Archive for January, 2014



While we were overseas, there was very little to do in life during the evenings. We had our old black & white TV which offered up two channels – in German. There was nothing like watching Hoss from Ponderosa ride up on his horse exclaiming: “Vas is los!”.  And I like how they packed all their commercials at the end, and like sweets, sprinkled a little cartoon between them.

But what really saved us was Armed Forces Radio – and a reel-to-reel tape player that my dad had gotten in Thailand to record missionary spiels on.  In that collection of endlessly boring and droning voices was a tape of Bill Cosby’s earlier shows, the ones he’d done while he was young, and, I guess, touring for the G.I.’s on duty over there.

By this time – the time we’d found the tape – I was suffering from some pretty bad depression.  Shifting from base to base, living on American military bases in a foreign nation; no friends I could count, nobody to know me – or I them, and no time to do it anyway before we’d be separated, yanked apart . . .

I read books, I counted time till “the end” when we would return to Stateside (and I wasn’t the only kid doing this!) – usually bored nearly out of my mind, especially during the winter months when night started earlier – we’d sit and listen to those tapes, their contents unwinding from one reel to another, laughing at Bill Cosby’s outrageous stories of Fat Albert, Suicide Hill, and the Chicken Heart.  How I loved that tape!  It was double sided, and long.  We’d get lost inside those stories, watching the cop’s cuff’s slide off those kids signs, imagining rubber baby wheels gone, and home-built carts with those wheels.

He saved me.

There were times when, despite being 13, I had developed a cynical mind. I’d seen too much already: I knew about sex and gunfire, I had squatted and eaten with the  G.I.’s.  I’d ridden tanks and learned to fire machine guns; I’d learned survival.  I was reading ten to twenty novels a week, and could march 20 kilometers at a time.

I was hurt inside by the loss of my friends, and being stuck in a foreign land.  I had withstood school bomb threats (new to my experience), grown tired of the racism (something I couldn’t understand, but which had recently occurred to me).  My family – a shattered one at best, each individual plodding along as best they could, nobody for someone else.  You were expected to make it on your best bet, your best decision.  Your emotions were up to you, and it was up to you to control them – or at the very least, not express them to anyone . . .

In three years I had gone from an open, happy-go-lucky kind of child (“Gregorius”, my mom had called it) to a silent kid.  I’m sure I appeared sullen some of the time, but it was merely watching, mixed with a growing depression.  I kept on having nightmares all the time – not just the ‘normal’ ones (I had nightmares for 48 years) – but nightmares about what I feared was coming. A returning to something new with everything I had known gone.  The ‘end’ was approaching, our tour was fast running down.  And I knew it.

And I wanted to kill myself before the end.

And I can kinda blame Bill Cosby for reversing that when I’d get desperate,  feeling so bad . . . I’d kinda want to go bury myself in a road and let some tank run over me, take one of those .30 caliber rounds and set it off pointed at my head – do something stupid, something to get rid . . . of me.  End a deepening misery I could not understand nor articulate.  I guess I didn’t know anything was wrong – but felt it.  Hell, I was just a kid.    I suppose Debbie kinda helped me with that, in the end.

But nothing helped like putting that old Bill Cosby tape on and listening, doubling up with laughter again.  Interspersing it with some Armed Forces radio shows (“Suspense”, “The Shadow”, etc) we’d find ourselves coming back to that long reel-to-reel in the end.  It helped settle some of the violence in me that was struggling to come out, easing my on-coming rage issues (both inside and out), helped keep the depression and that tearing sense of loneliness – one that was growing every day – ever since I’d lost my best friend over there even worse . . .

and I had forgotten how to cry anymore.

I had done that when I was 13 – once.

After that it was all kept bottled inside.  For over forty-five years plus.

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It was freezing night, a silver sliver of a moon showing through scattered rents in the racing clouds.  Streetlights threw yellow rays across slushy streets, and stark trees threw spidery silhouettes across the road.  We were walking the deserted streets from dependent’s housing section to the base’s amenities area, my family and I, surrounded by the impersonal military buildings, each with an identifying number, and some by symbols on the signs they wore.  We were on our way to see a movie.

What movie, I can’t recall.  It was on Fleigerhorst, a small military base.  It had it’s own little PX, an old theater, and a cafeteria for enlisted soldiers and people like me: dependents, brought with their father as part of his own army while he served the one we all worked for – in one way or another.  All part of earning a paycheck and doing duty to God, Country, and more . . . a tradition we’d been steeped in since I’d been born.

There wasn’t much to do – no internet, no TV, and only one radio station – but we still found things to do.  I ‘played’ with the G.I.’s, was in Scouts; we met in bunkers, and school dragged on, albeit on a different base.  I commuted on one of those old green shuttle buses, slugging through the crunch snow in the morning, coming back in slush in the afternoon . . . and god forbid you were too late for the last bus. It was a long walk from one base to another, though they had plenty of biking paths.

I had already gotten into trouble once about the theater by going to see “The Yellow Submarine”.  My parents had forbidden it.  They hated the  Beetles, didn’t like rock and roll, and were very conservative.  The only music they listened to was “Mystic Moods” (easy listening) and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Band.  I had gotten beaten for going to the movie but I didn’t care.  I’d been beaten so much it didn’t matter.  I was tough, used to them.  It was just another in a long string of ‘spankings’ – all my life.  It seemed normal.  I was used to having my ass pounded.  The trick was hiding it all.  My sense of self. The things I’d done – and was still doing.  And the crimes I’d committed, whatever they were (or were perceived to be) at the time.

But it didn’t matter.  During the “Yellow Submarine” the theater had caught fire.  It was a matinee so the G.I’s weren’t there – they were at work, which is how I managed to get there without my father knowing.  Us kids were sitting there in the semi-darkness when smoke began to billowing out from the bottom corner of the screen, and there were low red flickers behind it.  Us kids shifted restlessly; we were waiting for the movie.  Then a voice came on the PA saying “Stay in your seats! There is no cause for alarm.  The theater is on fire and we have it under control.”

I wasn’t dumb.  I sat there thinking this is a classic nightmare (I’d read enough books to know) – where the theater actually was on fire! – and here all us kids were just calmly sitting eating our popcorn and watching the smoke pour around the screen while the red glow grew brighter.  No panic, no popcorn throwing – just rows of quiet kids watching the scene.  Only in the Army would you see that.  In the civilian world there’d been a riot, people trampling each other as they raced to the doors . . .

But not us.  We were Army kids. We wanted our seventy-five cents worth.  We wouldn’t run until we saw the flames were higher than us.  But . . . true to their word they got the fire put out, we watched the Beetle movie, smelling acrid smoke.  I was happy, but puzzled.  I could not figure out why this movie was forbidden.  It didn’t make sense – the ban, not the cartoon, though the cartoon made little sense either.  However, I came home smelling of smoke and talking about the fire. Bad news: my parents knew what was showing, so I got my beaten and restricted again.  Another few days in my room. (sighing)

But this time it was an ‘approved’ movie.  The whole family was going.

We trudged through the snow and slush to the theater . . . saw some movie . . . and then when we came out I rushed over to the cafeteria and spent some of my own hard earned money for an ice cream.  Walking out to the sidewalk in front of the cafeteria I encountered my dad.  He stood there staring at me.  Then he walked up and with a scornful look snatched the cone from me and dashed it into the trash.

“If you can’t buy enough for everyone you can’t have one,” he said as I looked with horror at the pristine, brand new ice cream planted upside down in the garbage.

And I broke down and cried.

Because here’s the thing:

I had been taught and trained – it had been enforced and beaten into me over and over again: you don’t waste food. Not ever! – not a single crumb.  It’s an issue still for me, big time.  I have a hard time controlling myself when someone wastes food.  Why?

Well, when dad went to Vietnam, or overseas, or TDY, we’d go from thick to thin in a hurry.  Food was . . . hard to come by.  Hunger was an issue.  Money was thin.  I had to work for every dime I had, hauling trash and such.  Why?  Because he would give all his money away! – to missionaries to look good, and whores when he thought they weren’t looking.  With the former he was trying to feed his ego; with the second his selfish self wants – while we went without and he knew it.  Lord knows my mom knew how to complain (and we got the brunt of it, him not being there).  We were not with him.  We were a thousand miles, if not half a world away and more.

Why should he care? Except in a most superficial, distant way . . . the way he often cared for us when he was home – or not ‘disciplining’ us according to his needs . . .

As a result my mom always – always – fought to make ends meat, and barely succeeded. He would fight about her getting more education, fought about it when she had a job.  He wasted money at every turn of a dime.  It go so bad when he was away that sometimes our neighbors would come just to make sure we had food.

Meanwhile dad ate steaks – sometimes in front of us – and ate good.  He never knew a day of hunger and he kept his sweet tooth fed.  Sometimes he would eat steak while the rest of us had plain boiled hotdogs. No buns. Boiled in thin tomato soup, served up on noodles.

And that night that was cold as a freezing moon I ‘felt’ something ‘in me’ change . . . harden a little bit more.