Thankfully memories fade with time and large parts of my childhood blur together in such a way as to make it difficult to discuss with too much detail. I will tell you about my father, along with whatever else comes to mind right now. This is going to be a bit of a memory dump…but I promise it won’t always be bad. My early life may have been plagued by violence but there are plenty of positive memories as well.
My father was an angry man, in fact that would have to be the emotional state that best characterized him in my memories. I don’t know how he got that way, or why, but I can speak from personal experience that it wasn’t the drugs or the drinking that made him into the one and only person I have ever been scared of throughout the course of my life…that would be too much of an oversimplification of things. Situations have frightened me, nightmares and hallucinatory episodes as well, along with various other things (like deceleration trauma, because it isn’t the heights that scare me but the impact subsequent to the fall)…but only one individual ever scared me, and that man was my father. It wasn’t just that he was 6′ 7″ and strong from years of hard work, but those factors definitely didn’t help to ease my fears.
Residual traces of that almost perpetual state of fear from my childhood still resounded when I saw him getting angry even as an adult, regardless of whether that anger was directed towards me…it was enough that I knew he was unhappy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that echo of childhood fear was the product of persistent PTSD…after the life that I have lived and the things that I’ve experienced (namely the things I have put myself through, or done to myself, for the most part), PTSD would be a suitable partner for the survivor’s guilt anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex would recognize as being manifest in me.
I say it wasn’t the drugs or the drinking that made him what he was to me because I have had ample experience with drinking to excess as well as ingesting pretty much every illicit substance I could get my hands on…repeatedly, in most cases. Sure, maybe those external factors might have triggered it in him, bringing that man to the surface…but it had to be something inside of him that was the driving force behind it. Whatever it was, I was terrified that I had it in me as well, especially after the incident that transpired between myself and the mother of my two oldest children.
Anything could set him off, even something as simple as spilling a glass of water on the floor…other times there didn’t need to be anything at all, maybe it was just something that he brought home with him from something that happened at work that day. I don’t know which was worse from him, his hands or the belt. If it had been something as simple as spankings, I think it would have to be the belt…but there was something about the direct physical contact that made it feel more real and more hurtful to me most of the time, if that makes any sense. Somewhere along the way, as I started to get a little bit older, I began to believe that he wanted to kill me and that it was only a matter of time until he did. Awareness of my mortality led me to suspect that it was something right around the corner from one day to the next. I still recall the first time I saw The Shining, before I had a chance to read the book, and I felt altogether too much familiarity with Danny Torrance, and if there was a fictional character that could perfectly mirror what I saw from my father as a child, it would be that portrayal of Jack Torrance from the film. I don’t know if that helps you to visualize what I’m trying to describe, I’m pretty ineffectual when it comes to this sort of thing.
There was one night in particular when I knew that I was going to die. He and my mother were fighting late at night and I slipped out of my bedroom as quietly as I could in order to find out what they were fighting about, I always assumed the worse and that it was me or something that I had done. I watched for a short while before I saw him strangling her right there in the living room. I knew at that moment, without a doubt, that he was going to kill her and then he was going to kill me too. Whatever happened after that is lost to the past, the memories are a blur from there, and I will take that as a blessing. I don’t know what happened after that, but I clearly was not murdered, so my fears had been unfounded.
He wasn’t always like that though. I have one memory in particular where he was the hero rather than the villain. We were driving home from somewhere when a county Sheriff chasing someone on a dirt bike approached us from behind on the gravel road that led to our house. My father immediately swerved the car over in an attempt to block the dirt bike, but they cut into the ditch and got around us anyhow. He had no reason to get involved in whatever was going on, but he tried to help the officer put a stop to that chase. That man is the father I wish I always had to look up to, the one who would go out of his way to do the right thing. That is the version of my father that I most wanted to be like…the man who tried to be a hero when the opportunity arose and the man who valued hard work, which he does to this day. I doubt I will ever meet another person who puts in the kind of hard work that he does. I told you that he had his good qualities.
One of my favorite collection of memories regarding my father is of the times when he would take me to visit members of our family who worked with the veterinarian in charge of the animals for Bear Country (a local wildlife habitat/tourist spot, in case you are unfamiliar). It was on a ranch out near the local airport where some of my favorite childhood memories took place. There was a pen there in which dozens of baby bears were kept. I was allowed to go over the electrified fence (and once, directly into it, after which I found myself suddenly sitting on the ground and wondering how I got there) in order to play with them. Bear cubs begin to treat you as just another cub after a short while and they are very playful. I probably needed a new pair of shoes after each visit there due to the shoes being chewed on along with everything else. Of all my childhood experiences, having the chance to literally roll around on the ground with dozens of bear cubs, losing track of time while playing with them, is the one I wish I could have shared with my own children. It isn’t something that many people have the chance to enjoy, and I will always treasure it.
Speaking of bears, I was probably five years old when we were at Bear Country on a summer day. One of the adult bears approached our car and began licking the window next to where I was sitting. I didn’t hesitate to roll down the window so that I could pet the bear. Of course my mother and father responded with shock and panic at the unbelievably stupid thing their son was trying to do. You probably think that I was stupid too, but you can fuck right off…I was five or maybe six at the time, you were no genius at that age either.
Sadly, the bear incident was not the first time that I almost got myself killed while doing something totally innocent. One morning I woke up before either of my parents and I decided I wanted to do something nice for them. I was a sweet kid, you wouldn’t know it from the man I’ve become, but I really was. I chose to make pancakes for breakfast that morning. Being no more than four years old at the time, I was no award winning chef…come to think of it, I’m still not much good in the kitchen.
I emptied a box of pancake mix onto a griddle, it took the form of a pyramid of sorts. I then poured some milk onto the pancake mix mountain, and I think I even broke an egg and included both the insides as well as the shell on the growing mound. From there it was just a matter of turning on the burner for me, and we would have pancakes. Instead of a delicious breakfast, my parents were awakened to the shrill chirping of the fire alarm.
There was another incident where it wasn’t my own life that I endangered but the life of my baby brother. We were back in Minnesota for a vacation, I believe we were at Bald Eagle Lake or maybe it was White Bear…it doesn’t matter which one. My brother wasn’t even a year old at the time, I don’t think…so I couldn’t have been more than seven years old myself. I walked out into the water and my brother began crawling after me, because he followed me everywhere at that time. I stood there watching as he crawled into the water and just kept going until he was submerged. My mother and father began screaming for me to do something, but all I did was stand there watching as my brother was possibly drowning. My father got to him and pulled him out of the water, and he turned out to be perfectly fine…but I very nearly killed my little brother simply because I couldn’t do anything more than stand there and watch him crawl towards me even after he was under the water.
Now that I think about it, though I know that I shouldn’t make light of this topic, maybe my father really did want to kill me…but because I was clearly intent on bringing about my own demise out of sheer childhood stupidity, and his method would have been far less gruesome and less likely to include other people on my way down. I don’t care if you think that was funny or not, I think it was kind of a funny thing to suggest, and humor is how I cope with things, so you don’t have any say in the matter.
A couple of years after the divorce I started spending weekends with my father. He and I would stop at a video store on the way to his house where I was allowed to pick out pretty much anything that I wanted. It could be argued that there was a lapse in proper parenting involved in this form of pacification…but I personally loved it.
It got to the point where I was alphabetically working my way through whole genre sections…beginning with horror, followed by science fiction/fantasy, and then action. I may not remember all of them clearly anymore, but there is hardly a movie included in any of those genres released before the early 90s that I haven’t seen at least once thanks to all of those rentals and the glorious thing that was USA Up All Night!
I hope that I’ve done a reasonable job of showing you a fairly balanced portrait of my childhood, that not everything about my early years was a constant, waking nightmare. I have good memories from those years as well, just admittedly not as many.
I can honestly look back on my childhood and state that it wasn’t all bad, but that would have been an impossibility, for it to have been all bad. I do realize that I tried very hard to shift the emphasis to the good parts or the elements that focused on the negative things not directly related to my father, it was a conscious choice on my part, there’s a reason for that…if I can focus on more of the good aspects, and less on the violence and fear, maybe those bad parts will continue to fade just a little bit more.
It’s perhaps foolishly optimistic , but let me have my illusion for the moment, no need to dispel it right away…asshole.