Living The Obverse and Reverse

Yesterday I reacted to a reading of The Obverse and The Reverse by Albert Camus by saying “[The] poor only have the sky and stars”; that, “their wealth are in dreams.”

Within hours I was told of my cousin, Michael’s untimely death. As I contemplate, again,  the happenstance that befalls us – consciousness, breath, life, I see our undeniable life parallels, too obvious to deny; front and back trajectory.

At this moment I recognize again there is greater pain in life than poverty.

He and I grew up in poverty. Poverty is physical. Like hunger, palpable, though it can be solved.  A simple dream be it food, shelter, security. These can ease poverty.

When there are no dreams, there is no ease to this life. One sees no cure. One is exposed to deep psychological bankruptcy greater than any material hardship. Deep existential pain, worse than hunger or physical want, a search for definition, a basis for hope.

As dreams disappear I sense live ends at some quickened metric to the detachment.

My cousin was a kind, gentle heart. He, as I, did not know paternal fathers. He was born and suffered of a dysfunction of his mother’s consequence. Addiction, turmoil, perhaps also not of her making, as likely as was my teen mother, however, their dreams were lost to some sad collision of truths.

Camus might inject that I was bestowed “une grâce sans prix” –  a priceless grace when an  incidental moment; that, moment of truth, my mother could not nurture another baby in a fatherless house with other fatherless siblings, who also deserved dreams.

And in giving me away to strangers, they the most honorable, I could have dreams and, by chance, she could dream again.

A gamble of faith or resignation to truth to resurrect hope. An acute difficult decision that likewise could end tragically but did not for the reverence to life of those strangers, who pledged to become my parents .

This was the grace not afforded Michael, though there had been lessons taught twice of his mother, when she birthed and struggled twice before him. For whatever reason – love, selfishness, the hollow promise of an unworthy man, who she never disclosed to her son, her pain was so unbearable, she chased each day with some sedation or illusion. She focused upon and pacified her pain, neglecting the dreams for her children.

Left on their own device, through 52 years Michael’s pain and anger was never absolved. His priceless grace was bestowed on a baby girl that, though when found not biologically his, he did not abandon. He gave as much heart and soul to embrace as was possible under the duress of a lifetime of torment.

Michael Natalie

Though he could not further dream, he gave that baby dreams and his brother, who fought through these terrible circumstances, will carry those dreams forward.

For this twisted corollary, on this Memorial Day, Michael’s uncle, my decorated father, Max and I are proud of him for his compassion, heart and honor battling fate. He is at peace at last.

 

The Kalends of My February

written February 11, 2016

“… I certainly don’t expect you to understand”, I spat back at my long lost sister. “You call it ‘happenstance’; that, Jesus is the reason.”

“Well that’s nonsense. He was just a man. A good man thrust upon a small world of illiterate shepherds. Alone he dared, did his best, as I’ve dared and made the best. But I will not work myself into an early grave or nervous breakdown” like your son or husband.

“I can easily be called a piss poor German for this work ethic. I am guilty as charged with an abandoning indifference toward Revolution. But it’s all accidental – birth, education, property. An accidental capitalist. Accidental husband. Accidental landlord. I was just making best of an accident.”

When you haven’t known your sibling for 47 years, there’s no time for antecedents, details.  It demands candor. No synopsis or Cliff Notes. Timidity wastes time. Time we do not have.

“Gosh if someone heard us they might think this is a fight”, Jutta injected, “but I wish [my son] could be more like you… me too”, she admitted.

jesssus

 

“I’ve conquered childish fears and fables” although my desires and demons remain challenging. Still I’ve navigated virtually alone, indigent with the winds usually blowing in my face, rarely at my back.

Schwesti, we’ve survived” but unwittingly our success crowds our lives with influences that will be our death. We’ve anointed the  Kalends of our February that draw us to the ides of our March.

On queue Jutta announced her son had his fifth baby last night, filling her “with joy and thanksgiving to [her] father in heaven who blessed this undeserving woman with such a great family.”

As bastards of Occupation, I see again our shared reality, contradictions: undeserving, we were adrift yet found an enriched path leading us toward death. (A death she desires.)

I am proud of her. Happy she has Jesus.  Happier I had a man who wanted to be a father. Staff Sergeant Maxwell Horace Pennock, USA. The same United States Army that created Jutta and me; that, brought the unknown “swinging dicks” to conqueror and occupy our hometown.(“Don’t you want to know who they are?”, she’s asked. “No! They got what they wanted and went home to their wives and lives”, I reply.)

Long a societal stigma, being fatherless is demeaning. You disguise it yet must own it.  My sister thankfully had a twin, was not given away. She found a father in Jesus.

The grace of age has allowed me to recognize the impact and importance of  male elders. In a world now with so many fatherless children, they’re essential.Three men formed the rails that guided this little engine that would down an improbable path.

accidental

Though my father’s last breath was long ago yesterday, he nurtured me through adolescence. Another, born long ago this very day, he unleashed my imagination. My third elder, an octogenarian survives –  this his birth month. Though he’d refute it,  he was my accidental mentor. He pushed me out the door of youth into a big world that – due to no one’s fault, I had closed in adolescence.

All three antithetical of the other, they taught tenacity and obedience, guile and defiance, calculation and risk. By the springtime of my life, I fought lessons, as bastards often do. Never pretty, I flailed and failed.  Unlike the man that I never knew they did not abandon me.

Now without elders, I recognize that I am an elder, as all good men must embrace.

Personally I fight sorrow yet it’s outweighed by tremendous thanks, even if they knew not what they did.

 

 

 

This is Not News

This is not news.  It was once News. Documented. There are photographs.

December 1979, the Soviet leadership of Russia intervened  in an insurgency over their border. Russia has big borders. The Islamic Revolution was on their border in Iran. The Revolution needed to stay in Iran. They acted.

Jimmy Carter reacted. In many ways.  He brought back the Selective Service registration – preamble to conscription, the Draft, suspended after Viet Nam.

Any young man 18-25 born after January 1960 was required to register or face penalties.

Born prior to that date, I was exempt and went down to the Post Office to protest, leaflet, persuade young men against registering until properly counseled, consider options. With all the reaction to the Soviet “invasion”  I could react within boundary.

USPO

Some young men came to register while a steady stream of citizens wished to ignore me. Courteous but, it seemed my conscientiousness was less important than a Federal education grant or other financial aid to these young men.

A man walking with a cane asked, “can I hang out with you awhile?” He said, he was crippled in Viet Nam. Quietly he sat on the wall saying, he wished someone was there when he registered. He watched as I couldn’t close appeals, dejectedly closing “then sign ‘under duress of penalty’.”

After he left, a late model Lincoln Continental stretched to the curb. I offered a leaflet to this middle-aged housewife as she walked inside. When she returned, she berated me about World War II. As she retreated she spat at me. There was name-calling all day.

Later a paraplegic veteran lent support. He too drafted, a single enemy round sentencing him to a wheelchair. Yet they continued to register.

As a young man this was action. I wanted more.

The coming morning, of all people in a small dusty central California cowboy town, a Hungarian immigrant approached, veins erupting on forehead, in neck. He dove nose-to-nose, yelling about Russians; how, when he was a child, they drove tanks into Budapest. People died and disappeared.

Intellectually, I stuck to the Peace narrative; that, a new multi-polar world required new reactions to old Cold War narratives. Emotionally I feared we were coming to blows. (I had heard over night likeminded locals were showered by yellow paint cans at a Post Office.)

Surviving that interaction, a young Episcopalian priest joined me in the afternoon.  His collar defused reactionary aggression.

Another middle-aged woman with a familiar accent approached. She told how her two sons, who were not citizens had been required to register and were drafted to Vietnam.

I asked if she was German. She was. As her light blue eyes watered highlighted her withdrawn face, she explained they were killed in action; that she regretted not saving them by leaving.

I thought of her a moment ago when I saw on social media the story of a Guatemalan mother.  Her sons enlisted and killed in Iraq. She is now being deported because, like her dead sons, she’s undocumented. I thought of these mothers. Of many mothers. The thread of motherly pain.

As an older man I feel pain acutely. Now my protest, how I wish I’d never returned to that post office.  Human struggle is difficult to bear, especially up close. The weight of these people’s pain, unnecessary, unbearable, I was injected with it.

It’s difficult enough to carry one’s own weight through life. But after all these years, these stories, this is not news.

The Ends of Earth – Getting Lost in a Big World

The Summer of 1990 was vastly approaching. I was 30 years old, becoming restless. Since graduating college, I’d been back in Los Angeles a half dozen years, had a cramped apartment and a trophy girl friend return from a failed romance.

The year before, distraught by her apathetic return, I totaled my four-wheel drive truck along with a traffic light and telephone pole at Roscoe and Coldwater Canyon. It was the result of an emotional phone call with her.

Actually, it occurred when the coil mounted cellphone fell to the floor board when slamming the handset at my failure.  Reaching to pull it back in position, I faded right through the intersection into the street light and telephone pole, crushing the passenger side of the truck, sliding to a halt on the driver side like some movie stunt in front of a bus stop bench with three horrified patrons. (Should’ve seen their faces when I emerged top-side, passenger door like  a submarine.)

As luck would have it, the next day after I tore this first generation mobile technology from the mangled truck, I swapped it for a large shoulder sling first generation portable cellphone and qualified for a promotion – a free flight for two to Hawaii.

Thus at year’s end I found myself on Maui with said former girlfriend, who had a miraculous change of heart. The weather dismal but it was a good time.

Now summer loomed. I received a letter from the hotel chain where we stayed on Maui. They offered a free week in a condo tower in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that August. Flights to Miami were tremendously inexpensive, I booked us for Florida.

My naiveté had no bounds. No one goes to Florida in August due to the oppressive, heat and humidity.  Likewise, I found December is rainy season in Hawaii. Dumbass. And that girl was not in love with you. Romantic dumbass.

We hit Florida, walking out in a sauna. My eyeglasses fogged. Arriving in Fort Lauderdale I saw more Hassidic Jews on the beach than the Brooklyn D-Train platform at New Ultrecht. God they looked hot in those clothes.

A day after this scene, every day was necessary to journey out. One morning I decided “let’s go to Key West”. Under a blazing mid-morning sun, a couple ounces of psilocybin mushrooms and a joint in my pockets, we set out.

She wasn’t just a trophy girl because of her looks, she could bake and didn’t  smoke or do drugs. At Key Largo I set the rental’s cruise control and enjoyed the Atlantic Ocean on my left, the Gulf of Mexico on my right, as we rolled down the highway surfing the bridges and Keys.

Keys are islands. I noticed each of various size, alternating speed limits.  Roaring down Islamorada Key, I saw a sheriff cruiser in the brush. When he didn’t emerge I didn’t cancel the 65mph cruise control. Within a mile, a similar cruiser parked on the northbound lane, wiped around, he came after me.

Panicked I stabbed at my pocket for the mushrooms, swallowing them all along with the joint as a rotund Monroe County – as he repeatedly reminded me of the jurisdiction – sheriff emerged at my door. As he looked at my California license he asked “why the hurry, boy?”

Before answering, I noticed I’d given him my license with bleached blond hair and pulled it from his fingers, replacing it with a newer ID. “They let you have multiple IDs in California, boy?”, he asked. Quickly I said, “sure, don’t they here?”

blondie

He wrote me my ticket. We were off again on this never-ending drive. So weary by late afternoon, we stopped on Marathon Key for a beer, reconsidering the destination. Some local barflys insisted “ya’ll came this far, ya’ll might as well go to Key West”.

We walked out of that double-wide trailer posing as a bar, noticing it abutted Marathon’s airport. The propeller props whipped the air a convincing calm to my ear. The falling sun to the southwest – our destination, warmed by face and belly. I was digesting the psychedelics from the traffic stop.

By Key West I was a blaze in the late summer night. We bar hoped tourist trap to tee shirt shop, everything named Margaritaville it seemed.

We sat at some restaurant’s seaside balcony, a clawless lobster plated before me. The bastard was so rigid and coarse, his spiny shell ripping my left index finger open. I bleed over its vengeful corpse, as I forced down his tail.

We left Key West within the hour, starting the long, dark night drive back to Lauderdale. The radio station was oddly dated. I felt like I was driving in a 1952 Desoto as the radio played Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, the Platters and Cadillacs while my headlights spotted baby alligators, frogs and varmint darting ahead.

As Elvis ended “Teddy Boy”, suddenly the Star Spangled Banner played. The station signed off, not another could be found. Dead quiet. Mind blazing. Dark.

I had driven to the end of earth.

When I returned the rental car later, Hertz demanded I pay the speeding ticket – $125.00 or they wouldn’t allow me to return the car. Charges would apply. Almost late for the flight, the counter guy said, “we wouldn’t want you getting lost in this great big world without paying your ticket”.

I should’ve known nothing’s ever free.

Earth-4

First World & Fatherless

Set adrift fatherless sons, I recognize them with immediate intimacy. It doesn’t matter at what age because I have been through most of the stages as I pass through my middle age. Now closer to the end, it is with resignation rather rage at the circumstance.

My salvation  – that which tempered me was that one man had stepped forward, albeit unprepared, he provided security, some routine, the discipline to fight through the fear, as did he as a teen stepping into a world war of other fatherless men’s making.

You could find Alan routinely on my couch weeknights. Generally quiet. At times amused.  He took in every word, interacting only with regular visitors of equal age and status.

He was a decade my senior. California born, his straight stringy light brown hair still collar length since the Sixities. His face and body belayed a unambitious, unathletic, satisfactorily lazy laid back pay-check to pay-check existence.

He must of been a handsome teen as he graduated Van Nuys High in the Summer of 69. Physically he resembled a cross of Peter Fonda and Troy Donahue with a John Wayne voice but life was catching up quickly on Al.

Surviving his younger years without a father, never knowing who his father was, he, like me was a latchkey kid. His mother, Dolores had to rise for work every day before dawn to wait tables at Dupars on Ventura Boulevard.

Dolores had taught him how to rise every agonizing morning for a menial job and introduced Marlboro reds to pass time.  Later, suffering from emphysema and on oxygen, her example brought him to reduce a three pack a day habit to one as he watched her bring a lit cigarette to her oxygen, savagely burning her face.

Alan was an intriguing combination of integrity and sloth. He could be trusted with money and secrets. He didn’t ask questions but was oblivious to his appearance and body language.  So much so, employment became a revolving door of odd driving and delivery jobs in The Basin.

Lost in a generation and setting of dashing, gracefully aging middle-class suburban commuters, he felt strangely entitled but abandoned by his position in Tinseltown. Often racist, generally angry, his poverty was not of his doing in his mind.

Gentlemanly yet perverted, his contradictions were exposed only in private. His sadness at being alone apparent, his hatred at being white and looked over a constant dialogue.

To his credit, as the years on my couch went by, he once said, “I wish I would’ve had a father who taught me some skill, something of value for my life.”

I recognized this statement because my loving father, sparing me the orphanage and an uncertain life could only teach me “don’t lay down near a [Sherman] tank for a firing position” and “don’t break your back for 40 years working” like me.

Perhaps, Alan knew the latter advice of my father, he sat smoking every bit of free weed he possibly could on my couch, enjoying the socialization he never found in his little Reseda studio petri dish of a dungeon.

As I migrated permanently east, I often wondered how he was doing. I recognized the fatherless son and cared about his welfare.  My suspicion is that he has passed away, since I’m compelled to bring him alive to you.

Swingers revisited

Twenty years ago last month I met my wife.

It was just after Christmas and my roommate, Jim had been AWOL all of December.

I was fairly certain he was hanging out with a young lady we had met at the Ye Old Kings Head in Santa Monica one night in November.

Jeanette and I had chatted about Mose Allison and Ron Hubbard over drinks, while Jim prowled the pub. Left out, her friend wanted to leave. She offered me her telephone number.  We went out twice, both times concluded with her hugging my toilet bowl.

Anyway, Jim had two gal pals due to arrive from Boston.  He had barely said a word about it but I’d been on business all month between Austin and Chicago. When I returned he was still absent. Yet I assured the cute voice on the other end of the telephone that, “if I have to make a sign and stand there like a limo dude, look for your name, Kim, that’ll be me”.  Oh, by the way where you staying?” I asked. “I thought your place”, she says.

Jim hadn’t spoken to me since December 3rd, the night he played tongue twister with Jeanette outside El Torito on Santa Monica Boulevard, while I paid our check.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but it had been a really hard day.  Though I saw Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger – my childhood hero – ride by in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, a good friend had committed suicide that morning.

One can only take so much. I was mortified a “good guy” had gone badly while petrified by the action of a “bad guy” I had thought was good. All senseless.

As I got in my car to leave the Valley for LAX, Jim showed up. “Where you been?”, I asked. Nothing. Nervous. He spoke gibberish about “women” while we drove.

His late arrival made finding Kim and Lynn easier on a busy Sunday night at the airport. They commented that they had noticed me. Vainly I wondered what they had thought?

I asked them what they wanted to do? They were game for going out to have drinks so I drove them to Hollywood, near where I lived for a decade, off Cahuenga.

I parked down the street on Fountain.  We started at the Dark Room or Burgundy Room, one of which was a bigger darker sister bar of the other small dark bar across the street, both without signs. Since the door was in the back, we walked up the alleyway.

I could feel the ladies’ tension with every step. We came upon some men, one on his knees blowing the other behind that hot dog kiosk down from the newsstand on Cahuenga.

As  I assured them there’s a gay bar at the other corner, the shrill crackle of a laughing street woman and the metal wheels of her shopping cart rattled off the ally walls. It made Jim and the ladies jump; just another night off Hollywood Boulevard.

Safely inside, crowded we had a couple rounds as my eyes transfixed at the taller, porcelain faced Kim. Her light brown eyes shined, reflecting the glow of those dimples. It seemed she couldn’t stop smiling at me while Lynn was in sensory overload.

I thought we should move on to a more lit bar. I suggested The Dresden on Vermont. Maybe Marty and Elaine were playing. They can do the entertaining and give us a chance to unwind.

The Dresden is an old glam club from the 1950s. Classic tuck-and-roll booths, chandeliers, long curvy countertop bar. Between Boarderners and The Dresden I had wasted years with my goofy friends drinking, killing hours, being stupid.

Marty and Elaine were playing “Staying Alive” and it seemed Kim and I were coming alive. It was magic but I had to make sure and called a friend who lived in Silver Lake “to  come down here for a drink… I’ll buy. I want you to meet this girl”.

We didn’t speak of movies or bands, drop names, kiss or hug, we had no contact; that, she was under the same roof sipping coffee once I was done posing as some hipster that night made it all the more real.

Days later we kissed at the Tiki-Ti and the morning after we packed up a rental El Dorado, Jim, Jeanette, and Lynn heading for New Years Eve in San Francisco.

One night a year later at our first home in Providence, we saw this movie by Jon Favrue. It was called “Swingers”. He traced our entire first evening together (without the alleyway oral sex of course). “All the cool bars in Hollywood have to be real hard to find and have no signs”, went a line.  We looked at one another in shock.

The jig was already up though. I was just an extra in the phony, over-managed, repetition of a screenplay called life going nowhere as a L.A swinger.

As I always said, it’s seductive. So near to stardom, one can reach out and touch it, yet so far away most can’t pick up the check.  At least over the years, I proved I could pick up the check, even if not the girl.

As much as she enjoyed the thrill, this woman knew the end of a good script; what was the furthest from the regular lives of people outside that bubble;  what was of real import.

She trusted I knew deep down too but allowed me to decide. 20 years, two children, two houses, thousands of miles away, we swing happily to our own script every day.

baby N me

Summer Beat

my heart pounds slowly against the rhythm of the night

suppressing it slows the sweaty glue that eminents  from my pores with the slightest movement 

rendered motionless in this bed, these sheets my only respite, salvation but I’m stuck

because there is no air the cat cries at my window, exhausted, defeated, dim witted by the day

his shrill an octave higher than the thousand dying crickets that cry a story below

that pierce our ears, I hold down a beat with my heart, all one vibration, competing

all dying at our own pace, dim witted and desperate for nothing but a breath, one wet breath after another

Wild Week in 74

I’d just turned fifteen and my father decided we’d take an August road trip. It was 1974 and we were driving the Pinto to go to see my father’s mother and family in Philadelphia.

Hormones running wild, I was very unhappy to leave my friends, pool jumping, delinquency.

Unbeknownst to my mother and I, dad made a bet with his seven siblings that he’d make it to Philly in under 5 days. We dint stop for food till Amarillo.

I was cramped in the back of that two-door Pinto sedan with a styrofoam ice chest as a companion. no air conditioning.

In the middle of the first night my Mother fell asleep driving through the desert. She crossed the double line, nearly driving head-on into a tractor trailer.

I was in the front seat for that light show and horns. Shocking. The noise woke Dad in the backseat. He took over. I was happy to be in the backseat. I stayed there for the rest of the trip, even after my first wet dream.

It was terrible. I had almost died several times before, I got over that but this, after never masturbating, it was awfully uncomfortable in every conceivable way. I went to sleep.

When I woke we were off the side of the Interstate; dad asleep on a concrete picnic table. Mother and I locked inside the Pinto.

We made St Louis by the next afternoon. We were staying the week with one of Dad’s WWII Sargent buddies, Tony.

Tony had a daughter. She was 17 or 18, a sizzling Sicilian beauty. I had no chance. She disappeared an hour after we arrived. Like a roach when the light goes on, if I caught a glimpse, she ran. Gone.

It all sucked until Tony and his wife started yelling. They were Italian. Funny. Loud. The whole block was Italian. “Diego Hill”. Loud. I swear I had pizza every night.

Down in his converted basement Tony had built a bar. He insisted I join in a few beers with him and my dad. Away from the women. Falstaffs. Man like. These were my first beers with my dad.

Tony looked like an ugly Humphrey Bogart. Real dog face G.I Joe. People did what he asked. My dad laughed. You know that “ahh fuck it! why didn’t I think of that? Wife will kill me” laughs.

Over a few Falstaffs I sat silently as they talked soldier talk. How the country was going to shit. Bad word. Really bad words. There were bad words flying like the Allies over Hamburg. Dad only said these while driving. I knew them.

Every day Tony and Dad would leave for a few with a bunch of Tonys at the VFW. I found Tony’s Playboy stash and tore out all the center folds, stole them. (One had Sybil Shepherd.)

Mother was always with his wife, Jeanne, while she cooked in the kitchen. She looked like Danny Devito. She was always cooking. We never left that house.

I listened to Yellow Brick Road over and over while tearing out centerfolds and watched the Cardinals on TV alone.

Yea rock and roll.

Best Left Unsaid

There are some things simply too painful to discuss or dissect in one’s life, even when a life’s an open book. There are pages too inexplicable, too agonizing to resurrect. We have all suppressed those feelings and though poison to the soul, it is best isolated in the dark recess of the past.

As the adopted child, there are these times; that, beyond our control, we are left open, vulnerable to circumstances not of our doing, not of our choosing yet agonizing.

There were lives lived before we were thrust upon one another. Lives damaged by circumstance and environments foreign to our perception of the world as a child. Inconceivable.

So it was for me, like for many others with whom I have discussed adoption, adaption, alienation with the lives in which we were thrust. As I arrived in the United States with my parents I was unaware of family other than the three of us. As we were transferred westward, ultimately my father retired from the military and the dynamic changed.

I became aware that during the Depression my mother had two children, a son and daughter in her little country corner of western Pennsylvania. Years later she recalled how as a teenager, she had an agonizing delivery. So awful when James (“Jim”) John was born, she rejected having him laid in her arms. “Get him away from me”, she recalled screaming.

Forever regretting that, she worried a lifetime for that son. He had a terribly – physical and psychological abusive childhood at the hands of his father. A year later she birthed her princess for whom that husband felt could never do wrong. And so the dynamic was set in motion culminating in divorce by 1950.

Jim became the perfect 1950s rebel. He rode motorcycles, his hair in a D.A., rolled blue jean cuffs and pack of smokes in his white tee shirt sleeve. He fathered his first baby as a teen as well, for which he was sent for statutory rape to L.A. County, when it was a chain link fence in a cow field.

This was the young man that my father inherited the responsibility to toss cartons of cigarettes over the fence, consoling his new wife. Upon release Jim had another baby daughter with that teenage, rebel loving blonde bombshell. Then she left him, stealing away the two daughters forever.

By the time we made it to Pasadena, Jim was with a second wife, two more babies. Little did I know, because his stays at the California Youth Authority were so numerous, he was a drop out and could not read or write. I had nothing to do with that but in the future it was a source of resentment.

He didn’t have time or talent to craft a relationship with me. He was unable to build healthy relationships with his name sake son and daughter. He was an emotional cripple. Instead he exercised the type of abuse he was accustomed as a child. Then, that wife left with those children.

Sure he tried a couple times to bond. He brought me a case of grape soda as a birthday present in back-to-back years. But he generally was consumed with choppers and Cadillacs – the 1950s editions with big tails. He finagled money from my parents, saying he was doing “X” while buying “Y”.

He was relentlessly teasing me. It was how he “shows affection”, my mother would say. But it continued as I became a teen and it didn’t matter where or when, even in front of his sister, her husband and kids out in public. He called all my rock gods, “faggots”. “Why do you have those faggots on your wall?”

Once momentarily, he confided that he knew what that alligator clip was for at the end of my homemade beads. He said, “I saw pot plants on the roof of Muir” (probably the one week of his freshman year he went to high school).

Maybe he thought he was expressing brotherly concern. We really didn’t have a relationship other than those moments, although we were at his house for every Christmas or holidays. Perhaps I should thank him for creating my thick skin.

As I grew older she apologized for him as if there was resentment for my ambition to preserver through our lower middle class circumstance; that, she “had time with me that she didn’t with him”. She was forever forgiving of him. He was of the Depression. I was a Baby Boomer. He was an itinerate truck driver while I had ambition for college. We had nothing in common but the woman we called mother and she knew we were wholly opposite.

mom n jim 10101998

So often when he had run into hard times, he would run to his mother, which usually left me sleeping on the couch. My entire life in California, he was always moving down the block from us. Once he even showed up at our front door unannounced 300 miles away from Los Angeles at Christmas 1975 with a new baby and a third wife. He moved to that little town and stayed. Ten years ago when mother died, it was very hard for him.

At the hospital we spoke daily for the first time in 30 years. He was incessantly asking how mother never knew what a delinquent I was? He had been run out of little Brookville, Pennsylvania for his overt petty behavior but I was golden, even though I had been a topic of all those sheriffs he had breakfast with at the little local diner. Maybe it was a matter of style. Perhaps it was simply a different time. I had no answer.

When we buried her, I gave a eulogy. As I spoke some prepared words regarding how I defied the notion that “you can’t pick family but she had picked me”, I saw him in the back pew, despondent, inconsolable, staring at the floor.

When I walked from the casket, I said to him, “it will get better”. As always he negated my words. I wasn’t going to fight that battle anymore. After that day I considered calling him once in ten years. I also left a message on his machine once or twice. But he wasn’t a conversationalist and I knew those cultural and personal battles would arise, so even though I know my mother would’ve preferred I call him, I did not.

The last few days as his birthday came once again, I continued to think of him. I pondered how I could overcome these feelings to pick up the phone. Then I thought, he never called me. It works both ways.

Last night I slept terribly. I had a long dream in which my mother visited. It had been years since she came into my dreams. She was upset. She was trying to bake some birthday cakes it seemed. And I felt like she was angry at me for fucking them up by putting them in the freezer. Hours after I woke, my step-sister called to say Jim died last night, collapsed at home. Dead. He died on his 77th birthday.

Now I cannot ever tell him it wasn’t either of our fault that we didn’t have a relationship. We were thrust into an untenable situation not of our doing and we couldn’t find the grace or acceptance of our situation to share a laugh at how we ended up here. But I suspect he’d agree with me that it’s better this way.

My Transcendental Quixote Moment

an excerpt from an untitled work in progress.  I wrote this five years ago upon returning to the hometown I never knew

I thought it the perfect time to return to my German “heimat“, home town. It felt instinctually right or “Recht“, which in German has significant connotations –  a moral reasoning, entitlement, as Kant dissected it. Right holds great importance in the language and was my motivation.

It’s said “you can never go home”, which holds no moral weight thankfully because I developed a distinct character flaw whereby I do the opposite of what I’m told – at times quite innocently, while at others stubbornly overt.  In my fiftieth year, it seemed the right moment.

It had always been a dream; more, a goal to return to address those questions that continually swirl in my head – legitimacy, loss, a meaning to the unwanted life. A return was improbable once my adopted parents and I left the Continent. When my father retired from the Army in late 1965, financially we could’ve never afforded to return, even if desired. Hell, it was tough for them to get me to Disneyland.

Now, though, I asked my wife and daughters to pursue my selfish dream. As a reward, I planned a Bavarian Christmas. My wife loves Christmas. Germans invented it. My little girls love Santa. Kris Kringel was a German. Yet my focus would be on my return to my heimstadt, Pirmasens, if but for one day. I wanted my feet to touch the soil where I could’ve belonged. I wanted my hands on the mortar and timber that held me and the mother I never knew. This would be sufficient, provide perspective, suppress years of wonder.

So the story goes, before the sun rose on July 21, 1959 I was born of an unwed teenager in her mother’s home. My immediate future decided by my grandmother, who insisted I be summarily given away. Who could blame her since twenty-six months earlier my teenage mother gave birth to twin daughters from another statutory rape by the conquering army. Conquering armies have had their way with the youngest female survivors of wars for centuries. (Why do you think in male parlance we project sexual relationships as “conquests”?)

Before the sun rose the next day, I was gone without a trace, given in the night to a career Army Sargent and his wife. Within a month, my father had orders for France, I would never see my heimat… until now.

To bring two – 8 and 5 year old little girls to Europe for several weeks was daring fate. However, I wanted my children there for this moment. They are a piece of me. This is where our journey begins. In fact, they make this a victory lap.

We spent the first week near the Rhine River – Germania’s cradle. Fitting. Poetic. We could ease into this moment like intimate, lengthy foreplay (unlike my conception). We rented a little villa in the wine country, an hour drive to Mainz, Heidelberg, Mannheim, and their renown “Christmas Markets”. I could ease my family into this trip with the sights, sounds and smells of the season, building to a fitting crescendo.

It was Friday morning. My youngest, Lily, was already worn thin. I understood. She stayed awake overnight crossing the Atlantic and enjoyed a Christmas Market each day, returning late to the villa. Now, on my day, she wouldn’t get dressed. Pirmasens was the furthest drive – two hours. We were losing day. Finally we gave up, putting Lily’s boots on and jacket over her pajamas.

With a shy smile, my wife asked if she could drive. She was giddy to try the Autobahn. She didn’t realize this was a relief for me. I could sit; navigate without concentrating on Audis and BMWs doing 200 KMph. I could focus on this moment. Instead I grew anxious by the kilometer and as we reached Pirmasens, my stomach had full blown butterflies. Curious and difficult, I could not fight back my nerves as we crossed the long span bridge strung over a deep valley.

pirmasens

It was a bright, cold cloudless day as the bridge emptied us onto Zweibrücken Straße. It looked like any Main Street, USA – two way narrow traffic lanes, crowded on either side by old, often vacant, beat up buildings. It cut east-west across a steep north-south incline.

Due to the incline, streets run off Zweibrücken Straße in steep trajectories. There was no eye to urban planning. It’s rare to find German towns in a grid, unless of course Allied bombers obliterated them; even then many were meticulously re-engineered to former design. Thus against my male instincts, I told my wife to stop. I’d buy a map.

Gärtner Straße. FOUND IT! There it was in the whirling streets of the city’s center. It’s the address on my yellowed notarized papers, which I’ve kept all these years. Gärtner Straße 34 – my birth house. I felt excitement and dread, since my recently discovered sister, Jutta, referred to our neighborhood as “a slum”, which I could not get out of my head.

Gärtner Straße slid south down the hill. WAIT! Within half a city block, it became Bismarck Straße. We circled up and over Zweibrücken, back down Gärtner Straße again and again. It was a circular, dizzying maze of anonymous attached three story brown stones, none numbered in the thirties.

My wife stopped the car to look at the map closer. Okay. HUH!? A few blocks west, the map also has a Gartner Straße – no umlaut over the “a”. I grabbed my yellowed official papers to reconcile this oddity. As I flipped the pages, OH my GOD! The papers have the street with and without umlauts! You gotta be kidding! Unusually careless, I thought, especially for notarized official GERMAN papers!

We were losing more time, more sunshine. Let’s just double back west and try this Gartner Straße. There, we dropped down this steep street to find numbers in the thirties. “Let’s park”, I barked.

(Remember my wife, Kim’s driving the rental – a boxy Opel family van as) we stopped on this steep hill. The parking design was peculiarly perpendicular – front bumper to curb at an oblique upward angle, more like parking had been suited for a car driving up the hill. But this was now a one way street down the hill. (My illusion of superior German attention to detail and design was shot all to hell.)

Surveying the situation, we agreed to try the impossible – a 135 degree right turn uphill into a parking space. We didn’t make it. It would take a “three point” turn. The Opel had a manual stick and she needs to reverse but since I picked it up at the airport, I couldn’t find reverse, simply jamming it into reverse when needed.

Kim tries jamming it several times and with each unsuccessful try, we roll forward closer and closer to an unoccupied parked car. Our front bumper now almost presses against that passenger door panel. We’re out of tries. Worse we are blocking this skinny one-way street when exasperation turned to panic as we see the undercarriage of a BMW at the crest of the hill. It dropped down the street slowly. We’re all stuck.

Seconds seemed like minutes as a burly, redheaded German version of Barney Rubble hopped out of the BMW’s passenger side. He strode up to Kim’s driver window waving her out, as simultaneously asking in German if she needs help?

I lean over from the passenger seat to say in German “please, we’ve had problems with reverse…” as out of the corner of my eye, I catch his tall blonde, fur coat female companion walking down the street. I hear the ladies speaking English. In mid-phrase I switch to ask in English but before I can, he impatiently shakes his red head no, he doesn’t speak English. I’m in his way and he’s got better things to do with Fraulein Elegance.

Without a word, he pantomimes with right hand to the stick, pointing under the stick shift knob. Forking his fore and middle fingers – initially faking the motion – then pulling up on the stick knob; he slides it into reverse.

In my dumb-ass, embarrassed shock I exclaimed, SCHEISSE!(“Shit”) . Momentarily stunned, he stopped all these fluid, confident masculine movements and broke out laughing. I laughed that nervous uncomfortable – “I’m such a pussy” – laugh, repeating it, as if begging, pity me, have mercy. I’m pathetic.

Awkwardly, I try to salvage what manliness I may still possess with the stranger, repeating – “Scheisse… scheisse”. I continued the one way dialogue, as we parked. Unfazed, he turned and asked in German, “why are you in Pirmasens? I replied, “I was born here.” His face twisted, head cocked. Pausing, rhetorically he says, “In Pirmasens”? “yes. possibly on this street”, as I pointed a finger nowhere.

With an audible shrug, he got out. Momentarily I left my body. In a flash, my mind hit warp speed back to a childhood of mechanical ineptitude and uselessness, as I recalled my inability to identify a monkey from a socket wrench, closed-end from open-end, righty tighty, lefty loosy; that was, my father’s disappointment in me: “Jesus, Mack, I swiped a tank engine and put it in a ’51 Cadillac”, he repeatedly reprimanded my mechanical misanthropy. This stranger thought the same of me, as he pondered how I could be from here. The whole scene assured that I could’ve been a moron here too.

The trauma subsiding, I walked down the street looking for #34. On the side we parked where only odd numbers. The entire other side – the even side of this Gartner Straße was a vacant scar, as if razed by bulldozer.

Lily joined me at the bottom of the hill, where I had found even numbered homes – all single digit as the street conveniently dead-ended. So disappointed, I sense the street had been altered. Lily was happy just to be out of the Opel. She said, “I’m hungry”.

I looked up the hill like an eviscerated Sisyphus and started the climb with Lily, who would soon become my latest boulder in my pathetic passion play where nothing has ever come easy. This life’s been a boulder.

Damnit! I know it was a small house but I should be able to find it, I mumbled with each step. I will not surrender as my stubborn (“hard headed kraut” my father called me) instinct compelled me to drive up the hill over Zweibrücken Straße with the faint hope the numbers might start again on the other side.

But it was no longer Gartner Straße. I stopped the car in the middle of the street and dropped my head. My big fat, hard head, my spirit fell to the floor board. Time for a Hail Mary. A desperate turn left. Maybe Gartner Straße swerved to the west – disjointed from the lower portion of the street.

The road dead-ended into the cracked asphalt of an empty parking lot. There stood 4 detached – three-story dilapidated barracks. Obviously abandoned for years, the windows – some boarded, most without glass, long brown weeds swayed in the cold breeze framing the vacated grounds of… HEY! Barracks? Barracks! The skeletons of the Occupation.

Suddenly I realized it fit my mother’s description. She said that on that warm July night they “carried [me] up the hill to Army Housing” from my birth house. Somewhere in one of those barracks, my parents fixed a bureau drawer for my first “bed”.

It was so close that for days, weeks she recalled watching my teen mother walk home, my sisters in hand, ducking under my drying diapers strung on the clothesline from barracks windows. My new mother wondering what my teen mother felt, as she watched her walk home nightly. Until the end of her life, my mother pondered the sadness she must have felt passing by her forsaken baby. She shared a mother’s pain.

It all came together as I stared at the barracks: my devastated teen mother, my devastated hometown, my devastated country. Occupation. Abandoned women. Abandoned children. Abandoned buildings. Abandonment and rejection at so many levels for so many lives. Loss. We collectively surrender to the happenstance of others’ history, as we subordinate what precious little power we have to those mightier.

As I stared into the dark void of these blighted buildings, I realized I have fought a losing battle to overcome the happenstance of history. I saw ghosts inside going about their business so, so long ago. For a moment my spirit resuscitated as I saw the joy of my new parents laying their new baby in a drawer. They gave me back some power.

In my left breast jacket pocket – over my heart, I brought a yellowed, black and white photo of them, arm-in-arm prior to their Valentine’s Day 1959 departure for Europe, where they’d happen across a baby. The baby now wanting to share this moment with them.

I didn’t get out of the car. There wasn’t anything to see. I had hoped to place my hand on the house in which I was born, give my life some mortar, as cracked a foundation as it was; a symbolic scintilla of certainty for all the lack of certainty that had followed.

Expectations unraveled into a dead standstill of desolation on a windswept vacant parking lot. This was my first “home”. This was my “foundation”. My father would’ve laughed. My foundation was his Uncle’s home – the United States Army. The irony: this was where his transcendental moment happened.

My heart swung like a pendulum. Mein Geburtshaus had disappeared without a trace like the forgotten baby boy. No sign we were ever here. The day had gone nowhere. I had no time for emotion because I had a hungry, tired family.

Don Quixote was wise not to bring along a family. It would’ve halted his crusade. So, who then is the mad one? I had deceived myself, chased an inanimate object, saw only ghosts. Then again, maybe I wasn’t so insane when I convinced myself marriage and a family would add to my life. This moment proved (again) that they were my transcendental moment. My journey lead to my family. They represented my victory and now they were hungry.