My stories of geeks in trailer parks, alcoholism, and loss

Pete Karl II
Mar 5, 2014 · 11 min read
26 ROLL = ROUND(DIE * 6)

The first memories I have of my uncle cling together like a pile of dirty laundry. They’re of denim vests, and guys with long hair and Marlboro cigarettes. They’re of cheap wooden patio sets on cool summer nights next to a thin garden crammed between two mobile homes.

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My Uncle Rudy, teen-aged

This is my grandparent’s house in the late 80's. She was Nanny and he is Pop-pop. I don’t know whether it was the escape from home, or the freedom of the trailer park, but I developed a fast, hard love for sleeping over at Nanny’s house.

My uncle, Rudy, lived in a bedroom at the far end of the trailer. It’s stained sepia by early morning light and aging plastic over the windows. There was always a slow swirl of ashy air lingering from the night before. Every surface was stacked with magazines topped with overflowing ashtrays.

An afternoon of eating controlled substances (snacks and soda) under grandma’s supervision eventually led to bedtime. She would lay me out a bedroll of the thickest blankets I have felt to this day (laced with ashy dust and the scent of cat litter). Tiny me swam in them. Once I was swamped in bedcovers, I would watch VHS tapes of The Simpsons until I passed out.

It was the safest place on earth.

It was dusk on another sleepover, and I was making my way outside. The creaky aluminum stairwell led to a cluster of glowing cherries floating around the patio table. My uncle and his friends were sitting around smoking pot and laughing. They picked a good night for it.

They started asking me questions: “how are you doing in school? Do you like any girls? yea? what’s her name? (giggles all around). They drifted back to ignoring me.

“Hey, little dude,” said the floating cherry closest to me. “Take this.”

Now what was going on in his head, I don’t know, but into my 10-year-old hands he placed a silver dragon pendant. It was thin and serpent-like, with wings that curved into points and tiny black eyes. I was mesmerized by it. I took it back into the trailer to show Nanny.

She plucked it out of my hands with the deftness of a seamstress, and held it up to the wicker lap shade above the kitchen table. “This is very special,” she said, and planted it right back in my hands. It was the first thing a stranger ever gave to me. It was special. It was delicate and fantastic and medieval, and I loved it.

I lost it in the wash a week later. I have not forgiven myself in the 20 years since.

My grandmother was a beauty queen who married a mason. I remember looking up at her sewing machine, with its complicated web of thread and grommets and metal pedal. It moved surgically and mechanically in a way that frightened me and thrilled me.

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Pop-pop and Nanny holding my aunts

When my brothers and I visited (sometimes the three of us slept over), she would tire the life out of us with tickles. I remember us kids on her big bed in her tiny bedroom and she had us paralyzed with laughter. She was so quick to catch a stray foot or escaping brother. “I’m Ninja Nanny!” she called out, squeezing the last few gasps of air back out our lungs. We didn’t stand a chance.

This kind of fun only solidified the joy of sleeping over at Nanny’s house. Life was super good.

An end table in the living room had been completely taken over by creamy computer hardware. The feeble floor lamps had nothing on the blinking green cursor in front of me. My uncle was beside me, pawing through piles of floppy disks.

He erupted with a triumphant “Ah ha!” and flicked a disk into the slot with dry-erase marker scrawled across it.

Games #1-7

Rudy typed a quick command into the already-yellowing keyboard, and pulled me in front. “There”, which sounded more like ‘dare’, “it’s like you’re playing a board game.” “This one’s Jumanji. Somebody ripped it off, and just made a computer game out of it. You can do whatever you want.”

I rolled the dice (per the command prompt’s request), and it responded with a rhyming phrase about jungle danger. I played a few turns and found myself prodding at the inputs. What if I mash on the keyboard? What if I hit enter a bunch of times?

When I hit a wall fiddling around, he stopped me and typed something else. Instead of a command prompt with questions about dice and rhymes about lions, I was looking at a long list of text with numbers at the front of each line.

60 REM ** ROLLED A 4
70 REM ** ROLLED A 5

He showed me that you could change the text, and run the game again, and your changes would be in the game.

60 REM ** ROLLED A 4

It worked. This was amazing. That night he even showed me how to use IF..THEN..ELSE and change the dice randomizer to add new options instead of just changing existing ones. I wasn’t aware of it in the slightest, but at that moment my 13-year-old brain chose to become a programmer.

My socked feet skoosh-skoosh-skooshed on the linoleum to her door, and I burst through it.

It was one of the last sleepovers of my youth. I had a summer job cleaning up lawns with my best friend. I was about to meet my first girlfriend. I was about to reinvent myself for high school, where I was signed up for a WordPerfect typing course and my first programming class: Programming with BASIC.

Things had changed at the trailer park, too, over the years. My uncle had a girlfriend and a son (all three living in the trailer with my grandparents). The collection of VHS taped television and movies had grown to cover the short wall of their living room, now decked with tall speakers acquired at the nearby flea market.

I don’t remember exactly the thing, but I was excited about it. More so, I was scampering from one side of the trailer to the other to show Nanny. My socked feet skoosh-skoosh-skooshed on the linoleum to her door, and I burst through it.

What I saw puzzled me. Nanny looked surprised. She pulled a big clear plastic bottle from her lips and stuffed it into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She shushed me out hurriedly, and I shut the door behind me, turning away. I stood in the hallway outside her door for a minute, feeling guilty and sad, still not sure why.

To this day, I remember the flash of a red sweater in the drawer as she covered the bottle, and how defeated she looked just before I turned away.

…he’d immediately bark out to me “10.8 seconds”, his latest time to boot Windows with the new config.

The purpose of my trailer park visits had crossed a threshold from seeing my grandparents, to talking about computers and hardware with Uncle Rudy. I had a computer of my own now, an eMachines eTower 300k, complete with 2Gb hard drive and 32 Mb of RAM. It ran Windows 98, and I spent most of my time creating graphics in Fireworks, and dating journal entries to my Geocities site using Dreamweaver 2.0.

His girlfriend had left him, and Little Rudy with her, so he spent a lot of time accumulating computer cases, motherboards, hard drives, and all the rest. He built computer after computer after computer. I think he inadvertently created the most internet-connected trailer park in central NJ.

He and I troubleshooted strange issues with broken or bootlegged copies of Windows. I learned everything from jumping master/slave hard drives to Windows registry tweaks. Rudy was always looking for a faster machine. I’d show up, and he’d immediately bark out to me “10.8 seconds”, his latest time to boot Windows with the new config.

With my humming eMachines tower under my arm, and thriving web site (visited by no one but my girlfriend and I, thankfully), I was to head off to college that year. I left my uncle behind along with the rest of my family.

It was the day after Christmas in 2000. I had just completed my first quarter of classes with a 4.0, and I was happy to be home again.

My grandparents were at our house, and they were heading out, so I got up from the kitchen table to say my goodbyes. Nanny gave me one of her trademark squeezes, and then something else. It was something fierce and confusing for me. Another hard hug, and she looked me in the eyes and told me she loved me, and that she was proud of me. Then the moment was gone, and I was shaking my grandfather’s hand, and my mind went back to thoughts of the half-day drive back up to college and how nice it was to see everyone.

“Platanthera integrilabia. Hemerocallis fulva. Dianthus caryophyllus.”

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Nanny and I, 2000-ish

Nanny passed away in early 2001. According to my grandfather, she got up from bed one morning, and walked down the hall saying the scientific names for flowers. Then collapsed.

It was an aortic aneurysm. Decades of alcoholism combined with new radiation therapy were too much.

When my mother called, I was sitting in my dorm room studying for finals week. She told me, and all I could think was “Nanny knew.” She knew something was wrong, and was saying her final goodbyes to me right there, and I had no clue.

It was my first loss, and the first time I connected the dots between loss and alcohol.

I had almost finished my Bachelors degree, and was coming into my own as a web programmer. Not only that, I had come into my own as an adult. What meager self-confidence I had preserved in elementary school was starting to bud, and my life was moving forward.

After years of having cash disappear from bedroom, and now my suitcase, I had finally accepted that my brothers had drug problems (I couldn’t call them ‘addiction’ issues. It was too dehumanizing). Some cousins, a few family friends, and even Uncle Rudy hadn’t escaped the grasp of alcohol, painkillers, or heroin.

I was home again for a family BBQ, and I was new at steeling myself against these kinds of emotions. Stuffing down the betrayal and fury at my helpless siblings. What was I doing to do? Scream the drugs out of their hiding places? Thrash them until they stopped stealing from my parents?

These days visiting the house meant I was a raw nerve. I wrestled between empathy and rage.

My uncle was coming to the BBQ, and I was warned ahead of time that he was trying to stay sober. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He had lost a few teeth, and looked soft and gaunt. He still wanted to talk computers with me. There was socializing, and there were beers, but he didn’t touch one the entire time.

Then it happened. No one had noticed earlier, but Rudy had walked up the street to the liquor store and stashed a bottle of vodka in my grandfather’s car. He’d almost finished it by the time my dad saw him staggering back up the lawn.

“Get out of here you fucking drunk,” I heard my dad shout at him from the breezeway. Uncle Rudy screamed back, and that’s when I lost it. I stomped through the house and bellowed past my dad into his face. I don’t remember what I said, but he was sideswiped by it. It took him a moment, but he shot back at me, snarling and walking away “You’d be nothing without me!”

My grandfather shut him back in the car to head home, and by now my mother had intervened in the house, calming things down.

That phrase, his face, and the way his body swayed when he yelled at me, pointing. It’s all frozen in my mind. Was there a well of judgment waiting to come out this whole time? Did he see me as some kind of big shot lording over the family? I fell asleep thinking these things that night as I wrote him out of my life.

“I’m doing a lot better now”

Almost ten years had to pass before I saw him again. I heard the stories, of course, when I called home. How’s Pop-pop? How’s Rudy? How about Little Rudy? John? Still in jail. Greg? Not sure where he is?

It was the chilly end of 2013. My mother and I were at the same flea market where my grandparent’s had furnished their audio system all those years ago. I went out of my own, strolling up and down the long rows of cracked plywood tables. Occasionally, I slowed down for interesting stuff. A japanese-style acoustic guitar. An original 1977 star wars figure (for $12? no way. He doesn’t even have his accessory). A mish-mash of computer parts.

Standing over them are my Uncle Rudy and Pop-pop, bundled up. I’m so sincerely happy to see them, and they’re happy to see me. My grandfather wheezes a hello, and Rudy and I hug. I ask him how the computer stuff is selling, and they’re pretty happy with it. He just sold a Pentium i3 for $30 bucks (they weren’t sure if it worked).

He says he’s doing better now. He looks proud, and I’m proud for him. I tell him that I’m really happy to hear that, and I really am. I have my camera around my neck, and I don’t think to take a photo. I say my goodbyes again, and catch up with my mom. Rudy seems so far from the screaming drunk in my memory. I’m relieved.

He was cold to the touch when Pop-pop came back from the convenience store this past Sunday morning. Saturday night Rudy was driven to a drug store to get some melatonin, and they think he grabbed some rubbing alcohol to drink in desperation. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

This is the worst kind of news. The tragedy you saw coming. The release from worry, and the collapse into regret.


So why talk about this? Selfishly, it gives me closure. I get to put some very private, somewhat shameful things out there. It’s for my family. They’ll be hosting a gathering to remember him, and I won’t be in attendance. This is what I have to offer them. My story, and my perspective as a child and as an adult reflecting on this loss.

You, I hope, see something in this. Maybe you have a family member like my uncle or grandmother. Maybe they’re still alive, and you can take a minute to reach out to them one more time.

Thanks for reading. I’ll miss you, Rudy.

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my Uncle Rudy and my mom

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