I have to talk about Kristina here. Don't worry, she will talk back, perhaps emphatically in several languages.
Maybe headstrong isn't the proper term for this woman, but she is something close to adamantly forceful. Now, I don't think this fact has escaped her; I cannot be the first to inform her that her personality is on steroids. But I think she may try to deny the fact, or at least soften its implications. Behind that driving, almost male, mind of hers is a very female sensibility. A bit mystic, desiring not to coerce, having a vision of gentle urging-on; she desires to be sister, teacher and muse. She wants you to think she only encourages, but that is not a wand in her hand, it is a lever, and she is looking for your fulcrum.
It isn't clear to me how much of a problem this seeming-split is for her. A little bit, to be sure. My guess is that she has learned to live with it. She is the knife of ice claiming her device is only made of water. I don't think self-deception is in it; she is too aware for that. I only point out the slight dichotomy she presents. Since we are all of at least two minds there is nothing remarkable here. Ambivalence is frosting on the cake. Who likes simple people, anyway?
Now, if I may address the court directly...? Kristina, you fret that I am feeling forced into all this writing by you. For sure, I do want to please you some, as I like you and that tenuous link from the past that exists between us makes you seem like a long-lost family member come home. But, as with all of the long-lost, there is a disconnect. We use the same words and don't always mean the same thing. Some of this is language-generated, some culture and some gender. Beyond recognizing that we do get our communications fouled I can offer no solution - just more work.
I enjoy writing. It is perhaps the thing I do best. If I go kicking and screaming, then allow me my little pleasures and trust that I am doing what I want. Yes, some of this writing is difficult, but I don't mind that. What I mind is when I come up against a lack of clarity in myself. Then the writing becomes much harder; this turbulence is strictly my own, and I am perhaps the least able of all to distill and clarify. In you I feel like I come upon a lack of clarity constantly, but I know it is only my own pressure to understand which causes my puzzlement. My own push for definition clouds what you are doing in my mind. You offer symbols, and I want them to be letters spelling concrete directions: "Go Here", "Do That". I am very male in my thinking, linear and to the point. I don't want to mess around with nebulous constructs, unless I was the one who thought them up! You are not linear, not in the same way I am. I don't say you aren't logical, just that you are circuitous in your approach to things - like what we are writing about... I ask you if this isn't a travel-diary, and you reply that it is more of a spiritual awakening. What????? I yell at my computer some more...
I told you that one of the saving graces of my life had been the need to look into my own dynamics. The reasons I did what I did, or thought what I thought, always seemed worthy of examination. How could I possibly be as random as I appeared to myself? There had to be reasons that I hated this thing and loved that; approached here and ran there. Not too many go in for this; it isn't really taught or much-practiced. I think being thrown on my own devices as a child pushed me this way; it was a game I could play by my self.
I came to feel that the greatest lesson in life was that as we learn who we are we can then learn to live with that person with equanimity. My belief is firmly that we cannot truly change who we are, but that we can alter how we respond. This doesn't mean we can't change our attitudes and opinions; it does mean that what caused us to have those attitudes in the first place is still there, still us, still a limitation if we allow it to be.
A good example might be the 'true believer'. I know about this as I fall into the category. A true believer can be a communist, a deist, or an anarchist - it does not really matter so long as he has something to believe; heart and soul; the leopard can change his spots in some ways, but he still houses those claws and teeth. My own way has been to recognize this deep need for belief within myself, to follow it into conviction, and then to learn to distrust it as it has led me into some very constrictive 'all or nothing' situations, which is what faith is all about. Finding faith to be a fickle enterprise I have simply chosen to believe in nothing that I cannot put my hands on. I have become a true believer in non-belief.
Maybe the above will help explain what I mean. You said you thought my idea very pessimistic. It is not. The very idea that we can learn to live with ourselves and stop berating the person inside is quite hopeful.
Pat has just read the below and is rather disturbed. I don't mean for it to be disturbing; it was not written with that intent. It is a story. It is about who I am, and maybe, in small part, 'why'. In that sense it is self-indulgent; Don poring over his shoe box of dynamics.
I view the events below as a sort of force-of-nature thing, like a storm, or a volcano. There is really no moral point in some things that people do; they get done and that's all there is to it. If that attitude sounds a little like 'forgiveness' then call it that; I feel sort of neutral, not completely accepting, but pretty much. I consider the past in that it does help me to understand who I am, but I am not wallowing in it nor asking you to. Yes, bad things were done, but it is past, done with, beyond change, so get over it and move along, I say.
There isn't anything here that Pat didn't already know, except the depth of my psychosis the day I shot myself - now, do you still want to go on? You can bail right here. I consider what I have written to be rather more hopeful than not. We face things and we survive. We have strength we don't dream of. I am actually quite an optimist and really do tend to see the good in what comes along. I am truly a survivor. This is a good thing. On the reverse of the coin I do recognize my own fragility. Nothing is just one way.
Ok, I have gone through what is below again and Pat is looking at me sideways saying that I probably shouldn't show this to anyone. Hey, put human experience on a chart. Give it a scale to reflect human suffering. Throw the Inquisition on there, the Hundred Year's War, The Black Death, and you will see that what has been my lot would rank as some minor inconveniences. Don't cry for me, Argentina.
This stuff keeps drifting in retrograde; I will drift with it. A beginning is obviously just some arbitrary point at which we choose to start and has no meaning outside a particular context, a navigational aid. For me the context is the number of my days. My beginning here will be with my mom. Isn't that where every good boy's story starts?
Joy was the name my mother gave herself. She was born Myrtle Isabelle Berry around 1915, at the end of August, in Ray County, Missouri. Her birthday, according to her, was unknown since the Court House had burnt to the ground and made ash of the local history. This lost-records story might well have been as made-up as any of her others; she was not a woman who liked to be pinned down, not one to be known. I never had the desire to check and see what that particular truth was. It didn't matter.
When I went into the U.S. Navy at at age 17, still a minor by law, she had to sign for me. My birth certificate was duly produced for the Enlistment Officer, and I was astonished to learn that my mother's maiden name was actually Harmon. I questioned her closely, and received a reply that I could either accept, or not. She told me that life on the farm in the Great Depression had been very hard: one dress, no shoes, not enough food, her dog beaten to death with a board by her father when caught sucking eggs - in general, all the usual Dust Bowl stuff. In her haste to escape she had married a wealthy young local man, named Harmon, who owned a car and promised to take her to Philadelphia. In town she promptly ditched him and never looked back. I would have to say that in most cases she never looked back. She used the name Harmon thereafter when it suited her. My birth was one of those occasions.
Forgive me for getting off on this train of thought. It really isn't a tangent. The myth of my mother, if not my mother herself, was a great influence on me. The next I know much of her doings was several years later, in Key West, Florida. Oh, she had, sometime in the late '30's, married a man named Cliff Joy, divorced him and married his brother, Jerry, I think, and then divorced once more and remarried the first brother. Somewhere in this mix she had borne a daughter to one brother while married to the other; she apparently never bothered to tell anyone involved; I guess it wasn't such a big deal. I know of this, and of Key West, from her younger sister, Mabel, known as "Babe". Babe is now dead, as is my mother since '78, so all I have are these stories. Heaven knows who lied to whom. It is a family with a rich aural history. Babe was certainly the sanest and most honest of the lot; I am certain of this. And my half sister? - yes, she is alive and somewhere in Oregon; I haven't been in touch with her for over 30 years. We did not grow up together, with one minor exception. Joy left her daughter with her father - uncle?, and took off when the child was very young. (As an aside here, Babe told me that Joy didn't even know that her own father, Charlie, was actually her uncle, as his brother had impregnated her mom and the younger brother then done the honorable thing when the older refused.)
So, Joy was living between Key West and Miami and the war was humming along to beat the band, tankers burning off the coast as the U-Boats got them, and merry-hell elsewhere. (She told me she had known Hemingway in those days.) Babe says Joy was married to five men at the same time, all sailors. They were at sea so much, and home so little, that she was able to keep house for the husband-in-port without complications; it was usually only a few days pass that the men were given. For this war-effort she received, from the U.S. Government, five separate checks every month. Lest you think she was a slacker, sort of living off Uncle Sam's hind teat, she had a job, too. She was a cocktail waitress. I didn't know about all the sailor-husbands until after she was gone, but I do recall her telling me about how much money she made in those days, and how she spent it all in the casinos in Havana. It was ninety miles to Cuba from Key West, and by ferry an easy trip. I can only say that I think she made one hell of a lot of money, and I really, as a son, wouldn't want to look too closely into how she made it. She certainly didn't save any of it. I have long since granted her the right to be her own person and live life on what terms she could arrange. She was a remarkable woman for the time. I often wonder what she would have been in another age, one where women had more outlets for their talents and ambitions, fewer restrictions on their person. I can see her finishing High School and going on to College. She would mention that she had wanted to be a lawyer; I think she might have fit right in.
Was my father one of the five sailors? Apparently. For many years I really doubted our kinship, given her household arrangements, but in looking at pictures of him as a lad and my son at a similar age there is no doubting the line that blood traces in the flesh. She could not, given the circumstances, divorce any of these other husbands and so just walked; what did they ever think, or find out? When she died I found that she had several different Social Security numbers. Was she even traceable?
I was born in Topeka, Kansas, November the tweflth of 1943. A pity she didn't get to finish out the war in her own style. Who knows what further adventures she might have entertained. Dedication to one husband, and motherhood, slowed her down a lot. I don't know when her depression started, but my arrival was not a boon to her. We moved often as my father went to new duty stations. He was in the Navy until '49 and had risen from enlisted man to officer on Destroyers during the war. I have heard that we lived in Washington, D.C., Flint, Michigan, and Santa Barbara, California, not to mention Topeka, where he was from.
She had stories, lots of stories. The one about my birth was somehow typical. When I was born, she told me, I was very sick. No one on the staff could figure it out until one bright soul came to the conclusion that my mother was addicted to barbiturates and had not mentioned it on admission. I guess when she began to withdraw it all began to add up. Apparently my life improved after that. She said I was always delicate and an old country doctor had her putting beer in my baby bottle the first year to give me strength. Who knows??
There isn't a great reservoir of childhood memories for me to draw on. My father's sister, Clara, and her husband, Leslie, took me from my mother when I was two because she had taken to hitting me. I stayed with them a year and recall it vaguely. So, at some point after the war we ended up in California, and I don't think my mother's state of mind had improved. She had a story about Santa Barbara, too. It was the time she tried to kill us by attempting to drive the car onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. I don't recall how it all ended, just that she had failed. There was a certain cruelty in her. I think that in her mind blame had accrued to me for being conceived and born, and I was therefore to share in the pain she felt. She would tell other adults, within my hearing, that when I was born she had shit on the table and the baby had died. Now, I know this sounds pretty bad, and I surely didn't like to hear her 'joke', but I understood, too, how she felt. She was the three things I most admire in women to this day: smart, funny and independent. The cruelty and desparation fade with time. While I would not say that we were close, I had a lot of esteem for her as a person. But we had our differences. I began to make up my on mind on things fairly early, and I loathed the second class citizen treatment that was a kid's lot. As often as I could force the issue I got a vote.
We were nomads. My parents never lived together for long, and we moved often, whether together or in pieces. When I joined the Navy I was required to submit a list of addresses for a security clearance; I worked in the Nuclear Weapons Divison and needed to be a bonafide top secret patriotic guy. The list was incomplete at 43 residences in 17 years. I still hadn't been cleared when I was discharged, but then the Navy probably never told me anything the commies didn't already know. My father, and I don't mention him often, was a self-styled 'cocksman'. In the terms of the day it simply meant he screwed everything that walked. His specialty was waitresses. My mother was not pleased.
In '49 we left Topeka and headed for California, again. My father was a journeyman electrician and had secured a job on the Owen's Valley Project. Water from the Sierra was to produce electrical power for the burgeoning Los Angeles basin. A boom was underway; the entire country was veering west. We lived in a trailer park in Bishop, a speck so small that I used to sit in his lap at age 5 and steer the Oldsmobile all the way down the main street in town. Bishop was kindergarten for me, my first taste of school. It is the first time I became really aware of being frightened of other people. A loner in kindergarten? you ask. Yeah, 'fraid so. My parents used to leave me in a brothel when they would go places. The girls who worked there apparently were pretty good babysitters. I recall the building, but not the faces.
One night my mother and I were running in the fields near the trailers and I fell into an irrigation ditch and landed across a pipe. The result was an inguinal hernia. They took me to a hospital in L.A., and left me. It had a name like Our Lady of the Angels. I was there several days while they were back in Bishop. I really hated it. The nights were incredibly long. With ether as the anesthetic you come around barfing; I loathe barfing.
Next, I recall South Pasadena. We had a house with a tree in the front yard. In the winter it snowed; an absolutely unheard of event, and the tree broke. In the Spring my parents played tennis. One day we were at the courts when fire trucks rushed by. My father said, 'I hope they aren't going to our house.' They were; the smell of wet, burnt davenport lingers. I think I went to Marengo Street School.
Things went downhill somewhere; I can't point to a year. My parents were not up to dealing with having a child for the moment. I was living in the orange groves near Santa Ana, California, with a family named the Yardleys. They had several kids of their own and had taken me in. I don't know how many months I was with them. I remember that the orange groves of that time were vast forests; Orange County was heaven on earth. Santa Ana was a little town out in the woods a good drive from L.A. Mr. Yardley kept a rifle by the back door and would shoot at the feral dogs that came out of the forest. He would keep watch while we kids played outside. And then I was living in another house. Can't say where. My big memory is sitting endlessly on a curb out front waiting for promised visits. They seemed to happen rarely. My dad would arrive with some other guys, in a Model T, say hello, and be gone again. They would be drinking beer. I cannot begin to explain the hollow lonliness.
Back to Topeka we went; maybe it was 1951. My father had quit working. He would do this for months at a time and we would last as long as we could on what my mother could make waiting tables, and then return to Kansas to live with his parents. I recall visiting my mother in a psychiatric hospital where she was being treated for depression. She was a zombie.
We moved thirty miles to Lawrence, Kansas at some point in the early '50's and my father was going to K.U. to be an Electrical Engineer. My half-sister came to stay with us; she had grown up in nearby Kansas City and had become wild, a pachuco. The wheels came off the trolley pretty rapidly that year. My father was thrown out of K.U., my mother said for stealing furniture, and my 16 year old half-sis got shipped back to K.C. quite suddenly when mom came home and found her and dad doing something they weren't supposed to. I have no idea of the truth of all this, and as my sister is still hanging around somewhere I refrain from further speculation. My father, too, is alive, but he is a Born Again Christian now and has put all this behind him; it is no longer consequential to his well being . It occurs to me that being 'born again' is pretty convenient.
What I call the normal part of my childhood unfolded next. We moved to Highland Park, a part of Los Angeles, and we lived there, in only two houses, for over five years. My father worked for the L.A. Department of Water and Power and we were a pretty stable family. This is why I tell people I grew up in L.A. I started third grade at Garvanza Elementary. They actually moved me up a bit since I had been considered backward in my last incarnation in Kansas and had taken the first grade a second time. I stayed in this system all the way into the ninth grade. The continuity settled me a lot. I had a couple of consistent friends. I was a Boy Scout, really.. Does my forgiveness lapse. Yes, now and then.
Somewhere along in '56 my father got the job-of-his-life. He left for Arabia to work for Aramco, a huge oil company. Our prospects were brighter than ever. Glowing reports arrived from the East in the postman's leather bag. We waited breathlessly for his missives. All went well. I would be going to the American High School in Beirut. We would spend a month each year in Switzerland. The world was our oyster.
Mom and I had to get ready for the move. We found a good home for my beautiful fawn Boxer-girl, Topsy. I grieved and we sorted and packed and waited and planned. And one day there was dad on the porch. He wouldn't talk. He went to bed and stayed there for 6 weeks. If my mom knew what had happened she never told me. No explanation, ever. Finally, too broke to pay the rent, we headed out for Kansas. I was in the middle of the ninth grade; I was crushed.
Kansas had never been the best of places for us as a family. My mother and father started staying in different rooms in my grandparents big house: 1649 Harrison Street, if I recall correctly. I started in at the local Junior High. I wouldn't talk to any one. For some reason I started walking to school with a black kid from below 17th Street. Above was white, below was black. I don't know if I ever knew his name, but we got so we would wait for one another on the street and then walk together.
Father was at loose ends. He began to visit his nephew's wife. The nephew was a long haul trucker and out on the road a lot. My mother got fed up and went over to the house one night. My mother always had a gun. She usually kept a Colt .25 under the front seat of the car, but it had been pawned in L.A. So, I had recently bought her a .22 automatic, what would now be called a Saturday Night Special, at the gun store downtown. You might think that unlikely, but in '57 in Topeka nobody seemed to care if a 13 year old bought a hand gun. No I.D. and no waiting period.
At the nephew's house she emptied the .22 into the wall behind my dad and the nephew's wife from only a few feet away. It is doubtful that she meant it as more than a statement; not hitting anyone was her intention, I have always been sure. Dad didn't take it well and he beat her up. I wasn't aware that any of this was going on until mom arrived in our room, a screened porch on the back of the house, rather the worse for wear, later that night. We got her washed up. She didn't want to go to an E.R. and didn't need sutures terribly.
Friday night in Topeka. By 3:00 A.M. it would cool to the high eighties and the humidity would drop to a hundred percent. Huge flying bugs would beat at the screens with incessant thumps. I never slept well. Something always seemed to be on the way.
Next morning my dad was in the State Mental Hospital on suicide watch and mom looked like hell. I told her I was leaving, that I just wouldn't live like this any longer. I was going to California and there were no two ways about it. She got me to agree to wait until Monday, this was Saturday, and she would find someone I could go live with. I agreed and gave her until Monday. Her bruises weren't buying much sympathy. We went out to the State Hospital to visit my dad. I wouldn't get out of the car and say hello; I loathed them both.
The next three years I lived with two different families in L.A. that I had known through the Scouts. They were nice enough, but I think I just wasn't having any of it and kept to myself mostly. My 2 friends from before I left were around, so I had some familiar company. We would do the Midnight Auto thing, stealing car parts, on weekends. I didn't see my parents for 2 years and then my mom showed up. I told her that seeing her was a real drag; the mother of the family I was with climbed all over me. I was ambivalent.
A year later I moved in with my parents in an apartment in El Segundo, California. I got the Murphy bed and mom got the couch and dad slept on the floor. I had been living in a sleeping bag for 3 years, so it seemed about par for the course. They soon split up and mom and I moved back to Highland Park, where my friends lived. El Segundo had been a strange place. The High School was ruled by surfers, who were also the stars of all the sports teams. They beat up kids that came in from out of town. I laid low and made a couple of friends among the dysfunctional.
Back in Highland Park I had my two friends that I had known for years, and mom had her boyfriends, mostly short Italian guys, and I was back in a High School I at least could find my way around in. She liked men that way: short and dark, and I thought of Highland Park as home.
Kristina adds here that I seem to think others had happy childhoods. No, even growing up I could see that happy childhoods, happy children, were few and far between. It seems to me that the myth of the happy childhood is all too pervasive and quite destructive. What good can it do for a child to feel cheated by fate? And that would be the myth's legacy if it were believed.
Our culture has moved toward the denial of personal responsibility. This is most often voiced as what 'I did' or 'I did not do.' This is a false premise, or at least only half the case. Beneath that surface there is also the 'who you are'. You may yell and scream that you are not jealous, covetous, mean-spiritied, sneaky.... but if these things are in you then you are responsible for how you deal with them. It is not a matter of fault, to my way of thinking. We cannot be blamed for the state of our mental cargo at birth. I believe we are born with genetic predispositions which can leave us open to acting badly. Where our predisposition is to fair-mindedness or charity or kindness, just at we were not to blame in one case it is difficult to see how we can take credit in the latter. In the very womb we leaf through the bundle of scripts we have been dealt.
I don't believe in original sin, but our genetic legacy gives us something almost like it. Maybe our individual genetic load is accrued karma; it would make some sense to me to think that I had an evil temper, or a mean streak due to errors in past lives, and that in this life I could either pay the bill or add to the debt. I don't subscribe to that, but it would be a reason I could grasp. No matter why you are as you are, you are necessarily resposible for your own actions. There can be no other way. Dealing with the conflict between your own desires and defects and self-centered inclinations, and with what those around you need and expect from you - that is where the art of learning to live with who you are blossoms.
I have met a few who did have the happy childhood in their basket of memories. They were very special. It wasn't just that they had been well-treated, but that they had been able to live with themselves from the first breath. Few of us are so lucky. A sheen of innocence and goodness lay upon them, and it had not been put there by circumstance. So, it is much more than what happened to you, how you were treated; who your parents were, that determine childhood's progress. The real secret is in having been born with genes of self-acceptance woven into your fiber, and then having had the luck of good circumstances layered onto that like frosting. Most of us have a less fortuitous beginning and much labor to perform.
I don't know when I really got depressed - yes, here we go again, but the whole business advanced until I was psychotic. I could sense the dead all around me. The world was full of the dead, walking and talking and doing regular stuff, except we couldn't see them because they were dead. I was so close to being able to reach out and touch them. I would stretch my fingers looking for contact. The thinnest veil lay between me and the dead. And they were happy. They were dead. What did they have to worry about? Life was good for the dead - ok, psychosis doesn't make much sense, but there it is.
I had a new friend who was just a little strange. We decided to kill ourselves together. In the days leading up to our appointment I was floating. I was so happy that I was going home. The day we were to do it I took an entire bottle of my mother's Miltown, put my rifle in the car, and we headed out to the woods. This may all seem a bit too graphic, but is simply one of those parts of myself that I have learned to live with.
I cut my left wrist several times but didn't seem to be bleeding enough. The pills had made me fairly loopy. At that point we were in the woods well off the road and I told this other fellow I would go first. I put my .22 rifle behind my right ear and pulled the trigger. I didn't actually feel anything, but it was as if a giant hammer made of air had walloped me. I was lying down in the leaves and looking up at the sky wondering what happened next. I was not, absolutely not, I decided, willing to shoot myself again. I heard my friend ask if I was dead. I replied that I was not, but that I certainly had to be dying so he was not to worry about it. I fell asleep.
It was getting dark and cold when he woke me up. He was upset looking at me. He said he was going to carry me out to the road to get help. My unsuccessful attempt had made him certain he did not want to try his own hand at suicide. I recall him picking me up and carrying me, and I recall his stumbling and my seeing a tree stump rushing at my face. He had knocked me unconscious and I came to in the E.R. in the hospital in Riverside. I could not see, my face had swollen up like a giant purple basketball. The bullet that had gone in behind my right ear and had mostly come out just above my left eye, having simply gone right through my brain and exited. Hearing cloth rippping, they were tearing my clothing off figuring me for a sure-goner but doing the right thing, I asked who had won the game; I was a big Dodger's fan. It took someone a moment to answer. What was I doing conscious? they whispered.
There was no possible surgery to be done with such massive trauma, so the docs decided a bandaid on each hole and some replacement blood was about it. Ten days later I was home in Highland Park. I had shot myself on Memorial Day of my 16th year and was back in school in time to take my finals for my junior year before mid-June. I was still pretty vividly bruised, I had lost my sense of smell and was bringing out pieces of bone when I blew my nose, and my jaw wouldn't work right for several months, but I was essentially ok. I never again considered the happy dead, or the idea of joining them. I didn't feel that a miracle had happened, and my life didn't change, except for the absence of the psychosis, but I just knew I was going to have to live my life out until it was over, no matter how I felt. That was how I could go for years feeling suicidal, but not being suicidal.
It was a bother that parts of my past were missing. People knew me and I didn't know them. My mother mentioned our ice skating; I had never been ice skating in my life. Otherwise my life pretty much went on as before. No one, not even at the hospital, mentioned suicide. It had all been an accident with a happy outcome.
During the following year I took up burglarizing local shops; we were living in El Segundo again. A friend and I would break in and steal tools. Always tools. Not tools to use or sell, but tools to keep in the trunk of my car. My trunk was really loaded when the police finally caught up to me after I tripped a silent alarm. The quirky thing was that I had become rather addicted to the action. At some point most boys want to be action heroes, and next to commando what is really cool? Fireman? Maybe, but cat burglar for sure! I did stop this after I was caught and released, but it was damned difficult. I just longed for the rush. No charges were filed and I walked. Probably because I was a minor and everything was recovered. We had burgled 3 or 4 places before the crime wave was interrupted. The friend, who was 18, went right into the Air Force. That was a usual solution to juvenile crime in those days.
My senior year in High School I only went half days and was quite bored. I wanted to quit school and go into the Navy. Mom said she would sign for me if I would wait until graduation. I agreed and joined up in August of '61 with the blessing of Mom Harmon. Actually getting into the Navy was really strange. I presented myself for induction and a board of review was called to consider my application. The board was several officers who asked me questions. They pointed out that I was legally blind in one eye, had a record of several felony counts, and I had suffered massive brain damage only the year before. What kind of sailor did I think I would make? I pleaded with them to let me in. I cited my father's wartime service to his country; I suppose I could have cited mom's too, but they didn't seem to have an abundance of humor. They did let me in. How, I still ask myself, did I ever get into the Armed Forces with a history like that? The draft would certainly have found me 4F. Life is a series of small wonders.
On the way to boot camp in San Diego the sailor in charge of the bus called us all mother-fuckers several times in loud and threatening tones, and I was immediately aware that I had made a terrible mistake. Boot camp was truly hell. I did not take well to the discipline, to being constantly told what a piece of shit I was, and I always seemed to be in trouble. Some guys just gloried in it. How their minds worked eluded me completely. I went in skinny and got out of boot camp eleven pounds lighter and jumpy as a cat.
The Navy was democratic in assessing its recruits. One morning before dawn my company, about 60 of us, were herded into a hall and given an extensive battery of tests. We were tested for everything; there were even hearing tests to find good sonar men. I scored high on most of the tests and was able to request an 'A' school. This course of study would be to prepare me for a technical place in the new armed forces. I went into the interview determined that I wanted, more than anything in life, to load bombs onto airplanes! Right now I cannot quite recall why I wanted this privelege.for my own. The interviewer looked at my scores and steered me neatly into Nuclear Weapons training. He was slick. In his former life he had probably sold used cars to immigrants.
The first 6 weeks of our training was in basic electrical theory and took place at the Great Lake's Naval Training Center located between Chicago and Milwaukee on the shore of Lake Michigan. Prior to class beginning we were given assignments around the base. I was put into a crew that was installing lockers in a barracks.
The barracks buildings on this base deserve comment. They were huge 2 storey wooden buildings that had been erected during WWII. The weather that had pounded them for decades had separated the siding boards so that great gaps existed; you could simply look outside through these cracks. These were the barracks that housed us and soon after I arrived the weather turned. Winter was coming to the shores of Lake Michigan. It snowed. And the snow blew right through the cracks and piled up in small drifts inside the barracks. It was so cold that we all wore everything in our sea bags that we could get on for sleeping. I hate wool; it makes me itch, but I was glad to have layers and layers of it around me at all times.
So, the work-detail went fine. We didn't have to work too hard and I shared the tasks with some pleasant guys. The only one I recall was a big black kid from Chicago named Austin. One day after I had been at this duty for a couple of weeks I was called into an office and questioned about a wallet missing from a locker that was in use; we had been working in occupied barracks. I told them I didn't know anything about it, and that seemed to be that. A day or two later two Shore Patrolmen came to the barracks and took me outside. I was told to get into a jeep and we drove to a nearby Army Camp named Fort Sheridan. I was shown into an office in the basement of the Provost Marshall's building and introduced to a man in his forties in civilian dress. His name was Kaiser. He looked like a banker, suit and tie and buzzed.
Kaiser just had a few questions about the missing wallet. Theft among shipmates was a serious affair given the level of trust needed in such close quarters. I couldn't have agreed more and was as helpful as I could be. I really hadn't seen anything and had no idea who might have taken it. He was such a nice guy, and I really wanted to help him out.
Like an explosion Kaiser slammed his fist down on his desk and became a roaring monster. He shrieked. He foamed. He pounded his desk violently. I was not prepared. Any kid undergoing this today would quickly recognize good cop/bad cop, even when done singlehandedly, because television cop shows have laid interrogation out bare. "Hey, dude, I saw that on Law and Order' Cool." I had no idea.
I will admit, even if I had known I would not have been ready. Interrogation in the abstract is not interroagtion in your face. From the abstract to the actual was a huge leap. As he was to point out time and time again in the coming days he had the full weight of military law behind him: the much-dreaded UCMJ, Universal Code of Military Justice. Yes, it is a system of law, but one under which no rights are really accorded to the accused, and the punishments meted out could be as arbitrary as a case of indigestion, or a heart attack. There was no way out for me, he would assure me over and over, and I believed him with complete acceptance.
Kaiser opened a folder, my file, and began to read to me. I was a thief. It was a documented fact that I was a suck-ass thief. Only tools, and I had stopped that, I pled. His voice went on and on, dancing from point to point. We established the fact that I was a virgin. A virgin at 17: ergo, I was queer. Did I want to go into the head with him and we could jack off? I was thereafter referred to as 'pogey bait'. He could change personnas the way most of us change socks, only more quickly. I was never, ever able to establish just who I was dealing with. The man was an absolute master at what he did, and a fearful 17 year old with all the secrets of dysfunctional puberty was a perfect target.
We never really got past anything. My felonies would seem to fade only to return in another context. The same with my lack of sexual experience. I would seem to gain some period of grace during which I was not either hammered with my obvious queerness or reviled as a thief; I was treated with tender respect as a misunderstood lad, and then it would all return like a blood-soaked wheel. I was in shambles internally, soon reduced to a very tight defense of simple answers of 'yes' and 'no'. I had gone into a very small, tight place inside and I was holding out the best I could.
His office was decorated with large blowups of finger prints, framed as if they were art. I had asked something about them and had my head bitten off. I sank further into despair. Kaiser offered me a way out, a polygraph test, which he would personally administer, and this would surely prove my innocence. I accepted eagerly. We went through the process with the blood pressure cuff and the scrolling paper with its tell-tale needle tracks and the questions, and he sadly informed me that it showed that I was truly guilty. I cannot begin to tell you the ups and downs this man took me through without ever laying a hand on me. He was anyone and everyone and no one, and I bought into every whim of his with an appalling eagerness.
This went on for about 8 hours a day for three consecutive days. I was taken back to my barracks after each session and told to be ready for pickup the next morning. The release, the wait, the expectation were excruciating.
The third day we got deeper into my file and my brain damage was addressed. Kaiser was kind and considerate. He had made a terrible error and was contrite. He now saw that due to my brain damage I was a pathological thief and liar, but I didn't even know it! I did these things without conscious knowledge. I was trapped in my illness. He could help. Kaiser described with such clarity the absolute quiet of the hospital I could go to. The clean sheets. The fine people who would look after me. It was too much. I was willing to go there. I wanted desperately to go there and be fixed and be normal and be myself again. Oh, god, how I wanted this!
All I had to do was sign the confession. Then I could go to the hospital. The confession had been around from day one. A yellow legal pad. Since I would not write one out specifying my crimes Kaiser had written one for me. All I had to do was sign it. It was so easy. I longed for the succor of this hospital, and I told him 'no.' I had not taken a wallet, and I would not sign a confession. He exploded. I was too exhausted to care.
My Shore Patrol escort came into the room and took me out. They went back in to talk to Kaiser. I knew I was to go to prison now. The cool, calm hospital would not be mine, because I was not able to sign the false confession. I wept. They came back out and bundled me into the jeep. I asked where we were going. Back to your barracks, they said. What time will you pick me up tomorrow? I asked. They laughed and said they wouldn't.
I knew this was a trick. I knew it. What happens then? I asked cautiously. Nothing, they replied. Kaiser is fed up with you. Nobody lasts 3 days with him, especially some snot-nosed kid fresh from mama's side. Jeez, was he pissed! they told me. He had been an army interrogator for many, many years, and he liked to keep in practice with this kind of stuff. Was he ever upset that he couldn't get you to confess; he threw everything in the book at you.
That weekend I went to Milwaukee and got so drunk I couldn't walk. I got drunk on several succeeding weekends, too. Whatever doubts I had come out of boot camp with, about the power of this beast that I had engaged myself too, I now understood that it, the military, was my undying, implacable enemy. I had over 2 years left to serve.
Graduating from the electrical component of training I was shipped off to Albuquerque to go to the Nuclear Weapons School at Sandia Base. It was more weeks of study. working with actual weapons now. What we learned was mainly how to run tests. There were still some very old-fashioned weapons around that required a battery of machines all cabled into the bomb. Instructions would be read from a manual about what settings to use, and which buttons to push, and what readings to report. Every instruction was repeated before anything was done. Everyone said 'check' a lot to indicate their understanding and to say they had done some procedure just as outlined. It was all terribly time-consuming and boring. These older weapons we actually did get to open up and take apart. We were shown movies of a guy who had done it wrong. We watched in technicolor as his hair fell out and his skin sloughed off. We watched him die. We maintained that we would be vigilant caretakers of our hard, shiny charges and never make those sorts of mistakes. And it was pretty boring.
We went into town on liberty, but the bars were closed to us. We all bought handguns and took them into the desert and shot at cans. I got a Ruger Blackhawk .357 with a six inch barrel; I liked it a lot. I seem to recall that I paid $56 for it over the counter at the gun shop. Every weekend we were out shooting.
When school was over we got our assignments. I had asked to be stationed in Rota, Spain, but then everyone had asked to be stationed there. I was to report aboard the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, CVA 14, in the shipyards in Bremerton, Washington in 30 days.
A vacation in Mexico seemed like a nice idea. Having been down to Ciudad Juarez, the other half of El Paso, a couple of times on liberty I felt confident about the idea. At the Juarez Bus Station I bought a ticket for Chihauhau City and got in line. As we boarded we came to a table where out baggage was searched. I didn't see any problem. The customs officer did. He pulled out my .357 and wailed. Little brown men in mismatched army uniforms came and got me and took me away to a special building.
Was I a revolutionary? Was I quite mad? What was I? Well, I was someone who had no idea you couldn't carry your handgun around anywhere in the world you wanted. I showed them my military I.D. and they called the Navy. For hours I sat in a room with very silent soldiers guarding me; I kept wondering why they had on pieces of various uniforms that did not go together. Even their helmets didn't match. Then a pair of Shore Patrolmen came into Mexico to retrieve me and take me back to Texas.
They said I was an idiot. But they weren't mean about it. Giving me back my bag, and all its contents, they dropped me at a hotel and said they would be back in the morning to sort the matter out. I should be waiting out front. Well, I had waited out front for the Shore Patrol before, and no good came of it. I recalled Kaiser. When they were out of sight I walked down the street to the highway and began hitching west, to California. And I never heard another word about it. For once I seemed to have gotten the unspoken clue: leave town now, boyo.
Probably time for a new page here. They get cumbersome.