Remembering Uncle Phil: The Green Beret Who Saved Me With His Heart
Sergeant Major Philip J. Hoffman was a Green Beret, part of the US Army’s special operations force tasked with unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense, among other things.
After the Vietnam War, Special Forces stationed him throughout Europe, mostly in Germany and Austria. We only saw Uncle Phil on rare occasions when he was passing through Los Angeles to visit my mom.
In his uniform, Uncle Phil was an imposing man. When he stood at attention, his barrel chest made the ponderous array of bars and medals on his jacket seem like they would pop off his outer pockets and shower us with bling.
When I was a toddler, I dashed to my mother’s skirt when Phil came through the door. Though his face looked stern, he spoke with a lively, melodic cadence that sing-song soothed my fear of him, and I quickly ventured away from my mother to be by his side.
Phil had divorced his first wife, but often visited Fayetteville, North Carolina to visit the children he had with her. When he was stationed in Austria, he took up with a Viennese woman named Elizabeth that we called “Sissy”. Phil had a daughter with Sissy, but they didn’t marry. Sissy managed to keep the child as a single mother, a request that the Austrian government rarely approved in the 1960s.
Four years later, Sissy gained passage to the US via marriage to a odd, diminutive American man who wore suits two sizes too large. The two settled in San Diego, if you consider settling in to include constant bickering. Within a few months, Sissy’s new husband filed for divorce. At that point, my mother got involved.
My adoptive mother was a great many things, few of them pleasant. Foremost, she was a meddler and a staunch Catholic (in that order). She felt that the Catholic regimen had been violated when Phil didn’t step up to marry Sissy and claim their daughter Claudia as his own. So Mom inserted herself.
My mother dragged me to San Diego, where I spent interminable hours sitting in a courtroom watching the divorce proceedings. I was a nervous ten-year-old, and fidgeted with the metal ring on my finger to combat the boredom. On a few occasions, the ring fell from my finger to the floor with a high-pitched “ping”. Then my ears rang as my mom delivered a cuff to my head for dropping the ring.
After one long day in court, I was left alone with my young cousin Claudia. We sat on the floor of Sissy’s barren San Diego apartment and watched a fuzzy black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. Sissy and my mother had dashed out to get a bucket of chicken, but didn’t return for three hours. I wanted to enjoy the moon walk, but I feared my mother’s wrath if I didn’t remain focused on babysitting Claudia. They eventually returned, smelling like wine and bearing a bucket of cold chicken.
That was my mother in a nutshell: she was either breathing down my neck, screaming every time I played a sour note during piano practice — or abandoning me for hours at a time while her eyes bored through thick mystery novels (5–7 of them per week), or as she gossiped on the phone to her friends. She made sure I understood early on that I was not to approach her if she was holding a book or a telephone handset.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned my father, and that’s because there isn’t much to mention. He was either out working, golfing or napping when he was home. When he was home and awake he rarely spoke, content to let my mom run the show.
After the divorce proceedings, Mom brought Sissy and her daughter Claudia to live with us in suburban Los Angeles. In between gossip phone calls, Mom was talking to her brother, urging him to come visit. Phil relented, and a few days into his stay, I spied him kissing Sissy as I walked by the guest bedroom.
Basking in the afterglow of her matchmaking prowess, my mom softened temporarily while Uncle Phil, Sissy and Claudia stayed with us. I de-tensioned my shoulders and let my guard down for a few glorious days.
Eventually, Phil and Sissy married. Over the years, a few unfortunate things happened: after he retired from the Army, Phil’s health took a downturn. He survived a pair of massive heart attacks that would have killed most people. He also developed emphysema — maybe from smoking, but probably from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Phil moved his family to Las Vegas. The dry climate was good for his lungs, and he found plenty of work as a security guard for the casinos. The next unfortunate thing was that Aunt Sissy got the gambling bug.
I overheard one of my mom’s gossip rants as she told her bridge partner Dottie all the plump details. Phil was recovering from a heart attack. Sissy came to visit him in the hospital, and when he refused to give her more gambling money, she threw his walker at him.
Good matchmaking job, Mom!
When I was 16, Uncle Phil left Sissy and moved in with us for what ended up being a few years. He was considerate and gave us breaks, leaving for months at a time to visit his children and his Army buddies.
Speaking of considerate: the first week he was with us, he bought us an expensive trash compactor as a thank-you gift. He didn’t ask if we wanted one; a delivery man simply dropped it off one day. Uncle Phil excitedly unpacked and assembled it.
As Phil demonstrated the splendors of the trash compactor, my dad took me aside and whispered, “A Phil and his money are soon parted. That man is a slave to his emotions and impulses.”
I was a sensitive, impulsive, emotional kid, so I felt that Dad’s wisecrack about Uncle Phil applied to me, too.
My dad was reserved and stoic. I could count the times I saw him express emotions on half a hand. He never belly laughed. He cried once in my presence, but quickly darted out of the room when the first tear appeared. He rarely got angry, but when he did, he flung his fists in the sky like a savage beast. Then it was my turn to dart out of the room.
Most of the time, Dad was an impenetrable, stone-faced fortress. By age 16, I had given up on trying to connect with my father. I stopped chipping away at Dad’s ramparts and gave him all the space he wanted.
During another gab-fest, I heard my mother on the phone telling Dottie, “Phil was at the altar, receiving holy communion, with tears streaming down his face. He wept like a baby! It was so embarrassing! After Mass, I asked him why he acted so weird. He told me he felt in his heart that God had forgiven him for all the things he did in the Army.”
“Heh heh,” Mom snickered. “My brother can be so silly.”
I didn’t think it was silly at all.
At age 16, my bedroom was my fortress. I didn’t have many friends, so I kept to my room, amusing myself by drawing, reading and listening to music. I kept busy to distract myself from facing how lonely I was.
Uncle Phil began invading my bedroom on a regular basis. He interrogated me with barrages of questions. As much as I craved companionship, I didn’t trust his attention. My shoulders curled inward as he pried. At first, I answered him in monosyllabic grunts, rarely making eye contact. Still, Phil continued his daily sorties. He changed tactics every day, but the method that finally worked was persistence. Luckily for me, Uncle Phil was a master of psy-ops!
When my mom paid attention to me, it was usually to point out one of my shortcomings. At first, I thought Phil was amassing enough data so he could use it to criticize me, just as my mom did. I braced myself, but the criticisms never came.
After months of constant and determined effort, I realized that Uncle Phil was genuinely interested in finding out who I was, what I liked to do, what made me tick — things nobody had ever cared to know before.
I came out of my shell, and gradually let Uncle Phil into my world. When I did, I discovered how much he was suffering.
On more than one night, I was awakened in the middle of the night when heard him in the bathroom next to my bedroom in agony, crying out in pain and repeating the phrase, “Oh, my god in heaven!”
I lightly rapped the door and asked him if he was OK. He emitted a strained “yes, yes” from the other side. I sat on my side of the door, tears streaming down my face, doubled over because I could feel his pangs of discomfort in my own belly.
One evening after dinner, I heard him on the phone with one of his Army buddies, Jim. I gathered that Jim was in a bad way, and might be contemplating suicide. Tears were again streaming down Uncle Phil’s face.
“I want to live, Jimbo! I want to live!” Phil shouted into the phone. “You want to live, too! I know you do!”
One of my prized possessions was a novelty switch plate cover. It featured a sophomoric bas relief of a pervert opening his trench coat to expose himself, and was designed so the on/off switch was situated where the pervert’s protuberance would be.
“David,” Phil asked, “I’d like you to do a favor for a friend of mine you’ve never met. I’d like you to let me have your switch plate cover so I can give it to him. He needs something in his room that makes him laugh every day. I know he’ll get a kick out of it”
I loved that crude little switch plate cover. It was the symbol of a small victory in the war against my prudish, controlling parents. I fought them for weeks until they relented and let me install it. Still, I knew I couldn’t be selfish.
“Is it for Jimbo?” I asked.
“How did you know?” Phil asked.
“Sorry, I overheard your phone call,” I said. “Sure, he can have it.”
My dad was a little friendlier to Phil after that, because he knew Phil was instrumental in making the vulgar switch plate cover disappear. At that time, Uncle Phil needed every kindness he could get, because he was in constant pain.
One Sunday afternoon, Phil dared to use my parent’s bathroom.
“Nobody is allowed to use that bathroom except my Mom and Dad,” I cautioned him.
“I don’t care. Let your mother yell at me afterward. I’m hurting and need a soak, and it’s the only tub in the house.”
As he ventured into the sea of salmon-colored tiles and bathroom fixtures, I went back into my bedroom and picked up my guitar. I had been feverishly working on the Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide”. I couldn’t discern that in the recording, two guitars were playing the parts I was trying to approximate on my one guitar. I labored to play the rhythm and melody together for a good hour, but I couldn’t make my playing sound like the recording. I put down the guitar in frustration.
After Phil finished his bath, he came in my room.
“That was wonderful!” he declared.
“What, the bath?” I asked.
“That and…well, soaking in the tub was great. But I could also hear your guitar through the door. And it calmed me. Your playing was like magic. For a few minutes, all my burdens and pains melted away. I haven’t felt that relaxed in years!”
I was stunned. I barely managed to mutter a faint “You’re welcome.”
It was the first time in my life that I felt artistic and capable. It was definitely the first time that someone told me I had the ability to ease someone else’s pain.
I consider that exchange to be one of the best moments of my life.
Phil eventually moved out, and his health continued its slow decline. Right after I graduated high school, he returned to ask a favor.
“Could David drive me up to Northern California? I’m not strong enough to do it myself.”
“I dunno,” my mom said. “He’s already going to Yosemite Valley to backpack in a few weeks.”
“Sis,” Phil said, “They’re experimenting with a revolutionary new heart procedure up near San Jose. They have to examine me in person to see if I qualify. They scheduled an appointment for 1400 hours, day after tomorrow. My kids are on the other side of the country. And David’s a good driver.”
“What will he do while you’re being tested? He might get into mischief.”
Phil rolled his eyes, then winked at me. “Oh yeah, he’s a real hellraiser.”
He looked back at my mom and said, “Give him a break — he’s a good kid.”
“He’ll drive my car,” Phil continued, “Once I get up there, I’ll put him on a plane and send him right home.”
“How will you get back, Uncle Phil?” I asked.
“I’ll drive,” he said.
“But you’re too weak to drive up there now,” I said.
“I’ll make lots of stops,” Uncle Phil promised. “I’ll take the coast, drive no more than 4 hours a day, and stay in motels near the ocean. It’ll be like a vacation.”
But it wasn’t like a vacation. Uncle Phil didn’t qualify for the experimental procedure. He was so dejected that he drove the 12 hours home in one push. When he got to our house, he staggered out of the car and slumped onto the family room couch. His face looked grey, like a pale waxwork.
“Why didn’t you stop like you said you would?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Uncle Phil wailed. “I didn’t know how to stop. I felt OK until the last hundred miles, and by then I was so close.”
Two weeks later, Uncle Phil was still so weak that when my mom took me to the bus station for my Yosemite trip, Uncle Phil stayed behind.
“I’m sorry, Pal,” he said. “I’m still too shagged out. We’ll have to say our goodbyes here.”
I shook his hand and he wished me happy trails.
Three days later I was in Yosemite, struggling up the steep switchbacks of the Mist Trail, cursing myself for loading my backpack so full. By the second-to-last switchback, I felt light-headed. I looked up at the crest, and swore I saw Uncle Phil in his camouflage fatigues, with a pack on his back. He smiled and winked before he turned and disappeared over the ridge. I chuckled to myself over my silly little daydream.
A few days later, I descended from the high country and returned to Yosemite Village. I telephoned my mom to let her know I was OK.
“I’ve got bad news,” she said, “Right after you left, Phil insisted I put him on a plane to Fayetteville so he could be with his kids. I’m sorry to tell you this while you’re on vacation, but he died a couple days ago.”
“I should come home,” I said.
“Don’t do that,” my mom said. “He’s being buried in Fayetteville, and none of us can afford to fly out.”
“If you come home,” my mom snapped, “You’ll just be sitting on your butt here instead of backpacking.”
“Which would you rather?” she barked.
I knew better than to go home. Mom was in a mood. Instead of grieving, she would be lashing out at everyone near her. So I stayed in Yosemite, where the Spotted Owls’ wails echoed off the granite cliffs and helped me mourn my favorite uncle’s death.
If only my Uncle Phil could have lived longer, I could have asked him the questions that didn’t occur to me when I was younger.
How was it that a grizzled, career military man turned out to be as pudding-sensitive and emotional as I am? How did my empathic uncle tolerate the smoldering heaps of death and destruction he witnessed — probably even perpetrated?
Was his heart hard until health issues softened him enough that he could start listening to his inner feelings?
I’ll never know the answers, because I didn’t know my Uncle while he was on active duty. But I love the man he was (or became), at the end of his life.
Uncle Phil was the first person who didn’t give up on me, the first to tell me I was valuable. He was quick to compliment my talents and abilities.
The only physical inheritance Uncle Phil gave me was his tool box. While I was in a restaurant on a date, someone broke into my pickup truck and stole the tools. My date didn’t understand why I cried for three hours over the break-in.
“My uncle’s tools!” I wailed. But she didn’t understand. And I didn’t understand at the time that I didn’t need that metal box of screwdrivers and ratchets to remember the survival tools that Uncle Phil’s friendship had given me.
In the decades since, I survived many a dark day by remembering the encouragement and attention that Uncle Phil gifted to me.
Happy Memorial Weekend, Uncle Phil. You saved my life, so I will always remember yours.