up even more about the events that took place that terrible December in 1977. I also spoke with my mother's parents that trip, and was surprised to learn that they, too, believed he was murdered. When I was 15, Mom seemed so sure it was suicide, but now here was my father's father, plus her own mother and father telling me several different stories about why they couldn't believe it. And my mother's father does not mince words. If he doesn't like somebody, he'll say it. But he spoke very highly of my father, and I can't quite remember who said what exactly, but between my two grandfathers and my grandmother, I learned the following details:

During the late 70's, Scott Air Force had a very well-known problem with drug-smuggling. The airmen would do missions in Panama, Columbia, etc, and on the side, bring home large quantities of illegal cocaine, marijuana and more. This was such a big problem, that it was actually in the local newspapers at the time. Supposedly, my father had always wanted to be a policeman, and when he enrolled in the service, he enlisted as an MP (Military Police), in order to eventually become a civilian policeman. Everyone that knew him describes him as being very brave and noble, and according to my mother's father, "he was brave to the point of naiveté." Given his nature, and the chain of events, it is entirely possible that he walked right up to the perpetrators and said "I know what you guys are up to, and if I catch you doing it, I'm going to arrest you." Now, we don't know for sure if he actually said any of this, but those who knew him seem to agree that it would have been within his character to do so. Most people would also agree that it is within the character of many drug smugglers to try and kill the people who are trying to bring them down. There is also an hypothesis that someone tried to bribe him, and he refused, which might also have led to a grudge killing.

In any case, the actual specifics about who was involved in the trade, and how much my father knew, etc, are all up in the air. What almost everyone agrees on, however, is that he wanted to be a good police officer, he was honest to a fault, and he was assigned to this case. He died a few weeks after being assigned to this case. There are a few other specifics that I'll get to in a moment, but these are all details that I've learned only recently.

My grandmother also told me a story I had never heard before - but which has now been verified by several sources. Apparently, my father worked part time for a local pharmacist during his off hours from the base. Keep in mind, this is rural Illinois, during the 70's. The pharmacist said he needed some extra help, and my father said he knew a guy at the base and asked if the pharmacist would like to meet him. The pharmacist said sure, and my father brought in a black man with whom he worked on the base. The pharmacist said, to the man's face, "I'm sorry, but I don't hire ni--ers." My father threatened to quit if he didn’t hire the man, and the pharmacist yelled, "Good, then get outta here, you damn ni--er lover!"

My father's friend took the pharmacist to court, and my father was the key witness. When the pharmacist lost and was fined some exceptional amount of money, he walked past my father in the courthouse, and in front of my mother and several other witnesses, whispered, "I'll get you, you son of a bitch. You just watch your goddamn back." My father died only a few months after this court case.

Now, the fact that he died on the Air Force base tells me it probably wasn't the pharmacist. I doubt he'd have access to the base, let alone support from the airmen on the base - many of whom were African-American, or had African-American roommates and co-workers. But still, the fact that my father had this kind of courage, and the willingness to stick to his convictions tells me he probably was NOT the type to commit suicide.

Ever since I was 15, I had believed my father was a coward who had killed himself when he had a 4-month old son and a young wife at home. At times, I have felt that cowardly in my life, so I didn't judge him, but that's what I believed. And now, after hearing all of these stories about how brave he was, standing up for a man's civil rights, standing up against drug smugglers, etc., I suddenly can't imagine him ever being cowardly enough to kill himself. Suddenly, I feel almost miniscule and ashamed to be his son. Like what do I have to offer to compare myself to him?

So then I returned home from my trip, and the files pretty much corroborated all the other stories I had heard by this point. Plus, I'd learned several other details - my father and mother had plane tickets to fly home in about two weeks to show me off to my grandparents for the first time. The time frame doesn't add up. Why kill yourself only two weeks before introducing your mother to your grandchild for the first time? My grandmother was Irish Catholic, for God's sakes! The moment she met me, my father would have been holier than the Pope in her eyes. It seems odd, time-wise, for him to have killed himself.

On top of that, I also read in the files that my mother didn't believe the so-called suicide note (apparently the same note that I had read when I was 15) was actually his handwriting. In my uncle’s files, my mother is quoted as saying “Daniel never used upper-case F's in his letters, but in this letter, every F is in the upper-case - which could indicate that he was either forced to write this letter, or that someone else had written it for him.”

I also learned that he'd died in the morning, around 9am. Statistically, most suicides occur at night. I also hadn't known that he died inside of his patrol jeep. Up until now, I'd believed that he was alone in his barracks - at night. And I had no idea he was shot in the chest. I always just imagined he had the gun in his mouth. I don't know why, but that's what I imagined.

So here's a man, at nine in the morning, on a military base, when presumably most military men are up and about, marching, going to breakfast, etc. His jeep is parked in a semi-remote part of the base. The butt of the gun is on the floor between his legs. The barrel of the gun is up against his chest, and there is a fatal wound through his chest and out his back. The coroner said he didn't understand how my father could have reached the trigger in that position (his arms were shorter than the barrel). He said it wasn't impossible - just very unlikely. They also found two shotgun shells on the floor of the jeep.

The “shells” information is interesting, because it suggests that someone actually cocked the gun AFTER it was fired, in order to remove the shells. If they hadn't cocked it, the shells would remain inside the barrel. If my father's wound was as instantly fatal as they believe, certainly my father could not have cocked the gun after it was fired. AND, if he did have just a few moments of breath after it was fired, why on earth would he bother to cock the gun after he fired it? It just doesn't make sense.

However, the military did rule it a suicide, due to the note, and my grandparents and uncles and mother fought for almost two years to get them to change this ruling. Not only did this insult their child/brother/husband, but also the military would not give out benefits if it were ruled a suicide. My mother being only 20, with a 4-month old infant, would have had a very difficult time surviving in that position. Most of the letters in my Uncle Milton’s file were written by my grandfather, my grandmother, or my Uncle Kirk (my father's brother), fighting desperately for someone to listen to them. The other letters were written by military personnel, with cold, bureaucratic tones that sent shivers down my spine:

"I thank you for your correspondence. I know it's difficult to lose a loved one, and Daniel's death is painful for all of us here as well. However, due to overwhelming evidence, we have concluded that his death was a suicide, and therefore, no further inquiries will be made. I hope with time that you are able to accept this loss.” Blah blah blah.

It was very frustrating, and I began to get the sense that if my father WAS murdered, that maybe some of the higher-ups were in on it as well, and it was easier for them to cover up my father's death, than it was to expose those who may have been responsible. Otherwise, why such unwillingness to examine the situation further? Their stubbornness is what infuriated me more than anything else.

In the end, my grandparents pleaded with Milton Caniff (who is my grandfather's uncle - my father's great-uncle) to help in any way he could. Because of Milton's powerful connections with the military, the case was eventually re-opened, and his death was declared a murder. In 32 years, the murderer has never been found, tried, or punished, nor was it ever fully laid to rest whether it was indeed a murder, or simply a suicide. To this day, the question is - did Milton have political strings pulled to declare it a murder? After all, the man knew every president from Truman to Ford. Or did he simply present the case in a clear and concise manner that the military hadn't considered before, and that's why it was declared a murder? I'll never know.

In the end, my mother and I received full medical benefits until I turned 21. The case was never pursued further, and it remains officially an unsolved murder. I don't believe any investigation was ever held after it was declared a murder, nor was anything ever solved. So, was my Uncle Milton's involvement just or unjust? I’m very glad for his involvement, but it leaves a burning question: Did we rob the government by receiving benefits for my father’s suicide? Or did we receive proper and just compensation for a murder that occurred in the line of duty? I don't know. I wish I did. But even more so, I wish I could have known my father. In hearing all of these stories and reading all of these letters, I certainly have more respect for him now than I did when I was 15. I wish I could have known him. He sounds like an incredible man... I only hope I can be like him someday.

RIP Daniel J. Guyton, A1c USAF

Essay by Daniel C. Guyton (his son)

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely riveting true story, Daniel - and one that goes a long way to explaining the man you are today.

    I can't see the military changing their assessment because of one man, even one as influential as Milton Caniff. Your story convincingly spells out why suicide was unlikely, but in any event - no you didn't rob the military by getting benefits.

    Thanks for writing this an making it public.

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