Uncle Ferris came down from Seattle to live with us in Oakland while he looked for a job. He'd been working for Boeing but had been fired for reasons he glossed over and glamorized in his favor. He'd caught someone stealing tools, he said, but instead of turning the man in. Uncle Ferris, who was a tool shop foreman, beat him up. This was early in 1945. The big war was almost over.

My mother only half-believed the story—the fighting part.

"Even when he was a kid he'd stretch the truth to make himself look good," she said. Then, in a darker tone, she added, "There was a woman involved, you can bet on it, Herbert." She called me Herbert when she wanted me to understand that she was speaking to me as grown-up to grown-up. Otherwise it was Herbie.

I turned eleven that year, the year I learned how babies were conceived, which had been a subject of uninformed argument between me and my friends. But Frankie Sutton's mother was a registered nurse and he had indisputable proof, obtained from …