I was 3 when he left in 1942 and remember nothing of an early father-son bonding. My only connection was his sepia-tinted photograph on the fireplace mantel in my grandparents' home in Baldwin, where I lived five days a week when my mother went to work in a faraway place called "the City."
I do remember 1944. It must have been summer because the adults were drinking from tall frosted glasses etched with pink flamingoes. The house suddenly exploded with cheers and I was told my father had returned on a "fourlow." Was that a plane with four wings that flew close to the ground, I wondered? My recollection from the living room floor, where I had staged a battle with my tin soldiers, was the appearance of glistening, spit-shined boots, and a towering warrior worthy of Homer.
Strange hands raised me to face stubble. The powerful scent of witch hazel and tobacco assailed my nostrils. I was sandwiched between hugs and kisses, blinded by popping flashbulbs and thoroughly confused and annoyed that my play had been interrupted.
The "fourlow" ended in a crowded, echoing cavern of polished stone on 42nd Street, with thick clouds of smoky air made yellow by the rays of the sun piercing the arched windows in the great hall:
"5:33 arriving from Baltimore at gate 4; 5:55 departing for Chicago at gate 6."
But Artie Armbruster didn't go back to the war, spared by the big bombs that reduced Hiroshima and Nagasaki to toxic ash in August 1945. When he returned, four years of separation and the grisly effects of the war changed my parents the way the cold and wind change the trees when winter comes, leaving them raw and vulnerable, and they divorced.
I saw my father on weekends, summer in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium where he, a Red Sox fan, tried to convince me that Ted Williams was a better ballplayer than Joe DiMaggio, and winter sledding at Alley Pond Park, followed by steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
After my high school graduation and unsure of my future as I awaited the draft call, my father, a wire lather foreman, offered me a job.
"I'll put ya to woik on the gang. It's hard but you'll make a good buck and loin to respect woik and money," he said in the accent of Astoria, where he grew up.
It was and I did, saving enough for my first year of college, which I began following my discharge from active duty.
When I told him I would make English my major, he seemed diffident and embarrassed, telling me he enjoyed the lean, hard stories of Ernest Hemingway and Ring Lardner. He thought F. Scott Fitzgerald a good enough writer but "too softened by that Zelda dame of his."
Time passed, and the gap in our ages seemed insignificant. We realized that father and son were now two guys in the same place commiserating about newly discovered aches, the sorry condition of the economy and the bewildering appeal of heavy metal music. Amazing! Frank Sinatra singing Gershwin was our man.
When the prostate thing got him in 1992, I flew to Houston and rented a car for the 150-mile trek to Corpus Christi, where he had retired. I usually enjoy traveling the road by car, but found this a rather depressing trip through the long stretch of parched, struggling vegetation clinging to abandoned, rust-pocked oil drills.
The sunset was striking but reminded me of the poet T.S. Eliot, and his Prufrock, describing "the evening spread against the sky! like a patient etherized upon a table." To my relief he was sitting up, typically surly and munching a chicken steak sandwich on a potato roll. I offered the usual assurances, prompting a growling, "Scared of nuttin!"
Bravado or not, he was true to his style. He then added an interesting observation:
"Things don't end, they just change."
On my final visit to the hospital before returning to my home in Stony Brook, we resolved the resolvables, not the least being the DiMaggio-Williams issue. With an impish smile he grudgingly acknowledged that he always did believe DiMaggio to be the better all-around ballplayer. And I was moved to confess the truth: Williams was, by far, the best hitter I ever saw.
He passed away the following month. At the end, I think we both felt that the bond, which began so delicate and fragile, had not only endured, but also strengthened over the years. Good fortune gave us time and, finally, love gave us motivation to know each other.
I still go back to the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, accompanied now by my son. And as I sit looking over that improbable patch of manicured green in the Bronx, I smile and permit myself an unctuous slice of sentimentality direct from Hollywood and Kevin Costner: "Hey Dad! ... Ya wanna have a catch?"
Reader Roger Armbruster of Stony Brook is author of the 2013 novel "Three Marias: A Sicilian Story."