As I stated in Chapter 1, my father’s death radically changed my life. I was basically raised by an assembly of three. My mother relied heavily on the advice of my two older brothers when it came to raising me. She was somewhat lost when it came to raising a boy. Back then there was little social service help. You simply did not air your dirty laundry in public and you relied heavily on family in your times of need. It is not like today where there are services for every aspect of a person’s life. I know that they did the best they could under very trying times. I do not hold any ill will towards them. But in retrospect, I think some of the decisions made were erroneous and quite possibly detrimental to my development.
I have stated earlier that PDA was not the norm in our family. As a result we were more reserved in our displays of affection. Also the relationship with the parent was more formal than it is today. You are a parent not a friend. The authority of the parent was not to be questioned. You were just a child and the adult always knew better. My mother’s preferred mechanisms for discipline were first, a good scolding followed by kneeling in the corner for 15 minutes or longer with your nose touching the wall. If your nose left the wall the clock started all over again. If this did not work you got slapped by the hand on any handy area of contact. If you tried to block her from slapping you, that put her into a frenzy. No boxer in this world had faster hands than my Mother when she was riled up. There was no safe place on your body either, the face was the preferred target. Of course, the punishment was more psychological than painful. She did not have the power to really hurt you. But the flyswatter was a different matter. It was the final form of corporal punishment and not being stupid, I never pushed her to that extreme. Our flyswatters had metal parts in them and they hurt like hell. I have seen here break one while dispensing punishment. She always seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them. If you used profanity in any shape or form, it was a bar of ivory soap ground into your mouth. The taste lingered there for hours. You were not allowed to brush your teeth right away either because that would lessen the punishment.
So now that I have some of the niceties of discipline out of the way, let’s talk about how my childhood changed. I feel that there was some jealousy between my brothers and me. Robert more than Ronnie. When Robert was younger he had a stuffed animal called Cuddles. He took it everywhere with him. When our father bought my Winnie the Pooh it blew away Cuddles. I think he was jealous as a result. To so his vexation, he would always hid him from me. He also counselled our mother that I was becoming too attached to him and that I was just too old for him. So one day, when I came home from school he was gone. That was it. I never saw him again. This was typical pattern in my childhood. It seemed like any toy I became attached to simply disappeared. The only things that appeared to be sacred were items built by our father. My work bench and the barn he built me for my little plastic farm animals. That barn was magnificent and was better than any toy barn you could buy in a catalog. One other group of toys that managed to escape banishment were my G.I. Joes. Thank the hell God. That would have killed me to have those taken away from me. I really don’t know what went through her mind when she listened to their advice but she followed it. You would think that after the loss of the two closest people to me, they would cut me some slack? I still have the barn and workbench safely stored away. I don’t know what I will do with either of them as I have no children to pass them on too. I did however get a nice purple bike out of the deal though. I loved that bike. Purple was my favorite color. But you know what that bike disappeared as well, right before we moved to Florida. I think it was sold. That is fine because my family needed the money to help with the move. Why would I mind, it had after all only taken me two years to grow into it and now it was gone (dripping sarcasm). I think my brothers thought it was too effeminate because of the color.
Well, with all of these things disappearing in my life you would expect that I would have separation issues. You would be right if you said yes. To this day I have a very hard time getting rid of anything. Subsequently, I am a collector of a lot of stuff. At least I keep it all organized, though. This tendency to collect things drives my wife crazy.
Thank goodness, my father left my Mother with a little money. The house and our car were as a result paid for. We also had a rental property to help with the taxes and she did odd house cleaning jobs to bring in extra money. Since my father’s death she received a portion of my father’s pension, so we were not paupers. One piece of advice given by our family of which I agreed wholeheartedly on was the purchase of our little Winnebago motorhome. It was 20 feet long and it had no A/C or generator. We did not really miss the A/C, being that the temperature during the summer was quite comfortable in Upper State New York. It allowed us to travel with the rest of our close knit family groups during the summer months. We previously owned a travel trailer. It however was too much for us to handle. I was just too young to be of much help with the hookups and I could not disconnect the hitch. So we had to rely on the other families to set us up. That is one thing my Mother hated was being dependent on anybody. The Winnebago certainly made that easier. We even had walkie talkies to communicate from vehicle to vehicle while we were on the road. I loved sitting in the passenger seat. It made me feel like I was the co-pilot. We were up so high you could see everywhere. My Uncle Danny and his children were musically inclined and thusly were able to play at the campsites at night, for free lodging. We unfortunately had to pay the full price for our campsite.
Our trips seemed to bring my mother and I closer together. But I still received very little in the matter of physical affection. I was seldom hugged or kissed. I guess I never gave it much thought back then. I just thought it was the norm. Only now do I know that it was not really that normal. It has taken me two failed marriages to finally get it right. I guess I never knew how to really be affectionate or what love truly felt like or meant. Well, better late than never. I am in my 50s now and I am quite happy with my personal life. One thing I am glad that never happened was that I did not have any children. I don’t think I would have made that great of a parent. I simply did not learn how to do it the right way.
My childhood during this two year period was filled with a sense of loneliness and sadness. I know my Mother did the best she could. Deep down I know she loved me. She just had a lot to deal with. I also know that since my Father had been sick so much she had been basically running the household for sometime so she was used to it. I tried playing with the neighborhood kids and I spent time with my nephew Tim. However, I mostly played by myself in my bedroom. The house seemed huge because by that time, it was only my Mother, grandfather, Robert and myself living in it and Robert would be moving out soon. You might wonder why our grandfather was living with us so much? His wife, my grandmother died when I was very young, so I never knew her. They owned a farm which he promptly sold and he just moved in with us. I think he had an apartment at one time but he did not really take care of it himself. So, Mom just kind of took care of him. She was the eldest of five surviving siblings. You might remember Uncle Herman he was her only brother. There was Aunt Barbara, Aunt Theolus and Aunt Agnes.
We had a few bright moments before our lives became a living hell. On one occasion, we went to visit my sister Tina in Alabama. We flew by plane. It was my first time on a plane, the flight attendant even gave me a wing pin. We had a great time in Alabama. I will call my sister’s husband “John.” He took me on a “safari” in the swamps of Alabama where we went hunting for all kinds of monsters. He taught me how to shoot a bow and arrow. Of course, not a real one. My sister even made ceramics with our Mom and me at the military base.
I guess I had lived a sheltered life in New York. I had no concept of race relations and racial tension. I was still too young for history to be a part of my school curriculum, so I did not know about the civil rights movement or separate but equal facilities. So, when we found a laundromat in Alabama we went in it. My mother started washing our clothes like nothing was wrong. We took no note that we were the only Caucasians in there. It became obvious to us when a Caucasian woman came up to my Mother and apprised her of the situation. My Mother politely thanked her and continued washing our laundry. Before I knew it she was chatting up an elderly Black woman. We finished up by folding our laundry and left with no more fuss. I never was prouder of my Mother than at that moment. She thought the whole matter was silly. She, like myself feel that all people are equal. But, of course, I was too young at that time to put all these thoughts together in a coherent manner. It took later reflection for me to realize how important what she did was. It has been the foundation of all my interracial relations and interactions ever since. We all bleed red blood.
One other cool thing about having a vet as a family member is that we had access to the military base drive-in theater. We got to see two awesome movies, Easy Rider and True Grit. This was my first experience with a drive-in theater. It did not take much to impress me back then.
I remember one other high point in my life. That was our Greyhound bus ride to New York City. I tell you what, that ride was something else. We virtually flew down the road. Ronnie had rented hotel rooms for us in New York City for the weekend. We got to ride on the subways in NYC, little did we know that we were risking life and limb to do so. We went shopping in the world famous department store Macy’s. We also went to the top of the Empire State Building which was really cool. Of course, this is when my brother filled my head with crap about dropping a penny and killing someone. I believed that until I got to see it dispelled on a MythBusters episode. Oh well, we were pretty gullible and ignorant back then. I still have not been back to NYC. It has been over 50 years.
My Aunt Barbara was the matchmaker in the family. She kept on pestering my Mother to go up to visit her so she could meet a newly-divorced school teacher who was also an assistant principal. My mother had been a widow for over a year now, so it was OK by the norms of our times to start looking for her next victim, I mean spouse. Even though her heart wasn’t in it, she had been married 25 years when my Father died. That is a lot of feelings to have to deal with. But they met anyway and promptly hit it off. He had 2 sons and 2 daughters. Within less than a year they were married. One of the boys lived with us for a little while. The ex-wife took care of the other son and the younger daughter. The oldest daughter was already on her own. I have changed the configuration of the family dynamic to protect as much as possible the innocent people in this story. You noticed how no names were mentioned for my stepfather’s family as well.
After a suitably lengthy courtship following all the mores of the time with my Aunt as a chaperone in the early stages, they were married. It is at this point that I need to digress a little so that I can paint a picture of the situation we soon found ourselves in as a new family. Because you must know that in my stories there is always something nasty lurking around the next corner.
Now, I am going to make a reference to a movie that most of my younger readers will not be familiar with. With the town my Aunt Barbara lived in you will find an apt comparison to the town in the movie Peyton Place which hit the big screen in 1957. As a matter of fact, her town was even worse. It made Peyton Place, yes the town has the same name as the movie, look like a town full of happy Smurfs. Remember this fact. My Mother owned a Winnebago. That alone put us in the shit house. Whenever we would go through the town, every curtain would open up ever so slightly so that the neighborhood busybody could see the rich “Jezebel” going to see her ever suffering sister. It was like watching the fans at a football game doing the “Wave”. Remember when I said that my Mother waited a suitable time to start dating after my father died? Well, have you heard the term “When Hell Freezes Over?” that would be too soon in this town. So, we have Strike One and Strike Two.
Now I need to discuss my new stepfather a little. He was a great man but he was not a great judge of character. Without knowing it, he married a popular woman in his first marriage. When he could not take her suspected infidelities anymore, he filed for divorce. Well, needless to say she took him to the cleaners. As rumor had it she was sleeping with not only her lawyer, she was also sleeping with the judge as well. I of course can’t substantiate these claims and rumors. Do I need to add that she was also spiteful and evil, I think not? Strike Three and Four.
Remember when I said that he was a local teacher? Well, you guessed it we had to move into that town temporarily until he could relocate to where we lived. Being that it was the middle of the school season, he had to finish that year. So we moved to that town. You can imagine how difficult it was to rent a place there. So, guess the place we found to rent? The biggest damn house in the town right on the lake (it Even Had A Name) Strike Five. The house was surrounded by privacy hedges, was three stories tall and had a cement dock that seemed to go forever into the lake. The key is that, the people who owned this house no longer lived in it, they lived in the guest house on the property. The old couple had built this huge house because they had a big family. Well, they had all grown up and moved out by the time we entered the picture. He charged us nothing but the cost of fuel to keep the old house heated so that the pipes wouldn’t burst. Because you guessed it, we were smack dab in the middle of winter. He was also unique in that he did not believe all the rumors that were being spread about my new Father and my Mother. Of course, nobody in town knew of this arrangement. They just thought we were rich.
You would think that a 7-year old boy would be off limits to the attentions of a rabid town like this. Well, you would be wrong! The kids at school made my life a living hell. Even the bus driver took a great deal of glee in driving by our house making me chase after the school bus till his next stop. Many times I would stand with the neighbor’s kids at their stop so that I wouldn’t miss the school bus. Remember I said we lived in a big house with a really big yard. Well, the whole neighborhood was like this. So the bus stops were spread out quite a bit. Many times my mother had to drive me to school. This is also a good time to remind you of the fact that my father had just bought his dream car before he died. Well, you can imagine what he bought. It was the damn biggest car in the world. The only car bigger was the Cadillac Seville. Our car was just one step below this, the Pontiac Bonneville. It was almost 20 feet long and was gold-colored, Strike Six. So, you can imagine my mother taking me to school in this car. She might as well have placed the bullseye on my back herself.
Well, one good thing came out of this experience, my pugilistic skills improved. It also helped that I was a fat little kid with a lot of padding from all my winter insulation. For I was going to need all of these things to survive our daily recess periods. Every day I would get set upon by at least 6 or more bullies and get a royal thumping. I managed to occasionally get in a few licks but I mostly ended up crawling into a ball and riding out the storm. Finally, the beating would stop when either they got tired or the school bell rang ending the break. Of course, it would take time for me to compose myself so that I could go back into class. Which meant that I was late getting back every time. This would result in some form of punishment by either the teacher or the principal. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one going in late, so I had company. If I was too late I would get paddled by the Principal. So, I guess it wasn’t enough that I got the shit kicked out of me by six or more kids daily, I needed an additional thumping from an angry adult as well. Let me tell you, he did not use his hand, he had a wooden paddle. This wonderful cycle went on for a few months. You may ask, why I never told my parents? I was just too proud and stubborn.
So how did it all stop you may ask? My aunt’s older son Gary who was in the local junior high school heard of what was going on. That started the process rolling. The problem was now where do I go to school? So we had to say goodbye to that magnificent house on the lake and we bought a small single wide trailer and put it closer to the school where my father was teaching. We basically moved to the next town over. This town was totally different from my aunt Barbara’s town. Nobody knew us and nobody really cared either. But, of course, I had another aunt living in that town as well. Her name was aunt Agnes. So now I was entering my third school in this school year. I no longer had to worry about bullies beating me up any more and my step-father was also the assistant principal. So I am sure your are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, you would be right. As you might imagine, during the period of time of my second and third year of school , I was a little preoccupied with outside events to really pay much attention to my school work. Somehow I had got passing grades without really learning very much. Well, I can tell you that there was a world of difference between the teachers from my previous hell school and the one I was at now. My teacher quickly found out that I couldn’t read. Well that is not right, I could sound the words out, I just did not comprehend what I was reading. The words and phrases had no meaning at all. This was pretty bad since I was almost finished third grade.
So how did I get this resolved? Enter stage left, another cousin. When my parents who were newlyweds at that time, went out to have fun at night, they would hire family members to babysit me. This cousin soon became my regular sitter. His name was Danny. He was just going into college and was trying to earn some extra money. When he asked what I wanted to do for fun since we had no TV at the time and playing cards was out of the question, I would point to his school books. He was taking some literature classes at the time, so he had all kinds of interesting books with him. I made him read to me. Sometimes for hours on end. You know what finally happened…a lightbulb went off in my head and I finally started understanding the sentences. The whole time he was reading to me I was looking at the sentences in those books. I would also stop his reading so he could explain confusing concepts to me. I consider this to be one of the major turning points in my life. I soon became a voracious reader after that.
So ended grade three. What started out on a low point now ended on a high point. With the end of the year, my stepfather had completed his contractual obligations and we moved back to the house my Mother owned. You may wonder why I worded it this way? With the death of my father, our little family went from a patriarchy to a matriarchy. It never went back. My Mother was not going to relinquish control again. I guess, she was afraid of another loss as well. This would lead to many resulting fights and a near separation. More of which I will discuss later. My father was not able to find any work teaching in our town, so he had to fall back on his insurance selling days for our income. Money was tight but we managed. For the first time, I was not the center of attention and that felt good. But my stepfather’s ex wife would not leave him alone, she kept on bringing him to court. She thought he had married into money with his new wife and was trying to get the child support increased for their daughter. It eventually got so bad that we had to leave New York and move to Florida. That is what my stepfather’s lawyer recommended anyway and that is what we did. But my mother insisted that I finish 4th grade in New York. She did not want a repeat of my third grade. She said it was simply too hard on me.
My “Father” was able to get a teaching job after submitting several applications there. So he went in advance so that he could start work and we followed suit once the house was sold. We bought a double wide mobile home using the singlewide we still had in New York as a down payment. Ronnie, my oldest brother helped with selling the house and Robert helped with the packing and selling of all our father’s tools. We would simply not have room for all of his heavy-powered tools.
Chapter 2 ends with us on the road in our Winnebago eager to put the past behind us and to enter our new life in the Sunshine State.