I was in that twilight between blissful slumber and wakefulness this morning, where a loop of a song chorus usually inhabits, when something else intruded. Something I hadn’t thought about in years — my father.
He died of leukemia over 20 years ago, and I honestly can’t remember the last time he crossed my mind. Maybe a handful of times in the last 10 years. For a child to not think about a parent for that long is fucked up. I know that. But something else occurred to me this morning: I have NO good memories of my dad. ZERO.
I was lying there, the fan blowing a gentle breeze over my body, combing my memory banks, searching in vain for ONE good, solid memory of him. No dice.
Oh, I have lots of memories of my childhood. Most are resoundingly bad. I’m one of those guys in the “everyone has gone through shit, so who cares?” camp. I am in NO way trolling for sympathy: there are millions out there who’ve had it worse than me.
I felt the need to put what’s in my head to electronic paper, and I frankly don’t know why. Maybe just to get it out of my head.
My dad was a stone cold drunk. I know there are millions of you out there who were/are in the same boat. I’m not special. I can honestly say I can’t remember a single instance in my childhood where I saw him sober.
He had a beer (Bud was his drink of choice) in his hand from the moment he woke up until he passed out on the couch at night. He also drank the hard stuff, and I vividly remember one time as a kid, when we were digging post holes for a barbed wire fence. We lived in Georgia, and it was 7th circle of Hell hot that day. My dad had a mason jar full of a clear liquid that looked like water. He offered it to me. I put it to my lips, and it smelled like gasoline. I tried a sip, and I spit it out, almost throwing up in the process. His drunk, racist, redneck buddies had a ball laughing at me, and finally one of them told me it was moonshine. Yep, fucking moonshine! Classy.
There was an out of the way lake near us, and he used to drive me, my older brother, and older sister there to go swimming. We had an old, tan Rambler like this one.
We all bounced around the back seat (seat-belts weren’t a thing back then), holding on to whatever we could as my dad sped along the rutted dirt road to the lake. My brother was on my left, I was always in the middle, and my sister was on my right. There was a cooler in between my legs full of, you guessed it, Buds. When my dad reached back while driving, it was my job to pull a beer out of the ice, pop the top, and give it to him.
He went through a lot of beers each way, and sat in a frayed, green lawn chair, cooler by his side, while we swam. As the chair creaked and strained under his considerable weight, he drank and chain smoked the afternoon away. I’m guessing he didn’t know where he was most of the time. We usually had to wake him up to drive us home. Two trips home were very memorable: in one, he passed out and veered right, off the road, driving into a ditch. My sister flew over the front seat, hitting the dash, dislocating her shoulder. In the other, he passed out, swerving into oncoming traffic. My brother grabbed his shoulders from behind, shaking him violently until he came to, and barely avoided hitting a truck head on. It got to the point I was terrified to get in the car when he was driving, but I swallowed that fear like it was bile coming up from my stomach, kept my head down, and hoped for the best.
He was a hulk of a man: 6'5", 260 pounds, with a booming, intimidating voice. I’ve heard of people who were happy drunks, sad drunks, but he was the quintessential mean drunk.
He was physically and psychologically abusive to all of us. My mother, bless her heart, took the brunt of it. He beat her often, and as my brother and I got older, we’d try to defend her. That resulted in a backhand that would send me or my brother across the room, only making the beatings worse.
He worked on the outskirts of Atlanta, in a Ford auto factory, building cars. He’d go off somewhere and drink after work, coming home late most nights. My brother and I had bunk beds, with brown and white cowboy sheets. He was on top, I was on the bottom. We spent most of our time in that bedroom, trying to shield ourselves from him. When we’d see the headlights flash across the front window, we’d scramble under the covers, feigning sleep, hoping tonight wasn’t our turn in the barrel. Sometimes we’d get lucky, other times not so lucky.
One particular evening, he was enraged by something my brother allegedly did, and crashed his way into our bedroom. I was facing the wall, pretending to be asleep. My brother actually was asleep, but not after my dad grabbed his arm and jerked him from the top bunk all the way down to the floor. My brother hit the floor, and started hyperventilating. My dad came out of his stupor long enough to freak out, saving my brother for the moment. As my dad sat on the floor crying, my mother ran into the bedroom, gathered up me, my brother, and my sister, and ran out to the car. We drove for what seemed like forever, and ended up at our grandparent’s house near Athens. We stayed there for days, but eventually she took us back home. It started all over again, just like nothing happened.
One of his rituals on the weekends was making first, my brother, then me, cook him his favorite drunk food: fried bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayo. I remember being barely able to lift the heavy black cast iron pan onto the stove top, getting it really hot, adding butter to the pan, and peeling off 3 pieces of bologna for each sandwich. The bologna would pop up like it was being inflated, looking like a half of a basketball. Flip them over, same drill. Smear mayo on the bread, and take the sandwiches to him on a cracked blue plate. The reason it fell to me was one time my brother got too close to the pan and burned his stomach just above his belly button. Every time I saw that scar I felt a chill.
The scariest thing I remember was one night when he was unusually quiet. I had to walk from my bedroom, through the living room, then into the kitchen to get a glass of milk, hoping (as always) he was asleep. I turned into the living room, expecting him to be passed out on the couch. He wasn’t.
He was sitting up, looking at one of his guns on the coffee table. He looked at me, with blood in his eyes, and said, “What have I done?” I was too scared to move, much less talk. “Somebody tell me, what have I done?” He picked up the gun and pointed it at me. I was never so scared in my entire life. He slurred, “Maybe I should just kill all of us and get it over with.” Then he yelled, “Marie!”
My mother came in from their bedroom, and he said, “Get out of the fucking house NOW.”
“Howard, put the gun down.”
“I told you to get the fuck out!”
She hurriedly grabbed the three of us and we left the house. I expected to hear a gunshot before we got into the car, but the only thing that happened was the lights in the house went out. We drove to Athens again, and I overheard tearful conversations between them the next few days.
But, as always happened, it was back to status quo when we finally went back home.
I played football in high school, but was very injury prone. At the end my junior year, I decided I didn’t want to get hurt anymore, and told him I was quitting football. He exploded, calling me a faggot and a pussy as he slammed me against the wall. I was too scared to quit, so I played the following year, and sustained an injury to my lower back that has had me in pain 24/7 for the last 40 years. That is my constant reminder of him, so I’m not surprised I don’t think about him.
I never fit in: my entire family was inherently racist, and I must have heard the “N” word thousands of times growing up. One of our neighbors was even a member of the KKK. I was in survival mode my entire childhood, keeping my head down, hoping to make it to 18 so I could escape. He doesn’t realize it, but my dad was the perfect role model for me: he showed me everything NOT to do as an adult.
I’m a loner, I don’t trust people easily, and if someone fucks with me I’m done with them for good. I’m pretty sure my childhood has a lot to do with the man I’ve become, but I do the best I can to see the good in people. I do everything in my power to not be the man my father was (I’ve never had a drink of alcohol, no smoking or drugs), and I believe that’s why I never think about him. It sucks, but everyone goes through their own shit, and we all deal with it in different ways. And before you ask, I never considered therapy: I think it’s a load of crap. Those of you out there that derive a benefit from it, good for you. It isn’t for me. I’m self aware enough to know what I need to fix, and I do a pretty good job with it.
There’s lots more, but I’m sure I’ve shared much more than any of you out there have any interest in reading. Like I said, this was in my head today, and I needed to get it out. And now it’s out.
As Johnny Cash once sang, “Drive on.”