Skydiving Into A Volcano
As Nixon said, "Let me make this perfectly clear." To be against the Vietnam War in the Sixties was to be in a hated minority. Polls may have shown that more than 60% of the American people opposed the war, but that was because we appeared to be losing it. Many who had voted for Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary over LBJ in 1968 did so because, they said later, they thought McCarthy had a plan for winning the war. Let's be generous and say that most of the hippies on the Lower East Side were idealistic. But real understanding was as rare as Hemingway's unbroken-egg-on-a-battlefield. Today, a lot of people claim to have "been there," during the Sixties, and others who weren't there think it was a wonderful time; but it wasn't always. I stopped in a restaurant in Oklahoma for coffee-to-go on my trip back from California, and a local tough, seeing my hippie garb, stood up and challenged me to a fight. I ignored him like a fart at a dinner party, and a waitress that he was sweet on made him sit down and be quiet. That kind of thing happened all the time outside the Lower East Side, and there wasn't always a sensible waitress there to prevent fists. More than one hippie got pounded into the dirt around this country then. So if you think it was simply a lot of fun and a wonderful adventure, disabuse yourself of the notion. Demonstrations could be dangerous. In a San Francisco demonstration in as late as 1972 ("The Day of Unacceptance," when Nixon was accepted by the GOP for a second term,) a California State trooper on a motorcycle veered his bike onto the sidewalk and tried to run over me just for being there. After another demonstration which ended with us snake-dancing into Union Square, San Francisco cops surrounded us and came in swinging. I ducked and dived my way unscathed through that, too. (I never got hit even once, ever.) Even so, kicking Dick Nixon around was a lot of fun. He was the meanest son-of-a-bitch in Washington, and everybody knew it. He was so unpopular that he flew from military base to military base, and his feet never touched the pavement we walked on. Of course, we know now, many people who were against the war refused to come to demonstrations because they didn't want to associate with hippies, who were the weirdest thing seen in America since women demanded the vote. But on the Lower East Side of New York, our numbers made us relatively safe from the wrath of the American people. Obvious FBI agents and New York cops hung around St. Mark's Place at Second Avenue watching everything day and night, but smoking pot and taking lsd was as common as air and safe-enough for the circumspect. That laid-back atmosphere lulled me into a false sense of security that landed me in a lot of trouble, when I departed Alphabet City to attend my younger sister's high school graduation in Westlake, Louisiana. For me, 1968 had started off like a blast of dynamite with the Whitehall Antidraft Demonstrations and then the Chicago demonstrations, which I had skirted and sailed on westward from, when I saw cops beating the devil out of people who dressed like me. There were new ideas, new people, new ways of living (communally) and a new world, as far as we were concerned. But in June, 1969, I was re-introduced to reality.
Jan was working nights in a photo lab, and George was learning guitar and somehow coming up with his rent every month, and the owner of the building had given me a free apartment as part-payment for being custodian (read: "janitor") at 611 and two other buildings on the street. It was winter, and I conscientiously kept three boilers going to heat the buildings. I had a sort-of girlfriend named Karen Plant from Palos Verdes, whom I had met in California. We got together for about a month, and then she left me for a black guy, which didn't do a lot for my self-esteem. I accepted it graciously of course, because, after all, he was a black guy, wasn't he? Part of being hip was to support the blacks, even if they were walking off with your squeeze. But I'd be a liar if I said it didn't make me feel inadequate. Soon afterward, I received a letter from my sister Maureen inviting me to her graduation, and, knowing I hadn't paid her much attention since leaving home at 17, I decided to make the trip for her sake, and because things appeared to be going south anyway. For a mere fifty cents a pill, I loaded up with a hundred tabs of Leary's Orange Sunshine (it had speed in it,) and a moderate amount of marijuana, and hitchhiked to Louisiana, and my own "hometown Golgotha," as Ginsberg had put it in "Howl." I hadn't been there much since 1958. For some odd reason, I thought it must have changed as much as I had. It had, but for the worse. I came walking into Westlake with bellbottom pants and long hair, carrying a backpack and a guitar, and most people around there were in a mood to put all the hippies in boxcars and roll them off to Auschwitz.I was of the Timothy Leary school on lsd. I took it for self-exploration. I wanted to see the "white light" of God. I wanted to know and understand myself. Some people took lsd and went to parties. I did that a bit, but mostly I liked to be alone when it was happening, especially during the "peaking" part of the trip, which could be overwhelming and scary. The first trip I'd had in 1968 had been a mild one on mescaline, a natural product. It had been peaceful and revealing, and it was in the early morning hours, coming down from it, when everything was mellow, that I discovered Bob Dylan. Imagine, 1968, and I hadn't a clue about Bob Dylan. It was amazing to me, because when I had shared a place with Russell Baker Eames in Fitchburg, MA, a couple of years earlier, Russell had played a lot of folk music; everything from Leadbelly to Josh White, but no Dylan. Years later I ran into Russ and asked, "Russell, why didn't you ever turn me onto Dylan?" He said, "I did, but you told me to turn it off." I remembered that I had. ("Please, Russell, turn it off, I can't stand it!") The voice had been so young and at that time so weird, so different, that I couldn't listen to it. But most of my early trips clearly were "bad trips," because, of all the things I confronted on them, the most unsettling and frequent thing was to realize what a myriad of fears I lived with as an ordinary everyday thing, fears that I had suppressed or lied to myself about, fears I didn't even realize I had. On the Lower East Side, despite having lived with blacks for four years in the Marine Corps and even having to fight them now and then, and despite my feelings and admiration for them and their struggle for freedom and equality, and despite my actively supporting them in demonstrations and personally trying to be friends with every one that I met, and despite being outraged and aggrieved by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, I saw that I was really afraid of black men. For a former marine and a guy who had had to fight since fourth grade against one sort of bully or another, it was a hard admission to make. Of course, it was "Black Power" time, and many were themselves confrontational, superior-acting, and intimidating. One night, ripped out of my mind after dropping acid at a friend's house in New Jersey and taking a bus to Port Authority, I had crisscrossed Manhattan so many times at a fast walk that I left a groove in the sidewalk. (It's still there.) I walked and walked and couldn't stop, even when I saw friendly-looking people who looked as if they wanted to socialize. It was exhausting. But when it was over I was looking at my fear of people right smack in the face; I had felt fear of nearly everyone I met on that obsessive walk; so the lsd was doing what I wanted it to do: helping me discover myself and showing me how things really were inside Mike Havenar. Unfortunately, it wasn't that pleasant knowing myself and how things really were for me. On the other hand, I felt that my new knowledge about the war, politics, our criminal government, and the insight it gave me put me in a special place. I saw a new world coming, and thought I could help make it. Woe, woe. Only God can make it so, and like I said in the first piece in this blog, "No person or collection of persons can accomplish anything of merit without the help of God." God was the last thing on my mind, then. I see from this distance now how narcissistic, hedonistic, selfish, atheistic, ignorant and delusional I was; but it didn't seem so, then. When I hitched to Louisiana, I felt confident and optimistic. I was in the prime of my life, on top of the world, and felt like I had it licked. And then, there was Joey.
I haven't forgotten to mention Josephine Marie. I simply have a hard time writing about the people I love. It's the hardest thing I do. If you know anything about me by now, you can clearly see that I don't love many people. I have feelings for some, deep feelings for others, but love for a relative few. I'd met Joey the night in June of '68, when I'd simply walked away from my good job at The Record in Hackensack. It was her first night on the job, and she was on the rewrite desk, where I was sitting in for someone. She was (and is) a dark-haired Alsatian beauty, with a smile to illuminate a bat cave and a manner to gentle a buck. I half-regretfully noticed her quality as I sailed out the door for my ridiculous, ill-considered adventure to Calilfornia--leaving a cryptic note to the managing editor, who must have been puzzled by it. She was a beauty, quiet-spoken, graceful and classy, and friendly. When I returned six months later I naturally went to the diner in Teaneck where reporters and editors from The Record went after work to eat and socialize, and there she was again, the last person I had spoken with on leaving and the first one when I returned. Naturally, I made my move, and after Karen had moved out I called her. We got together a few times for museum trips and falling-in-love stuff. The thing I liked best about her besides her sexy good looks was that she liked me. I was young, she was younger by five years, and I captured her heart by singing "Frankie Lee & Judas Priest" word-for-word in perfect time, while driving us through the Lincoln Tunnel. She might deny that today, but I know that's when it happened. She saw me the way I wanted to see myself: intelligent, interesting, adventurous, and fun. Maybe she thought I was good-looking, too. Of course, except for the good-looking part, I was anything but all that. It was all a front. But before I took off for Louisiana, Joey and I arranged to meet in Louisiana--I would call her when it was time to come down--and strike out from there for Calilfornia. She had a VW bug and was definitely up for the trip. And I was finally in the mood to have my own girl friend again--I had actually never lived with a woman--and to try to get into the scene with her in California. I still had communes on my mind and a campaign of demonstrations on the agenda. The truth is that we both just wanted to screw our eyeballs loose. So I expected to introduce her to my family, then head out. I had some money, she did too,-- everything was cheaper then--and I wasn't worried about making more. I had always worked, and jobs were easier to get then, if you wern't obviously stoned or a lunatic. I'd been working since age 12, and knew how to do a few things. I was looking forward to camping out with her all over the West.
I traipsed into my grandmother's small house after an absence of only a year, and she didn't recognize me at first. For one thing, I had a smile on my face that she had seldom seen, because I had been anything but happy growing up. For another, there was the hippie garb, and the guitar I knew a few chords for but didn't know how to play. The last time she had seen me I had had a responsible job writing for a newspaper and wearing suits. Maureen and my even-younger sister, Dee Dee, shared the same bedroom my older sister Pat and I had shared growing up, but the house was too small for me to be sleeping there on the living room couch, so I went a block down the street to stay with Pat and her husband, Huey, whom I barely knew, in the house provided by The First Baptist Church, where Huey was music director and Pat was choir director. It was a big house with plenty of room, and it was all new to me. I hardly knew my sister anymore. We had been parted--me to my mother and she staying with our mother's mother--our legal guardian almost from birth--when I was nine and she 11, and we had grown up seeing each other infrequently, though we lived only 10 miles apart. I had joined the Marine Corps at 17, when she was entering college, and before I saw her again she was married with three kids. I arrived with the full collection of Dylan albums up to that time as a graduation gift. Maureen was surprised and grateful for it. I thought there was no better gift for a young girl who had grown up in the same southern cultural backwater I had nearly drowned in. She had never heard of Dylan, either. (I have given away so many Dylan albums to people over the years, and then had to buy them again, that I'm wondering if Bob will give me a rebate or at least invite me to one of his recording sessions out of pure appreciation.) But, it never occurred to me that my family might associate me with drugs, and if they had confronted me with it, I foresaw nothing more than an argument that was kept in the family. The first night at Pat's house, I went for a walk down my childhood street and smoked a joint and looked at the stars, and no one was the wiser. But I had stopped over a day in New Orleans and a day in Alexandria to see Jim Morris, and had taken some of the acid in both places. I had an inventive way to hide the stuff. I wrapped the small orange pills in tin foil, dipped it in honey, and dropped it into a large plastic container of Johnson & Johnson talcum powder. You could squeeze it and not feel it, pry it open and not see it. The opening was too small for any but a small finger to dig deep enough to feel it. But I had left it out in my toilet bag, and aftershave lotion, that I had no use for with a beard, had leaked slightly into the bottom, threatening to dissolve the pills. The morning of the big event, I was sitting in Pat's living room, Pat and Huey were absent, and was re-wrapping the drug, when Maureen came over, and, seeing it, asked what it was. I should have said it was vitamin pills or something, anything, except what I told her. I had been living in a place where openness and honesty about drugs and sex were the norms we tried to achieve, and I answered, "It's lsd, Maureen. Whatever you heard about it isn't true. It's okay. Don't worry about it."
"Oh, I don't mind," Maureen said. Good enough, the matter was resolved. Maureen was all grown up now.
That night I went to the graduation and took photos. We all were happy to see Maureen graduate. She hadn't had an easy time, having been abandoned in that little town by her mother, as all four of Mickey's kids had been abandoned, at one time or another. The next morning I rose late, dressed, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. Pat came swinging in the kitchen door from outside with a smile on her face and asked, "Would you like some chicken for dinner?" I said sure I would. She made a quick phone call, said something I couldn't hear, and started dinner. Soon, I looked out the window to see Huey walking in from the driveway with two men in coveralls. He came in the door and gave me a hard look. The two guys walked past him directly to me, showed their badges, and asked if I were Michael Lee Havenar. Did they expect me to deny it? They had me escort them to my bedroom, and one went directly to my backpack and retrieved the toilet bag, finding the acid--which I had not put back in the talcum powder for lack-of-honey, and also the two joints I had remaining in the pocket of a sweater. Out came the handcuffs, and they marched me downstairs to their car. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting in Detective Jack Hebert's office in the Calcasieu Parish Jail, telling him I didn't know the guy who had sold it to me in New York, that it was just some guy I had met on the street. Of course I did know, but the last thing I would have done was snitch on him. They said it was going to go hard on me if I didn't name him. I tried to argue that there was nothing wrong with lsd and marijuana, and they should just see that, do the right thing, and let me go. HA HA HA HA. Like I said, delusional. Everything I said convinced those cowboys that I was a hardened criminal. Within minutes of that interrogation, I was back in those gray pinstriped overalls they wear in that jail, the same uniform I had worn when my mother had locked me up in the same jail 12 years before. I was sitting on the terrazo floor of the bullpen of the maximum security ward, exactly next door to the juvenile cell I had fumed in for a week in 1957, after Mickey had jailed me for talking back to her and cursing, when she was too drunk to stand straight. I couldn't believe it. It was simply overwhelming. One minute, free. The next, a prisoner that they could do anything they wanted with. For smoking marijuana, which made me feel good, and taking acid, which was helping me grow into self-awareness and a spiritual consciousness. I didn't see anything logical or just about the situation, and knew for a certainty that Maureen had called the sheriff. I couldn't believe it. For the second time in my life, a member of my own family had thrown me in jail. On the second day, Hebert questioned me again, and asked me how I thought I had been caught. I told him I was sure that Maureen had called them. He said nothing. On the third day I was taken again to his office, and Pat was there. "Michael," she said, "Maureen didn't call the sherrif. I did."
She had thought my telling Maureen about the lsd had been "a cry for help," and that I was there to poison her children with it. She was trying to save my soul, she said.
But I need to tell you about that first time, now.
The first time I tried to leave Louisiana was 1957. It was late summer. My stepdad, Sidney Mathiewson Havenar, had been killed in early May on the Airline Highway by Bunche Village in Metairie, by a car that had dragged his body 170 feet. He'd been laying in the middle of the road about 4 a.m., mugged or collapsed, and the Baton Rouge-bound driver hadn't time to stop. Sid's Hudson was stuck in the mud of a ditch, which served as a street until they finally put a small bridge there. It was jacked up and he'd apparently tried to shore beneath the wheel for traction. No one understood how he'd ended up like that. I figured he'd changed his mind about partying some more, after leaving my mom off at the house about 3 a.m., and heading back to a party; that he had been making a U-turn when the car got mired. Nobody wanted to consider seriously that he might have been knocked in the head, robbed, and dragged onto the road to destroy the evidence. Somebody even suggested suicide, which was more unlikely than any theory, because Sid wasn't a quitter. He had two darling daughters that he loved out of all proportion to anything else, and a decent job. He'd gone to Europe as a corporal in a combat engineer outfit and had built bridges and blown up dragons' teeth under enemy fire all the way to Germany, coming home a captain, because most of the officers were killed. In the whirlpool of difficulties we faced and the changes that came after, his death soon became a thing of the past for me. I couldn't think about it for years. I was in my late 50's before I began to think clearly about him and about it. His dying altered the course of everyone's life so drastically that it's difficult to imagine what might have been. Maureen and Dee Dee might have gone to college, I might even have gone to West Point or Annapolis. Sid knew every important politician in Louisiana's congressional delegation, and said he might get me an appointment at either one, if I earned acceptable grades in school. (Of course I didn't, and the offer didn't mean much to me at the time, since bullying and loneliness were my main preoccupations.) After he died, my grades went to Death Valley. Sid would have been appalled at how I turned out, and scornful at the difficulties I made for myself. He'd quit school in third grade to help support his mother, when his own father had abandoned the family. Sid had milked cows, sold papers, mowed lawns, worked in a bakery and an ice house, and had done whatever he could to bring in money. He built his own console radio at 12, and had bought his tiny mother a house after WW II. There was hardly any mechanical task he could not tackle. He settled in the theater business and started at the bottom taking tickets, making popcorn, being cashier, projectionist, then manager of the Southern Amusement Company movie theaters in Lake Charles. Soon, he was troubleshooting the whole outfit, which had more than 30 theaters in Louisiana. His upward progress had been interrupted by the war, but when he returned the job had been waiting. He was a good worker, and everybody liked him. His manner was calm and confident. He usually had a smile on his face, and he was no braggart. He had a nose like Bob Hope and a smile like Eisenhower. My sister Dee Dee said she'd found on the internet that he'd won six Silver Stars, but I didn't believe it. Two, maybe. Six Silver Stars was Audie Murphy stuff. He never talked about the war as far as I knew, and there were no medals hanging on the wall. He was an expert with demolitions and supervised the Independence Day fireworks display for the Southern Amusement Company at the Round-Up drive-in theater every year. He knew math all the way to trigonometry and calculus, thanks to the Army Engineers, and was an invaluable help with my homework. Though he had a .12 guage shotgun for hunting, he never hunted, and I had to practically beg him for a bb gun for two years, before he gave me one. He took me to the woods so I could shoot a bird, and after I had murdered a poor cowbird with iridescent feathers around its neck, he'd said sarcastically, "Are you happy now?" He had to be in a closed casket. The line of cars at the Prien Lake Cemetery was so long on the day of his funeral that they were still coming around the corner at Ryan Street when the coffin was being lowered. His best friend Ted Crosby had come to me afterward and said, "Mike, if Sid didn't have something good to say about somebody, he didn't say anything at all." The best lesson Sid Havenar taught me--and it took me years to get it--was, "Patience, Michael, patience." Another true thing he said once was, "Michael, someday your big, fat mouth is going to get you in a lot of trouble." His death devastated my mother most of all. They'd been married about seven years, and it looked like she'd finally found the right man.
It's hard to write about my mother, Blanche Maxine (Mickey) Lee. Like any mother, she was the chief influence on my life for good or bad whether she wanted to be or not. She didn't want to be a mother, because she was an Irish beauty with a dramatic flair and love of films who might have been a movie star, but for the fact that she was dependent on men for upward mobility through society, and kept meeting the wrong men. And they kept knocking her up. Of course knowledge about sex, rubbers and birth control in the 1930's and 40's was officially suppressed, so how could she have known how easy it was to make babies, or how to head them off at the pass? First she'd married this one-armed fellow when she was 16 so she could get away from her mother, who kept talking about God and remaining chaste. As soon as she could, she dumped Pat's father, left the baby girl with her mom and God, and went looking for a better life than she could find in the chemically-polluted cultural swamp water of Westlake and Lake Charles. My mom wanted to be in the Big Time. She saw herself dancing down to Rio with Fred Astaire. She met my dad on a blind double-date. He got her drunk in the restaurant at the San Jacinto Monument, then took her out on the steps and forced her to have sex. He "date-raped" her, which only means that the rapist knew his victim. She finally confided this to me when I was 35, solving the mystery of why I could never get a decent hug from her. Pregnant again, but knowing his name and address, she followed him to New York City, where he took her in and, she told me, tried to turn her into a prostitute. (I hope irresponsible behavior isn't genetic but I fear it is.) Somehow she stuck it out and gave birth to me in Polyclinic Hospital (now Polyclinic Apartments) on 51st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues across from the second Madison Square Garden, August 23, 1941. He registered Mickey under a false but wonderful Irish name, or who knows, maybe his real name, and I had birth certificate problems later on. As soon as he could, he took us to Chicago and abandoned us. My mother, who was not even 20, now had two children and no means of support. Since I was the child of a rape and least-wanted, she left me with a neighbor, saying she'd be back soon, but returned to Louisiana without me. She didn't tell her mother about me for awhile, apparently, because, when she didn't return, the neighbor gave me to the City of Chicago. I was about two. The only memory I think I have of this period is an indescribable nightmare I periodically woke screaming uncontrollably from for a few of my teen years. It stopped as mysteriously as it had appeared before I joined the Marine Corps at 17, and never returned. When Mickey did tell my grandmother she'd had another baby (probably during an argument about leaving Pat with her for so long,) Louise Lee was mortified and aghast that she'd left her grandchild with a stranger 900 miles away. She insisted Mickey go back and get me, and somehow came up with the money to dispatch her, and her brother, Sherman Lee, who was on leave from the Coast Guard, to Chicago. When they got there and found the neighbor, she directed them to the city, and I was found in an orphanage. My uncle revealed this to me when I was about 55. They brought me home on a train. It must have been about that time, when my loving grandmother gave me my first real hug, that Pat had felt the first pangs of fear and jealousy, that formed the basis of her relationship with me foreverafter. My wise grandmother saw Pat's delimma and solved it with something like, "Pat, this is your own little brother, Mike. He's smaller than you and needs you to look after him, because you are older and know what he doesn't." And Pat took that seriously. She always looked after me. And she always squealed on me. If she had been punished for doing something wrong, she had to make sure that I didn't get away with the same crime or any other. But it was only sibling rivalry, natural, inevitable and sometimes mean in a capitalist world. (Yes, I'm dumping on antisocial capitalism again.) My diminuitive grandmother, having grown up on a plank floor in the middle of the Big Thicket in East Texas, where her redbearded dad in flight from Ireland had been a lumberjack in a turpentine camp, was not averse to taking a switch to our butts, when we were unacceptably disobedient, or for pulling my sister's hair. I love her for it. Without that painful reminder, I might have grown up without a conscience. I grew into an exhuberant boy who loved to climb trees and play rough-and-tumble with other boys in order to show off for girls; a normal male in other words. As I matured I loved and admired my big sister, despite her snitching. As teenagers we got along fine, probably because I was 10 miles away and she finally had our grandmother all to herself. I didn't know and she probably didn't either at the time how much she resented my mother taking me instead of her, when Mickey had to get one of us out of that small house, where Pat and I shared the same bed until she was 11. There were so many things we didn't know about each other until it was too late to do anything about it. One thing that had never occurred to me was that my big sister would have me thrown in jail. She knew about the other time and what it had done to me. I never even imagined she could do that to me. I never could have done it to her.
The other time. The event that sent me careening into the unknown world with an imagined pack of hounds on my trail began the day my stepfather died, and ended with me realizing in my 50s that it only mattered anymore as fodder for literature, if that's what this is. Mickey couldn't afford the house payments on the three-bedroom ranch style house in Metairie, so naturally she was left with no option but to move back to the familiar territory of Lake Charles, which she had been trying to leave the same way Ive been trying to leave Louisiana for most of my life. I had two weeks of school left and was trusted to stay home and finish school, pack some things, and take a bus to Lake Charles after she found a new place. It was the first time I'd been alone without some sort of supervision, had the whole house to myself, and time to think about things. My great friend Jim Morris and I hung in our den and smoked cigarettes, watched television and howled at the absurdity of life the whole two weeks. But, when I rode that bus out of New Orleans, I had a dispassionate feeling that I'd never forget the way I felt then, watching my past disappear from the window of a Greyhound bus, and I never have. It was a low and dismal feeling. The two years we'd spent in New Orleans had been the only halfway happy years I'd known since innocent childhood, because at least there I had three good friends. I didn't have a one in Lake Charles. I still don't. To me the whole town is like a communicable disease, and I stay as far away from it as possible. When I was in a really bad mood, I called it the "asshole of the United States." Look at the map.
She took a smaller house at 2020 13th Street in Lake Charles, a newer development about a mile from where we'd lived before in a pleasant shaded house surrounded by azaleas and tiger lillies at 1745 Elm Street, in another school district. So all the kids I'd grown up with were in Lake Charles High School, and I was in LaGrange High with another bunch of strangers who didn't like outsiders. The bullying and fighting started all over again, but by then I was tougher and managed to beat the shit out of one of them, proving that I was all right after all. But the worst of it was my mother's drinking. Both Sid and Mickey were alcoholics, but Sidney at least had been bigger, had more self-control and was more responsible. He had kept her stabilized even as they had enabled each other to pour the drinks and go partying as often as possible. No one, least of all myself, had any notion that alcoholism was a disease. Everybody that we knew drank except my grandmother and Sid's Catholic sister-in-law, who never returned to our house after she met my mother and disapproved of her obvious atheism. My grandmother hated the stuff. Her first husband had been an abusive alcoholic, but she was a feisty little pioneer-type and didn't take much guff from a man. She'd thrown him out like a pan of old grease and 13 years later married his gentler, kinder brother, George Lee, who was a good man despite the fact that his brother had polluted our completely-Irish gene pool with suspicious English blood. George, as I mentioned before, had been wounded twice in World War One, and been mustered out in 1919 with $18 as full payment for services rendered. I have his discharge papers. The government wasn't any wiser then than it is now. Only after war veterans had seized a train and brought thousands of vets to Washington on the Bonus March to demand their promised reward, and after they had been beaten and run out of town by federal troops, did the government come up with the cash. The $800 George got in 1936 finally lifted my mother's family out of the poverty they'd lived in that was barely better than the poverty black folks endured. They bought their first car, and George found better work. He painted the stacks on the chemical plants around Lake Charles and died of throat cancer in 1952. No one knew if it was the chemical pollution or the mustard gas or the cigarettes he rolled that gave him cancer. I was 11 when he died. My grandmother was inconsolable. I'd never seen such grief, and it affected me deeply. When the funeral cortege drove through Westlake enroute to the burying ground, men on the sidewalk took off their hats. Men did that, then. Don't tell me about the "better world" you say you're fighting for. I saw one already, and you lost it in one of your stupid bully wars.
Mickey's drinking was driving me nuts. Not knowing anything about alcoholism and there being no Al-Anon then, I thought it was a simple matter of not drinking, and couldn't understand why my mother couldn't see that it was bringing her and our family down. Who could I complain to? My grandmother knew the problem and deplored it, but there was nothing she could do about it, either. She advised me to help Mickey as much as possible, so I took to cleaning the house top to bottom, which she was grateful for, but which didn't help much at all. I see now that she was suffering major depression, which I have suffered, too. But I understood nothing then. She got a small pension for Sid's wartime service and a $5,000 insurance settlement for his death. After paying the down payment on the new house, she didn't have much. She bought a 1954 Ford that kept breaking down. She couldn't look for work because she couldn't afford a babysitter. Mickey was an expert typist (120 wpm), and an excellent secretary. She had been one of the secretaries for Colonel Parsons at the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, who was the man that had armed the atom bomb over Hiroshima. She was personable and well-liked, had a green eye and a brown one, and curly auburn hair which I inherited. She was still good-looking in her late 30's. But she got drunk every night while watching old movies on television and slept till noon. Sometimes she would get up and make a bacon sandwich for the girls, who spent all day on the couch watching tv and sucking their thumbs. I'd come home from school ,to find her still sleeping the sandwiches cold, stale and half-eaten, or bowls of breakfast cereal clabbering in the heat, and the toddlers still on the couch in their night-clothes. The world was going to hell all around me, and it made me angry. Why couldn't she just stop drinking and do the right thing? My mother was a master of the non-sequitur, and her logic was often twisted or missing altogether. We had terrific arguments that always ended with me leaving the house and walking for hours in the night, waiting for her to go to bed. I'd ride the bus talking to a driver named "Junior" for hours, or steal a dollar from her purse to go to the movies. Sometimes I stopped in KLOU radio station and sat in the control room with a DJ named Rick Nelson, who played jazz and liked to talk to me about it. But sooner or later I had to go home. I cared about homework about as much as I cared for alcohol. But, the hardest thing of all was to see my beautiful mother self-destructing before my very eyes. I'd not known her until I moved in with her and Sid. (As an infant, I must have been enraged when she didn't return for me.) But soon after moving in with them, I saw my mother really for the first time, and fell completely in love with her. She and Sid were going nightclubbing and saying goodnight to me (in the care of Sid's mother, who lived with us.) Mickey wore a lovely black dress with pearls and diamond earrings. She bent low to kiss me goodnight, and I smelled her perfume and knew I had never seen anyone more beautiful. I ached with love for her, and cried when I realized she was leaving. (Abandonment issues.) Sid had clucked and asked, "What are you, a momma's boy?" I had choked back the tears until my throat hurt. I wish now I had had the intelligence and temerity to be honest: "Yes. I am a momma's boy, and I want my momma!" Ha ha. No telling how many opportunities I didn't see that might have made for more honest relations with my family. They might have laughed, my mom might have fallen in love with me too, and Sidney might not have been so distant. After that scene, I watched her rapid deterioration with alarm and sometimes terror. When her sister Jess visited from Houston, they sat up drinking until after midnight, and more than once their unresolved sibling rivalry had boiled over into actual hair-pulling fights on the living room floor, over some incident with a boyfriend back in school for example, while my stepfather and Jess' husband Bill laughed at them from the couch. But the scenes had terrified me. How could adults behave like that? It shook my world. I felt nothing but dread every time I saw their car in the driveway.
One night after riding the bus with Junior I returned to 2020 and found my mother curled into her usual chair with her usual bourbon watching Jack Parr on the Tonight Show. He was the intellectual one. To be sociable, I sat on the couch and was watching it with her, when I felt her looking at me. Finally, I turned to face her and asked, "What's the matter with you?"
"Michael," she slurred. "Have you been smoking pot?"
I realized she'd heard something about it on the show. I didn't have a clear idea of what pot was. I think a Lake Charles cop had come to an assembly in Central School when I was in eighth grade and warned us about it. I'd never seen any, never been offered any, didn't know anybody who had smoked it, had never even heard it mentioned, and would have fought anybody who tried to get me to use it. There was no way I was going to turn into a heroin addict. All I knew was that it was a dangerous drug. If she thought I was using it, I realized in an instant, she didn't know the first thing about her son.
I said, "Are you crazy?" She jumped to her feet and told me not to talk to her that way. I stood up and kept asking if she'd lost her mind. We were standing in the dining room shouting at one another when I said the deadly word: "I don't give a fuck!"
"Oh," she exclaimed, "Your father never would have said that word to me!" Ever the logician, I informed her that he had only been my stepfather. We said some more things that I can't remember, and I said it again: "I don't give a fuck!"
She slapped my face as hard as she could six times, three with each hand. I felt her pent-up hatred in every slap, but I stood there like a post, knowing she couldn't hurt me. The effort exhausted her and she almost fell. I turned and headed for the door.
"If you leave this house I'll call the police," she said.
I left the house. I walked to the corner at Second Avenue, turned left, walked to 14th Street, turned left again, and took a seat in the home dugout of the Little League Field behind our house. Soon, a police car with flashing red light arrived, alerting the whole neighborhood to our problem, and two cops rang the bell and went inside. Fifteen minutes later they departed, and I hopped the fence and went back in. Mickey picked up the phone and made the call. We sat there silently waiting. Five minutes later they were putting me in handcuffs. Ten minutes after that I was being strip-searched in the holding tank of the Calcasieu Parish Jail by a trustee, who made me bend and spread my cheeks so he could see if I had a hacksaw in my ass. It was the most-humiliating thing I'd ever experienced, worse than being called a "coward" by a legion of bullies, worse than being beaten into the dirt by strangers for no reason except that they didn't know me. When the guard showed me into that darkened juvenile cell, I sat on a lower bunk and vowed to myself, "I'll never forgive her for as long as she lives."
It took me about 50 years to admit to myself that I shouldn't have spoken to my mother like that. Of course it had been a hot argument and we both were stressed. It was too late to apologize to Mickey, though. She died at 60 of bladder cancer caused by alcohol-abuse. When she died on Christmas Day, 1982, I suddenly remembered the vow I'd made that night, and realized with great sadness that I had forgotten to forgive my mother. I also had the strange feeling that she had died to give me a Christmas present, because I finally did forgive her when I saw her in her coffin, old and wasted. but still somehow pretty even in death. When I realized how hard I had been on her, I couldn't stop crying. How could I ever have been so mean? Even now, 26 years after we buried her, the tears come forth. It was only one of many bad decisions I'd made that made me hate myself, but it was one of the worst. Forgiving her finally released me from the hate and guilt I'd been carrying around for 25 years. Forgiving myself was something else again.
I sat in that cell for a week, intimidated by some teenaged outlaws from Goosport, who were accustomed to jail as hardened burglars and thieves. I burned with resentment and hatred over it. I felt that I was a good boy and knew I didn't belong in there.
One day the viewing slot opened and a face peered inside. I heard a familiar voice saying, "What the hell are you doing in there?" It was Cuthbert ("Cup") Mandell, my old Boy Scout scoutmaster that I hadn't seen since leaving Lake Charles more than two years before. He periodically looked in on the juvenile tank to see if there was anyone he could help. Cup was a real woodsman. He taught us boys how to camp and all the things that went with that: tying knots, making a fire, fighting a fire, identifying plants and animals, hygiene in the woods, how to read a compass and map, swimming in a river with alligators, earning merit badges. I'd made First Class Scout, and then those days had come to an end. But Cup knew boys, and he knew as well as me that I didn't belong in the Calcasieu Parish Jail. When I told him the story, he said, "Goddammit. I'll get you out of here. Don't worry, it won't be long." The next day I was taken to the office of Mrs. Lyle, the Juvenile Officer for Lake Charles, whose son was reputed to have hanged himself. And there was Mickey, in her Sunday best, sober. I hadn't seen her sober in about five years. Mrs. Lyle said, "Okay, Mike. What's the trouble here?" I pointed to my mother and said, "She drinks too much."
"That's none of your business!" she declared. I shut up and heard her threaten me. "You are going to go back home now and obey your mother. If you give her any trouble and disobey her in any way, I am going to put you in the Juvenile Detention Home in Monroe. Do you want to go to the Juvenile Detention Home in Monroe?" I said, "No, ma'am." After that I just said no ma'am and yes ma'am and anything else I needed to say to get out of there. She assigned me a probation officer, and told me to report to him once a week until further notice. Soon, my mother and I were walking down the broad stairs of the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse together, our steps echoing in the empty halls, saying nothing to each other. At the bottom, she told me that Roy Chauvin, my oldest friend with whom I had shared a cradle and hardly saw at all anymore, was waiting for me in his mother's car, and to come home early. Sure, I said. But I was seeing the highway to California in my mind. California seemed far enough away from Lake Charles. I was fifteen years old. Sidney had been dead less than three months, and all I wanted to do was disappear. Everybody knew that the Juvenile Detention Home was only a stopover on the way to Angola State Prison Farm.
It was 12 years later, and Pat had done it again. That's the background of this volcano story. I don't know why I'm telling it to you, except that I had to tell it to somebody. I'd left New York City on a giddying dive into the future and landed in a volcano of the past. The Calcasieu Parish Jail didn't burn me to death, but it was the smithy that forged the character I became: hard, wary, focused, suspicious, scornful, rebellious, superior-feeling, in a fighting-mood, and determined to be free. I may have mistaken mobility for freedom, but I never confused it with injustice.
Then the damndest thing happened. Roy didn't take me home. Instead, he looked up a guy I didn't know named David Sims. David lived across the street from the Second Avenue swimming pool in a big house, alone. He was our age, and his parents were gone for the summer. He took us out to his uncle's boat at the Shell Beach Marina, broke into a locker and came up with a bottle of whiskey. Roy and I had never tasted it. When he handed me the bottle for a swig, I thought, let's see what the fuss is all about, and took a big one. Somehow I held it down, and we proceeded to get drunk. Later we ended up at the pool. We jumped the fence, stripped off our clothes and went swimming in the dark with the bottle. Someone dropped it with the cap on into the deep end. We all dove for it until I found it. When I came up with it, David--who became a banker--was breaking the window of the clubhouse. He called me over and asked me, since I was the smallest, to crawl through the small window and open the door. I did so, leaving some skin on the glass. David walked in and walked out with a footlong stack of 45 rpm records that they played over the public address system. We went back to his house and listened to the records until we all passed out from the drinking. It was the first time in my life that I had failed to come home, and Mickey had called the cops again. We were sitting down to breakfast hungover and silent in the truckstop at the corner, when a Lake Charles cop walked in and arrested us for the burglary. The Lake Charles Jail was a small white building across the street from the Calcasieu Parish Jail, which had released me only a day before. The cops put us in separate offices and questioned us. Resigned to going to prison, I admitted everything. Then they put Roy and I together and listened from a hidden place in the hallway--Roy told me this 20 years later--as I told my old friend, "Roy, I'll take the blame. It was all my fault." Roy had said, "Mike, you didn't do anything but open the door. It was David who broke the window and stole the records. The cops decided to let Roy and I go and charged David. I had to report to my new probation officer. He was a nice man, and he told me that since I hadn't been charged, he was unconcerned. To go home and return in a week. When I got home at last, Mickey said she'd been "worried to death," and I didn't say much. I went to bed early, but kept my clothes on under the covers, and waited a couple of hours for Mickey to go to her own bed. When I was sure she was asleep, I sneaked into her bedroom and took Sid's two bags from the closet. I closed the door to my room and carefully packed just about everything I owned, including my books. Holding my breath and walking like a cat, I stole out of the house and caught the last Second Avenue bus with Junior to Broad Street, which is Highway 90, that goes all the way from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego. I hitched over the bridge and walked through the sleeping town of Westlake to my grandmother's house at 533 Goos Street. She came to the door alarmed and asking what in the world? I told her I was leaving, and she asked me not to. She asked me to stay and help Mickey.
"I hate her!" I exclaimed. My grandmother's eyes fell in the face of my anger. She went to her purse and gave me her last $20 and the last hug I would have for some time, and I hit the road. One ride carried me to Houston, and another one took me to San Antonio. By the time night came again, I was sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler headed for Del Rio with my feet on the dashboard, listening to country music and the driver telling me about his life. Tumbleweeds were blowing across the road and overhead clouds like dark ships sailed past beneath a full moon. I felt such elation that I've never forgotten it, and realize now that for most of my life I've been trying to re-capture that feeling. I remember thinking triumphantly, "I never have to go back there forever!"
Of course I did. Against my will, and much sooner than forever.