My late uncle was divorced four times in his life and married five. I honestly don’t know if it was because he liked weddings or because he always fell in love with women with whom, in the end, he was incompatible. My wife once conjectured that he must have felt the need to marry every woman he kissed.
When I was growing up, he lived with my family for a few weeks (or months) after wives one, two and four kicked him out of the house and he was finding a new place to live. I really didn’t know his first and last wives, but as a little boy I certainly enjoyed hanging around with his second: She was a beautiful flight attendant he met while traveling, though this was the mid-1960s and she was clearly more stewardess than flight attendant. She had a little dog she always brought to our house, and even as a boy I had a sense that she wanted the skies to be really, really friendly.
In any case, as I watched the David Letterman debacle unfold this month, I thought of my uncle. (For those of you who have been traveling on Mars, Letterman confessed to having slept with women who worked for his TV show. Why the on-air confession? Another CBS employee allegedly tried to blackmail him to the tune of $2 million.) I thought of all the men and women I know personally who seem to make spectacularly bad decisions when it comes to romance. But here, I think, is an important reality: There is always a lot more going on beneath the surface of most relationships than outsiders realize, and people make choices based on variables that often even they don’t understand.
To wit, my uncle: He was my mother’s older brother, a decorated paratrooper from World War II and a source of unending interest to me when I was a boy. I still have his uniform dress jacket from 1945. He was one of those young people who really earned his membership card as a part of that Greatest Generation: He jumped out of planes before D-Day (June 1944) and Market Garden (September 1944), and walked with a slight limp because of the machine gun bullets he took in the leg while being trucked into Bastogne (December 1944).
But he just couldn’t seem to stay married.
Now, there may or may not have been a connection between whatever he endured in 1944 and 1945 and the fact that he married five times in his life. In the 1950s and 1960s, we rarely talked about the stress and trauma of a returning war veteran. When my family discussed my uncle’s demons, the conversation invariably would circle back to his lack of generosity when it came to soft drinks. My mother used to buy the less expensive supermarket sodas and my uncle would drink only Coca-Cola. And so he bought himself bottles of the stuff when he stayed with us, but he never shared it. Instead, he hid it. When we moved from Miami to a suburb of New York City just before I started 11th grade, we found unopened bottles of Coca-Cola he had squirreled away behind the washing machine, the dryer and a corner of the garage we never visited.
Which brings me back to David Letterman. If I were his spouse — his girlfriend for decades and the mother of his son — I would be saddened and angry and hurt. I would feel humiliated. If I were his friend, I’d probably have pulled him aside and asked, “Dude, what were you thinking?” And the answer is, he probably wasn’t thinking. He was just — never mind.
But I’m glad that much of the country seems to be cutting him some slack. I’m glad as viewers (and voyeurs) we seem to be forgiving him and moving on. Sometimes I thought my uncle’s moral compass spun a little strangely. But I never forgot he was a war hero. And I never stopped loving him.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 18, 2009.)