Under the Table  
A Fictional Memoir of Growing Up With Beer

November 26, 2006


Chapter: Foreword — J @ 1:32 pm


A Fictional Memoir of Growing Up With Beer

by Jay R. Brooks


Drink to the girls and drink to their mothers,
Drink to the fathers and to their brothers;
Toast their dear healths as long as you’re able,
And dream of their charms while under the table.

— Anonymous Toast

November 24, 2006

Let There Be Sunshine

Chapter: 1 — J @ 1:02 pm

There are two reasons for drinking:
one is when you are thirsty,
to cure it;
the other, when you are not thirsty,
to prevent it.

     — Thomas Love Peacock
          Melincourt, 1817

Whenever I see a bright golden pilsner standing tall in the glass, it hearkens me back to my very first memory of beer, of being aware of its existence. The golden hue of my mother’s beer — who was the only one in the family to pour it into a glass — reminded me of a blazing sun at noon. It sparkled in the glass, especially outside on the back porch of our new home on State Street. This first recollection of beer bathes me with warmth every time I walk out into the sun, and her beer of choice was a local brand called, fittingly, Sunshine Beer.

I was five when we moved into the new house. It’s when all of my life’s memories begin. Before that time, almost nothing exists. The only reason I know that I really was born five years before are the grainy black and white photographs, a few faint images of memory, and my family’s stories of what I was like as a baby. Were it not for those, I might be tempted to believe I was born a five-year old, walking and talking.

Prior to that we lived with my grandmother in the next town, Mohnton, a speck of a town, even then. My mother had the unseemly temerity to buck the conventional wisdom of the day and get divorced at the tender age of 22. This was in 1960. I was one. I’ve never been sure of what prompted so rash a decision on my mother’s part, but I never saw my father again until the week he died, 42 years later. Even then, I never learned the true reasons for their marriage’s demise.

But according to the stories which are supported by the photographic record, we lived high on the hill of a dead end street. Only three or four houses separated my family from a forest of nothingness. The macadam of the road just stopped past the last house, followed unceremoniously by a dirt path that wound its way up to the top of the hill. I know the area well — now — from subsequent stays at my grandmother’s house when I was able to retain my explorations of the neighborhood.

My grandmother’s house was old, even by Mohnton standards. It was built around 1910 or so, just a few years after the town was established in 1907. It was a simple wooden clapboard house, two stories tall with a long front porch that afforded them a view of the forest across the street, at least until another house sprang up (but that wouldn’t be for decades). My grandparents bought the house at a sheriff’s sale for $1300 when they married in the 1930s. For an extra $100 they could have had an acre of forest behind the house, but they shortsightedly passed. Of course, a spare $100 was undoubtedly a lot harder to come by three-quarters of a century ago than today so I probably shouldn’t be so hard on them. Besides, there’s plenty more they’ll have to answer for later.

The house sat comfortably on Main Street, a mis-named street name if ever there was one. It seems hard now to understand why you’d name a street that dead ends at the top of a forested hill so grandly. Perhaps it was a display of pure optimism on the part of the town leaders. But the main street had been Wyomissing Avenue at least since the mid-1800s and it that cut through the middle of town on its east-west axis. It was met in the dead center of town by Church Street, on which no less than four churches sat cutting the north-south axis of town in two. Main Street intersected Wyomissing Avenue at the old pretzel factory that straddled the creek that had once fed Lake Valmont, a failed attempt to make Mohnton a resort town shortly after the turn of the century.

This was the house my mother grew up in, where she first met my father, just up the block from her best friend’s house, the wonderful woman who is my godmother. After the divorce, my mother retreated to the safety of that house. I suspect it’s familiarity made it the obvious choice but it must still have been a hard one to make. She and my grandmother were close in my grandmother’s mind, but my mother spent her entire life trying to unsuccessfully separate herself from her manipulative tentacles. It was easy to see why my mother drank. She could not escape and like so many before her sought temporary solace in a glass of beer.

She began to date. Again, I have the photographic record to thank for the images of a seemingly endless parade of would-be suitors. In many of the pictures, perfect strangers can be seen pretending to care about a towheaded toddler so they could get closer to my mother. There are photos of me on their knees, throwing a ball, hugging in front of the Christmas tree, and trying to curry my favor in the midst of grand parties. And in some of them, forcing a smile in the background is my mother, a Sunshine beer in her hand.

It’s a little sad to see these now. I don’t know a single person in any of the photographs. The men seem so earnest in their attempts to woo a single mother by appealing to her son. Maybe they were decent men. Maybe they really did care for her. But for several years, they came and went. Until she met Eddie, that is, who would eventually become my stepfather and later legally my father when my biological sperm donor signed away his rights as a parent.

They met a mixer at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse that curiously were a common fixture of the local medical community in the early 1960s. Eddie had a thing for nurses, apparently, and took an immediate shine to my mother. He was an ex-marine and worked in a tire factory, a big, strong man who must have seemed like he could protect her from anything life could throw their way. That she’d need protection most of all from him was still years away from being revealed and she seemed genuinely happy in those days, a marked detour from the sourness of life under her mother’s roof.

They were an item in short order and a wedding was quickly set for the summer after my fifth birthday. I remember nothing of their courting or indeed the wedding itself. I do recall being upset that I was not to accompany them to the Pocono Mountains for the honeymoon. But no amount of tantrums on my part would change that.

When they did return, we moved into the new house my mother had bought in Shillington, a town away from her own mother but closer to where both she and my stepfather worked. It was on a non-descript tree-lined street in the heart of town. A semi-detached two-story brick house, it was one of a dozen exact copies that lined the street. The inside of the house was unremittingly dark because the previous occupants apparently hated light. They had painted every single room in dark burgundies, dull grays and even black paint. So the first task my parents undertook was to repaint the whole house, with my grandmother’s meddling assistance setting the tone for the rest of our lives there on State Street.

It’s odd how I can remember every detail from that point on as if it just happened, while events from the week before that day are so impermeable that they might as well be from the Jurassic period. I can still all but smell the paint mingling with the stale beer that littered every surface as the week-long project progressed. If I had know what beer was then, I might have started drinking then. Because it was immediately apparent that my grandmother and my stepfather were not getting along, and it was obvious even then that they probably never would. My grandmother was used to getting her own way and my stepfather seemed determined to assert his own and his new family’s independence over what I’m sure he viewed as the wicked witch of the north. So the two of them argued every step of the way while my mother and I could only watch, although she retreated into drunkenness as often as she could. In those days, it was harder to choose sides. And so I think that’s the reason I clung to the familiar, taking my grandmother’s side. In hindsight, my stepfather seems almost innocently sympathetic — something you could never say about him in later years. I did not yet understand the complexity of human relationships and especially her extraordinary ability to manipulate and undermine them for her own purposes.

Eventually, we did get the new house to ourselves and things settled into a kind of normalcy, at least for a time. This was indeed the proverbial calm before the storm that would mark the next fifteen years of my life as I tried my best to make the painful climb to adulthood. Along the way, my family put some formidable roadblocks in my way and I often look back at these years, from about 1964 to somewhere in the late 60s — when life flew apart and expanded like my own personal big bang — as idyllic by comparison. They weren’t, of course, and it’s a wonder I never picked up on the signs along the way that should have warned me to what was coming. But I was young and prone to cluelessness, and in any event didn’t know the signs of alcoholism, psychosis or the theory of group dynamics anyway.

All I saw was the golden brightness of my mother’s Sunshine beer gleaming in the sunlight. And it seemed to say that the future was going to be just as sunny.

On to Chapter 2

November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks

Chapter: 2 — J @ 4:03 pm

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline —
it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons,
but at the very least you need a beer.

     — Frank Zappa

Thanksgiving was a big deal in our family. It was one of the few times throughout the year that the entire family — at least the Stamm side, my maternal grandfather’s — was together in one place. On that day, all of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, five in all, congregated with their families at my Aunt Helen’s home, where she lived with her husband and her mother, my great-grandmother. They had all grown up on the family farm near Bernville, named for Bern, Switzerland, which is where the original Stamm emigrated from in the early 1700s.

I honestly never knew when the farm was sold but none of the immediate family had lived there for quite some time, at least as far as I could tell. My great-grandfather died the day after I was born. My family loved to tell the story that once he was told my mother had given birth to male heir he could die happy, and he proceeded to just that … the very next day! It was oddly comforting to them it seemed, but it filled me with guilt as a child, as if I had somehow caused his death. After all, it was my birth that prompted his to choose to die. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the meaning of the story.

Looking back, them telling me the story seems almost cruel, but no one in the family treated kids the way children are coddled today. Today, as a society, we worry if things adults do are “appropriate for children.” The generation of my parents and before understood that it was an adult world and didn’t try to shield children from it but instead drew lessons about the world as we encountered them. It was very much a “children should be seen and not heard” sort of environment, though my relatives listened quite a bit. They just taught us from a very early age that our place was to be respectful.

There were instances I saw in my own and other families where some children were treated rather badly by this philosophy and it definitely seems like many of the recent changes in the way children are raised have been beneficial for the kids. But I also think sometimes that the pendulum has swung to far in the opposite direction. Too much protection and we create a society who can’t deal with conflict and whose skin is so thin it becomes offended at the slightest insult. This makes it increasingly difficult to talk about differences of opinion and truly learn from one another how to change them.

And the number of agendas that have been pushed using the “it’s for the children” gambit is one that drives me to drink. This plea for children’s welfare is a favorite tool these days of the neo-prohibitionist, whose sole aim is to remove alcohol from American society. It’s one thing, albeit selfishly strident, to want to return to Prohibition, but quite another to claim it’s to protect children. I find it quite dishonest to use children in that way.

My one relative who took this idea of children being in the background to extremes was my Aunt Helen’s husband, my Uncle Ray. Raymond was not a particularly thoughtful or well-read man. He cleaned carpets for a living his entire life and read only racy, pornographic novels. I never understood why he was with my aunt, who read everything voraciously — indeed taught me the joy of books — and was that rare woman with a university degree, in the sciences no less, in 1932. And he never spoke to the children … ever. In my entire life until the day he died when I was in my early twenties, my Uncle Ray had spoken to me maybe a dozen times. My mother told me later that he didn’t speak to her until after I was born, perhaps because that confirmed in his mind her entry into adulthood and therefore her finally being worthy of engaging in conversation. He was odd and mysterious, and more than a little frightening. When he did speak, it was so unusual that it carried enormous weight. I remember quite vividly his booming voice at around age six — when I still occasionally wet my bed — saying what were perhaps the first words he ever spoke to me. “When are you going to stop wetting the bed.” Needless to say, I stopped that very moment and never again needed the sheets changed or new pajamas in the middle of the night.

My Uncle Ray’s beer of choice was Schmidt’s, a Philadelphia beer that had been around since 1859, though Christian Schmidt doesn’t seem to be involved until 1861. The brewery flourished after Prohibition as C. Schmidt & Sons, not that anyone ever called it that. Beginning in the 1950s, Schmidt’s began buying up other area breweries until they merged with rival Ortlieb and lost their name in 1981, before finally closing down five years later.

In the early days, at Thanksgiving gatherings he always had his thick fingers wrapped around a brown bottle. In later Thanksgiving dinners, there would be cans. Cans with logos, cans with game birds, cans with sports teams, and who knows what else. One thing Schmidt’s did better than almost anyone else was make cans for the growing beer can collectors craze that really got going in the 1970s. They had a number of different series and collectors raced to “collect them all,” before that phrase lost all of its meaning by the sophisticated collectibles industry of more recent years.

My aunt and uncle’s house was slightly smaller even then my own, and the family always ate in two shifts. Half the family waited in the living room watching the parades while the other half ate. Then a hour or so later, in an elaborately staged dance, the two groups switched places. Except for the usually humongous turkey, two plates of every side dish were prepared and there were always a multiple array of desserts to choose from, so that both groups could eat their fill.

From an early age I loved turkey — and indeed still do — but especially my great-grandmother’s filling, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty whose recipe was a closely guarded family secret. Essentially, it’s mashed potatoes with bread crumbs, celery, onions, butter and other goodies added and then baked until it gets a crust on it. This was by far the biggest meal I ate all year and, looking back, may be the one with more varied dishes than any other meal I’ve yet eaten. There were green beans, peas, string beans, baked glazed carrots, creamed corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce and on and on. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be a full ham, as well. And that’s not including the desserts, which were plentiful and always home made.

But for many years, Thanksgiving became an awkward time when the meal ended. Gender roles were still pretty rigidly well-defined, and after dinner, every one of my male relatives waddled contentedly into the living room to watch football on the black and white television that sat uncomfortably in a corner of the room. This was still in the days when it had not yet reached its prominence as the center of a typical living room. In the early part of the Sixties — at least in my family — the television was still just a novelty, conversation and reading held sway over it, though perhaps sadly not for very much longer. So the Thanksgiving football as ritual was in its infancy, but it was one my family quickly adopted. The games themselves began in 1934, with a six-year hiatus during World War Two, then started up again in 1945. Since then, at least one football game has been played on Thanksgiving every year since. The first one to be televised was in 1962, when I was a precocious three.

While this was going on in the living room, every one of their female counterparts remained in the kitchen to clean up the massive piles of pots, pans and dishes. As a small child, I never knew quite where my place was supposed to be. After my mother and father split up, I spent almost of all of my time with women, whether my mom, grandmother, aunt or a babysitter. So the men in my family seemed a little alien to me and I don’t think I’d quite pieced together yet the fact that I would one day become one of them.

So it must have been that first televised Thanksgiving-day game that I watched with my male relatives. And all of them, at least as I remember it, were rooting for the Detroit Lions. It’s one of those vague snippets of memory, but I can all but see myself walking into the living room and bravely declaring that I was rooting for the other team, the Green Bay Packers. For years I believed they had won the game, too, although I’ve since disproved that (Detroit beat Green Bay by a convincing 26-14 margin). But I was hooked. To this day, I’ve never rooted for any other team. Whether it was because of this early, barely remembered act of rebellion or something more deeply rooted, I’ve always had a contrary streak in me. I’ve rarely chosen the easiest path or at least the same one as those around me. Some days that’s a good thing, some days it’s not.

And while that’s possibly why I initially gravitated toward craft beer after I moved to California in the mid-1980s, it was not the reason I stayed. For while Schmidt’s was a typical light pilsner-style beer, no different from scores of other regional brands, it suffered from the problem that the style still suffers from today. It doesn’t taste like much. It has almost no flavor, especially when cold. I can still picture the living room of my aunt and uncle’s house after the meal on Thanksgiving. Brown beer bottles littered every end table and coffee table. when a relative sat, transfixed on the football game. During commercials they’d gossip, discuss the game, and swig their beer with a relish I rarely say in them on other days. Having grown up mennonites on a farm, they usually displayed a quiet reserve that still unnerves me. Even the more talkative among them did not display emotions, not even the big ones like surprise, happiness or love. They did not laugh easily. They did not smirk or chuckle to themselves. And they did not cry. Through a multitude of funerals and numerous strokes of bad luck, I never saw one single man in my family cry. They didn’t declare themselves stoics, but I suspect they were in practice, at least. Life for them was calm and controlled. They rarely seemed unhappy, either, but how could you tell?

I suppose it was my mother’s influence and spending those early years surrounded by women that saved me from a similar disposition. Or perhaps it was never in me to be one of them. I have always been emotional, but maybe they were as children, too. I, on the other hand, never outgrew it. I did not put away childish things when I became a man, if indeed they would even now consider me one. The later events of life with my stepfather and what I perceived as a strict adherence to some unknown men’s code not to intervene estranged me from my family, one by one, and I can no longer remember a time when I honestly felt a part of their world.

But Thanksgiving was one of the few days I remember when absolutely nothing bad ever happened, a kind of sanctuary against the other 364 days of the year. After a while, I learned how to relax on that one day, letting go of the otherwise constant fear that gripped my later adolescence. And I even drank a few Schmidt’s myself.

On to Chapter 3

November 22, 2006

Sally’s a Starr

Chapter: 3 — J @ 6:28 pm

A man can hide all things, excepting twain —
That he is drunk, and that he is in love.

     — Antiphanes, 408-344 BCE

Eventually, of course, television did overtake all of us and I began a lifelong affair with cartoons that continues to this day. Saturday morning was nirvana for the cartoon buff. In those days cartoons had not yet become full blown advertisements for merchandising tie-ins, toys, games and cereal. The best were still laced with political and other sophisticated references that zoomed over our heads but which delighted the adults forced into watching along with us. Each fall I poured over the latest comic books, whose colorful full-page spreads announced the season’s crop of new cartoons for the three networks. I had not yet succumbed to slothful coach potato status, and still found time to play outside. But I was like a firefly, flitting to the television’s warm glow before heading outside, only to cool down again and require another flickering dose. In and out I’d go, keeping careful eye on the clock lest I miss one of my favorites.

I spent every Saturday at my father’s boyhood home. Years after my parents separated and my absent biological father officially abandoned me to my stepfather at the stroke of a pen, my other grandmother stepped forward to fight for me. She presented herself to the court and told the judge though her son may be giving up his rights to me, that she had no intention of doing likewise. As a result, she was waiting for me every Friday when I got home from school and didn’t return me until Sunday right after supper. If not for her kindness, I don’t know where I’d be today. She was probably the single most important person in my life in terms of just sticking up for me. My weekends at her home were like trips to Disneyland. It was like a sanctuary, especially as I grew older. It seemed like a magical place. I suspect it was just as beneficial for my mother and her new husband to have every weekend alone, too, which may be why they never complained about the arrangement.

Occasionally there were cousins, too, and after a time we had a whole new set of neighborhood friends. Saturdays were filled with hikes in the sprawling woods that were my grandmother’s backyard. Bushie — that was my name for her — was spry well into her seventies. She loved to garden and hike with us up steep hills surrounding the area. We’d pack a lunch and head to one of the quarries up in the hills behind her house. She’d play games with us for hours, something my other grandmother never did.

She was a fantastic cook, made elaborate breakfasts and lunches and seemed intuitively to know what we’d eat. Her potato soup was easily my favorite, and I’ve never found its equal. Sadly, she never used a recipe so that when she died, so did that wonderful soup. It was creamy, never lumpy, almost like smooth, thick oatmeal might be, and with some unknown subtle spices that gave it that extra something. I can still almost taste the delicate flavors, smell its aroma and feel if burn the roof of my mouth as I did so often im my impatience to eat it.

Her husband Stosh, my other grandfather, died when I was still very young. I have only one vague memory of being bounced on his knee. He lives only in the stories that Bushie told me. In many cultures there is a third state of being that’s not alive or dead. It generally translates as being in living memory and I find it a beautiful concept. So long as I have the stories she told me about my grandfather, then he’s in living memory.

But it was the cartoons that really held me in thrall. My cousin — the weekends he was there — and I would wake early Saturday morning, usually around six and steal siilently into the living room to watch cartoons. Every season we’d work out our own schedule of which shows we had to watch, and which we could miss. That way we could plan our excursions outside to play during breaks in our cartoon watching. Bushie would lend me my grandfather’s pocket watch to use so we’d know when to come back inside for the next show. This went on for years, probably until our early teens. My cousin eventually outgrew cartoons, but I never did.

We lived an hour or so west of Philadelphia, and most of our local televisions stations were located there. They also created low budget programming for kids that ran before and after the networks shows, and on weekday afternoons, as well. There is a shared nostalgia for people of a certain age who grew up in the area where these shows reached. There was Gene London, Chief Halftown, Lorenzo the Clown, Pixanne, Wee Willie Webber and, of course, Sally Starr.

Sally Starr was a rootin’, tootin’ cowgirl whose cartoon show aired every afternoon, seven days a week, on channel 6 from Philadelphia. She showed Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges, among many other cartoons in the public domain. She introduced cartoons on a low budget set that featured an old west-style fence and a fake tree. She wore a buckskin cowgirl outfit with fringe dripping off of every seam. Although she was in her forties by the time I was a fan of her show, she seemed youthful and a little sexy, at least in that pre-sexual way that boys pick up the social cues as to what is and isn’t sexy all around them. She had big, blonde hair — dyed, no doubt — and full lips covered in gobs of red lipstick. She swished and swayed when she walked in that exaggerated way characters in Tex Avery’s cartoons did. If our libidos were working, we undoubtedly would have become wolves, too, just like the men in those same Loony Tunes. But a true understanding of sex and sexuality was years away. Our adolescent crushes were more innocent it seems, in a way I suspect is more difficult today where sex is used to sell everything, including to our children.

Kids now seem like they sprint into adulthood, with less time to develop and enjoy the innocence that should properly be a part of childhood. Of course, that could easily be the onset of the “these kids today …” phenomenon that so afllicts the adult world, it’s hard to say. It certainly seems like every generation ages they complain about the one that follows them. I noticed it when I was a kid. Adults invariably delighted in telling me how better off I was compared to when they were children. Or that things were tougher on them, that was another favorite. It must be human nature that whatever generation you’re born into is the best that ever was and those that follow and came before you suffer by comparison. Previous generations are always hopelessly backward thinking and antiquated while the younger one isn’t as serious as yours or has been corrupted by some force that you’re above. It all seem like hogwash, of course, and it probably is since each person’s experience is relative. Each generation does face different conditions, but they’re rarely better or worse. Some aspects may improve childhood experiences but I suspect for every one of those there’s an opposite negative.

She was pleasant enough as a hostess but would, from time to time, stagger around the set fueling rumors that she was on camera drunk. My parents helped spread the rumor that she had visited Chit Chat Farms, a famous local rehab center in Wernersville where many celebrities reportedly went to detox. Whether it’s true I don’t know and it’s not really important one way or the other.

Once we figured out what “drunk” meant, my friends and I would watch her show, hoping to discover for ourselves when she was on camera drunk. And there were may times we thought we’d “caught” Sally Starr. It was a game to us, though to play it today would be mean-spirited even though at the time it ever felt that way. We weren’t judging her, we were just trying to catch her in what seemed like an inside joke that we were in on. We certainly didn’t understand what it meant in the larger sense for her to be drunk. We had all seen our parents drunk at cocktail parties and neighborhood backyard barbecues from time to time. Occasionally, an adult would slur their words and we wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying. It was still innocent and almost funny.

I always imagined her drink of choice was Ortlieb beer, a Philadelphia brewery that had been around a long time. There was no good reason to suppose this was Sally’s beer, or drink for that matter, or even that she drank at all, but such is the power of our imaginations. Whenever I saw Ortlieb beer in bottle or can, I thought of Sally Starr.

This was around the same time that my stepfather, Eddie, was starting to come home drunk himself, more and more often. It seemed to worry my mother seemed, though I had no idea why. She’d put on a brave face but I could tell something was going on, I just didn’t know what. He’d come home late at night, usually after she’d put me to bed. I’d hear them arguing in hushed tones, and sometimes it would grow louder and I’d creep out of bed to the stairs, where I could peer through the slats in the railing and not be seen. From that vantage point I could see most of the living room and dining room. If I slipped down a couple of stairs and looked over my shoulder, I could see part way into the kitchen, too.

Eddie would be staggering around like he couldn’t keep himself from knocking into the furniture or walls. Sometimes I’d hear him demanding his supper, flying into a rage when it didn’t appear within seconds. He seemed even more like a child throwing a tantrum than usual. For the first few years they were married, my relationship with Eddie was remarkably good. We got along quite well, I think in part because Eddie was just as immature in his late twenties as I was in elementary school. When sober, he had a playful sense of humor and loved movies, especially old comedies on late night television. We spent many pleasant late nights watching old movies and it provided one of the few ways in which we bonded.

After marrying again, my mother switched to the night shift at the hospital where she was the head nurse of the OB/GYN section. Not only did it pay slightly better, but it allowed her to be there when I got home from school each day. So she left for work every night at 11, and got home just in time to wake me for school a little after seven in the morning. On those nights when Eddie was home — and sober — within minutes of hearing my mother’s car pull out of the garage I’d hear him call my name from the sofa downstairs. I’d hear “Jay, there’s good movie on tonight” followed by a reading of the TV Guide description of the evening’s scheduled films. More often than not, I’d roll out of bed and join him in the living room. We’d usually watch at least one movie and it wasn’t uncommon for me to stay through a second feature.

So from age five or six on, several times a week, I wouldn’t go to sleep until one or one-thirty and sometimes not until three or so. Then my mother would wake me up the next morning around seven and wonder why I always seemed so tired. I quickkly got used to this schedule

She didn’t know about this for many, many years and as such it was one of the few benign secrets I shared with my stepfather. And I got a great education in old movies. It’s probably the reason I’m such a film buff today. Despite the monster that Eddie later turned into, I can’t help but credit him for my love of movies. Perhaps it’s a quirk in my own personality that I try to find the good in everyone, no matter how hidden it may seem. Because if my stepfather could turn into such a demon and still have any goodness in him — and I’m quite certain he did — then the same must apply to everyone.

It may be that the remove of time has allowed more compassion for him than might otherwise have been possible. Because I’m now much more able to remember the good days, the moments when I wasn’t wracked by constant fear. The times I spent with Eddie where the admirable qualities of his former self resurfaced, however briefly, were in a strange sense precious to me precisely because they were so rare and also since my real father was not a part of my life. With so many women in control of my life as a child I fairly craved father figures wherever I could find them and would accept cheap substitutes is that was all that was available. And so despite it all, I gave Eddie the benefit of the doubt longer than I really should have and far longer than he deserved.

On to Chapter 4

November 21, 2006

Tonight, Let It Be

Chapter: 4 — J @ 6:12 pm

The difference between a drunk and a alcoholic is that
a drunk doesn’t have to attend all those meetings.

     — Arthur Lewis

Eddie’s mother, my step-grandmother Helen was a real piece of work in every sense of that term. She probably had as much to do with her son’s drinking as everyone else put together. She was drunk the entire time I knew her. I imagine there must have been moments after she woke in the morning that she was sober but I don’t ever remember having witnessed one of those times. Helen was married to Harlan, and they had a son and two daughters together, plus Eddie.

Harlan was not Eddie’s son, he was his step-father. Eddie did not know who his father was. If his mother knew, she wasn’t talking. Though I have no way of knowing, what I pieced together from what I was told by her other relatives was the picture of a woman with very loose morals, especially for the time. The rumor was that Eddie’s father was a catholic priest who had an affair with his mother. Harlan had supposedly married Helen to save whatever reputation she had, though I have a hard time believing her social status was ever anywhere near reproach, much less above it.

Eddie seemed very sensitive about this and no one ever mentioned it in his presence. Of course, that was the family credo. They never mentioned anything about anybody except in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. Eddie’s family was held together by countless little secrets that no one ever talked about but which everyone knew. That was the glue that seemed to hold them together.

The other rumor about Eddie’s mother was less believable but the fact that you couldn’t totally dismiss it, either, said something about their family. It was said that Helen had put booze in Eddie’s bottle when he was just an infant. That might sound fantastic but I think my mother actually believed it. She never once left me alone in her care and constantly warned me about her, though she was nice enough to me. As I aged, it became more and more apparent to me that she was quite literally in some state of inebriation every waking moment, or at least every time I saw her.

Eddie claimed to be very close to his mother, but in that comic way gangsters were in old movies. I don’t think he did actually even like her, because he spent as little time as he could with her. We’d visit them from time to time, and they’d visit us during the holidays, but that was about it. It seemed that he’d do almost anything to get out of visiting his mother, not that I could blame him.

Helen was quite difficult to be around. She had no internal logic for anything. She was filled with odd, quirky prejudices. She seemed to dislike just about every person or group at some point. It was exhausting because she demanded attention and expected those around her to agree with her unsupportable prejudices and opinions. Even from an early age I realized there was no point to disagreeing with her. She was as dogmatic about her opinions, even as they changed frequently. One day she would insist it was the blacks who were ruining her neighborhood — a favorite topic — the next day the sole culprit was the Puerto Ricans. And like Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, her internal history had been re-written such that blacks were now her dearest friends and allies in the struggle against the neighborhood interlopers, and always had been. And woe be to the person who wasn’t aware of this 180-degree change of heart, they would be lectured long and caustically. It was a trap from which few could escape. The only real way to win was not to play. And so almost nobody ever disagreed with her, furthering her own self-importance and her cherished belief that she was always right.

And all of these opinions were delivered drunk. She appeared to float through life in a constant state of drunkenness. How she accomplished such endurance seems remarkable today, now that I understand how difficult it is too avoid sobering up. The careful monitoring of her state and carefully timed periodic injections of alcohol would seem to require a sober intelligence that you would not think her — or anyone — capable of, yet she carried it out effortlessly. It was second nature to her and I suspect the pain of her own life was best kept dulled in this way, or at least that what she believed. Since no one in her family would ever talk about this, I have no way of knowing how long she had been this way or when she began but I knew her like this for almost twenty years. And she was exactly the same from the time I was five until the last time I saw her on the day I buried my mother when I was 22. She was as drunk at her son’s wedding as her daughter-in-law’s funeral.

She drank anything that contained alcohol in it, as far as I could tell. I imagine she would have tried paint thinner, if there was nothing else around. She didn’t appear too picky, except when it came to her beer. She preferred Lowenbrau for some reason. I think it was because she desperately wanted to appear more sophisticated than she was. She always carried that air about her. I think deep down she knew what and who she was and tried whatever her feeble mind could think of to create the image of the person she wanted to be. And Lowenbrau’s advertising itself as a premium German import at that time obviously worked on her and played into her desire to be the sophisticate she flamboyantly pretended to be. Lowenbrau’s pale blue label and it’s rampant lion must have seemed like a fancy dress ball to Helen’s white trash world. Its packaging certainly looked different than almost everything else out there, which must have seemed provincial and inferior by comparison.

I think that was also the reason she seemed to like my mother so much. She was from the the suburbs, the classy part of the world Helen longed to belong in, though whenever she did visit us she seemed hopelessly out of place. She often wore clothes, especially during the holidays, that were much more fancy than was called for by the occasion. It was if she thought we spent all our time at the country club. It reminds me of today how whenever you seen porn stars at awards shows, they try to dress like the big stars who attend the Oscars. Invariably, they look ridiculous, with two-story stiletto heels and ill-fitting or too-tight revealing dresses. Too often, they look like just what most are, cheap imitations. It’s a little sad, really. In the insulated and, I imagine, somewhat surreal world of adult film they all silently agree not to notice, while the rest of the world can’t help but see. And that was Helen’s approach. She pretended to be high-class and adopted a bent personality that her family — or anyone for that matter — could not penetrate to dissuade her of these notions while the rest of the outside world laughed at how glaringly obvious the deception was.

If she had been that way through much of Eddie’s own childhood, it was not hard to understand why he turned out as he did. She would have driven anyone to drink, and Harlan, Eddie’s step-father, was a victim, too. Though he was a sweet, almost gentle man, he too, drank to excess, though only from time to time. I imagine he did this only when he’d had enough and needed to numb himself to her, if only for a time. His long-suffering life with Helen could not have been a happy one, yet he was easily the sanest among them. The other kids all drank, too, of course, though none to the level of either Eddie or their mother.

From what I could glean of his childhood, Eddie ran with a rough Marlon-Brando-in-The-Wild-One sort of crowd. He grew up on the streets of Reading, worked on hot rods, got into fights and basically adopted the persona of a tough guy, a role which although he learned to play quite well I don’t think was his true personality. There was a suppressed warmer, poetic, more thoughtful soul lurking inside Eddie, though you caught glimpses of it — flashes, really — only on very rare occasions. It was as if he had a split personality and his tough guy was the winner of his internal struggles with his gentler self. As alcoholism and psychosis overtook him, the victory of his vicious self was complete.

Right after high school Eddie enlisted in the Marines and was among the first battalion to be sent to Vietnam. He was a helicopter mechanic and spent something a year there. He seemed very proud of his service but rarely talked about the specifics of his experiences there. He had a friend from his unit who lived near Pittsburgh — a seven-hour drive — that we visited every year or two. Several times on Christmas Eve, drunk as usual, I overheard him making phone calls to buddies that he’d served with. It was apparently a ritual thing that he did once a year, though he never talked about it, either.

Up in our attic there was an ammo box that Eddie brought back from Vietnam. As a kid, I used to like looking through it and imagining what it must have been like to be a soldier. Inside he kept mementos from his time in the Marines. There were papers and his medals and a stack of black and white photos. Most of these were people I didn’t know, really the only one I knew was his friend from Pittsburgh, and Eddie was only in a couple of them. The bulk of the photos were group shots of men in uniform, some in front of helicopters and others around tables at exotic bars with glamorous Asian women wearing silk dresses. The women invariably wore forced smiles while the men, with indistinct beer cans or bottles in their hands, had broader, more genuine grins. There were a couple of mysterious landscapes and photos of a bustling city, presumably Saigon. These would have been taken at the start of our involvement in the affairs of Southeast Asia and was well before the protests of the war changed our society forever.

As a result, Eddie was a relic of just before that time and supported the war throughout. Though a lifelong Democrat he invariably saw violence as a reasonable course of action, perhaps from personal experience. And his time in the Marines had, despite any unspoken trauma, been a positive adventure and a temporary escape from his home life. That he was not able to find a permanent escape from the influences of his childhood may be what ultimately led to his degeneration into madness and alcoholism. Who can say? Perhaps the damage had been done long before and it was all but inevitable and my mother and I just happened to be in the way.

In one of the Vietnam bar photographs, behind the Marines and behind the bar was a sign for, of all things, Lowenbrau beer. Only a portion of the sign could be seen so that it read simply. “Tonight, let it be …”

On to Chapter 5

November 20, 2006

Hey Mabel!

Chapter: 5 — J @ 12:01 pm

An alcoholic is someone you don’t like
who drinks just as much as you do.

     — Dylan Thomas

My grandmother, like my own mother, had divorced early and remarried. But her second marriage had likewise fizzled and was over long before I was born. Wilbur was in a sense my step-grandfather, I suppose, though he was not technically a part of the family any longer after he divorced my grandmother. But he and my Mom had been close, and probably bonded over avoiding my grandmother’s manipulations. So we’d have him over for dinner from time to time, though expressly without my grandmothr’s knowledge. My mother took particular care that she not find out. Until, that is, he moved in with us and began sleeping on a cot in our basement. Then she could no longer keep secret the fact that she had maintained a relationship with her mother’s ex-husband for many years. I never heard how my grandmother took the news, but we didn’t see her nearly as much for a while, and the house was much quieter for a time.

Wilbur was a recovering alcoholic and in the process had managed to alienate himself from virtually everyone he knew. But one of mother’s few real virtues was that she had a strong instinct to help and care for people. It’s the reason she became a nurse, and its the reason she loved her job so much. For her it was more like a calling, something she was born to do. So Wilbur came around, sheepishly asking for her help, she did not turn him down. I think he was genuinely surprised that she not only agreed to help him but allowed him to live with us until he was back on his feet, even though everyone knew how my grandmother would react.

It may be that my mother’s drive to help others was even stronger than her inability to make peace with her mother. I saw her go out of hr way many times to help friends and relatives who nowhere else to turn, and it always filled me with admiration for her. She was so genuine in her desire to help that so many other decisions she later made to not help herself seemed all the more bewildering.

During the years before Wilbur came to stay with us, when he’d come to dinner, he and Eddie got along famously. They were two drunks with similar backgrounds swapping stories. They were thick as thieves. And I imagine the notion that his mother-in-law hated Wilbur wasn’t lost on Eddie, and that fact alone probably helped endear him to my stepfather, at least a little bit. Wilbur’s drink of choice, beyond straight whiskey, was Carling Black Label. My mother usually kept a few of the red cans with the … well, black label on them in the downstairs refrigerator in case he dropped by for a visit.

Wilbur in some ways was a bit of a sad sack. He was not a lucky man. I don’t know what drove him to drink or why he was unable to control it but it certainly didn’t do him any favors. He apparently had and lost a series of menial jobs. He almost always wore a plain white t-shirt and dark work pants, the kind made of thick canvas material before denim jeans became ubiquitous, with simple steel-tipped leather work shoes. The t-shirt always had a soft pack of Pall Mall cigarettes tucked into the sleeve that created a boxy bulge against his upper arm. Perhaps because I was too young to be judgmental, who knows, but whatever the reason he spent a lot of time with me from around the time I was seven until he left us to begin his new life three years later.

To me, Wilbur was a gentle soul who was almost always very kind to me. I say almost because he mercilously criticized the paint jobs I did on the model cars and airplanes that I liked to build. He was right, of course, my paint jobs were horrible. I could work the glue and build the models with little trouble. They usually came out looking like they were supposed to, at least. But when it came to painting them, I was completely inept, and it showed. He tried to teach me how to do the painting better and although I never succeeded like he wanted me to, I did improve. Most importantly, though, it created an affectionate bond between us that I always cherished.

I think his criticism of my painting was the only way he knew how to relate to children. He didn’t have any kids of his own and seemed generally uncomfortable around them. I noticed this a lot when friends and neighbors would come to my house after school or on weekends to play. He didn’t dislike kids like some adults I knew, but it seemed like he just didn’t know how to act around them or what to say. It was a shy awkwardness, and I think it embarrased him. But we were thrown together and so he got better at spending time with me, at least, though we never stopped laughing about my painting abilities, of lack of them. It used to bother me at first, until I realized he almost never laughed otherwise. He’d sometimes watch sitcoms with us after dinner and I started noticing he would watch them almost silently while the rest of us laughed freely at the humor. So I stopped caring about the little hurt I felt. It was a small price to pay to see Wilbur laugh once in a while. I may even have continued to paint badly, just to keep that little bond between us, at least that what I’d tell myself everytime I botched another paint job.

I never knew what he’d done or what had happened to make him so sad all the time. He never confided in me and adults, in our family at least, never shared details of the adult world they thought we shouldn’t know. Why they kept information from us, even when we asked, I never understood. I guess they thought they were protecting us, I don’t know. But I always knew that however much they did tell us, it was either hopelessly simplified or an outright lie. How that did me any good, I couldn’t fathom.

So during that three years, he seemed to just stay in the basement, lost in thought. He was like a troll who inhabited the space under the stairs, and indeed that’s where his cot was set up. He had few personal effects; some clothes, shoes, a few books and a few boxes stacked in a corner. But I think that was all he had left in the world. My mother put our small, portable television on a folding table downstairs for him, but it only got a couple of channels. More often, I’d hear him listening to the Phillies game on the radio. Wilbur loved baseball, it was really the only thing he talked about that he did seem genuinely fond of.

It was obvious to me that he adored my mother. I think he would have done anything for her. The one thing he could not do, and I believe it ate him up inside, was stand up to Eddie during those times when he would come home drunk and looking for an excuse to fight with my mother and, as a consequence, break up our house. Wilbur was not a very big man and phyisically no match for Eddie. And there was no amount of reason or logic that might keep him from exploding into a rage. Eddie came home looking for a fight and would seize on the tiniest slight to uncork his rage. It took me years to figure out that there was not a way to stop him, that it was preordained. If a reason — if that’s even the right word — did not present itself then Eddie would just make one up, no matter how ridiculous. And if we made the mistake of questioning his excuse, our punishment would effectively double. At those times, Wilbur shrank into the basement and hid. Sometimes, when I was lucky enough to be out of the way when he got home, I stayed down there with him and other times I cowered in my room, as fearful as ever.

This was the time when Eddie’s drinking started becoming a real problem for our family, or at least for my mother and me. The rest of the family either did not see it or turned a blind eye, believing it was up to my mother and her seven-year old to deal with it on our own. This was also the time period when I lost — or frankly, had stolen from me — the innocence of my childhood. I didn’t become prematurely mature, though. In fact, I think I more often retreated into childishness whenever I could precisely because it was not really permitted or possible at home. It made weekends at Bushie’s all the sweeter because they represented a temporary escape. School was also a welcome relief and I made a point of being very active in extracurricular activities, because they, too, kept me away from home hours after the regular school day ended. Perhaps that was a side benefit of a miserable home life and I should be thankful. Because otherwise I might not have been so involved. I may have been a poorer student. I may not have taken up a musical instrument or been in band, chorus, chess club, pinochle club, the tennis team, the spring musical and on and on. I might not have been active in my church’s youth groups or visited my relatives at old folk’s homes or been a Boy Scout. So it’s hard to say that everything I went through was bad for me in the end. I’m not thrilled about how my life growing up was and how it made feel but at the time but I didn’t know any different. For all I knew, everyone else felt the same way, however unlikely that seems to me today. So I just did what I felt I had to do to get by — to survive — knowing that some day, unimaginably far in the future, I would be an adult and be able to walk away and never come back. And that fact alone kept me going because, as they say, “hope springs eternal.”

After Wilbur left our home, sober and apparently cured, we didn’t see him very often. Once in a while I’d run into him and, less often, he’d come by for a quick visit when he knew Eddie wasn’t home. Once he’d stopped drinking, it was harder for him to be around Eddie, and I think he was a bit afraid of him, just like the rest of were. I heard he got a job that he liked and even remarried. I like to think he was happy in the remaining years of his life. I attended his funeral years later, which was the only time I got to meet his knew wife. She seemed pleasant enough but I think she was confused as to why I was even there, because I suspect he never told her much about his former life or the people in it. I always imagine that was what he needed to do to move on, and I didn’t begrudge him his second chance.

The last time I saw Wilbur alive was at my own mother’s funeral in 1981. It’s a haunting image that I’ll never shake, nor do I want to. Surrounded my friends and family, we all watched as my mother’s coffin was being lowered into the ground. The crank they used to lower it squeaked and later my friends and I all agreed it sounded eerily like taps. It was unusual that they’d lower it at all with people still at the cemetary, but my grandmother had insisted. She claimed she wanted to be sure she was buried and that they didn’t steal the coffin after we’d gone. Needless to say, she didn’t take her only daughter’s death very well and at the viewing she even tried to climb into the coffin, wailing the whole time. Her need to be dramatic and the center of attention never missed a beat as she manipulated the event to her own purposes, just as she’d done her whole life.

But while the coffin was being lowered, I looked up and over the people surrounding the family plot at Gouglersville Cemetery. It was a blustery day, with the wind whipping through the trees that surrounded the graveyard. There, almost hidden by a group of tall, thick oaks, was a lone figure. It was Wilbur and I was close enough that I could see his shoulders convulsing as he fought to contain his tears. It was the closest I came to crying throughout the days surrounding her death. I had so much to do and had so suddenly become the one to make all the decisions after Eddie disappeared that there hadn’t been time for grief. That would have to wait, I told myself. I can only assume he knew that he would not be welcome with his ex-wife, my grandmother, calling the shots as she always did. He knew she would make a scene, but he also couldn’t help but pay his respects to the woman who had helped him turn his life around when he had no one else to turn to. When they were done lowering the coffin the ceremony was over and I was surrounded by friends and family offering me their condolences. By the time I was free of the pack and I made my way to the trees, Wilbur was gone. I never saw him again.

On to Chapter 6

November 19, 2006

Please, No Elephants

Chapter: 6 — J @ 3:12 pm

I am not only witty in myself,
but the cause that wit is in other men.

     — William Shakespeare
          Falstaff, in Henry IV, I, i, 1598

As the frequency of Eddie’s drinking began to increase, so did the pattern of our lives. One consequence is that we began to eat out several times each week, but not at normal restaurants. A very common feature of the Pennsylvania landscape leftover from Colonial days was the all-in-one tavern, restaurant and hotel. Usually known as an inn, tavern or a hotel, there was at least one in most small rural towns that dotted the landscape around the greater Reading area. Eddie seemed to know them all and coupled with the bars in and around Reading that also served food, there were literally hundreds of them. Over several years, Eddie seemed to determined to visit them all, or so it seemed. Because the number of bars that I spend my evenings in as a child is truly staggering.

I think it began innocently enough, with Eddie trying to make up for his drunkenness of the night before. “Let’s go out to eat.” He’d tell my mother. “My treat.” As if it was a positive gesture and not one to placate his own earlier indiscretions. But Eddie was a charmer and my mother easily forgave everything, especially in the first few years. But in this, at least, she could not be faulted. Eddie charmed everyone. It was his gift. He could sell anybody anything. He had the gift of the gab. He loved to talk.

When he and my mother first married, Eddie worked at a nearby Firestone Tire factory. I don’t know what he did there, but whatever it was, it was not fulfilling. Whatever else Eddie was, he was not stupid though he had certainly neglected his education. I think the crowd he ran with and the environment he grew up in did not value being smart. Being tough was what mattered. It was Grease but without the singing. So I think Eddie suppressed a poet’s soul, a soul that wanted to be better than it was. And so in order to fit in, he gave up his chance to get out of that environment, at least through education. He barely finished high school. And though he read a lot — history and books on film primarily — I never once heard him talk about them with any of his friends from the old days. As a result, I think the work available to him when he returned from Vietnam was limited and beneath his innate intelligence. So his job undoubtedly bored him. I know it frustrated him. I know he was jealous of my mother because she had gone to Nurse’s school and so was more educated than he was.

So he left the job at the tire factory and wandered unhappily through one bad job after the next. They always started with great promise and optimism but never lasted long. There was always some excuse, but I think Eddie simply grew bored. There was a string of jobs that rarely lasted longer than a year. He sold tools to professional mechanics, driving around in a van from garage to garage. He was airline mechanic at the Reading Airport. He worked for the county welfare office checking up on people’s claims to insure they were legitimate. This job led to a side job in which he and an old buddy were paid to clean out the homes of people who died with no will and no heirs. Naturally, the silent understanding was that if something happened to not make it onto the inventory list but instead found it’s way, inadvertently of course, into our attic that the county would look the other way. This led to all manner of odd items being stored in our attic until a buyer could be found, from true antiques to a trunk filled with 16mm Swedish Erotica films.

He was a used car salesman off and on over the years. It was a job he kept returning to at different places, presumably because he was so good at it. It was definitely the type of job he was born to do, but I don’t think he liked using his gift for the benefit of others. Throughout this series of jobs, there was almost always a clunker in the garage that he was fixing up to sell. It would take him only a couple of sober weekends and it was in shape to sell. Then he’d take the money to by the next fixer-upper. He continued to do that even after he opened his own garage in downtown Reading to fix cars.

Eddie’s Auto Garage was not a spectacular name but apparently he really did have something of a reputation for being able to fix cars. That, or he just knew a lot of people in Reading, because people seemed to always be stopping by that he knew whenever I was stuck there. He seemed much more happy about being in business for himself and for a while after it first opened we thought perhaps he’d stopped drinking to excess. I think my mother believed that his drinking was linked to his being so frustrated in dead end jobs and that if had his own business that magically it would all go away and we’d all be one big happy family again. Of course, alcoholism doesn’t work that way, nor does co-dependency. So when my mother cleaned out my college fund without telling me to lend Eddie the money to open his garage, she was utterly convinced that it was the right thing to do to save her marriage. I didn’t find out about it until after she’d died when I had to go through her records for the probate. I’m convinced that he’d turned on his considerable charm to get at my money.

And it was that very same charm that allowed him to terrorize us for so long with nobody suspecting a thing, even though there was evidence all around. Not to mention us later coming right out and telling people, even then we were not to be believed. So my mother resigned herself — and me — to her fate. She was a classic enabler, blaming herself, and doing nothing whatsoever preferring to be with a monster than alone. I wish that I could say that was simply hyperbole, but she told me almost that exact sentiment many times, apparently she hated the idea of being alone more than almost anything else she could imagine. That I had no say in the matter and suffered as a result of her cowardice seemed lost on her and our own relationship — which had once been very close — began to deteriorate. By the time she died of cancer in 1981, we were hardly speaking.

So my mother felt she had no choice and our lives in a sense went on the road for a time. It some ways, it was exciting as a child to visits all of these strange places. That they were adult places only added to their mystery and wonder. I was generally free to explore them before and after our meals, and in some ways it was a great education and even fun. Many of the bars had pinball machines, shuffleboard, all manner of electronic games. Eddie when newly drunk was free with his money and often had a fistful of quarters for me to play to my heart’s content. Eddie was a crack pool player, too, and taught me much about how to play pool. I think if there had been a decathlon of bar events, Eddie would have been quite the athlete. Because if it was a common fixture of a bar, he could do it, and do it well. I can only imagine the hours he’d logged in bars over the years.

Another odd benefit of all this, especially at bars, was that many drunks found a kid being there a novelty of sorts and would talk to me, teach me to play cards or otherwise take the time to keep me amused while we were there. So I never really minded this development and in fact enjoyed it. It was far better than being at home, where Eddie was much more prone to reach that point where he would turn into a monster. It was such a transformation that it reminded me of the Incredible Hulk. Eddie would get this look in his eyes and then — wham — all hell would break loose like he’d just been uncorked. But this rarely happened in public with other people around. It was the reason he could pretend for so many years that he was a good person and just like everyone else. It was also the reason nobody ever believed my mother or me when we tried to explain what it was like living with Eddie.

Some of my own favorites that I can recall were the Sharltesville Hotel (best Pennsylvania Dutch food), the Conrad Weiser Inn, the Douglassville Hotel, Bowers Hotel, Haag’s Hotel, the Yellowhouse Hotel and Stahl’s Coachmen’s Inn, to name a few rattling around inside my head. And Birch Tavern, in Reading, was my mother’s favorite place for seafood, though the Sho-Boast was a close second.

But by far, my mother’s favorite place overall was the Peanut Bar in downtown Reading, near the Penn Street Bridge. An Reading institition since just after Prohibition, over time it became more of a restaurant with a bar than a bar that served food. The menu changed around a lot, but we always found something good to eat there. The Peanut Bar’s quirky novelty was that the bar and tables all had endless dishes of shelled peanuts which you were encouraged to shell and throw on the floor. The floors were generally covered in peanut shells so your feet crunched on them as you walked through the bar, almost like walking through a field of dry autumn leaves. I have no idea how often they swept the floor, but it couldn’t have been daily. For as long as I can remember t-shirts with the Peanut Bar logo on the front had a pretty funny slogan written on the back that read, “sorry, no elephants ….” Eddie knew the owner, Harold, of course, and he always found a table for us, even when it was packed.

The food in these places was often quite good and usually inexpensive. There were places in rural, landlocked Pennsylvania known for their seafood, and my mother loved crab cakes and lobster. So Eddie took a particular delight in finding these places. Whenever we went to them, it almost seemed like he invariably knew people there, as if he’d canvassed the place recently or he’d known them for years and years. It was hard to tell which it was, because he did seem to know everybody in the area and he was to the casual observer a “people person.” He always talked to strangers like they’d known each other for years, but he talked to people he did know for years the same way so you could really never tell at all. He was just the consummate salesman and was always “on,” even when he was just selling himself.

As a result, wherever we went, Eddie was the life of the party. To other drunks, he must have seemed positively like the Oscar Wilde of the bar scene. He was the wit among the witless, the prince of the plastered. When we studied Shakespeare in Junior High, the character Falstaff reminded me of Eddie, and it was ironic that I recalled sometimes seeing the beer Falstaff at a few of the more obscure bars we frequented. Falstaff’s boasting and high opinion of himself fit Eddie’s personality like a glove. And both were overweight and out of shape yet were stronger than they appeared.

On to Chapter 7

November 18, 2006

Not So Close

Chapter: 7 — J @ 5:52 pm

The man who called it “near beer” was a bad judge of distance.

     — Philander Johnson

On those occasions when the Hulk did emerge in the guise of my stepfather, it was if a tornado had been unleashed inside our small house. These were the years that were met with increasing anxiety and I was in an near constant state of fear from around the time I was around eight until … well, many, many years later. It was around this same time that I think I resigned myself to this being my life since there seemed to be nothing I could do to change it, try as I might. This was also the time that my mother and my rift began which only deepened with time, making me feel increasingly alone. This feeling never entirely left me, unfortunately. No matter how much I try to rationalize it away today, it continues to linger at the back of my subconscious like a spiteful gremlin, keeping me grounded but also stopping me from trying to fly.

I spent as little time at home as I could, but of course being as young as I was made that very difficult until my teen years. Every evening around dinnertime, my anxiety levels would rise in anticipation of Eddie’s arrival home. If Eddie arrived at dinnertime, it would often signal an uneventful or even pleasant evening, although it was no guarantee. But it was certainly a good sign. The later it became, the higher my level of apprehension. Sometimes he would call, giving us a glimpse into what might be coming because he never tried to hide his drunkenness on the phone.

But even then, it could be a benign evening, there was just to sure signs of anything. Sometimes he would arrive home drunk but in a not unpleasant mood and nothing would set him off before he invariably passed out on the sofa. But never knowing was in and of itself the worst torture of all. The anticipation was always worse somehow and it was exhausting being in a constant state of high alert before and after he got home. We literally walked on eggshells trying to do whatever we could not set him off. This is was what I imagined hell would be like, if any such place really existed. Because it’s hard to imagine a torture more exquisitely painful. We would speak in hushed, respectful tones. Jokes, sarcasm and criticism were off the table, which was surprisingly hard to pull off for a smart ass like myself. But I understood the consequences just the same as if I’d been in a combat situation, which in a way I suppose I was.

In fact, it may have been having to be so disciplined in these situations that made me such a smart ass in the rest of my life. After all, what could a teacher, a minister or even a policeman do to me that was worse than living with a violent psychopath? So I certainly began to be somewhat rebellious and something of a discipline problem, and I learned that as long as I didn’t go too far that I could get away with a lot, a lesson I learned directly from Eddie. So I gave a lot of the adults around me a hard time. None of them ever seemed to think there might have been a reason for acting out which in hindsight seems remarkable. But in many ways it was a simpler time. People didn’t connect the dots of causality as readily as they seem to today. Teachers weren’t trained to look for signs of abuse. And domestic problems were rarely interfered with, as it was still a less enlightened time when the authorities almost always took the man’s side as a matter of course.

Certainly that was the family’s reaction — both sides — even when they could ignore it no longer, they did little about it. They left my mother to fend for herself, and me by extension. It went on literally in varying degrees of severity from this time until the day my mother died, and in some ways it even continued a little while after that, because Eddie contested the will and threatened my life in the process. So I learned to swallow my pride, my anger and a lot of other emotions during that time. It’s taken me a long time let them back out and even today, twenty-five years after my mother’s death, some of it is still a struggle. There are days when I wish I could just be a normal person, but that is just one of the emotions denied me by my monster of a stepfather, a family and community who didn’t want to get involved and a mother too scared for herself to look out for her son.

An average evening would begin around supper time with the “is he or isn’t he” question, meaning will Eddie be arriving home at dinnertime. If he did, it usually signaled a relatively quiet night, though it was no guarantee. This was especially so once he started his own business, because without a boss he was free to drink throughout the day, a luxury he partook of more and more as the years wore on. But so long as he didn’t go past his threshold he could have a violence-free night. And as that was the other thing that increased during that time, Eddie’s tolerance for alcohol, it meant it took more and more alcohol to push him over the edge. The was the good news. The bad news, however, as it usually is, was much worse. Because since it took more alcohol to turn him into the monster, the monster, too, grew larger and more monstrous over the years. So that by the time I was nearing the end of high school, it was getting positively dangerous to my very physical well-being to be around on those nights when he exploded. So I abandoned my mother to suffer his wrath alone. Did I feel guilty? Not at the time, I didn’t. I suppose in my youthful arrogance, I continued to blame my mother somewhat not for causing Eddie to happen, but for continuing to let it happen. But I know now she felt perhaps almost as helpless as I did.

But in some ways the early days, though less violent, were worse because I was younger and had not yet steeled myself to regularly expect my childhood to be interrupted by violence and misery on an on-going basis. It was always new and, as such, a surprise every time. At first Eddie would be obviously drunk when he got home. We would know it immediately by the telltale whiskey on his breath, his fumbling around with decreased motor functions and by his slurred speech. We’d try our best not to provoke him. Initially this wasn’t too hard and just involved be incredibly subservient and even a little obsequious as I imagined people at royal courts around kings and queens must have acted. It certainly felt like Eddie had sovereignty over our lives and if displeased could dispatch us on a whim. It’s hard to describe the fear of trying to keep it together and stay in control enough so that he didn’t become angry. Inside I’d be seething with a rage that seemed impossible to contain. But contain it I did, because the one thing I did not want was to let out the beast in Eddie. It did not make me a better person outside of my home or later, either, because I learned too well to bottle up my emotions, which would inevitably lead me to uncork them at always the wrong time and in the wrong way, though in part that’s probably because there is no right way to do any of those things. It’s unhealthy behavior from the get-go, so no response really works. Boy did that take me a long time to work out. It’s not good to have a psychopath as a role model, no matter how inadvertent.

Dinner was almost always the first order of business for Eddie, and my mother was expected to have it ready as soon as he sat down. In the earlier days, we usually sat at the table in the kitchen to eat. Later, we more frequently sat in the living room in front of the television, especially when supper was later and later in the evening. My mother was a decent cook, nothing too spectacular, but she made most of our meals well enough that I have fond recollections for some of her dishes. She made a great meatloaf, for example, and did the most amazing fried potato chunks that had a crispy coating but were exquisitely tender inside. I was a fairly picky eater, confining the vegetables I’d eat to peas and corn, so it was something of a challenge for her since Eddie ate practically anything. The household rule was that I’d have to try a small portion of whatever foods I hated, meaning Brussel sprouts, liver and all manner of other despised foods made there way past my unwilling taste buds. But it was that or risk an incident. So I reluctantly ate whatever was put in front of me, without protest.

The other dinner rule was that I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I’d cleared my plate completely of all food. This rule was decidedly cruel was I was very young because I had a great fear of choking when I swallowed food, and for some unknown reason especially meat. It would take me a good hour or more to eat a hamburger, for instance. I would just chew and chew and chew. It just never felt small enough that I wouldn’t choke. I don’t really even know what the genesis of this problem was, though I suspect I must have accidentally choked on something when I was too young to remember it, but if so, nobody else remembered it either. Eventually I outgrew it, though I was helped along by coming home late one evening from playing at the crick (the creek a few blocks from our house) to find my mother hd packed food for a trip tp thr drive-in and we wouldn’t be able to go unless I gobbled down my food in record time. On this occasion, both Eddie and my mother looked like they wanted to tear me limb from limb so I ate my dinner in what seemed like mere seconds. I never again had a problem swallowing my food, though I’m still a slow eater even today. Though I tell myself I just like taking my time and savoring the food.

I also liked reading at the table, though I had to give that up, too. One evening when I was around eight, I was thoroughly engrossed in a paperback about who killed the Red Baron. It was a popular historical book, though it was written for adults at least. Apparently, I wasn’t paying enough attention at the table and Eddie grabbed it out of my hands and ripped it in half. I think Eddie was one of those people that really could have torn a phonebook in half, though I never saw him accomplish that particular feat. I did witness many other displays of superhuman strength, however. I saw Eddie rip the phone right of the wall with one hand, break a pair of metal scissors right in half, punch holes into a wall, and smash china figurines by squeezing them in his hand until they blew apart. Curiously, he never harmed his own things when he seemed so blinded by rage. He was obviously in control enough that he only chose objects that belonged to my mother or me.

My mother collected these horrible little knick-knack china dolls that were displayed on several shelves in the living room and dining room. I don’t know who made them or, as a boy, why, but I never liked them. My mother, on the other hand, loved dolls and especially these china ones for some reason. They weren’t antiques and I don’t think they were collectible, at least not in the sense that things are manufactured today precisely to be collectible. But she collected them from the stores that sold them. They were only a few inches high, probably no more than 6-10 inches tall, and had thin delicate features. They each had different hair and differently ball gowns on. Whoever made them, they cost a little more than $10 a piece in the 1960s. I know because we purchased pieces of the collection over and over again. They were a favorite target of Eddie’s when he was drunk and angry. He knew my mother loved them and that was what made them prime targets for him. He was very good at psychological warfare and knew just the things to say or break to upset my mother with maximum impact. Whether this was a learned skill or just intuitive, I never figured out. But he was definitely very good at it.

I generally learned to keep my own things hidden as best I could. Not at first, of course, but after I’d lost several favorite toys, books and other things, I figured out that it was best to keep anything I cared about as out of sight as possible. Of course, I was just a kid and so this wasn’t always carried out with unfailing skill nor did it even matter sometimes. One time I had a box out of the way in the basement that I’d filled with favorite things like baseball cards, hot wheel cars, and some games I was especially fond of only to have Eddie throw the entire box out with the trash when he came upon them one drunken day. I mourned that box for years, there were so many treasures in it.

I watched Eddie smash to pieces the children’s antique rocking chair that had been in my family for generations because it was in his way. I don’t remember crying so much or so hard over a piece of furniture before or since. I loved that chair. It sat in the living room in front of the coffee table off to one side and was small enough that it was just my size from the time I was a toddler to whatever age I was when Eddie pulverized it into oblivion. It’s possible that my unhealthy attachment to inanimate objects stems from that incident because I remember blaming myself for a part of my family’s history having been so callously destroyed. Long-dead relatives had sat in that chair on the family farm stretching back more generations than I could even really understand, and Eddie had picked it up like it meant absolutely nothing. I recall felling like a part of me was being smashed to bits as I watched it be annihilated before my eyes.

Eddie, when enraged, went into what seemed like a kind of trance. He was a whirling dervish of destruction and would break, smash, hit or otherwise destroy whatever was in his path. It would happen suddenly, like he’d been uncorked and the energy would just rush out of him, lashing this way and that seemingly uncontrollably. But the weird thing was as you grew more and more used to seeing this happen and it began to lose its power to surprise, though not it’s power to make you afraid, you noticed that there was a pattern to it that implied some measure of control. It generally went like this. Eddie would be drunk. Falling down drunk. A how in the hell did he drive home kind of drunk. But he’d seem calm, yet very tense. His speech would be short and his demeanor very demanding. He would expect to be waited on hand and foot. He expect his every whim to be acted upon, in the manner of imagined royalty. Any little slip up, or even perceived slip up — back talk was a favorite — and the game was on. The bottle of his rage uncorked and devastation rained down on our house. He’d smash up the house again and again, he’d push us around, yell and scream with terrifying effect, threaten all manner of worse atrocities, eventually passing out on the sofa after his energy was utterly spent.

The house would be left in tatters again, and we would be left emotionally scarred and physically exhausted. He never left much of a mark on either one of us and if he did, it always resembled something a simple accident might account for rather than an obvious purple bruise of abuse. He seemed to know just how far he could push us without giving us any ammunition to use against him. It was uncanny. And it was this ability that led me to understand how cold and calculating all of this really was. It took me many years, but I finally worked out that it was totally useless to even try to mollify his anger. It wasn’t about reaching any limit or figuring out how not to slip up. It was a fool’s game with absolutely no way to win. If we didn’t present him with a reason to explode, he would manufacture one. It was inevitable. He wanted an excuse to take out whatever was making him so angry on us. It somehow made him feel better about himself, terrorizing his family the way it did. It served some demented purpose that only he understood, if indeed anyone ever did. Because the pattern never changed, no matter what we did. The result was always inescapably the same.

And so was my mother’s reaction. She would clean the house of almost all signs that he’d broken it up while he slept it off. When Eddie woke up the next morning there would often be no sign of what had occured the night before and he would claim no memory of it whatsoever and expect both of us — or so it seemed — to like pretend nothing had happened. He had so many pparent blackouts that he must have lost entire years worth of memory, if he was to be believed. Whenever there was evidence that couldn’t be covered up, such as smashed china and the like, Eddie would act contrite and remorseful. He’d give us money to replace the broken things and — at least I always thought — to buy our silence. He’d bring home flowers for my mother the next day. She’d force a smile and act as if nothing was wrong with their relationship.

It was a deeply dysfunctional relationship and my mother helped perpetuate her own misery, as well as my own. She would blame herself, as I would learn only later was so common in abusive marriages. At the time, I could not understand it and I turned increasingly away from her, which she no doubt likewise blamed on herself. We took to yelling at each other as the years progressed and grew estranged. Looking back, perhaps I should have been more understanding but I had that all too common myopia of adolescence in which my problems were the only one that really mattered and they were world class in size, too. Should I have understood better what was happening and found a better way to respond than retreating into myself and away from home? For a long time I asked myself that question without ever really finding a satisfactory answer. I was, after all, just a kid. But should that have excused my not stepping up and demanding more of myself at the time? I honestly don’t know. I can’t live it over again — thank goodness — and I can’t say I could have done anything differently, even if I’d wanted to.

This was also the same time that I first tried near beer. I don’t remember why my mother bought it for me, but it was in the basement refrigerator with the rest of the real alcohol. Perhaps she was afraid that my stepfather’s influence might turn me into an alcoholic, too, who knows? But some friends and I tried it one afternoon when I was in my early teens, probably around twelve or so. It was truly awful, as I remember it, and I wasn’t the only one. We all hated it. If this was what beer tasted like, I didn’t understand why adults seemed to drink so much of it. But it did seem like so many other aspects of the life I’d imagined for myself. It was as close to beer as my life was to being normal, not even close.

On to Chapter 8

November 17, 2006

Racing to the Big Apple

Chapter: 8 — J @ 8:17 pm

The difference between a drunk and an alcoholic is that a drunk doesn’t have to attend all those meetings.

     — Arthur Lewis

One night when I was around 12, I was up and watching movies with Eddie after my mother had gone to work. We’d watched one of our all-time favorites, an obscure British comedy called “A Stitch in Time.” It starred Norman Wisdom, who when I was older a British friend told me was a popular lowbrow physical comedian, a sort of Jerry Lewis or Charlie Chaplin-type. In the movie he played a bumbling guy working in a hospital and after messing up over and over again at the end of the film says a line that cracked us up every time we heard it. “I know I’ve made one or two mistakes.” It’s funny because he didn’t make one or two, but more like thousands of mistakes. It was its very understatement that made it funny. It was a nice shared moment we had with that movie, and many others.

But on this particular evening Eddie had been home all evening, quietly drinking, although he was in a rare good mood. We were having a good time but after the movie ended, there was nothing else on and neither of us seemed interested in the night ending. And having become something of a night owl, I wasn’t tired yet. I don’t now recall the circumstances that led to the big decision, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, that times was one in the morning.

So we hopped in the car and headed for New York City, a two and a half hour drive away. At that moment, Eddie’s car was a big Cadillac convertible and it was summer, so we had the top down. It was a dry, hot night and the air rushing by was a welcome relief. I had never been to New York City and the idea of driving there in the middle of the night was exciting to a twelve-year old.

The first part of the trip was familiar, through Berks County heading northeast. Then it opened into unfamiliar territory as we neared the Delaware River at Easton where we crossed over into Jersey. I drank it all in, the lights at night seemed magical. Eddie was racing the car because he wanted to get there by four, when the bars closed. So when we hit the New Jersey turnpike he gunned the car up to a 100 miles per hour. We were literally barreling down the road with the car bouncing on the hills, scraping the macadam and shooting sparks up from under the Caddy. If it had been any other driver, I might have been tempted to be scared, but Eddie was a better driver drunk than most people were sober. It was uncanny, but he really was a good driver. Anything to do with cars and Eddie really excelled at it.

As we hit New York, I was still up and taking it all in when we drove through Times Square. If Eddie was going to a specific bar, he never let on. He parked the car and we went to a undistinguished bar in Times Square and Eddie ordered a Rheingold beer and a Coke for me. I remember the brand because it was the first time I can recall seeing the brand, yet it sounded familiar all the same. This would have been the early Seventies, and by 1976 Rheingold had shuttered its doors like so many regional brands during that decade. Eddie downed his beer and ordered another. He sat on the bar stool and I stayed near the door, looking at the window in wonder at the Big Apple, hardly believing that only a few short hours ago I’d been in my pajamas on our sofa.

After Eddie drained his second beer, we left the bar and walked around a little bit before we came upon an arcade. Eddie got a roll of quarters, handed me some, and we played pinball and other cool arcade games for about an hour. I had never seen so many pinball machines in one place in my life. It was amazing. First there were the neon lights flashing in Times Square. Then inside this cavernous arcade the bright flashing lights of the vending machines plus all the sounds of the games was almost surreal. It was almost five in the morning before our quarters ran out and it was time to head home.

I was still prettty amped up when we walked back to the car. So was Eddie. He kept the convertible’s top up because it had finally cooled off as we cruised across one of the bridges on our way back to Pennsylvania. The windows were still down, though, and Eddie had the music cranked up, presumably to stay awake. It’s a trick I still use to this day when I’m driving tired. It seemed to work on Eddie but I crashed hard and don’t remember much of the trip home. I knew it was a close call as to whether or not we’d actually make it back before my mother got home from work. Neither of us seemed to want that to happen, as we got closer to home Eddie woke me up so we could get our story straight, just in case.

It was light when I opened my eyes just outside of Reading on the north side. It would have been coming up on seven a.m. My mother got home right about 7:30 so Eddie was gunning the engine and stayed on the highway in the hopes of making up some time. He generally preferred side streets and driving through town but time had suddenly almost run out and we needed to hurry. I really thought we had no chance of making it but Eddie remained optimistic.

When finally reached Shillington, it was almost too late and our hearts sank as we saw my mother’s car already parked on the street outside of our house as Eddie’s Caddy sped down State Street. “Damn,” we thought. “Too late, we didn’t make it after all.” But then we saw something unexpected that immedately lifted our spirits and brought us right back in the game. All was not lost, after all. We saw the figure our my mother in her white nurse’s uniform as the screen door closed behind her going into the house next door, calling our neighbors, the Jeffries. Verna and my mother had become friends over the years so it was not unusual in and of itself that she was visiting her. But that she was doing so at exactly the same moment we needed just a few minutes of extra time seemed positively uncannily lucky, but Eddie just laughed. I think some part of him just expected something like this and that his luck would indeed hold. He was surprisingly lucky in many ways. His life may have had myriad problems, but he was a very good gambler and rarely lost at games of chance. This, I think, led him to be more reckless than most people because he actually expected to win. And here was more proof.

We circled the block, parking the car in the back alley. I raced into the house once we confirmed that Verna and my Mom were not in the Jeffries kitchen where they could see us coming in from the garage. I ran upstairs and threw off my clothes, jumping into bed as I finished buttoning up the shirt to my pajamas. Eddie likewise undressed quickly and hopped into the shower to give the impression he’d just woken up. I’m sure the shower probably was just the thing he needed after driving all night. After a few minutes — that frankly seemed like hours — I heard the back screen door below my room slam shut and then my mother’s footsteps could be heard coming up the staircase. I surpressed a laugh and she stuck her head in the bathroom to say good morning to Eddie, before coming in to wake me up for school, which was what she typically did.

I felt sure she’d see through our deception but she didn’t. She treated me like it was any other morning, and she hurried me out of bed to get dressed for school. School started at 7:55, meaning I had only about ten minutes window to dress and get out the door for the fifteen-minute walk to my elementary school. I never ate breakfast from an early age, I think because my other was simply too tired to cook after working an eight-hour shift at the hospital. At first, she’d put out cereal and I’d sometimes have a bowl, but as I got older and was staying up later, I simply preferred sleeping in as long as humanly possible and she eventually gave up on breakfast. I still rarely eat breakfast.

Sometimes on a Sunday after church when I was a little older, she’d cook up a breakfast feast of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, oatmeal and kinds of wonderful things we almost never ate. Those were always the best Sundays. This was after I wasn’t staying as long as Bushies on the weekends once Junior High started and I had mandatory catechism classes for Sunday School and had to go to church every single Sunday for a few years before being confirmed. I’d come through the door to the smell of bacon and syrup and know the day would probably be a good day. The polka show would be playing on the radio. My mother loved polkas and later I played clarinet in a couple of polka bands. I still have a fondness for them. And the strongest association when I hear certain ones brings me back to my mother’s lavish Sunday breakfasts. She’d make hash browns, too, and hand-squeezed orange juice. Even Eddie would pitch in on the pancakes. He liked flipping them in the air. It was one of the few times I could pretend we were a real family, and on those days I could almost convince myself.

The day after Eddie and I drove to the Big Apple, I walked around school in a bit of a tired stupor. I told my friends about my trip to NYC, but only a few of them even believed me. It was years before I told my mother. It wasn’t actually until after I’d graduated from high school. As far as I know, Eddie never told her either, because she seemed genuinely surprised when I finally did tell her about it. In that sense, as a shared secret it did seem to make our relationship just a bit better. Eddie learned that I could keep a secret and perhaps most importantly, I could keep one from my mother. He must of sensed our growing distance because over the years he shared many other things with me he clearly did not want my mother to know and which I never did reveal to her, even when he was at his most vile. I don’t know if it was simply the fear I felt and the knowledge that what would likely happen to me if I did tell her the things I knew or if his charms had actually worked so that I felt I should betray a trust. That feels strange to say out loud, but I had so few male role models that I think I longed for any semblance of male bonding, and in the absence of any healthy relationships, I gravitated to the only thing I could find. Whatever else Eddie was — and that covers quite a lot — he was that man’s man from an earlier time, deeply misogynistic, but he had very close men friends with whom he was always candid, honest and loyal. I saw that time and time again at his garage. Old friends, down on their luck, would invariably visit from time to time in need of some kind of help and he almost always did would he could. Some he gave money, some he gave booze, some he even gave work, even when he couldn’t really afford an employee. It was oddly endearing to see he actually did have a caring, softer side. To just know it existed gave me pause. In some ways it was bewildering that he could be so horrid to his wife and her son, and yet be so kind to these vagabonds.

And that was the enigma of his personality that I never really cracked, try as I might. I always felt that if I could just figure out what made Eddie tick, perhaps he would stop hurting us. I don’t know if I ever gave up hoping that might one day happen. It never did, of course, but there were these little events such as our trip to New York and the shared secret between us that did lead to greater insights about him. Rheingold beer to this day reminds me of New York and that trip we took. In a way it marked a new phase of my life that was a little bit more independent as I fought to find my own way in the world.

On to Chapter 9

November 16, 2006

Don’t Get Up

Chapter: 9 — J @ 1:48 pm

I wish you a Malty Christmas
And a Hoppy New Year,
A pocket full of money
And a cellar full of Beer!

     — Anonymous Toast

Christmas and the winter holidays were always a mixed bag. On the one hand, they were magical times for a child with presents, visits to store Santas, baking cookies and family parties. On the other hand, there were parties. And that meant there were so many more opportunities for drinking than during the rest of the year. Not that Eddie necessarily needed an excuse, but he never missed an opportunity either. I don’t think I’d ever heard him turn down a drink if one was offered. It just wasn’t in his nature to be able to say no to alcohol.

My mother loved the holidays like nobody I’ve ever known before or since. It was a huge deal to her, and to my grandmother, too. There were immense rituals associated with the holidays in our house. The weekend after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would arrive for the day and the two of them would remove every single knick-knack in the house, carefully box them up, and stow them in the coal cellar in our basement. We no longer had a coal furnace, it was long gone by the time we moved in. But the separate room in the front of the house where coal used to poured in through a slotted window under the front porch made an ideal place to store the things that we didn’t need access to but once a year. So that’s where the boxes and boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations lived eleven months of the year.

As I got older, I was pressed into service more and more. And as much as I enjoyed the holidays, I resented having to work so hard over what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation. But this was one battle I never win, and so I perservered and made the best of it. I’d carry the dozens of boxes up from the basement and my Mom and grandmother carefully unwrapped each item, cooing over each one, as they found a place for them on our now empty shelves. Little by little the house would fill up again with holiday bric-a-brac of all kinds. Over the course of the previous year, my mother would come up with new theme for each Christmas and the tree would be trimmed with all new ornaments every year. Many years, her and my grandmother would make all of the ornaments for the tree. The strangest year was without question sometime in the mid-seventies when our tree was adorned with giant two-foot diameter tissue paper roses in rainbow colors that were handmade. It didn’t take very many of them to fill up the tree and they looked quite frankly, ridiculous, as if the tree had a very colorful case of the mumps.

Our tree itself was unspectacular, an artificial monstrosity with color-coded trunks I had to build every year. My mother was allergic to seemingly everything, including — with all seriousness — too much sunlight! And evergreen trees were on the list, so I missed the pleasure of that pine tree smell I loved when I visited other homes over the holidays. Oddly, enough real trees in other peoples’ houses never seemed to cause my mother any particular troubles. The first Christmas I spent on my own included a real tree that I cut down myself. It was my first kill. And I’ve had a real tree every since.

The one thing missing from our holiday decorations each year was Santa Claus, who for some reason had been banished from our house by my mother. She absolutely hated Santa Claus. What she had against Kris Kringle was never articulated to me with sufficient understanding, but she did not like the concept of Saint Nicholas at all. It wasn’t that she was overly religious — she wasn’t. My grandmother took a particular glee in festooning her own house with countless Santa idols, including a five-foot plastic one that was lit from the inside that sat on her porch, welcoming her guests during the holiday season. It was if she was rubbing it in my mother’s face that she had so many of them. Perhaps it was some odd rivalry in their twisted mother-daughter relationship, but if so, I never learned what it was all about.

For an entire day shortly after the decorations had been put up, my mother — again, always with my grandmother there — would bake cookies. And not just one kind but several different kinds of cookies. Also down in the coal cellar were countless cookie tins that seemed to breed over the years. Those would be brought up each year, too, so that they could be filled with homemade cookies. They’d make sugar cookies in a variety of cutout shapes, gingerbread, oatmeal, brownies and my personal favorites, peanut butter cookies. I’m not really sure where they all ended up, but I know I usually had my fill of them. I know she gave a lot of them as gifts, but there were an awful lot of cookie tins.

But the winter holidays were my mother’s favorite time of the year. Her birthday was in mid-December and between that, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Eve she really seemed to be in her element. She really went out of her way to bring family and friends together during the holidays. For as long as I can remember, we hosted a party every Christmas Eve that anybody we ever knew was invited to. I don’t how they knew, because she never sent out any invitations. But over time, people just came to know that there was always a party at our house on Christmas Eve. And since everyone also had their own family events, too, there was a steady stream of people coming and going all night long. It was nice that even though our friends had their own events, they always seemed to manage to stop by if even for just a short visit. I loved these parties because I got to see so many people in such a short period of time, almost all of whom had that holiday spirit and were happy. As I got older, my own friends and their families became part of the event, too.

Our house swelled with every room downstairs and in the basement full of people. Some would even spill into one or two of the rooms upstairs. Only the back bedroom, which was covered with winter coats, was always empty. As friends and relatives came and went, the one constant was wall-to-wall people. My mother always seemed happiest on those nights. She really came alive with other people that she cared about. Maybe it was that same instinct that led to her wanting to be a nurse.

Many of the guests I only saw once a year, at the party. There were family, of course, Eddie’s, my Mom’s, and my estranged father’s. A lot of them often came early and stayed all night. Then there were Eddie’s friends and their families, people he knew from work, not to mention drinking buddies. There were people my mother worked with at the hospital, doctors, nurses and even the occasional patient. My mother was still close with a number of women she went to high school and they usually came with their families, too. All of our neighbors were invited, making it a block party of sorts.

Then there were my own friends. I had a close relationship with a number of people from an early age. Because of my own home life, I spent a great deal of time — as much as I could — away from home. As a result, I had an entire coterie of spare parents. Perhaps not in reality, but I did get along very well with a number of my friends parents. Many of them knew my situation and were sympathetic. They made me feel welcome and gave me a place to escape to from time to time. They fed me quite a lot, too, for which I was always grateful. They were really good people who helped me out when I needed it. And they often came to our Christmas Eve parties, too, along with their kids, who were among my best friends.

My mother put out quite a spread of food. There were all the cookies, of course, but she also put out of plates of cheeses and meat, vegetables and dip, chips, pretzels, popcorn and who knows what all. She’d have soda for the kids, A-Treat usually. A-Treat was a local soda company that made root beer, birch beer, cream soda, lemon-lime, sarsaparilla, and grapefruit soda in quart bottles. And Mom made the eggnog every year, pitchers of it she made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. Not surprisingly, Eddie took care of the rest of the alcoholic drinks. He had a well stocked bar already and augmented it considerably for the party with bottles of Jack Daniels, whiskey and other spirits. He really liked playing host and being the life of the party.

The downstairs refrigerator would be filled with beer. Whenever our relatives from New Jersey would be in town for the holidays, they’d bring Ballantine Ale with them. It was very different from the local beers we usually had. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Ballantine was one of the few ales being made at that time, and certainly the only one among the major brewers. It always seemed so exotic.

Eddie picked up an actual home bar at some point and set it up in the basement, too, then later added a pool table, as well. As a result, the basement became a great party space which worked out well since the annual party grew larger year after year. My friends would usually congregate downstairs since we could usually count on fewer parental eyes down there, at least the ones who might complain if we stole a beer or other libation.

The biggest problem with the party was that our tiny house had only one bathroom and there were hundreds of people drinking. So there was almost always a line to use it. Another odd feature of our bathroom was the door had no lock on it, a fact that caused embarrassment from time to time. One memorable year, probably in high school, my friend Phil was sitting on the throne when Eddie’s mother Helen, stewed to the gills as usual, walked right in and announced to Phil. “Don’t get up.” We’ve never been sure if she thought manners would dictate that he should stand because a lady had entered the room or if there was another reason she said that. That she was trying to save him from embarrassment when, duty bound, he might try to stand up made an odd kind of sense. Helen, somewhat ironically, did stand on airs and thought manners were of the utmost importance. She insisted on them from children in particular, believing it to be a sign of good breeding or something.

I think Phil was pretty freaked out, naturally, but we laughed and laughed about it for years. In fact, we’re still laughing. Whenever I see Phil or other friends from that time in my life, “don’t get up” often comes up. It was probably the funniest moment — for us, at least — at my family’s annual Christmas party. They were, for the most part, one of the best days of the year and the one I looked most forward to, more so even than Christmas Day. But like everything else in my life, over the years even the otherwise sacrosanct party became tainted by Eddie and his pathology.

The last one my family hosted, just a couple of years before my mother died, effectively put an end to the party. Eddie’s psychosis had grown steadily worse after I’d left home for the Army. I was home for the holidays and parked my car, a lime green VW Rabbit that Eddie hated because it was foreign. Eddie, like many of his generation, had a jingoistic streak in that “my country love it or leave it” mold where patriotism was unquestionably the idea that trumped all others, even above common sense or reason. He hated hippies or what he perceived to be the hippie counter-culture as reported by the media. He was of the generation just before that and believed Vietnam was a necessary conflict and whatever America did, it was right simply because we chose to do it. So my having bought a German car was deeply disturbing to someone so mired in superstitious patriotism. That may have been in fact the reason I bought it, looking back, but at the time it just seemed like a good, basic car that got much better gas mileage than the lumbering giants Detroit was — and still is — pumping out.

So when I had the temerity to park my car in the back alley, despite that being its usual resting spot, Eddie’s addled brain could not allow it. At some point in the evening he took a fire extinguisher and smashed both the front and back windows of my car. I didn’t discover it until later in the evening when I tried to leave. The fire extinguisher was resting in the backseat and there was glass everywhere inside the car and spread out all over the alley’s gravel and dirt. My mother actually called the police — one of the few times she ever did — but Eddie sped off in his car and nothing came of it. She never pressed charges and neither did I. We were still much too afraid of reprisals. Eddie did have my windows fixed a couple of days later, but my mother’s beloved annual Christmas Eve party never again took place. It was yet another casualty in the war her marriage had become. It was a war she would ultimately lose and in many ways Eddie won, as walked away from it unscathed. I was merely collateral damage.

On to Chapter 10

November 15, 2006

Working the Bars

Chapter: 10 — J @ 11:38 am

Our lager,
Which art in barrels,
Hallowed be thy drink,
Thy will be drunk,
(I will be drunk),
At home as I am in the tavern.
Give us this day our foamy head,
And forgive us our spillages,
As we forgive those who spill against us,
and lead us not to incarceration,
But deliver us from hangovers,
For thine is the beer,
The bitter and the lager,
Forever and ever,

     — The Beer Prayer

The summer before I started junior high school was spent working at Eddie’s garage on Court Street in downtown Reading. It ws on the northern end of town, several blocks past the courthouse which is where the street took its name, and there the road narrowed and took on the appearance of an alley rather than a major road. And indeed that did appear to be its purpose. The tighter blocks had thin row homes squeezed together, but mostly warehouses and industrial type businesses. Few cars ventured up this part of the block unless they were lost, tourists or had business there.

I always assumed it was my punishment to be banished there while my friends were swimming at the pool, ogling girls in bikinis, playing tennis or generally having a much better time than I was. I got a few days off here and there, but by and large it was the Siberia of downtown where I spent that summer. When I reached puberty, I began spending more and more time with Eddie without my mother. I think the idea was that a boy should be with men in order to help him become a man, at least that’s how my family sold it. Personally, I wanted to be with girls or at least my friends. But I was naturally not consulted in the decision. So Eddie had free labor for the summer. I was paid only the weekly allowance of $20 I would have received even I hadn’t been working plus lunch, which invariably was a sandwich shop set up in one of the row homes at the bottom of the block we were on. They had shredded pork sandwiches that were very tasty, but either it was the only kind they had or it was the only kind I liked, because that’s what I ate every single day, along with a Mountain Dew. Eddie had the radio tuned to a local radio station that played the hits of the day, and the played a lot of the top songs over and over again. To this day, whenever I hear one of the familiar songs of that summer, such as Paul McCartney’s “Listen What the Man Said,” it feels like I can actually smell and taste those pork sandwiches. That’s how often we ate them.

The Mountain Dew came from the soda machine in my father’s shop supplied by Pepsi, who also made the sign for the garage that hung above the entrance. It was about as basic a sign I could imagine. A simple rectangle, with two-thirds of it a colorful Pepsi logo and the bottom third white with “Eddie’s Garage” in simple black block letters. It lit up at night from two bulbs inside that had to be changed every couple of weeks. That was one of my jobs, to climb up the ladder and unscrew the sign to replace the bulbs. Of course, I got all the janitorial jobs as well as anything else Eddie didn’t want to do. He spent a good portion of the day just standing around drinking, sometimes with friends who’d stop by and sometimes alone. Not every day, but enough of them.

Occasionally, he would actually work on the cars and he did try to teach me about cars. I was not a very willing pupil, however, and I had almost no interest in cars. It just never grabbed me the way it did him and many other people. People are different, with different personalities, which draw them to different things. That’s not a particularly profound idea but it was one Eddie had a hard time understanding. He felt that what he enjoyed, I should too. It caused a great deal of friction and by the summer’s end I was released and didn’t return over subsequent summers for on-going torture. He finally gave up on my becoming like him, which was a great relief to me, at least at first. It did work against me later when whatever I was interested in was openly ridiculed and mocked. This was especially true of things that Eddie could not do at all, like playing a musical interest, being an artist, or almost any other profession that required an education. It played havoc with my self-esteem in such a severe way that it plagues me to this day. Eddie, in addition to resorting to violence, was also quite gifted in verbally tearing a person down with caustic barbs. At this he never let up. Whatever I did or wanted to do was a waste of time in his eyes. And it wasn’t so much that I sought his approval as that he actively withheld it or tried undermine any goals I might announce. It was a very demeaning pattern and coupled with his violent outbursts created in me a very low opinion of myself.

But that summer I was still a gawky kid, just coming to understand the changes to my body and the world was just beginning to open up on the subject of the opposite sex. Girls and masturbation had taken a new and prominent role in my life and consumed much of my spare time. I discovered pornography in a trunk in our attic, fueling much of my rich fantasies with images my friends could not yet imagine. That coupled with a sex education course my mother taught me in elementary school meant I knew more about what sex really was than the average sixth-grader.

One day coming home from elementary school when I was in second grade I saw the letters f-u-k written in chalk on the sidewalk. Not knowing the word and being naturally curious and quite innocent that it was a word they would have preferred I not know, I casually asked my parents over dinner that evening. “What’s fuck?” There were dropped forks and gaping mouths so I knew I was onto something. My mother — I’m sure it was the nurse in her — snapped into action and bought a teacher’s sex education textbook complete with a workbook and teacher’s companion. Over the next two years, I had to read that book and was given homework over and above my regular public school curriculum, which my mother would then correct. At first, it started out with simple birds and bees stuff but by the end I was studying explicit anatomical drawings and having to identify the various bits and describe what they were for. It was certainly strange, especially in retrospect, but seemed quite natural at the time. My parents walked around in the nude for as long as I could remember, so I was not in the least bit bothered by the naked body. It seemed perfectly normal. And my mother and I were still quite close in those days and she sincerely wanted me to know about sex in the same way she wanted me to learn math or science.

So by the time I discovered how good it felt to jerk off, I knew a lot more that than average adolescent about what was going on and where all the various bits fit together and what they were for. But at just that same time I went sent off to learn a trade in the Court Street Gulag. I did learn quite a bit, though nothing much about car repair. Mostly I learned to be an observer and became more of a student of human nature, as least that’s what I told myself. The quirky, odd characters that came and went from Eddie’s garage were a colorful lot, to say the least. It was at that time that I formed the opinion that people were not meant to live in such close proximity to one another as the average city demands. Live that way for too long and it affects your mind. I have not yet found the city that doesn’t bear out that fact.

One of Eddie’s friends that was more or less a fixture at the garage was Jim. If Jim had a last name, I never knew it. Nor do I know where Eddie knew Jim from but they appeared to have know one another a long time. Jim reminded, in a good way, of Wilbur, my alcoholic step-grandfather that lived in our basement for a time. Jim drove a dull green Plymouth Duster with a souped-up engine. I would not have been surprised to learn he actually lived in the car, though it really gave no sign of that. Jim looked like a hobo. He was tall and lean, with the thinness one associates with heroin addicts or the chronically hungry. It was more likely the latter, as he was quite strong with a stamina that didn’t quit. He could work for what seemed Herculean lengths of time without tiring. Jim’s face was hard and grizzled, with a permanent two-day stubble of a beard. His skin always looked a little dirty, even in the morning when he was clean. He always wore the same clothes, a white pocket t-shirt with dark pants and work boots. If Jim had a wife, girlfriend or kids, he never talked about them. It seemed as if he didn’t really know anyone except my stepfather and few of their mutual drinking buddies.

Jim would, from time to time, just show up looking for work and Eddie would tell him where to start without missing a beat. There would never be any discussion of pay, no filling out of any forms, no nothing. Eddie would simply hand him a glass of whiskey and tell him what to do. Then just as suddenly, one day Jim would be gone again and we wouldn’t see him again for days and sometimes weeks. It never seemed to faze Eddie, but I was always a little saddened during those times when Jim wasn’t around. For starters, Eddie picked on me a lot more when we were alone. But more than that, I really liked Jim. He seemed very worn down by life, but I also imagined that he had lived life to the fullest. He had stories about seeing places all over the country, places I’d only heard about or read about. He never talked about seeing tourist kinds of things, but about the people he’d met, what the land reminded him of, or the adventures he had. Whether his stories were true or not never seemed to be the point, they were entertaining nonetheless. I suspect he may have embellished a little, but his manner was so off-hand and laconic that I don’t think he’d lie unless there was some advantage in it for him, and telling a young boy his stories gave him no such reason.

Jim had more of a problem with drinking than even Eddie, if that was possible. But Jim was a sad drunk, never a violent one. I didn’t doubt that he could take care of himself, but he shrank from violence whereas Eddie embraced it, indeed sometimes looked for it. Jim seemed instinctively to know when it was time to go, before any violence be loosed in is direction. He’d give me a mournful look and wave goodbye silently, slipping out the door and into his car, leaving me to the angry displays Eddie was so prone to. But for some reason I never held that against him. I guess I figured it wasn’t Jim’s problem, that curiously that it had become mine. It’s strange to think that I had taken a certain amount of ownership in my own abuse, but your mind does odd things in coping with a situation it has to deal with.

After work, and often that was early in the afternoon, especially when there weren’t many cars to work on, we adjourned to a local bar. There were too many of these to count, though Stanley’s was undoubtedly a favorite. It served Reading beer, a local brand favored by Eddie and many of the city’s residents. National brands like Budweiser and Schlitz were certainly around, but they had nowhere near the market share they do today. People really were loyal to the local brands. Often they knew someone who worked there or just liked the idea of supporting local businesses. That seems like such a new concept now but I remember my family and indeed most of the families I knew shared the concept that you should support the businesses in town. We bought most of our food from the local farmer’s market from the time we moved to Shillington in 1964. Meat we bought either there or from a local butcher my stepfather knew in Reading. We bought only food we couldn’t get elsewhere at the grocery store. It seems peculiar to me today that only those who’ve made a conscious decision to buy “green” do so now and feel self righteous for the decision, like they’re doing something special. Because growing up that’s what everyone did, it was just the obvious thing to do and required no high-minded politics or ethical positions to convince anyone. I guess that says quite a lot about how different people’s attitudes about their communities are today. The modern grocery may conveniently supply all of our needs in one central location, but the loss of so many small, local, idiosyncratic, family-run businesses is a real tragedy that has made all of our lives more than just a little bit less satisfying.

One such loss is definitely Stanley’s Tavern, a Reading fixture for years and years that no longer exists. It was at the corner of Laurel and Minor streets in the southeast part of town near Bingaman Street. Only men were permitted at the bar, but anyone could sit in the dining area where they served delicious, ridiculously inexpensive meals. The last time I was there, a mug of beer was still well under a buck. There was an actual Stanley, and Eddie, of course, knew him well. He was a burly, balding man with a mustache who didn’t laugh easily but when he did, bellowed and through his head back. Eddie loved trying to get him to laugh. It was a challenge he really enjoyed. Stanley’s was also filled with all manner of things to buy, like a corner grocery and also had little toys and gifts “for the ladies” as I recall the sign claiming. Behind the bar there were cigarettes, candy, gum, meat and who knows what else for sale. You could have a beer and get your shopping done, too. It was a one-of-a-kind place but was also indicative of the personality that the local scene was filled with and which chain stores have largely destroyed.

Usually Jim would join Eddie and me at these happy hours, and we’d often eat another meal before going home for a late supper. It was certainly different being in this world of men after so many years with the women of my mother’s family. They may not have been the best role models, but they offered a completely fresh way of seeing the world for a twelve-year old. I think I saw more that summer than at any time since. I don’t know that it paved the way to begin junior high, but I did look at the world with new eyes from that point on.

On to Chapter 11

November 14, 2006

The Church of Beer

Chapter: 11 — J @ 5:44 pm

But if at church they would give some ale
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale.
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once from the church to stray.

     — William Blake

That fall, I started junior high, which was a slightly shorter walk from our house, but in a ninety-degree different direction. The old part of the school building had been the old high school that my mother and father had attended. It was where they had been high school sweethearts and, as such, was a constant reminder that their love inexplicably didn’t last more than a few years past high school. The brick building had raised faux towers above the doors on each side of it as you looked at it from across the main road through Shillington, Lancaster Avenue. Above the left side was engraved the inscription, “Learn to Live” and on the opposite side, “Live to Learn.” Or vice versa, I can’t remember which came first, the learning or the living. Junior differed from elementary school in that there were around four times more kids, of which I only knew approximately a quarter of them. At first we all clung together in the old friendships from Shillington Elementary. We were the local kids. We knew the immediate terrain far better than the kids who’d come from one of the other elementary schools; Brecknock, Cumru or Mohnton. So we had a slight advantage over the other students, which we tried to exploit. I don’t think we were very successful, however.

In short order, the dynamics readjusted themselves into new cliques. I remained good friends with most of my best friends at the old school, but I also made new ones, too. And there was a whole new crop of girls, meaning another exponential increase in fantasies, if not realities, as it would still be some time before actual sex occurred. Given my reality at home, I retreated more and more into a fantasy world of books, music, television and movies. I busied myself at school as best I could. I joined clubs: chess, pinochle, Latin. I was in as many bands as possible, and joined the choir and men’s glee club, too. I was two pounds too small to make the football team, which was a devastating blow at the time. I wrote for the school paper, my first writing gigs. I even was a “chair boy,” which sounds better than the name implies. Chair boys rearranged the choir hall for the different choir practices each day, which required us to arrive early, leave late, and most importantly, gave the four of us in this exalted position a special hall pass, that allowed us free access to the halls at any time of day. It was like having a backstage pass for school.

The other activity I became active in was our church. By a quirk of my grandmother’s demented personality, we were Lutherans. My grandfather was not, and neither was my grandmother when they were first married. As former Mennonite farmers, my great-grandfather remained a part of the Mennonite church, but my grandfather’s generation became part of the U.C.C., or United Church of Christ. But then my grandparents divorced, and my grandmother did not want my grandfather having any extra time seeing his daughter in church. So she arbitrarily changed religions and became a Lutheran. I don’t know what criteria she used, but given that she only seemed as religious as was necessary to improve her social standing, I don’t imagine it was terribly rigorous. I certainly don’t believe she was swayed by Martin Luther’s particular way of interpreting the gospel versus, say the Methodists or Presbyterians.

So when we moved to Shillington, my mother joined the nearest Lutheran church she could find, which was Grace Evangelical Lutheran. It was located only a few blocks from our house, in between the old post office and the People’s Bank on Lancaster Avenue. I was put in Sunday School right away and many of my friends from school also went to the same church. The community I grew up in was pretty homogenous, there wasn’t a great deal of diversity. As a precocious second-grader who fancied himself a scientist — I was into studying birds, rocks and the weather from those little golden books science series that were popular at the time — I began to question the church. One day in Sunday School after hearing yet another fantastic story that stretched the credulity of ordinary reason, I raised my hand. I don’t even remember what it was I wanted her to explain, but apparently my question was of such a dangerous nature that I was literally picked up and whisked out of the classroom as if someone had just thrown a grenade into the room and we had to get out before it exploded. My parents were called in and the adults all talked amongst themselves in hushed tones, stopping occasionally to glance in my direction. I asked my question again in all innocence. I could not for the life of me understand what was wrong with asking a question. Hadn’t all of my teachers stressed that there were no stupid questions in an effort to elicit our participation in class?

Apparently I was missing something, and a “christian scientist” was called in to set me straight. He patiently explained that science and religion could co-exist but the way I remember it would not answer the questions I had. This infuriated me even as an eight-year old. The one thing I learned from this incident was to keep my mouth shut and maybe that was the lesson after all. It’s been my experience since then that the more religious among us seem to fear having their beliefs questioned in any fashion whatsoever. I’ve always thought that for anything to be worth believing, it had to be able to endure at least some level of scrutiny. It must stand up to questioning or what was the point of believing it? At eight, it seemed the most obvious of ideas and nothing has shaken me from seeing that is as accurate today as when I first thought it in 1967.

So I kept quiet, went through the motions my mother expected me to, and just tried to enjoy spending time away from home and with my friends at church. Most of the people at my church were good people. They were the majority of our community, all of my friends and their families. Since I seemed to be the only one who questioned their faith, I figured there must be something wrong with me and I assumed that at some point I would finally “get it” and would see things the way the others seemed to. It would certainly have made life a lot easier for me. So I devoted myself seriously to the lessons of Sunday School, I read the portions of the bible I was supposed to, and I memorized the various prayers my mother insisted I should know by heart. But my heart was never in it, and it was just one more reminder that the world I lived in was just one big facade in which reality and truth had no place.

At the same time as junior high began, so began our catechism classes. Suddenly, Sunday school classes of handful swelled to include every single person in seventh grade who belonged to the church, because Sunday school was mandatory in order to be confirmed, which is what they called it. For the next two years, we had to attend every Sunday school class and also attend at least one church service each week, too. If I hadn’t had some good friends there, it would have been sheer torture. Instead, it was actually kind of fun, in a weird, twisted sort of way. We were all in it together and I’ve learned since, the best friendships are forged by going through miserable experiences. I don’t know if it’s true that misery loves company, but misery definitely creates lasting bonds of friendship.

We were at an age where we tested our elders at every turn. It was the time when we were starting to look at what it meant to be an adult. We started trying to act how we thought grown-ups acted. And we were rebellious as hell. One of the first things we did to test our teachers was to begin calling all of them by their first name. If we were becoming adults, than we should be able to treat them as equals, which meant calling them by their first name rather then mister or missus whatever. It was just a small enough slight that they really couldn’t do much about it. A few of them took it in stride but it drove one or two of our instructors nuts, which was, of course, the point. They knew it, too, and tried not to let it show but we knew we’d gotten to them, which only emboldened us.

This was after all the Seventies, when all sorts of new age theories began to infect society, and religion was no exception. Our catechism curriculum included a workbook with all sorts of touchy feely exercises for us to get in touch with ourselves, a concept that meant nothing to us at the time. One of these involved randomly putting tables and chairs scattered around a room. Then one kid would be blindfolded and the idea was that another kid would lead the person around keeping him from harm as way to build trust. We, on the hand, would lead the blindfolded person to crawl under a table and tell them to stand. It didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned it would.

Our pastor, Reverend Sutherland, always seemed a bit odd to us but never more so than after he hired a person to run the “christian education” for the church. That guy was Joe Herringman, and we were as certain he was as gay as Liberace or Elton John. And just like those two, our parents seemed to have no clue whatsoever that they were. It’s remarkable how powerful our minds will avoid seeing something completely obvious when they don’t want to see it. That was certainly the case with my stepfather’s abuses. Family and friends went positively out of their way not to see what was going on. It wasn’t that any of us really minded his being gay, after all we were all virgins and didn’t really understand what it meant anyway. But we did know that Reverend Sutherland and the church preached against homosexuality as immoral and a sin, we’d heard those sermons during our forced sessions in the pews each Sunday. So the hypocrisy was pretty startling given that this was the time they were most heavily indoctrinating us with the “christian” way we were supposed to live.

Our church also hosted dances throughout the school year every Friday night. The church had a gymnasium with a full basketball court and a stage on one end. They turned down the lights, had a mirrorball and a D.J. playing contemporary records. The gym was ringed with folding chairs all the way around. The church served chips and pretzels and offered 7-oz. bottles of Coke for only 15-cents. The girls wore dresses and we had to wear ties to get in the dance. There may have been a token fee to cover costs, but I can’t honestly remember. I’m not sure why the church was interested in giving us romantic opportunities since sex was such a taboo, but such were the enigmas of doctrine versus reality.

As a generality, the girls clung to one side of the gym, and the boys to the other. We’d move around in packs. Girls would ask the popular boys to dance, and the rest of us were left to work up the courage to ask one of them. Endless posturing and talking and adolescent fears filled the air with an uneasy tension. During songs with a fast tempo, the dance floor was almost exclusively female. It was only during the slow songs that most of us boys would brave the threat of rejection and ask a girl to dance. If turned down — and it happened a lot — we would stew for a long time before trying again, perhaps setting our sights lower in order to bolster our already fragile egos. There were always a few girls that nobody ever asked to dance, and I always felt sorry for them, not that I did anything about it either. I imagined I knew how they felt, though I don’t think I really could. We had a slight advantage, because there were always many more girls than boys who came to the dances. But just showing up was often as brave as we were willing to be. We were positively paralyzed by our awkwardness and the threat of rejection. We could imagine no humiliation more complete than walking across the empty dance floor to the other side and asking a girl to dance, only to be turned down and have to walk our own last mile back to our own side. It was torture, but we willingly submitted to it every Friday.

We also busied ourselves being boys and getting into other kinds of trouble. One game we played involved chewing up the pretzels that the church provided. The trick was to build up a wad of chewed pretzel about the size of a small rubber ball. Then you’d spit it out into your hand and throw it hard at the ceiling so that it would stick. Getting it to stick was relatively easy. Getting it to stick for a long time, on the hand, was more difficult. After we’d each gotten our pretzel balls on the ceiling, we could enjoyably pass the rest of the evening watching to see when they’d fall and whether we’d hit anyone. A successful strike of a dancing person or couple was good for enormous bragging rights and much laughter. The last time I visited my old church as an adult, when I was perhaps in my mid-twenties, I was delighted to see two or three of our balls remained stuck to the ceiling more than a decade later.

Our church actually did try at least to be a part of the community. In addition to the dances, they had dinners, basketball nights on Saturdays, during the summer a theatre group put on plays, they made candies for Easter, they did a lot. This side of the church appealed to me. People being there for one another, helping each other, providing opportunities for the community to get together was the best of what any group of people could hope to achieve. But the judgmental, dogmatic flip side kept me permanently ill at ease with too many unanswered questions. The two sides never did reconcile themselves in my mind, not until much later at any rate.

We weren’t required to dress up at all for Sunday school, though most parents made their kids wear a tie. Mine didn’t seem to care that much as long as I went. One weekend I pushed the envelope and wore a Budweiser t-shirt. At that point, Budweiser was a national brand but one which had not really infiltrated Berks County. Local brands still held sway so in a way Budweiser represented rebellion in a way that seems laughable today. But because it was new and not really part of my parent’s generation, it was in a way. I imagine that’s how it’s perceived today in England, where it recently has been outselling their wonderful native ales. Young people there are embracing it as something different from what their fathers’ drank and so there too it has a rebellious image right now.

Whenever we weren’t dressed up, we usually sat in the balcony, out of sight. But for some reason I felt especially self-conscious in a beer shirt, I suppose I felt some sense of decorum made it inappropriate for church. One of the assistant pastors convinced me it would be alright. He was young. He stressed that the important thing was that I attend, not what I was wearing. It all sounded so good. I believed him. My mother, on the other hand — when she found out — took a very different, less idealistic view. She was, in fact, pissed off that I wore a beer shirt to church. My mother was, as I’ve said, not a religious woman but this was apparently beyond her tolerance. It was one of the few times she ever grounded me for any length of time. I think I got a week for that infraction. But I never did really understand what all the fuss was about. I guess it was easier to be idealistic as a child, especially when reality was not terribly ideal. As a result, I think I clung to ideas of lofty principles and moral certainty far more than I might have otherwise. To this day, it’s very difficult for me to let go of my idealism, which leads to all sort of disappointments about how our society actually functions.

I never did acquire a taste for Budweiser, though it certainly increased in popularity. And of course it ceased to be a symbol of rebellion and instead became a symbol of giant corporatism, the worst in how large companies adversely affect society in pursuit of profit. And our growing dependence on massive corporations is just one of the many disappointments I can’t shake in modern society. My clinging to idealism just won’t let me.

On to Chapter 12

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress