Tag Archive: family


Return To The Hood


GermanflagIt was a wet, rainy afternoon at the Frankfort International  Airport. I stood in front of the big wide windows looking at the big jets on the tarmac.  I had lost the required thirty-five pounds (in three months, no less) to get my dog shipped home with me; there was a piece of carry-on luggage, and my family behind me . . .

I was ready to go. I had lost my best friend ever, and was aware that I was going into a great unknown. Sure, my parents had told me we were ‘going home’ – but I just knew everything had changed. It had to . . .

After all, I had changed.  I was heavier – fatter – and I wore glasses now.  I had learned a little something of the world.  I had taken up smoking – a heavier smoker, now, though a pack would still last me a week or two or three . . .

and I’d heard (and met) my old compatriot from the U.S. Army back home – a kid up the street who’s family was Army as well.  They’d come over when we were two years into our tour, and weren’t going to be back home until much later . . .

and things had been in such an uproar when we’d left The Hood before . . . with the death of my best friend (and lover) and his abuser’s (and mine – sexually, that is) dad . . . their family breaking up, poor as dirt mice . . . all that was gone; had to be different, much different . . . but how?

I stared out at a jet, wondering if it was hijacked.  It had been sitting there a long time.  A lot of hijackings were happening about then (it was November, 1973, I am sure of it).  Wondering what lay ahead . . .

I can barely remember my family getting on.  But it was a Lufthansa jet.  Wonderful airline.  I can remember the dinner – filet mignon, chunked roast potatoes, some kind of cheese, and a nice fresh salad – and I gotta beer.  My parents allowed me – almost as a celebration of what we were leaving: Germany, going home, going to the Promised Land where we had been once before, a place where you could drink water out of faucets and there weren’t men peeing publicly (and sometimes the women as well) . . .

I didn’t think about it – and I guess I didn’t know . . . but what lay before me was a tremendous change:

AmericaTown

Going from military schools to civilian ones,
Getting away from the military bases, PX’s, cafeterias, AFEES & more . . .
No more sitting with the G.I.’s outside marching, or singing, while dinner went on . .
No more post theater, library system, reasonable source of transportation, or the rules and regulations that went along with living on a military base overseas during the Cold War – and a military base that dealt in secrets, and secret technology as well . .

Instead I would be arriving in a rural environment, just a few miles from Tobacco Road (of novelist & Southern fame – or infamy).  It was a poor area, poorer than most – even poorer than that of the Tobacco Road crowd – and far from everything – a dirt road last I met it, with a scattering of Craftsman style slab houses (plus a few old farmhouses, mostly falling down) – around it . . .

A place of dirt and poor, ignorance and poorly read, with nary a library – not even a store

Dirtroad

and all my old friends? None of them left?

How was I to know?

I don’t know.

So I ate my meal, my bag stored overhead – and enjoyed it.  It was quite good, and Lufthansa seemed to put on a special flight just for me – until the kid behind me threw up in his seat . . .

and so I had to ride with the smell of vomit in my nose, a decent steak setting in my abdomen, and the silver clouds drifting by below as the moonlight – the moon was riding full and bright – with the occasional dark glimpse of the ocean . . .

and we arrived.

I couldn’t tell you much about that – the brief kiss (custom) – when getting off the gangplank – where you get down on your knees and with much gratitude and love kiss the ground you are thankfully! – finally! – soundly!  on . . . then marching over to Customs to make your “I don’t declare anything” declarations, the open bags; the searching & rifling through, the hand passing you on . . .

gathering your things . . . into the airport, a new beginning, a rental car . . .

and we are going home.

In twenty-four hours my life had changed from what I’d known . . . into something new. Something alien and different again, only in a big way.

And I’d be living here for a very long time . . .

I sighed, shouldering my suitcase across my back, and heading for the taxi cab . . . hoping this ride would be fun . . . and filled with dread . . .

For we were going back to my old neighborhood . . . and would not be living in our old house.

Instead we were renting the house next door.

The house my abuser had lived in.  My friend, my lover and betrayer, and the one who had hurt me so much in the end . . .

Escape


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.


Changes In Behavior:

Living With The Folks Overseas

When I was little, we gotten beaten a lot. I won’t go into everything – the moral crushing words, the ego scathing attacks. Beatings usually consisted of us going into our bedroom – or just one of us – waiting for a half hour or so, which is why I have the phrase “Waiting is painful, too.” I credit those waits for allowing me to prepare myself for what was to come – waiting on those footsteps to approach, the closed door opening, my father coming in. Tapping his belt on the palm of his hand. Gently explaining what we had done wrong. And then the punishment.

My brother says he could hear me scream and scream from his bedroom room with both doors shut and two walls. I don’t know for certain. You reach a certain phase when you are getting beaten where you just sort of blank out. I would sit there waiting . . . waiting . . . fading away inside of myself, hardening; preparing for what was to come. I hated crying; I couldn’t stand it, especially among myself. Or Selves, if that’s the way you want to put it.

Then the old man would have us stand and bend over, grabbing our ankles. Of course our pants would be pulled down – or our shorts – though later I learned (rather quickly I imagine!) to take them off. They just would trip you when you started dancing, and that would be seen as an attempt to escape – falling on the floor – which would be punished even more harshly.

I learned early on to face the bed, too. That first shot would often launch you – and the best launch was onto something with a soft surface. It was best to have all your toys picked up, or at least nudged out of the way so you wouldn’t end up dancing on them, too.

My dad had a favorite question to ask (I think). “Have you learned your lesson yet?” And no matter what the answer was, it was wrong. A yes or no would earn you more of a beating. I think he just asked it to see if you lied or not. Or not, most likely. Maybe. I don’t know.

I do know that I was stupid sometimes. I would not cry. And my dad liked crying children – he loved to hear you scream; see ‘the dance’. Sometimes he would take you by the hand and whirl you around – you are running in circles, the belt or something else pursuing you – going ’round and ’round his towering legs with tears streaming down your face as you ran. Those kinds of things hurt; sometimes the blows kinda went wild. It was unusual to get hit about the hips and shoulders; or on the arms.

We always ate on a regular schedule – the Army one. Breakfast (if not served before leaving for school and whatnot) was served at eight. Lunch at twelve. Supper (or dinner, if you prefer) at five-thirty pm. Meals were usually fairly simple, and at school I ate with the lunch crowd – getting my tray and food from the school. Later on I would start brown-bagging it, but this was early on. And days were fairly quite easy.

The morning would begin in the ‘hood – I get up, get dressed (usually just a pair of shorts and underwear) and go out into the kitchen. There my mom would often be cooking breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon, milk – orange juice or some other kind of juice if she would afford them – the frozen kind; made from concentrate). Then if not to school, then outside. We’d spend the entire day outside from morning to noon – and then we’d hear that big old triangle ring, and we’d come home for some bologna sandwiches, peanut butter & jellies – something like that – and milk to drink. I remember we used to get milk in those long cartons the PX sold – dark green with white lettering, and a heavy wax coating on them. They were very valuable to me, those cartons! With them I could make boats and toys to play with, either in the tub or out of it. Those heavy waxed cartons would last a long while – several floatings in the tub – until after about a week later the edges would get soft and fuzzy and we’d have to throw them away. Many a G.I. Joe took a ride in those boats – all naked (just like me) in the tub, swimming his way to freedom when the boat sunk.

But things changed when we got overseas. It was like the physical abuse suddenly just stopped. I seem to recall my mom telling us: “You’re too old for anymore whippings. From now on we’re gonna be punishing you different. With restriction and such. Taking away your privileges.” I wish it had been like that. The truth is – they still continued to beat us from time to time – with as much frenzy and hatred as before – and they would impose these new rules on us. But overall the beatings diminished. LOL, I guess the moral of the crew improved or something. But the fact is: we were getting beaten with a lot less frequency than before, when we were young children.

However, the restrictions started to get a lot longer and more frequent. That’s not to say we made bad grades – we didn’t. We generally managed to keep it between a C and an A. However, those few times we made an F or a D were bad. (I made my first F in 5th grade, failing math because I had gotten caught up and lost in the system. Somewhere between North Carolina and the ‘hood decimals got lost. Or rather, the ability to change them from one thing to another (say fractions or percents) got skipped over. I can only assume that in North Carolina the military school was behind while in Georgia the civilian school (I am talking about Windsor Springs Elementary here) was ahead. As a result there was a gap in my education that the teach failed to detect – or correct – or she just didn’t have enough time to do it. Promising students weren’t granted any special considerations and favors back then; not like today with their “Magnet Schools” and schools for accelerated children. So I was just left to thrash along on my own – without any success at the thing. My father’s explanations were confusing, and my moms? She always sent me to my dad.

A ‘D’ or an ‘F’ would mean restriction to your room. How long depended on ‘you’. However, while we were overseas there was so much to do – my parents were constantly touring and we were moving around – that restrictions were usually of a shorter duration – may a few weeks or more, but sometimes just a couple of days (depending upon our behavior during the restriction time). Asking to be ‘let off’ or ‘get out’ would buy you a week or more, so you had to be careful about asking. You had to catch them in a good mood. And even then you’d better come bearing some proof you were doing better – a string of A’s, I presume. I rarely got off restriction early, however. Often we would come back from some ‘vacation’ touring over there only to find I was still on restriction, still confined to my room.

The belt fell out of favor except for with my dad – my mom preferred a wooden spoon. She had a wide bladed one with a thick handle that she used to beat us with – and you stood, just stood there taking it. Fighting back, it was understood, was forbidden. My brother tried ONE time. After that he never tried again. Reaching behind him he grabbed the belt from her hand – and when she got the gun he realized: that was the wrong thing to do. So she beat him with the belt in one hand, gun in the other until he was singing his tune and dancing, too. I think he was about fifteen, sixteen years old at the time. He never challenged her again.

As for me? Always the stoic person, I might have complained from time to time – did my crying when I’d get beaten – but I just sort of lumped it up; ‘forgot’ about it – rubbed my ass and went on. I had learned crying did no good. Indeed, depending on who was beating you, it could actually be bad. My dad would give up beating on you once he’d gotten his thrill. My mom, on the other hand, would be encouraged by your crying and whining to beat you some more – for crying and whining! – and then you would be sent to your room to finish it off. My dad? It always started in the room to begin with, so we left it there. (The pain & anguish I assume. “We” left ‘something’ – or someone – there to ‘take it’, deal with it, be done with it, et all.)

I assume that’s where my ‘high pain tolerance’ came from – all those beatings and all that waiting. Because that waiting gets you ready for the pain. You learn to control it – how to ‘turn it one’ (that pain tolerance), and ‘turn it off’. There’s a difference in sensation when I – and ‘we’ – do that. It’s like someone else is sucking up the pain for us. Little Mikie, I assume – since he was one of the ones built to do that. As a result ‘he’ has a lot of pain built up on the inside. On the other hand – ‘he’ is one of the sweetest human child(ren) I’ve ever met. There’s a little bit of artificiality to him there, too – which is what led me to suspect ‘he’ was a creation of Little Michael, the ‘real’ boy inside – the one who made all the decisions about who was to ‘come out’ at what time; who was to ‘do’ what, when and how – a whole lot of other things.

Anyway . . . just another story about how things ‘changed’ when we went overseas. How the discipline changed. I don’t know if that’s because we had new neighbors all around, or they were afraid of thin doors (what the neighbors may hear). I don’t know for certain it was our age at all. I certainly suspect it had more to do with other people being around – living so close to them, jowl to jowl, cheek to cheek so to speak – that they didn’t want anybody staring at them when they went to the commissary or PX, or simply stepped out the door. Noise levels were to be kept down in the apartments – in the houses it didn’t matter. So I reckon I’ll never know. Perhaps it was a combination – the parents realizing their children had gotten a little old for their ‘beatings’ – coupled with the instinctive knowledge they may be heard.

After all, you don’t want your neighbors to know you’ve been beating your kid. None of them.

(shhhh!!!)

Secrets have been told.

(big smile).

You’re in the Army Now


You’re in the Army Now

One of the things you’ve got to understand is that for military families, the military is GOD. The Commanders and Officers will tell you that: you obey military commands first, then you can consider what God wants later. And of the two, you’d better put the military first. God comes second. You come a distant third, and if you are a military dependent, perhaps fourth or fifth.

In some ways this story is a precursor for understanding the second “set” of stories; stories about our lives on the military bases overseas. My life can be defined as a series of sharply defined periods, separated by sharply delineated lines. There was the period “before” the hood, from age one through five. There was the period “in” the hood, from five to eleven. Then there is the period “after the hood”, from age eleven to fourteen. There are other sharply defined periods as well, but they are for later stories. In this “series” of stories, we are entering the third period: the time when I went to Germany. Whereas before we had almost always lived in the “civilian” world – in civilian neighborhoods surrounded by civilian friends – a new factor was to enter our lives: the all-powerful hand of military command, military protocol, and military rules. No longer did our parents come first, though they would relay our new god’s commands; our parents came second. We could see that in our parent’s behaviors – the meek subservience of my mother to this “greater god” (her, who had never bowed to anyone); my father’s sternness about us “behaving in a proper military manner”, and obeying every military command, and our own helplessness regarding our fates, our lives. We were in the Army now, and there was no escaping it.

 

When you live on a military base, no matter who or what you are, you are expected to follow military protocol. There are announcements (both formal and informal) which may take place at school (if you go to a military ran school, such as we did overseas) – or by your father, or your mother (having been told what to say by the father, who in turn is told what to say by his commanding officer, “the CO”) – or simply posted on one of the innumerable bulletin boards. They may range from mild reminders (“Residents will their lawns manicured and litter free”) to more serious issues (“Children will NOT throw rocks at aircraft”) to ones that leave you scratching your head in bemused befuddlement (“Residents may hang pictures without attachment.”) Regardless of the regulation, you obey.

Obedience comes in many forms, whether it be standing up in the theater and putting your hand over your heart at the beginning of the movie, when they would play the national anthem, to pulling over your car (or bike) and getting out, stand at attention facing the base’s major flagpole and standing at attention when taps are played (promptly at five o’clock). Failure to do so can result in more than disapproval by your fellow slaves; it can result in demotion (if you are military personnel) or persecution of the person responsible for your care (and thus your behavior). I have been with civilians on an Army base when taps are played – they are amazed: everyone stops what they are doing, and everyone faces a central point – even if you can’t see it from where you are standing – and stands at attention. The Mecca of their attention, that single flagpole set somewhere – is rendered proper respect while the flag goes down.

Obedience comes in several other ways, some almost too subtle to be seen, the unwritten rules governing everyone’s behavior. No one cuts in line – unless it is the officer’s wife, and then only in an emergency. (They are given priority, anyway.) In some of the military branches (eg. The Marine Corps), the enlisted (lower ranks) eat first; the upper ranks come last (part of “looking after your men”.) The MP’s (military police) are the arm of god; they are given obedience at the least, respect if you are wise. They are the ones who can “take you in” – and pity the military dependent who gets taken in. While they will be treated with respect, their “sponsor” will bear the full brunt of their punishment – and it is not uncommon for that “sponsor” (the military member) to take home that punishment and deal it out among the offending dependents thrice-fold. Thus if you are a military dependent who is intent on breaking the rules, it behooves you to take the utmost care. Some behaviors can get you “ejected” from the base – or if overseas, from the country you are in. Not that the country cares; they won’t even know (the military keeps it’s embarrassment and secrets to itself). But you will, for if your sponsor is ejected with you, you can count yourself fortunate. It is not uncommon for the dependents to be ejected, finding them homeless and without care here in the United States while their military member continues to serve their tour of duty elsewhere. It’s can be hard life, and the military used to be harsh that way. I do not know if such practices still exist today.

“Rank has it’s privileges” goes the old saying, and as a dependent, you find that you, too are ranked according to your “sponsor’s” rank. Officers and enlisted do not mix. High ranking enlisted may mix with lower ranking enlisted, but only to a limited degree. The Commanding Officer doesn’t mix at all. As an enlisted man’s dependent’s we found ourselves giving preference to the dependent’s of officers. The officers had separate housing on the military bases – real houses instead of the apartments us “lower class” or lower ranking dependents had. In Germany the officers inhabited the houses of their former enemies; us dependent’s lived in our former enemies enlisted housing. It was almost as if there was an invisible line drawn across the base: they had “theirs” and we had “ours”. Theirs was almost invariably better – to be envied by us enlisted brats. And the separation showed everywhere – from school, where officer’s kids were isolated, almost shunned by us “enlisted brats” – to the commissary, where the enlisted mens’ wives would silently steer their buggies in wide circles around the higher ranking officer’s wives. It showed in the clubs and recreation areas: you had the stiffly opulent “Officers Club” – and the more relaxed atmosphere of the “E-club”. In the Youth Activities center the officers’ kids were often at one end – and us “enlisted” kids at the other. As a result most kids kept the identities of their father’s rank secret. But for the Commanding Officer’s kids: there was no way for them to hide their identity. Because a word from them to their father could result in further investigation, no matter what the crime or slight, real or imagined – they were shunned. We rarely mixed with the officers’ kids, if only for that reason. Anything we did or said could impact our father’s career – and thus it was better to err on the side of safety, and just stay away from them.

This is not to say the military is unfair. The military seemed extraordinarily fair. As far as I could tell throughout my entire twenty-four years of military association (twenty-eight, if you count my contract experience) – they didn’t care what color you were, what religion you practiced, or what your rank or status was – as long as you obeyed the rules. Break the rules and you would be punished. It was that simple. Obey the rules and you would be rewarded through advancement (and thereby pay and privilege). And the same went for dependents. Obey the rules and your sponsor would be rewarded. Disobey the rules – and the sins of the dependents would fall upon the sponsor’s head. Thus the inversion of the old saw: the sins of the father will be laid upon their children – for in the military that saying was reversed. The sins of the children would fall upon their father’s head. And woe to the child who did that.

For that was one thing odd and strange. On a military base it didn’t matter if you were three or thirteen, two or twenty: you were expected to obey the rules. The Army seemed blind to age and children. They seemed blind to a lot of things, such as expecting that six year old or eight year old – or fifteen year old – to obey with the same blind obedience that they expected everyone to obey with. The thing is: kids will be kids. They will get into things – and sometimes things they aren’t supposed to get into. Kids are enormously inquisitive; if there is a hole, they will crawl into it; a fence, and they will scale it. And we were a lot like that, getting into things and places we never should of belonged, and doing things that quite frankly should of gotten someone killed.

Another thing about being a dependent – and it’s something you’ve got to realize right away. You are a second class citizen. The soldiers come first, you come second (or third or fourth or wherever the military decides you belong). It is evident in military care: in the hospitals there were signs stating that dependents would be treated ONLY after all the G.I.’s had received their care. It is evident in their rules: the rules go to the G.I.’s – and then the G.I.’s are expected to make sure their dependents follow them. If there is a convoy – you give way. If there are soldiers marching – you step aside. And if there is an alert – the military rounds up the troops, and the dependents are expected to make their own way to safety, minus the comfort and protection of the one who is supposed to be comforting and protecting them. It is evident in everything the military does: the soldiers always come first, the dependents come second. And before you go condemning the military for that, think hard and fast – for who has the military hired? You, the dependent? Or the military person who has accompanied you? And if the enemy is invading, which is more important: that soldier separating himself (or herself) from her duty to aid his or her family – or standing and fighting while the dependents get away? There is a weird and bizarre logic behind the military’s doings – and while I sometimes saw some sad results of that logic, rarely could I argue with the military’s mind. Not that it would of mattered: the military is like a machine, governed by procedure and regulation – and nothing short of God moving heaven and earth can change it.

It was into such a world that my brother, thirteen, and I, eleven, suddenly found ourselves in. Gone were the carefree days of doing as we wished outside: now we had a invisible head watching us, a stern and unyielding hand to guide us. No longer could we be friends with anyone we liked, nor could we speak bad of anyone who disliked us – and whose fathers exceeded ours in rank. Never before had our father’s rank in the military mattered to us, nor our own behavior in terms of how it might affect him. Neither had our father ever had to consider how we might impact his career. But now – thrown together on military bases overseas – it all seemed to matter – from how we held ourselves in the theater, to whom we greeted on the street or in the PX – and how we greeted them. Unconscious actions could have extreme consequences – a perceived slight could echo up the food chain – and then back down again, ultimately falling on your own head. It was strange, and yet oddly predictable – just as the military is. You always knew where you stood in station, life, and priorities (which for us enlisted dependents was pretty low) – and slowly it would dawn on you.

Piece and parcel, body and soul: You were in the Army now.

Stranger In A Strange Land


Stranger In A Strange Land
(with apologies to Robert Heinlein)

Imagine going to sleep one night and waking the next day to find yourself in a place where you cannot understand what the people are saying. None of the signs make sense – even the street signs are totally different. Houses are different. Cars are different – strangely small, oddly built. The landscape is different. Even the air has a different feel, a different taste to it.

You cannot call home. There is no internet. Mail takes six weeks to cross the ocean, then six more weeks to get a reply – if you get a reply at all. You go into a restaurant but since you cannot read the menu, you do not know what to order. You know the water isn’t fit to drink. Going into a grocery store, you find yourself looking at the pictures on the labels, not the words on the can. There is only one TV station, but you cannot understand a word they are saying. The only radio station you can understand is run by a huge military propaganda organization, but since you cannot understand anything on the other ones, it’s the one you listen to. They play old radio plays from back before TV was born. The National anthem comes on daily – twice, three times a day, if not more.

The cities and towns are kept clean – neat as a pin. The buildings are mostly old, masonry and massive timbers. Most of the roads in the towns aren’t paved – they’re cobblestoned and narrow. You get scolded in a foreign language if you try to cross in the middle. People you meet might greet you in the passing, but all they say is gibberish to you. You try to reply, your tongue stuttering – but what’s the use? They probably won’t understand you any better than you understand them, so you simply nod your head numbly, and continue walking by.

You have no car, no method of transportation besides your own two feet. There are buses, but you can’t read their destinations. You don’t want to get lost in this land. You may never find your way back. A taxi is safest, but you can’t tell the driver where you want to go – and you can’t understand the value of their money – if you have any money at all.

Watching the TV you see pictures from your home land. All you see are riots and angry crowds. You hear words – the “F” words, the “S” words – ones that they would bleep out if you were home. You wondering what is happening, but you can never know. All they show you are the bad pictures, the nasty things while a voice calmly comments in a foreign language. You haven’t a clue. Is this home?, you wonder, touching the smooth glass of the TV set. Is this what’s happening there? There are no commercials – those all come at the end, smoothly packed into a lump. Your memories seem no more real than the ghostly images you see flickering there.

There is a newspaper you can buy. It’s called the “Stars and Stripes”. It’s a military publication. They don’t mention the troubles at home, the ones you saw on TV. The radio station? “Armed Forces Radio”. A biased opinion if I ever heard one. But it’s the only opinion you’re allowed. Followed by those endless almost black and white radio plays from times gone past. Music is censored as heavily as the hand which censors the news. What is really going on back home? Is it as bad as you see on TV? Is that the home you came from? In time you start to wonder, and wonder what is real.

I woke, tired and groggy. Jet lag had encompassed my eleven year old mind, and the top bunk of the military supplied “hostess house” was crammed with crumpled blankets.

“Get up, Mike,” my father said, rousting me with a jabbing hand. “You’re never going to get over your jet lag if you keep on sleeping. Now get UP.” The last words were said more forcefully as he roughly shoved me and grabbed my leg, dragging me from the bed. I almost fell to the floor, and painfully caught myself, still groggy with sleep and fatigue.

“Stay up.” His command was firm and direct. “You can’t sleep through the next four years.”

Four years. The thought went through my head. Four years of THIS. I felt miserable. We had hustled and bustled through airports, buses, and cabs to come to this place – and seeing my small suitcase sitting on the floor, I knew we weren’t done. My head hurt.

Welcome to Germany.

I had been born here – so my parents told me, and I had a German birth certificate to prove it, courtesy of a birth gone awry – the wrong time and place. Had I been born in an American hospital, I would have been able to go on to be President or some other sort of nonsense – but as my first grade teacher had been fond of pointing out: “Anyone can be president – except YOU, you little Nazi.” And she would point directly at me.

My first language had been German – that’s something else my parents told me. Raised by a German nanny for the first year of my life, my first word had been “Nine!” (No.) I guess that was sort of a protest against the life I had been shoved into. No, I don’t want that; no I will not do this; no, give me no part of it. But in the end I had no choice. Children rarely do.

We’d left Germany that first time when I was one, so I don’t even remember it. And here I had returned at the age of eleven. Yanked from my childhood home with barely a month’s notice; leaving a devastated ‘hood behind. My thoughts often went to my best friend, his family set adrift in a world with no father, no way of producing an income. What would happen to them? There was no way of knowing; no way to call and find out. Telephone calls were forbidden, and mail took an eternity to get there. All my friends – my life as I had known it – was suddenly lost to me. And there was no going back. Not for a long, long time.

Telephone. They had one line (it seemed) for all the military to use to call back home. “Stateside” they called it. And the line, appropriately enough, was called “MARS”. It was appropriate because it seemed that making a call on it took about as much effort as it would to call the planet Mars on a phone line. First you had to make an appointment. Then you had to wait – weeks sometimes. Then – if the military wasn’t using the line – you could make your phone call. But only for a few moments; a minute or two – for there was always someone else standing in line, anxious to make their call. Thus you didn’t call home. Not unless you really needed to. And by then it was usually too late. Needless to say I don’t remember us making a call for the first two years or so.

Cut off. That’s a good way of putting it. Cut off from everything you ever knew, and thrust into an entirely different situation. Not so different you cannot survive – but different enough to remind you: this is not home. Not by a long shot.

Anyone who has traveled overseas, in a country where they cannot speak the language will find much of this familiar. Not so much today: internet and phone communication is so much better. But prior to the mid-eighties or so – or in this case, 1970 – it was a different world. And for a dirt poor Southern boy, age eleven, who had been raised mostly in an equally dirt poor, rural neighborhood – it was a massive transition.

I was too overwhelmed at first to think much about the ‘hood I’d left behind. That would come later. At first we were moved around – a LOT. Due to the nature of my Army dad’s specialty, we were bounced from base to base. Sometimes we would stay just a month or two – sometimes a bit longer. I remember we moved about five times that first year. Trying to keep up in school was a lost cause: they were either way ahead of me, or way behind. My grades suffered, but my parents were to busy with the sudden transitions to care – or if they cared, to help me. There were times I would get a homework assignment in one school – and find myself completing it in the next. A flash of towns and cities and scenes races through my mind; those first few years were so confusing. It’s hard to make sense of it all. To this day I cannot put it all together in a logical order; talking to my mom, I find she cannot, either. We were bounced from towns ranging in names such as Crailsheim, Baden-Baden, Dinkelsbühl, Garmisch, and Wiesbaden. Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe, Darmstadt. The towns were old and beautiful, even if the places we sometimes lived were not. Gone was the sweltering heat and humidity I had grown up with, the rolling green hills studded with pine. Instead there were the Alps, mountains, and endless small towns nestled in their valleys. Gone was the warm weather to be replaced by snow – snow so deep it came up to my neck sometimes; sometimes even deeper. I luxuriated in some of the changes: snow was one of them. The food, I found, was wonderful – as long as you ordered the right thing. Sometimes in my ignorance, I did not.

One of the first words I ever learned was “Entschuldigen Sie” (ent-SHOOL-de-gen zee). It means, quite simply “excuse me”. It seemed I was always having to excuse myself – for not knowing German ways, the German language, my own way around. For help figuring out a menu, a sign, where I was, and where I was going. “Entshooldegenzee, bitte”, I would plead (excuse me, please). Excuse me for being here, in your country. Excuse me for needing help. Excuse me for simply being, taking a part of your time.

The Germans are a very particular people; that is, they are very particular about how things should be done. There is a right way (their way) – and every other way is the wrong way. They keep things extremely clean and organized. They often view Americans as you would a slightly crazy, disorganized and immature child. They can’t believe they lost “the war” to us. How could they possibly lose a war to such poorly organized, immature, illogical, crazy people? But they did, and sometimes I think they were ashamed of it. We would watch them coming out of their houses like clockwork on Saturday and Sunday mornings – each wife with a broom in hand, sweeping her particular section of sidewalk, tidying her particular section of street. No one told them to do that: they just did it as a matter of course. It was as if some invisible clock dictated their lives, and it was unmovable, unchangeable. The rules say “do this” – so you do this. The rules say “do that” – so you do that. Perhaps that was part of their downfall. Even their children are born into this clockwork: they play in an orderly fashion, each one taking his turn. There is no pushing and shoving, no giggling and turning around in line.

It was a confusing place to me.

This is just to give you a hint of what I found myself dropped into, pulled from those sandy hills in Georgia into . . . this world. Away from all my friends and all I’d known . . . into this. Was it wonderful? Yes. But . . . I cannot put it into words, not as an eleven year old, nor as the adult I am today. The sensation of wonder and confusion; of isolation and confusion; of change . . . and more change.

It was both a terrible and a strange time, full of wonders and curiosities.

I was truly a stranger in a strange land, and beginning to enter that strange part of childhood, when one is no longer quite a child – but not a teenager, too. An influential time; a time of change, both inside and out.

I had become not only a stranger in a strange land, but a stranger unto myself.


The Last Days of the Hood

My last days as a child in the ‘hood were a time of chaotic confusion laced with grief, horror, and sorrow, and tremendous changes which would sweep me and my family into a strange land of isolation and filled with new experiences which would profoundly affect my life for the next four years – and beyond. Some of the changes were to be in God’s hands – or fate, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. One change I saw coming, but could not control. I suppose I could have controlled my response to those other changes, and in doing so have made wiser choices, but I was young, having just turned eleven. I did not know – could not know – the effects of my choices. In some respects I wonder if I really had a choice in my reactions; or perhaps my reactions were the only reactions a child could have. Looking back, I can see where I went wrong in some cases, but in other respects I realize: wrong or right, how I responded to those changes was to determine who I am today.

The changes started with an announcement by my mom late in the fall – mid-October, to be precise. It was simple and direct, as most of her announcements were. She was never one to beat around the bush, or break things to us boys gently. She just sat us down at the table and stated things as they were.

“You’re dad got orders. We’re leaving in thirty days. We’re going to Germany for four years. I’m going to need you boys help to get ready . . .”

We had just returned from North Carolina the year before, so the idea of moving wasn’t alien. After asking my mom some questions about Germany (yes, Michael, it snows there; you were born there) – I was a bit enthused about the idea. Moving was exciting, though we had only moved twice in the past five or so years – up to North Carolina and then back. The moves of the past – before we’d arrived at the ‘hood – were forgotten memories. For me the ‘hood was my childhood, my home – and while deep down I felt a dark foreshadowing of the loneliness and grief I would feel at leaving my friends and the neighborhood where I had spent so much of my childhood, the prospect of seeing snow (so rare in Georgia!) was foremost in my mind. Little did I know. And four years. How can a child conceive of four years? I figured it would be just like before: go away, come back, and it would be as if nothing had ever happened, nothing ever changed. As far as I was concerned, it would simply be another jaunt to someplace else; nothing major. Boy, was I wrong!

I remember standing in the sand alongside the road, talking to my best friend, the boy next door, telling him we were going to Germany.

“It snows this deep!” I exclaimed, holding my hand half-way up to my shins. (Little did I know: it got much deeper than that, going over my head in drifts sometimes.)

“No!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “It never gets that deep!” Him,being born and raised in the south, and knowing no other place in than the ‘hood, could not conceive of snow deeper than our ankles. We argued about it for awhile, and then put our argument aside – still unresolved – and went off to play. If I’d only known what was going to happen next, I would of hugged him tightly – maybe even kissed him on the cheek – and done the same for the rest of his family. Because what happened next – what happened next is what shook our end of the ‘hood to it’s foundations.

It happened just a few nights, maybe a week before Halloween, late in the evening. Before I go on, let me explain a few things.

Next door, where the teenager lived (if you’ve read some of my stories, you know more about him than you’d probably like to know) – was the poorest family in the ‘hood. Make do and do without – that was their name, their lifestyle. The father, a hard working construction worker, was a huge, rotund man – strong as an ox from lifting brick and masonry all day, he always had a huge smile for us kids, and would lift four of us up at one time on his thick, brawny brown arms. He was quick to laugh – a huge laugh, as big as the man himself. We will call him “Mr. C.” His “help” was a man he’d rescued from a ditch years and years before – an Army retiree who’d been mugged and left for dead. That man – old and stinky with his cigars, would sit in an ancient lazy chair on the porch while us kids wheeled around him, begging for abuse by taunting him. We will call him “Mr. S.” I remember my best friend “loaded” one of his cigars one day; the look of amazement on his face when it exploded – his bushy eyebrows arching up towards his balding pate, and his thick fingers clamping down on the shredded remains as he peered over his glasses at us kids, looking for the guilty one – remains with me to this day. We all kept our distance from this man – if you got too close, he would catch you in a head lock and thump you on the noggin’ with his thumb, leaving a knot on your head. And the wife of the construction worker – another ‘second’ mom to me – meek and mild; hard working yet never complaining, running herd on a passel of rough and tumble kids. Even when she was scolding she was soft spoken, and the words were spoken with love. So much unlike my mom, whose words were often harsh and loud, and full of spiteful hate and vengefulness. It was to these folks that disaster was to fall – and disaster of the worst kind.

It was night, and we were getting our last drinks of water before going to bed when my mom came in through the kitchen door. She was pale and shaken, and we could tell right away something was wrong – bad wrong.

“Mr. C. (the construction worker) has been in a wreck,” she said. I guess she told us kids because – well, because they lived right next door, and I guess she needed someone to talk to. “Mr. S. (the old cigar smoking fellow) – is dead. The teenager got hurt, too. He was driving . . .”

And so the story came out – how they were coming home that evening from a job in Mr. C’s old pickup truck, the teenager driving (he was old enough) and Mr. S. riding in back with the shovels and equipment. Apparently the truck hit something or someone hit them, and a wheelbarrow hit Mr. S., breaking his neck and killing him instantly. Mr. C. had a hole in his leg – “big enough to put your fist through”, according to my mom. He had been rushed to a hospital. The teenager was “fine”, but pretty badly bumped and bruised. This had all happened a long way from our home and theirs – a long night’s drive away – and Mr. C. was in a small hick town hospital.

“I’m going to leave you two boys here,” she said. “Mrs. C. needs me.” Shaken, my brother and I could only nod our heads and agree. Mr. S. dead? Mr. S. dead?? That thought rocked my socks off. I had only played with him (or around him) the day before. And I liked the old man. While he didn’t put up with any of us kid’s nonsense, you knew – just knew – he was fond of us all the same. And that fondness was returned – in our own way. Just as he would thump our heads for ‘bothering’ him (and then let us go) – you could tell that if you didn’t ‘bother’ him, he would get sad. Mr. C’s being injured didn’t bother me as much at the time – I had been hurt before, and was convinced that the doctors could fix anything. And my friend, the teenager – well, I’d started having mixed feelings about him after the things he had done. But my best friend – the son of Mr. C – I almost panicked about him. I knew he had to be really upset.

Every day after that when we’d get home, my mom would fill us in. I don’t know whether it was because we asked, or if she just knew we were concerned. My best friend would still come out to play – but the family was subdued, as were our playtimes.

Three days later – on Halloween night – came the news.

“Mr. C. is dead,” my mom said as we prepared our Halloween costumes. “When you go out trick-or-treating with them tonight, don’t tell them. The kids don’t know yet, and we don’t want them to know. We want them to enjoy tonight without knowing their father is dead. Okay?”

And thus began the worst Halloween I can ever remember.

It had been a week of shocks. A month of shocks. First going to Germany – and soon. Then Mr. S. – our precious friend! – dead. The wreck. And now this. On Halloween.

I think my brother and I must have been in shock – shock after shock hitting us. But Halloween was upon us, and it was evening. All around us the ‘hood was coming to life – little kids wandering around, parents here and there – and us. I felt like someone had punched me; like a zombie, mindless. My thoughts were only about four things: Mr. S. being dead, and Mr. C. now dead – and my best friend – and this terrible secret we were suddenly burdened with keeping.

I remember us going out into the front yard. It was already dark. We waited awhile, then my best friend and his big brother, the teenager, came over. The teenager was the one who was going to take us on our rounds. Odd, now that I think of it, here, now, writing this. My mom had always accompanied us before on our Halloween rounds. This was the first time ever that she didn’t. Looking back, I can think of only one thing: she’d gone next door to Mrs. C’s house to comfort the poor wretched woman, and perhaps take care of the trick-or-treaters coming to Mrs. C’s door. After all – I imagine Mrs. C. was in no condition to do that herself. It would have been just too much, too tragic – to have to see a bunch of happy kids staring at her, some in death costumes – when her husband had just died – and her with no job, no income, probably no savings or life insurance – and four hungry mouths to feed.

We left the yard, the teenager being kind of quiet and curt with us – he seemed almost distracted. We had not even crossed the other next door neighbor’s yard when we saw the thing – something which still sticks out in my mind to this day, as graphic as if I had it sitting in front of me. I even gave it a name.

Flat cat. That is the name I gave it. For there, in the neighbor’s driveway, was a kitten, almost fully grown – smashed flat as a pancake by a car. It was laying on its back, and the only thing that stuck out were its eyes – huge and bulging, staring up at the night sky. I suppose at any other time it might have been comical, but on this night – Halloween night – with my best friend’s father suddenly dead – it was a horror.

Things get fuzzy from here.

I don’t know who said it, when it was said – and I’m almost certain I’m the one who said it – but somehow it came out.

“Your daddy’s dead.”

“I know,” the teenager said, his eyes rising to the midnight horizon. It was if he had suddenly forgotten we were there. I could feel my best friend flinch next to me.

“No he’s not! He’s not dead!” My best friend’s protests cut me to the quick.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I can only remember turmoil. When I was talking to a shrink about this (she laughed at the picture I drew of the flat cat, thinking it was funny – and really angering me) – all I could say is that I remember people running around. But it was Halloween, which would make sense. But in my heart I think what happened was this:

My best friend ran to his house, crying.

The teenager watched him go, looking real sad, but took us on our rounds to collect candy anyway. I don’t remember being happy, not happy at all. All I could feel was a deep upset and a sadness which wouldn’t go away. If I had to put it into words, it was the sensation of wanting to rip one’s heart out, to somehow go back in time – but as a child I hadn’t the words nor the concepts, only the feeling that lay within.

When we got home we told my mom: we spilled the beans. My mom was not happy about that, but I don’t think she did anything to us except tell us that we should of kept it to ourselves.

It was not a happy night.

We went to the funeral. I recall being dressed in my Sunday best. I could not understand why Mr. C. had died – it had only been a leg wound. How could a leg wound kill anyone? I didn’t understand; didn’t want to understand, but I wanted to know. Why was my best friend’s father – a man who I really had liked – dead? (And I loved Mr. S. I almost hate to say it, but I loved that grumpy old man.) She explained it thus:

“He got a blood clot and it killed him. The hospital he was in wouldn’t treat it. He didn’t have any insurance to pay . . .”

I don’t know why, but there and then I hated the insurance company – without even really knowing what such a thing was – only that they could have saved Mr. C. – but because he didn’t have enough money, they let him die. I was angry at them, but too confused to express my anger. How could they let him die?, I remember wondering over and over again. How could they do that? To this day I feel anger about that, and don’t have much more love for insurance companies than I did at that moment.

The funeral was like any Southern funeral. There was a nice church – we sat in back – and there were lots and lots of flowers. We never saw Mr. S. again. I guess no one went to his funeral, or (more than likely) – he was given a military funeral somewhere else and we didn’t go. I was sad – but I couldn’t cry. I just couldn’t. I remember feeling really guilty about that, and somewhere during the preaching in the church, I managed to force one tear. One single tear for the men who had died, a father I had known, and one of few grownups I knew and liked. Nothing more.

I’ve never been able to cry much since, except for one time, and that would come a few years later. I feel grief, but cannot cry. I don’t know why that is. I’ve been told that it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s just the way society views us men; the way I was raised. Big boys don’t cry, and men – never. It’s just “the rules”. And even many women, who in today’s society say that men should be “more sensitive” profess that the sight of a man crying bothers them, disturbs them, and makes them think less of the man.

I remember us going down to the passport building at the local fort to get our passport photos made. I remember that small building well; could even take you out there and show you where it is (or was). A squat wood planked building set high on blocks to thwart the termites, the white paint a dozen or more coats thick; four by eight paned windows, their panes like dots on dice – all the buildings were like that – their dull monotony even worse than blades of grass – and having to sit on my momma’s lap while the photo was taken. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t have my “own” passport, but they said I was too young. My mom still has that passport – I’ve seen the photo since then. Black and white it shows a smiling young woman and a somewhat doubtful blond headed boy. She is looking at the camera; I’m looking slightly to the edge, because I was watching the photographer, and not the lens. I’ve always been that way: unable to directly meet people’s eyes without feeling disturbed, and unwilling to look into a camera lens. That’s caused problems in the past (people think I’m lying) – but it goes back to my past and psychology. You didn’t look my parents in the eyes when you were answering them. To do so was to make them angry – they saw it as a challenge. So I don’t like doing that unless I am challenging a person. Otherwise I’m taking in the details – the things around me. I’m very detail orientated like that, which I guess is part of the reason I remember all the little details of things (like that we were facing WEST in the room; the building’s door faced SOUTH, you walked to the RIGHT to sit in the chair, the floors were green linoleum, there was a clock on the wall with a black edged frame and a bubble glass front, the chair was a green or gray metal, the pads on it green vinyl, the windows wood framed, white painted, with four rows of panes across, four rows up, double hung; there was an office in the building facing the room you came in; there was glass in front of the office, and a chipped brown board under the window to rest your arms while you talked to the person inside, the door to the office was to the LEFT as you faced it . . . little things like that.)

We got our shots about the same time. I remember the pediatric clinic well: faded and chipped children’s pictures painted on the walls, the same type of hard framed metal chairs lining the middle; wooden benches like church pews along the walls. There were always people smoking – looking bored, reading newspapers, flipping through well worn and oft times ripped magazines. My brother – crying and wailing before they even came to get him; me sitting there watching the other little kids, my mom beside me, her black purse pressed against my side . . . . a yellow manila folder in her hand. Watching in fascination as the doctor stuck needles in my arms; how sore it made my arms for a few days afterward.

We left the hood a few weeks later. I have a ‘snapshot memory’ of us packing – my mom showing us how to pack glasses (“stuff them full of paper, then wrap them in paper. If you don’t stuff them with paper, they’ll break.”) Most of our stuff was going into “storage”, where the Army would keep it for the years we were gone. When we came back, most of it was missing, especially my toys. Those old G.I. Joes would’ve been worth a fortune by now. And my mom’s Corningware – something she still gets angry about ‘losing’ to this day. I guess storage isn’t as well guarded as we’d been told, despite being an “Army” institution.

And then, boarding the big jet plane in Charleston – we were “outta here” – away from the States – and everything I knew.

Life as I knew it would never be the same.


Odds & Ends From The Hood

Before I get to the last story of my last days in the ‘hood as a child, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t include the odds and ends of recollections that I carry in my head like eggs in a basket. The ‘hood defined my childhood more than any other period; that time between the ages of five and eleven. What came before and what came after . . . was something different. Profound changes lay in my future; I was unaware of what awaited me and the huge impacts these changes would have. But for now, for this, I include – and conclude – my time in the hood, with the exception of one more story; one to come, entitled “The Last Days of the ‘Hood”.

You will pardon me if I ramble a bit, skipping back and forth through time – a period roughly between 1963 and 1971. These memories are pure flashes; smaller stories of that time . . .

Pre-hood Tidbits

I remember being very small, sitting on a concrete driveway somewhere and picking the flakes of rust off the bottom of the door of my father’s car. I loved the gritty feel and the irony taste when I’d put my fingers to my mouth. My dad, I remember, was washing the car one time while we were in the driveway. He fussed at me about that – picking holes into the bottoms of the side panels – but despite the aggravation he smiled and left me alone . . .

I remember when we first arrived in Georgia. There was no home for us. The Army put us in a a barracks style building out on Fort Gordon. We were given steel framed beds – cots, it seemed – in a big room with other families, similarly displaced by their father’s move. . . . My teddy bear, which my parents had bought for me overseas when I was born was my only companion. My mom is amazed I remember that place.

I remember as a very small child creeping into my parent’s room at night. We weren’t allowed to go into their room. It was strictly forbidden – very much so. But I would lay down next to their bed, taking comfort in their presence – and then getting caught in the morning, scolded, and sometimes spanked. By the time I was four years old I knew, and would sleep in the hallway, pressed tight against the door like a dog waiting on his master. Even that was punishable, and by the time I was five I had given up on the idea, shivering in bed with all the fears of childhood while storms raged outside, or just hurting inside because I wanted to be near my parents . . .

I remember my brother running into the first house we had, before the ‘hood, screaming. Blood was running down his face. He had picked up a baby blue jay, and landing on his head, the parent pecked a bunch of holes in him. After seeing that, there was no way I was going to mess with a baby bird. . . .

I remember going to the neighbors one evening after supper to see if the kids could come out to play. Their front door was open, but the screen door was shut. Just as I raised my hand to knock, I looked down to see a giant snake crawling into a vent. With a scream, I burst through the screen into their living room, where they were sitting with TV trays eating dinner and watching TV. I didn’t even bother opening the door. Boy, did they look surprised – but they were not nearly as surprised as I had been by that giant snake. . .

My parents bought me a luxurious toy – a pedal powered tractor with an umbrella and a wagon. I was four. It was my pride and joy. My mom had to chase me down several times when I decided I could compete with the traffic in the street, and would be madly pedaling away. . . .

I remember the floor furnace in the living room of that old house. In the winter it was something to be wary of. If you stepped on it when it was running, it would leave a pattern of burns that looked just like the grating covering it. How I hated that thing. It would roar and murmur, with its red eye looking out at you from the darkness of its innards, and even in the summer it would tick and chuckle to itself . . .

I loved my pajamas with the footies. I wore them out . . .

In The Hood

Like many children I had a soft “blankie”, or blanket. It was blue. It disappeared sometime early on while I was in the ‘hood, becoming nothing more than a memory by the time I was seven. I missed that ‘blankie’ for years. . .

I remember us kids piling into the station wagon – that trusty Ford Grand Torino – and going to “Kelly’s”, a fast-food restaurant some miles away. It was always a special treat for us to go, and we only went when my father was home. Each time my dad would order for us all – and ordering something I liked, and something I hated.

What I hated was what my dad insisted we ALL would eat: the chili dogs. I hated chili dogs with a passion, but he would order them for us anyway – and then make us eat them. No matter how much we complained (and we didn’t complain too loudly) – chili dogs it was. I can still see the place – it had grand illuminated arches, not like McDonald’s, but different – and it was always a cool place to go. But those chili dogs – I was in my late twenties before I got over my aversion to them.

My love? The soft drinks. This was the only time we ever got soft drinks: when we went to Kelly’s. Otherwise they were non-existent. We didn’t even know what they were called – just that they were fizzy with wonderful carbonation – and so sweet! Like any kids, we slurped them up, washing those disgusting (but probably pretty tasty to a grownup palate) – chili dogs down.

I remember the teenager next door stringing a fifty-five gallon barrel between two trees and tying a bunch of ropes to it. Challenging anyone to ride it, he and his friends would yank on the ropes, giving us an “authentic fifty-five gallon bull ride”. It was hard for us little kids to hang on with our short legs, and many took a tumble. But it was great fun, a huge lark, until his father had him take it down.

I remember (bad child that I was) – sitting in the sand of our driveway with a magnifying glass, trying to burn holes in the tires on my father’s car . . .

I remember us stringing used inner tubes between the mailboxes as part of our “wars”. We would use the inner tubes like giant slingshots, capable of hurling dirt clods way over the roofs of the houses – well over a hundred and fifty feet – and bombard our enemy with surprise. This kept on until one day when a kid got hurt by a huge dirt clod, delivered with deadly force at close range, which sent him crying all the way home. After that the grownups forbade the use of the “slingshots”, reducing us to throwing by hand once again. . .

War. God! Was that the only game us boys played? Sometimes it seems that it was. “Nazis and Germans”, “Vietcong and G.I.’s”. My father brought home some old helmet liners and used disposable rocket launchers (which looked like bazookas, complete with sights) from the fort where he worked. We were in high heaven. We waged war in dead earnest – we dug pits lined with punji sticks, attempting to cripple each other. Fortunately we had no real way of digging, and no knives to sharpen our “stakes” – thus no one ever really got hurt – or at least not badly. “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” we’d yell, dodging across the yard. We were too poor to afford toy guns, so we usually used sticks. “You missed!” someone would always cry, and continue to run across the grass. Amazing how many imaginary bullets missed their mark – leading to other, and much more real fights sometimes. (“I DID shoot you!” “No you didn’t!” “Yes, I DID!” “No, you MISSED!”) . . . and I ambushing a boy and breaking a fallen pine’s trunk as thick around as my arm back then across his back, and leaving him breathless in the sand. We played for “keeps” when we played war . . .

Speaking of “keeps”, I remember the teenager teaching us how to play marbles, and the endless marble games in the sandy driveway . . . the teenager usually won the “pitch to the line” games, whereas I was a deadly shot in the “knock it out of the circle” . . .

I remember busting in on my dad in the tub one time to ask him if I could go somewhere – and my fascination with that dark mass of hair – “there” – and his look of surprise. He managed to remain calm, asking what I wanted. But that sight is still frozen in my mind. I knew I had done something forbidden, busting into the bathroom like that. By “their laws” (my parents), I should have been severely beaten. . . . .

I remember watching the man across the street beat his wife with a garden hose. What started off as a game grew to something else – a something violent. I think he was drunk, or well on the way getting there. Swinging the hose in big circles he kept smacking her until she cried in pain, that just seemed to spur him to greater efforts. Her kids and I were standing around, occasionally dodging the hose. He didn’t seem to even see us. Eventually my mom came over to save her best friend (and my “other mom”) from him. He smacked her as well, until they were able to overpower him and striking him, took the hose away.

I remember in the same yard us kids gathering around to watch “Prince”, the big German shepherd, mate with a smaller dog. Most of the kids didn’t know what was going on. I knew too well, and it disturbed me.

I remember taking piano lessons from the woman across the road who was beaten with the hose. My parents even bought a old piano! I was thrilled, and remember watching the repairman tune it. I would go across the dirt road every few days, then come home to practice. When I was with her she’d sit right next to me on the bench. Whenever I hit a wrong note, she would pinch the nerves in my knee, tickling the crap out of me, and she always gave me great big hugs when I left. My favorite songs were “Born Free” and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Often I would sit there pounding out Beethoven’s Fifth as loud as I could, over and over again. Now I can barely find “middle C”. So much for piano lessons and the aspirations of a parent . . .

I remember my dad “testing” me for worms. Coming in early one morning and waking me, having me roll over. Spreading my cheeks and taking a swab and swabbing me “down there”. I think I remember that so well because of what the teenager was doing. It reminded me too much of him. But I was too sleepy to be embarrassed or afraid. . . .

I remember when I caught worms. My mom didn’t tell me what to do with the suppositories; handing me the tinfoil wrapped ‘pills’ she told me sit on the toilet and insert them . . . down there. I didn’t know the tinfoil was supposed to come off . . .

I remember my mom slinging my most precious toy of all – my teddy bear, my constant companion and friend from birth – out of the car window one day. I was so devastated and crying so hard that she eventually turned around and got it, shoving it back into my arms with an angry scowl. . . .

I remember how badly I wanted to be a “good soldier” for my dad. I remember trying to impress him with my prowess in fighting, my toughness. Polishing his boots (and not meeting his standards). Wishing he would teach me more (he taught us very little). Seeing his pride when he made Warrant officer – and how he scolded me when I went to touch his magical uniform.

I my brother and I kissing, laying in a tight embrace on the floor. This was no child’s kiss; it was my first “grown-up” kiss – you know the kind. I didn’t like it, but did it anyway . . . I was glad when he quit. I didn’t like him much anyway. . . .

I remember the bus monitor, a ornery and bossy teenage girl. She was well developed with spade like hips and very full breasts. Her “boobs” fascinated us little boys. Getting off the bus on spring day, I reached up and “swung” down the stairs by her breasts like a monkey swinging on drooping vines. Outraged, she chased me across the road into a yard and threw me to the ground. Leaping onto me like a panther, she pinned me down. With a confused look of dawning awareness that she was about to beat up a little kid, she told me: don’t do it again, dammit. Laying there in breathless laughter, I watched her get back up and go back to the bus. I never messed with her again. . . .

I remember the teenager patiently trying to teach us little kids to play football. He taught us how not to get “taken down” by shaking your butt when someone grabbed you around the hips. That was a lesson that was to come in handy . . .

I remember us playing football as well. Due to my aggressiveness and lack of skills catching – or throwing – the ball, I was always put on “forward rush”. Small as I was I was quick and nimble, and would bust through any force. Often I would get a bloody nose and never notice. The other kids respected my talent for breaking through the defense, and even the teenager (who always played quarterback) learned that he should run.

I remember a big kid, all full of himself, coming into our yard. He was new to the neighborhood. My friends were all around. This kid started saying how he could whip anyone. My friends told him that he couldn’t beat me; that I was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. He laughed and faced off with me, doubling his fists and talking trash. Before he could throw a fist, I kicked him in the shin and he fell down, crying and begging and swearing his leg was broken and for me not to beat the living crap outta him. He lost any respect he would of gotten that day . . . from me, or any of the other kids in the ‘hood.

I remember when I went outside to feed the cat during a thunderstorm – and a lightning bolt struck right between the houses, only a dozen or so feet from me. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I fled inside, bowl flipping up over my head, and scattering cat food from the carport to the kitchen. My mom and dad, sitting at the kitchen table, laughed and laughed at the food everywhere. Us kids found a fused piece of sand there the next day, where the scorched mark lay. . . .

I remember my mom teaching us to shoot her bow and arrow – a light weight bow, cream white. We became very good at the thing, drawing it back with our strong seven year old arms. . . .

I remember we were so poor that my mom took pity on us and made uniforms for our G.I. Joes. After a few years of play the feet and the hands would come off of the G.I. Joes (my brother and I each had one) – simulating injuries for them. . . . she also made clothes for our most important stuffed animals, and each night I would change my bear from his day clothes to his red night pajamas. They were a one piece with snaps made of soft fuzzy cotton, kinda like the pajama I wore as a young child. My brother’s bear had an “Army” uniform I can recall; overalls with a patch on the front from one of my dad’s uniforms . . .

I remember my mom spent a lot of time sewing late into the night; sometimes it seems like she was constantly in her room, making clothes or alterations for money. She made custom dresses and skirts, blouses and things for most of the neighborhood women, and not a few of the neighborhood kids. She made our clothes quite often as well. They always fit better and lasted much longer than store-bought clothes, but even still . . . us kids were not happy with them. If it had been up to us there would have been but one outfit: a t-shirt and shorts; nothing else, not even underwear . . . flashing bare feet and a smile . . .

Shoes were a constant concern. How happy I would be when we’d go shoe shopping in the fall! Red Goose Shoes were my “usual brand”, though I always had my heart set on a pair of the Buster Browns. I loved the feel of the soft suede leather, but my mom wouldn’t let me get any. For one thing they cost more, those Buster Browns with the boy’s smiling face that I liked – and for another, suede was just a bad idea for a country child who like to go trompsing through field and stream – with red clay no less! – and living beside a dusty road out in the sticks. Not that I would have been allowed to wear them except to church and to school – but with the playground that we had (or rather should I say the one we didn’t – it was just a big red empty field) – I would have been brushing those things until the leather wore off instead of learning to polish them the way I did . . .

I also hated getting new shoes – and by that I mean the good leather ones that were supposed to last me all year; not the tennis shoes I wore some of the time. They were stiff and made my feet sore after a summer spent running around in bare feet with calloused treads, and when you’d first put them on it was like having weights on your ankles: they drug me down, slowed my steps, tired me out sometimes. Plus I had high insteps, which made loafers – which I really wanted – even more impossible. I wanted a set so bad – you could just see it! – slipping your feet in and out rather than having to tie your own shoes . . . as a kid they were quite appealing, but we never could find a set that could fit me . . . until we finally gave up on the thing, consigning me to lacing up my shoes for a long, long time.

And I remember the Red Goose Kiosk – the one with the big fat goose within. Feed her a quarter and she’d give you an egg . . . nothing major, just a really cool thing as a kid . . .

and my fascination with those measuring machines the clerks all used – the things to measure how wide your feet were – how cool those smooth metal boards would feel beneath my feet! And how strange and suddenly important I would feel, making sit up just a little bit higher as this clerk – an adult human being! – tended my feet. It felt strange every time . . . but I always used to relish the feel of that smooth cool metal against my feet, and that little thing they used to measure the width with . . .

I remember other things; unimportant flashes through time. A boy inverting a bicycle and spinning the back tire, letting it rub him ‘there’. “I’m gonna make myself a girl!” he proudly crowed. Strange child . . . that was at my birthday party and I sat there wondering “What the hell?”.

I remember my best friend and I, thirty feet up in a tree.  He’d brought sex catalog of some kind; it was in black and white.  We looked at it for awhile, him and me; I think I was about nine years old.  I remember the wind, soft, coming over the platform’s sides of the treehouse we’d built up there; the sky so blue you couldn’t hardly stand it; the warm breezes . . .
and then he and I began to have sex; the oral kind.  And when I was giving him the pleasure he sorta started laughing and I felt a trickle come and I jerked away . . . he busted out laughing; he’d almost peed in me . . . something his brother, the big one did when he would anally rape us sometimes . . . I hated him for that sort of thing.

I remember me and my best friend smashing one another’s faces in and laughing insanely while we did it . . . we gave each other bloody noses and puffy lips, and then hugging chest to chest, eyeballing the damage we’d done to one another, we both agreed we were still tough and I could still “whoop” his ass when it came down to it . . . and we walked off to the hose cooing over our injuries and in a mutual arm-over-shoulder buddy embrace . . . we thought our friendship would last for all time (and it nearly did in some ways . . . not that I’ve ever seen him except once or twice since . . .)

I remember an extensive underground fort our teenage friend dug and built . . .

I find it disturbing just how many of us children he ‘abused’ . . . molesting his 6 year old little sister when he was about 13; me and my brother; his own brother, some other kids across the ‘hood . . .

I actually went to his wedding.  And I didn’t say a thing.  I was about 14 then and he scared the shit outta me.

I remember getting buried a couple of times.
I remember when a stack of concrete blocks fell on me.

I remember THE Halloween party my mom threw. She dressed up as a witch – which she told everyone she was. We played a 45 rpm record of “Icabod’s Last Ride” all through the night. The neighborhood was invited over; there was the classic game of “this is the dead man’s eyes” (grapes), and “this is the dead man’s brains” (spaghetti). To this day Halloween remains my most favorite holiday, even more than Christmas. . .

Speaking of Halloween: being so poor we could afford to buy costumes . . . using an old bed sheet instead I came up with what seemed to me the most horrifying monster I could be: the ghost of a werewolf. I had a hard time coloring “bloodstains” on that old bed sheet with a crayon . . . and had to explain at every doorway exactly what it was I was supposed to be. . .

The ‘hood. A place. A life time and a childhood.

Seemed quite normal to me.

(Note: we here are getting close to the end of the “Tales from the ‘Hood” . . . not much more to go from here . . .then comes the really scary part in some ways . . . both in writing and our therapy . . .)

Tornadoes


Tornadoes

When I was a very little kid, probably four or five, we were visiting my relatives out West, over a thousand miles away. These trips were nothing new to me; they happened all the time, meaning at least during the summers.

This particular summer I think we went to my Aunts, but I’m not sure. I do remember the trailer, the fields; the picnic table . . .

It was a sunny day; a blue one, and the parents and grownups were shuffling food from the inside of the trailer to the outside, putting it on the picnic table. I remember the grass seemed tall at the edge of the yard; there were a few trees – even more off in the distance. I don’t even know if I was able to talk real well – I think I could, but not with many words.

We were standing there waiting as the grownups brought out the plates and dishes, and I noticed – I think I may have been one of the first ones who noticed – a dark band across the sky. It grew darker, coming closer – over the back of the blue and white trailer (I’m pretty certain it was blue and white) – like a dark shroud being drawn over the sky; a solid dark-blue to charcoal gray line that extended from one horizon to the other. And then the wind started to pick up some.

Well even as a child I knew we wouldn’t be eating outside, no time soon. I don’t remember saying anything – just looking at that solid line as the wind began roaring and whipping. The grownups reversed their course, carrying the dishes back inside. We wouldn’t be eating a picnic that day; even I, as a young child, knew that you couldn’t eat out in the rain – and rain was coming; I could smell it in the wind.

I guess it was surprising, at least to the grownups, how quick that storm blew up. As a kid I didn’t know any better – everything was new (therefore normal) to me. The fact that this storm was blowing up in the middle of the day – the blowing wind – was exhilarating. I love the feel of the wind and I like watching tall grass blowing and whipping into the wind. The trees bowing and shaking their leaves. Now as a grownup I’ve gotten a bit more leery of the thing; bad windstorms keep me on edge until their winds have blown away. Not so much thunderstorms – those I can handle – but big winds frighten me, I reckon, at some deep level. And I reckon it’s because of what they did.

The grownups began rounding us up – everyone, young and old – and herding them into the trailer. This was no usual storm; no casual blow-by that just leaves everything wet like the morning sprinkle of dew. This was a real thunder-buster, a real ‘wind storm’ – complete with blowing leaves, falling limbs – and more.

After shutting us all inside, parents and friends alike, we waited on the wind. It grew and grew until it was howling so loud the grownups began to yell and shout at one another in order to be heard. I just wanted to go to the window and see what was happening outside – I would wander over towards it – lifting the curtain from time to time – as the trailer began rocking somewhat, and the grownups got alarmed. I suppose I felt a thrill of alarm at this time – but mostly I wanted to go outside – ride the wind on my ‘wings’ (I used to like holding my arms out in a strong wind, hoping it would come along and help me ‘lift off’.) But the grownups wouldn’t let me, and it grew hot and humid in that trailer as the storm swept on through.

Later on (the storm had passed) we all got in a car – a blue one, I suppose – I don’t really know, not too sure – and drove around on the plains. And everywhere we looked there was nothing – nothing around at all except these empty neighborhoods with boxes standing in them. I wondered about those boxes . . .

The streets – if they were ones – had almost disappeared. You could make out a grid of sorts among the wreckage, strewn constuction materials, and downed trees – just barely make out that it had been a neighborhood at one time. And here and there those mysterious ‘boxes’ stood – and inquiring children’s minds (meaning my own) really wanted to know.

“What are those things?” I asked, pointing. The plains seemed to stretch on forever to the distant late afternoon horizon – empty except for those things. I don’t know what it had looked like before, but I can imagine: a neighborhood sprung into being on those distant plains – only to disappear again before the force of the wind. Nature, it appears, was able to take things down to the ground – one of the first few discoveries of that kind I was to make in my child’s mind. Nature was nothing to be fooled around with.

“Those are the closets,” one of my relatives (I think it was my grandma) explained, pointing. “The people get in them when the tornadoes come – hauling mattresses inside where they hide until the winds are gone. The tornado’s gone.” And it struck me as strange: why should a thing as massive as a tornado apparently is (for I had never seen one) ignore those “little rooms” that were within the houses – while the houses were gone? What kept them there? What kept them from being swept away as well? I wanted to know but nobody could explain anything for my child’s benefit; I either didn’t understand their explanations, or they didn’t give them very good. It had something to do with the people being in those closets and those closets being in the middle of the homes – but so what? If the homes were gone shouldn’t the people in their closets be gone with them?

I don’t recall seeing any people walking around – these endless plains with their stark dark boxes (imagine a field filled with outhouses) – were abandoned, or so it appeared. I don’t know where the people had all gone – there were very few cars, and we were out in the country, or so it appeared. For all I know we had been surrounded by subdivisions – but if so, they were all gone. Blown away like the bits of life that had inhabited them.

From there on nothing catches my attention quite as quick with the weather as a hurricane or windstorm. I am always paying attention to the skies on a windy, storm ridden day – especially if it’s in the spring or fall, which is when most tornadoes come. I have stumbled across the damage in the woods because of some – the trees all twisted around in piles; a narrow path. The one which hit a distant Kroger while it was being built – it carved a nice notch through a cinderblock wall. You could see exactly the funnel’s form.

And then there’s the fact that just about everyone in my family has been touched by a tornado at one time or another. My aunts, my uncles, my grams and grandpas – all have lost something due to a tornado or two. I have heard their horror stories – especially from the one that hit Wichita Falls back in ’94 or so – an F4 or 5, it blew the town right away and affected their lives (and ours) forever after. And I haven’t forgotten the tales of another uncle, who sheltered in a culvert off a highway during another tornado; he was just driving along. He said he was glad that he got to the back of the tunnel, because when the tornado came it started hurling boards down the tunnel like it was a lumberyard – and those who were near the entrance got hurt; some of them killed by boards shooting through the entrance. I take that as a lesson learned.

Tornadoes . . . I find them fascinating, but I’ve learned too much about them to go chasing after some storm. I’d rather follow them, helping clean up the damage after – helping the survivors out of the ruins – because during a tornado you can’t do much good (something I learned as a small child in my childhood). All you can do is sit there and wait things out.

And when the wind blows loud and hard, and you begin to yell and shout . . .

It’s time to take cover, and time to run . . . because tornadoes aren’t very much fun.

And that’s saying enough.

No More Hugs


No More Hugs

Harlow's Monkeys

When I was seven years old I did something for reasons I can only guess at, and about which I harbor certain regrets – but in some ways don’t regret at all. It is hard to explain.


I remember the day, the time, this scattering of moments with crystal clear clarity. I can clearly see the bedroom, lit by the overhead light; I can feel myself in the bed, the covers pulled halfway to my chest; see their rumpled billows embracing me. I can even orientate myself; my head is to the north, my feet toward the south; the doorway is to my left and down, and the hall light is on. It is bedtime.

My dad comes in. Despite his cruel ways, his hidden sadism, he is smiling, almost laughing as he bee-bops through the doorway and across the linoleum tile floor. He was always fond and affectionate when it came time to put us to bed – though he has a rude way of awakening us – coming in in the morning, jumping on the bed and roughly tickling us, and sometimes even worse – grabbing us by one heel and snatching us up and dangling us upside down. That’s the way he used to beat us sometimes – holding us up with one hand by one foot, and lashing as hard as he could with a thick leather belt with the other. I don’t remember those times real well, but my brother recently told me, triggering flickers of memory and pain; of squirming like a tortured frog within his grasp. I guess I am fortunate I cannot remember those times as well as my brother, for my brother has told me he could hear me scream and scream and scream. To me they are just blackness; a time buried and lost in my memory, or within the memory of my inner child.

He comes to my bed; places a knee on the bed. I feel uneasy, uncomfortable. I don’t know why – just a general uneasiness. He bends over, scooping my thin shoulders – broad for a child, but thin as a kid – in his arms. The warmth of his closeness, the feel of his closeness, his bristled chin scraping my face. He hugs me tightly, goes to kiss me – a parent’s kiss, nothing more. And when he releases me I tell him.

“Dad? I don’t want you to hug me anymore.” I feel odd telling him him this, but my uneasiness is forcing me. I don’t know why I am uneasy; just that it’s there, the feeling of some undefinable something wrong.

“What?” he asks kindly, his face a few inches from mine.

“I don’t want you to hug me anymore,” I say – a bit more forcefully, a bit more sure. “I’m a big boy. I don’t want hugs.”

He leans back and looks at me, confusion clear upon his face.

“Why – okay,” he says, taking his knee from the bed and rising. His face is clouded, then clears. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I say. My uneasiness is leaving, and yet I am troubled – there is a deep churning I cannot describe, even now. A dark thing within me. A bothersome feeling I cannot pin down.

“Well. Okay.” His face is now unreadable, a slate hiding his emotions. He goes to the door, pauses with his hand on the light switch.

“Good night,” he says, flicking off the switch. The room plunges into darkness. I can see him, a dark featureless shadow framed in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light.

“Good night, dad,” I say, turning over as is my wont, towards the crevice between the bed and the wall. That’s how I often slept – my nose stuck in that crevice, breathing in the cool air from beneath the bed.

Over the years I have replayed that scene in my mind, wondering. My mom was devoid of physical affection – I don’t remember her ever hugging us. During my childhood and teenage years, I don’t remember them ever saying they loved us, except as a tool, such as “We are doing this (a punishment) because we love you.” That was the only time love was ever mentioned – as a reason for a punishment. Why would I suddenly decide to put an end to the only source of parental affection available to me? Why did I do that – and yet seek an even more intimate form of affection from my peers and the teenager next door?

I suspect I know why. I guess I write this as a warning something to look for in your child, though I cannot be sure this was the reason, nor do I wish to raise undue suspicions. But I think – and this is just a thought – that my uneasiness arose from what was happening between the teenager and I. That I was afraid my dad would go further, as the teenager did. That that kiss would turn into something else; something more adult and demanding. The press of his body against mine – I guess it subconsciously reminded me of something, what was happening to me two or three times a week during the summer; a little less during the school year.

My brother and I both discussed this in a sidelong sort of fashion. We never admit the sexual abuse that happened. But we both agree: dad never touched us “like that”. He never did anything sexual to or towards us. He never (to the best of our faulty recollections) – touched us inappropriately. There was only one time he ‘touched’ me in a way that was bad, but that was for a medical procedure, and if it hadn’t been for the sexual abuse by the teenager, it wouldn’t still stick out in my mind. I’ll write about that sometime later.

The majority of my ‘selves’ regret that day, my decision – but the little child inside still doesn’t. I don’t know why. To this day I can feel his firm resolution on the issue. (In my mind I can see him shaking his head “no”, still stubbornly refusing to change his mind.) Strange. This is one of the problems with my kind of madness. Having these ‘beings’ within you, some fighting other parts of your mind.

But I think – and this is the warning, the admonition – that when a small child suddenly, out of the blue, refuses or no longer wants a parent’s affection – when it suddenly becomes uncomfortable to the child, makes them uneasy – it may indicate . . . something.

Just a thought. Perhaps a warning,. I don’t know. Like I said: I’m still not sure why I felt so uneasy about my dad hugging me anymore – but I have my suspicions.

And sometimes suspicions are grounded in fact.

Sleepovers


I find the civilian attitudes strange nowadays, but in a good way. Not like when I was a kid. Not during the Vietnam war.

When we were little and living in the ‘hood, we began to have some problems. There were two military families in the ‘hood – ours and the one up the road. Us kids didn’t think too much about it, though our fathers being in Vietnam worried us. We knew daddy could die. After all, we watched the news every night and there they were: the lists of the dead, wounded, and somehow worst of all, “missing in action”. It was always there when he wasn’t at home, when he’d be gone for a long time – preying at the backs of our minds. I still have letters from my dad when he was over there, and in them I can see in his answers to my letters my worries. So often they start with “don’t worry, I’ll be all right . . .”. After all, we knew in a moment’s notice ‘this’ – our lives and everything else – could change, going from the sort of known (if rarely certain) to the completely unknown – going from being ‘poor’ to being poorer, going from having a dad (and all he represented) to not having one . . .

But this story doesn’t deal with Vietnam, or our childhood fear of him being lost in a war. It deals with something that went on in the ‘hood, at our house.

It seems that some people; unknowns to us, began to think it was a great fun to protest the war by terrorizing us kids and our mother. They didn’t succeed in scaring us kids, not at all. We didn’t know what was going on, nor did we care. If someone had come in we would have fought with them. But they scared my mom so bad that we going across the street to the neighbors house, who had become like a second family to us.

I remember those evenings. We’d get dressed in our PJ’s, and as twilight would come settling over the land, the blood stained horizon turning dark blue, we’d grab our pillows and go wandering across the sand, kicking up dust over the unpaved road. Usually it would be hot – after all, it was Georgia in the summer, and the air would hang thick before the evening breeze blew in. My mom would herd us along, blankets dragging in tow as she cast worried glances back at our house. I think one time a window was broken, but I’m not sure. They were cheap windows anyway. But I do know that they scared my mother and made her nervous.

So we’d go over to our friends where there were three boys – one of them my age, another one just a bit older, and a younger son as well. Their house seemed enormous to me. It was a brick house, which made it only seem bigger, and it had a big back yard, filled with country junk and the old pines. There was an old wellhouse standing there – nothing but the foundation where we could go play – but that was during the day. This was at night.

Their mother would bundle all of us kids into one big bed – five of us – in that one room right off the carport, adjoining the kitchen, and there they would leave us. There was no air conditioning, and only one thin sheet which we would throw aside. We’d all be sweating like pigs, but we didn’t care; it was a unique and novel experience for us all to be crowded in one bed, the lights on, giggling and laughing and having a good time. My mom would leave us alone to go talk to her friend; I don’t know where she slept, and it was no concern of mine. Of all the things I remember about that, it is that scene: all us kids piled into that bed, so hot, stuffy and humid, all of us just burning up with sweat – so hot it was miserable – but not minding, not minding at all. But it was almost a month and a half, maybe two, that my mom was too scared to sleep in her own home, all because of how people were harassing military families back then.

Strange how times change.

Eventually the prowlers and ‘peeping Toms’ stopped coming back – whoever they were. It might have been when my dad came home; I don’t know. I do know that in that neighborhood our neighbors were into helping one another – so no doubt some were keeping an eye on our place, but even still – it was uncomfortable, the idea of being singled out as a family – and as a kid – simply for something your father had done (or was doing) – off fighting a war. As if we had a choice. And yet . . . I guess in some senses, our family got punished for what he did. Over and over again.

And strange, how some things never change.