A lot of people join the military. There are myriad reasons for this – adventure, to see the world, to take some time and figure out whether you want college, and what you want from it. All of those are good, valid reasons. None of them were mine. I spent most of my life in a small town, not fitting in all that well at school and trying to find ways to deal with the abusive, alcoholic step-father life dealt me.
No, he never beat me. He did launch me off the ground with a broom once, but I thoroughly deserved that. My brother and I had been considering getting into an old oil barrel and rolling down a steep hill toward the lake below… Bob – never dad – was a big man. He had his own issues – raised in the depression on or near an Amish farm. Grew up to serve as a police officer and (I believe) a pilot for a while in a non-wartime military. When I met him, he was a barber.
I have never understood the relationship he and my mother shared. She seemed to spend most of her life in trying not to make him angry, while sneaking behind his back to see that my brother and I had some kind of life of our own beyond him. Bob’s idea of how our days should be spent was in going to school – only because we had to – coming home – and working. He was always working on something, a glass of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up in one hand and a cheap, stinking cigar in the other. We were expected to be part of it. He could build things. He could fix cars. He could fly a plane, and even taught my mom to do it. What he could not do was – in any way at all – relate to people other than his few old friends, and though he seemed to get along well with his own son, he was pathetically inept at dealing with me, or my brother.
After very, very long hours of thought, my brother and I have come to the conclusion he was possibly gay, and just never had the courage to come out of the closet. He and my mom slept in different rooms. He insulated his with cork and air-conditioned it to near freezing. Most of the jokes he made were off-color and inappropriate. He was prejudiced to a fault, and when the family (on the rare occasions we were allowed out of our bedroom) watched Archie Bunker, Bob laughed with Archie while the rest of us laughed at them both. Bob was Archie Bunker and proud of it. He had more ethnic slurs memorized than I do 70s and 80s pop songs, and that is one of my super powers.
I remember one winter how he sent us out to shovel snow off the driveway. Not a bad thing, in and of itself, though we were not very old or large or strong. Here’s the thing, though. It was still snowing. By the time we hit the end of the drive (which was long) it was covered again. Southern Illinois in winter is VERY cold. Our toes were near frostbite. We did this for HOURS and he would not let us stop, or come in. On top of it all – he owned a 12 hp tractor with a snow plow, and when we were finished…then he went out and plowed it after the snow stopped. This is the type of thing that happened any time he was given control of the situation, so – for our own survival – we found ways to avoid as much contact with him as humanly possible.
I remember one day, out in the sun, not allowed to get a drink, trying to hold sheets of particle board siding against the wall without letting them move as he stood back and cocked his head, drank his beer, or whiskey, and took his sweet time deciding to nail it into place. We were so tired – so hot. At some point, I had a spade in my hand. I don’t remember what job required that, but there it was. In those few short moments, I remember considering slamming it into the back of his head repeatedly, and taking my chances – as a juvenile – in the system. I truly, truly hated him. I was told I would get over that when I grew up. I never did, though I came to sort of pity him and the anger drained away.
Later in life, to show he never changed, I visited home with my first wife. At this point, Bob and my mom slept in different halves of a duplex (reinforcing the separate room thing to a ridiculous degree). We were in mom’s half, on a fold-out couch in her family room. Before we woke, he came in, and sat in a chair. Then he grinned and started talking, and very clearly thought if he waited long enough, we’d both get out from under the covers without dressing and prance around for his entertainment. I had to get up and tell him to get out so she could dress. The creep factor was huge. During that trip he also had a near psychotic break because, having hated anything but whole milk all of my life, I had the temerity to buy some and put it in the refrigerator. It might have been the depression years talking, but he was absolutely insanely angry about what he considered a ridiculous waste of money when Skim and 2% were cheaper. Funny the cost of whiskey never came up.
Anyway… why do I mention all of this? Not really for therapeutic purposes, but just to show another aspect of how your life can inform your creative process. All of the things that I blame on that man, and the life I lived before I left for the US Navy, are a part of what I’ve written, what I will write in the future, the decisions I make as a man, husband, father. Writing is like life, when it’s done right, and the things that ache – the things that hurt – the things that drive you near the edge of madness – those are the things that give your words power – side by side with the wonder you find in the world, the love and relationships and success you encounter along the way. These are the influences that insure you have something to say – and if you don’t – why are you writing?
You will find part of my life in those days in the childhood of Brandt, the protagonist of my fairly popular novel Deep Blue. Writing that was therapeutic.
You thought I was going to talk about boot camp, and I am. I first escaped home by spending a lot of time in a church. I walked in that world for a time, and when I left home, I was still mired firmly in that dream. As I said a few pages back – in 1997 I left for the United States Navy – EVERYTHING changed.