Memories and Ideas
Part One by Thomas Ashez
I nearly died in 2010. The experience had a huge effect on the way I look at life. Before then, it seemed that life was just something that was flowing along, like a river on its way to the ocean. After having nearly bled to death, life seemed like something that had been flowing, but then stopped, just long enough for me to look around and evaluate things, and only then, to continue on again. Of course my life hadn’t actually stopped; but that particular moment, when I realized that I was on the verge of death, remained in my mind, as if stamped into my memory permanently. I had nearly bled to death, after badly injuring myself, in Prague. Luckily, or I should say, due to the fine efforts of the ambulance crew, and the fine socialist medical system in the Czech Republic, I survived.
Coming so close to death left me with a new understanding of the temporary, fleeting nature of life. After some thoughtful consideration, I decided that I needed to write some kind of record of it all. I had experienced a cataclysmic period, which had been preceded by a long string of tumultuous phases, changes, troubles, and events. Some had been interesting, some noteworthy, some only tedious, but all leading up to some valuable lessons, things I had learned. At least, I hope I’ve “learned my lesson”.
We seem to think, as we go through life, that someday, somehow, all of our experiences are going to be recorded, somehow, or be discussed with someone who is a meaningful person in our life. There will be time to pass it all on. Everything we’ve been through, all that we’ve had to endure, and the subsequent lessons that we’ve learned from it all. All of this will all be noted down somehow by someone who is interested. They will then agree with us, or disagree, as to our opinions about it all. They will thereby have a chance to learn all the lessons that we learned, or failed to learn, as a result of all our adventures. This will make it all meaningful, no matter how hard it all seemed when we were going through it.
But when I found myself in that hospital room in Prague, counting my rapid respiration rate (breathing hard), while trying desperately not to die, I realized that in a heartbeat, it could all be over. And I hadn’t had a chance to even talk to anyone about my life. It was then that I understood that it is entirely possible that we can come to the end, and all of our stories could remain untold, as we take all our memories to the grave with us. Hence, the title of this book, ‘Memories’ and this brief explanation of why it was that I decided to write.
My situation in life is even worse than most, as far as having a chance to talk it all over with some meaningful someone in my life. A short succession of wives and women have all disappeared, one by one, to leave me totally alone. My only offspring is busy with his own life, in another state, as he should be. He has been busy, in his new job. He’s an engineer, doing important, demanding work.
After all, one of the worst things about getting old, you feel that, finally, after a life of mistakes, you have finally learned how to ‘do’ life correctly; but now it’s too late to do anything about it. You’ve had your chance, and now your time’s winding down. But that doesn’t seem so bad, as long as you can pass on some of this experience to a son, or a daughter, or someone who will benefit from your hard-learned lessons.
And as for the rest of my family, I love them dearly, but I really wouldn’t feel at ease in speaking to them at length about my history. They are involved in it, of course, and at times I’m sure my interpretation of events would differ strongly from theirs.
The only thing I can do is to put this writing out there, to whoever might be interested. Maybe someone will find some of my ideas interesting, and someone will benefit from it. So then, this endeavor has become very important to me. I hope it will be meaningful, and entertaining, to you.
I hope to relay some stories, true to fact, some personal history. There is some commentary, which was spawned by this history. Some of it is of a spiritual nature, some is political. I want to explore the reasons behind the polarization of politics, which we have seen recently, especially in the U.S., to discuss why it is that some people have become so very conservative, while others are becoming more liberal. I may include some little children’s stories, and some invention ideas. So here is the account of my close brush with death, one of the last things that happened to me in Prague, where I had been teaching English for five years.
My Near-Death Experience.
Reality seemed to be re-entering my life very forcefully. I had been in a coma for about one day, I suppose.
But I had become steadily more aware of my surroundings, and this seemed very uncomfortable, indeed. I inquired about my medication. Had I gotten a dose of Xanax lately? You all know I need this. Some Czech language back and forth between the doctor and the English-speaking nurse.
“You have to be off of medicine for a while. Yesterday your vital signs were very slow, dangerously slow.”
Uh-oh. This is bad. I slowly began to realize my situation. And I’ve been catheterized. They’re running blood into my arm.
“You almost died, do you know that?”
“Really? Well, I lost a lot of blood.”
“This is your seventh unit.”
[I would yet receive one more.]
A group of men were sitting and standing nearby, looking at me. I assume they were doctors. I had aroused their interest by waking up.
One said, “We sewed your leg up. You had cut a _________, (can’t remember what it’s called. It is some kind of tendon that holds the foot straight) and we had to stitch it back together. The stitches will dissolve in time.”
I think I must have looked unhappy, because one of them said something in the Czech language, and another interpreted the question, “Were you trying to cut your foot off? Did you do this on purpose?”
This embarrassed me. But I said, “Yes”. They looked surprised. Then, laughing a little, one said, “So we shouldn’t have fixed it.” But at least one was not laughing. They had worked hard to save my foot, and I was insinuating that I would rather have lost it. I think one of them was looking like he was getting angry. So I tried to correct the situation, “No, it’s not like that. I’m glad it’s fixed, I guess.”
This could be the point where one of these men, the angry one, decided that he hated me. You see, though I did have health insurance, being an E.U. ‘family member’ (since I had married a Czech woman), still, I was an American, and taking up space in an intensive care unit, receiving expensive treatment. To find that it hadn’t been an accident, well, it looked bad.
I will try to explain more about this later. Briefly, a bad fall had permanently damaged my ankle, ten years earlier, in 2000. It has hurt ever since, to one degree or another, and after many surgeries, it has never been right. There’s a chance that it will have to be amputated, eventually.
The financial upheaval of 2008 caused my teaching job to dry up. My marriage had failed. We were divorced. I had moved into a big, but cheap apartment with a couple of roommates who turned out to be drug addicts. My relationship with them had deteriorated badly. I had gotten so poor, so desperate, that I had taken to panhandling in the street for money, occasionally, and eating from a big dumpster in back of a supermarket, what little I found there.
I hatched a plan that I thought would help me to get back to America. I had been in the hospital, and had saved up a number of pain pills. I combined them with a whole bottle of Vodka, and when I thought I was high enough to do it, in a moment of pure insanity I took an electric saw to my ankle, and tried to cut my foot off.
About half-way through, the blade stopped. Suddenly the pain hit me, and blood began squirting out in frightening quantities. I began to crawl for the door, my strength leaving me. It was all I could do to get my head into the hall. A person happened to be there, and I said, with my last bit of consciousness fading, “Potrebuje Sanitka!” I need an Ambulance!
It’s very embarrassing to write about this. I am ashamed to have done it. My situation was quite bad, though; my life had fallen apart. Mixing Xanax pills with Vodka and cheap beer had messed up my head. The only real explanation I have is that I went insane, temporarily, for the first time in my life.
The doctors went away, and I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up, I found that they were moving me to a different bed. I had an I.V., and a nurse came and said she was giving me an intravenous antibiotic. But soon I found that my heart was laboring – beating too fast and hard. I’m breathing quickly – too quickly. I had begun having a strong reaction to a drip they hooked up to my I.V. every few hours. My heart would just beat really hard, and fast. I was breathing hard, and quickly as well.
“Ja jsem moc nemocny. Siostra. Sister, nurse, I am very sick. Rozumis? Understand?”
“My heart rate, my respiration. Check it. See?”
She checks it, and agrees that it’s unusual. She says something to the doctor. He comes near and looks me over. But somehow, he doesn’t seem too concerned. He walks away. I figure he’ll be back soon with some medication, or another doctor, or something, but, no. Just no response. I was confused. Hadn’t they said that I had been doing rather badly? Wasn’t I a serious case? I had been in Czech hospitals a number of times. The treatment had always been absolutely top-notch. But this guy seemed odd to me. He was fat, which is unusual for a Czech, but that’s not what was alarming. It was his unprofessional behavior, his total lack of concern for me.
I have an irregular heartbeat, an arrhythmia. It’s somewhat common, among middle-age people with heart ailments. I had been through a defibrillation treatment, months before. That had worked to rectify my heartbeat, temporarily. But as is often the case, the problem had returned. But my heart had never beaten so hard and fast. It would ease up, and I would be okay for a while, but then, when another injection of antibiotic was hooked up, it would repeat, and each time it seemed worse. Sleep was impossible. Time seemed to be just crawling along. I had to continually work hard to breathe enough to get sufficient oxygen. Periodically, I would ask for help from the busy nurse. It was late, and she seemed to be the only one there, besides a doctor who came walking through occasionally. I was amazed to see that the doctor seemed to have no concern for me at all. It was truly a miserable time, and it seemed to be dragging on forever. The hours went slowly by. It was about midnight.
Suddenly, I began to hear a couple quarreling. As the voices became more animated, louder, I realized that they were speaking in English! I knew there was a nurse there who spoke very fluently, but there was a male voice as well, and he seemed to be an American! This was incredible to me, but there it was, clearer and clearer, louder and louder, more and more angry. I could hear them plainly now. They were cursing each other out in English! And, incredibly, it developed into one of these endless shouting matches, the kind you see between young lovers sometimes. It was something about some money that was owed to someone.
It was a misery, lying there in pain, my heart beating much too quickly, and on top of this, I had to endure this loud, rancorous fight between what appeared to be a nurse, and her American boyfriend. I knew there were thousands of ‘ex-pats’ living in Prague. I was one of them. And it was common to find one who had been there for years, living and working there on a more or less permanent basis. But this was extraordinary! Not just the fact that this quarrel was taking place in English, but that it was going on for more than an hour, right on the grounds of the hospital, right outside of my window in intensive care!
As if that weren’t enough to endure, here is another strange thing about this night. Evidently, the nurse on duty in my unit was trying to improve her English. This is not unusual. So she was playing an American DVD on the television. But she’d turned the volume up quite too loud. This was probably an attempt to drown out the shouts of these two star-crossed lovers, screaming insults at each other at top volume. And now comes the icing on the cake- this DVD was nothing but an American political infomercial. It was an endless harangue, a tirade, about how President Obama was not really a U.S. citizen, how he was secretly a Muslim, and how he was working to destroy the United States. I thought, “This is what it’s like to be in the hospital of hell.”
The fat doctor had come in and out briefly only once. He was obviously busy trying to keep this problem under control, without much success. He wasn’t concerned with my problems; he was concerned with the quarrelling nurse and her boyfriend. At one point, my nurse pleaded with him, “Vidis! Look, how high his pulse is!” He actually just shrugged, as if overwhelmed, and walked back down the stairs toward the yelling couple.
Finally, there’s some quiet. After a while, I see a man come into the darkened intensive care. I figure this is the one I’ve been listening to for so long, ranting and raving. He is looking around, stealthily. He is familiar with the place. So, I lie still as if asleep. He looks around, making sure no one is there to see him (he believes I’m asleep), then he heads quickly for a small refrigerator, takes a key and unlocks it, and is feverishly stuffing things into the pockets of his large coat. I can’t believe it. He’s robbing the drugs locker! I couldn’t believe how much he took. He seemed to know he had time.
Soon, after he’d finished and shut the drugs locker, she came in.
“So, I see you made it in here.” Unbelievably, they actually resumed the argument. I found out later that the man worked there, as a nurse. Their argument is all about money, and their break-up. She tells him that if he doesn’t leave, she’ll call the police.
He leaves. Drives away. Finally! I thought, it’s finally over. Maybe I’ll get some attention now from the doctor. Incredibly, the young man drove back, in about thirty minutes. He shouted, “Why did you tell the police to follow me? What’s going on here?” There was some talk I didn’t understand. “Tell them to back off and leave me alone, do you hear me?”
The police must have actually been there. She told them to leave him alone. Strange! He finally drove away. But I couldn’t get to sleep. My condition would get better, to ease off a bit, but about that time, the nurse would come in and put another injection into my intravenous line. Immediately, my heart would begin to labor, and to beat rapidly. I began to breathe very quickly. It felt like I might die if it continued. I asked again what she put in there, and she says, “Only antibiotic.” This is hard to understand, but after a number of times, I firmly establish in my mind that this injection is making my condition much worse.
Finally, morning comes. I am certain that there will be great shock and surprise, and the police will be summoned, when they discover that most of the drugs have been stolen. But NO! NOTHING! They act as if everything’s fine. “Good morning (Dobry Rano), Vsechno Dobry (Everything’s fine)”. I was incredulous. But I kept my mouth shut, and played along. Luckily for me, I figured the situation out quickly, and realized what I had to do. I pretended I hadn’t seen a thing. The fat doctor was simply writing on a computer, busily working on something. The new shift came in and began the day as if nothing had happened. I kept waiting for them to discover the theft, and to call in police. But strangely, it never happened.
This hospital can falsify a bunch of prescriptions, or whatever they do to cover up a drug theft, but they can’t withstand the scrutiny of investigators snooping into the records. And the bad publicity! Of course they would cover it up. Another thought- what if drugs were disappearing routinely? Into the streets, into the doctors’ veins, perhaps.
I knew doctor fatty would be probing to see how much I knew. So I acted normally. I had other things to worry about. I knew the injections were making me suffer. So I asked about my condition again, when the doctors came around. They seemed to be making a sort of a ‘walk-through’ with the head doctor. About four of them were around him, laughing at his jokes, jumping to agree with him, to assist him. Obviously a bit of sycophancy. These doctors looked like the Marx brothers, marching around, commenting on this and that, laughing as if all were right in the world. I thought even then, “My God, are they all a bunch of drug addicts?”
They discussed my condition a bit. The doctor who was there during the theft was getting impatient with me, for being so concerned about my vital signs. Also, I had questioned the continuous infusions of blood. I worry about complications from blood transfusions, especially when done in a foreign hospital. Fatty hadn’t liked it, and I could tell he didn’t like me. I was shocked to find that the doctors felt that I was progressing nicely. No change in treatment was necessary at all.
A pretty nurse came on duty, and they put her with me, since she spoke English perfectly. We had a bit of conversation. I was feeling somewhat better by then. I hadn’t had the ‘antibiotic’ in a while. Maybe it really was an antibiotic, I don’t know. But it was sure playing hell with my system.
She brought my breakfast. But I said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to do a bowel movement, and right now. It can’t wait. Soorry.” I absolutely hate to have to shit in a bed-pan, and with the added complication of having a tube and urine bag attached to me, and in a crowded intensive care unit, it was humiliating. It stunk.
They arrived with the eighth bag of blood. I said, “Excuse me. I really am sorry to seem to be questioning your treatment of me, but, do I really need another unit of blood?” I was all polite about it, but I was putting it to them like a serious question, one that would need an answer from a doctor.
Well, Fatty happened to be the doctor there. He didn’t hear the politeness in my language, not understanding a word of English. All he knew was that the American was complaining again about his treatment. And that, after I had stunk up the room.
That was when something significant happened. He looked at me as if he could kill me, in an absolute rage. He acted calm, but he muttered on and on in Czech, clearly displeased. The nurse translated. He had said something like, “YES, you need this. You need it very badly, and although it is VERY expensive treatment, we are giving it to you.” And I had the feeling that no more complaining would be tolerated, absolutely none!
Just then the nurse came in with another of those damned injections. I hoped for the best. After all, the doctors seemed to think I was doing fine, partly due to what Dr. Fatty had told them. But this time it hit me harder than the other times. I was miserable again.
After a while, Fatty came in and announced that it was time for me to be released from intensive care. I was astonished. I’m having these terrible reactions to the injections, my heartbeat and respiration rates skyrocketing, I am in distress, and not ready to be moved out of intensive care at all. But they moved me over to another bed, and off I went, to another floor, into a semi-private room with only one other patient, a young man. The nurse came in only occasionally, checking on us only very casually. The other patient was taken out. Luckily, though, he had loaned me his phone, and I had called a friend, a student. He said he would bring me some clothes from my apartment. [My clothes were soaked with blood, and I had told them to discard them].
After quite a while, in came the psychiatrist. He spoke to me in English.
“Hello, Mr. Ashez. Can you tell me your age? Your address? What was your address in the United States? Do you know who is president of your country now?”
He was trying to find out if I was insane. I was astonished.
“Why did you cut your leg, Thomas? Were you trying to kill yourself?”
I realized that the bastards were trying to find me incompetent, or suicidal, so that, if necessary, they could keep me indefinitely, not to mention casting doubt upon anything I might have witnessed during the night, like a drug theft, for instance. I had been told, by a nurse, that if I were deemed to be suicidal, they could keep me there indefinitely.
I was just honest with the doctor, and he soon relaxed with me. I told him I would never do anything to try to kill myself. This was inconsistent with what I had done, but he believed me.
“You’re not crazy, are you?”
“No, not a bit.”
“OK, then. Well, have a good day.”
I had lucked-out. He, at least, was on my side.
Another injection. This time, the effect was worse than ever. There seemed to be only one nurse on the floor, so I was completely alone. I pushed the button to call the nurse, but there was no response. I lay there, suffering more and more, watching a clock that was across from my bed. I was counting my heartbeat. It was way high. I can’t remember the number. It kept changing, anyway, but never slowing much. I counted my breaths, my respiration rate. This was about a hundred breaths per minute. I thought I was going to die.
So, here I was, alone, with no help, no witnesses. Left to die. One less witness to a drug theft. Actually, the only witness, outside of the hospital staff. My death wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. I could imagine it, “He wasn’t young, and he had heart trouble. These things happen.” To this day, I can’t swear that they were purposely trying to poison me. It could be that I was simply having a heck of a bad reaction to a perfectly normal antibiotic, which is what they said it was. But whether someone had really become murderous, or if it was only a lack of concern, on their part, this was still a major miscarriage of medical care. Something was wrong. At any rate, someone with my heart rate, and respiration rate should not have been taken out of intensive care and put into a room where there is one nurse on the whole floor.
I just kept staring at the clock, and counting my breaths. So this is it. I’m going to die. I must try not to die. If I can only keep from dying, the effects of the injection will wear off eventually. I swear, I will never let them give me another injection, if I can only keep from dying for another hour or so, maybe I’ll be alright. I kept thinking, I’m not ready to die. This doesn’t feel right at all! I thought that when it came my time to go, I would leave peacefully. But this was wrong! This mustn’t be.
“I can pray!” I suddenly said. Why hadn’t I been praying? I was fixing to die any minute. I have got to pray. But could I still pray to Jesus? I had been telling my students for some time that Christianity was a stupid religion. It didn’t really work. That they were all really better off as atheists. They wouldn’t have all the guilt trips, the psychological problems faced by so many Christians.
“Oh, Father.” With these first words I felt a flash, a rush of the Holy Spirit. And suddenly, I remembered my faith which I had held for so long, so long ago. I hoped that if I prayed in Jesus’ name, that I would be spared from death. “Oh my God, in Jesus’ name I pray. I plead the blood of Jesus over me. I ask you to forgive me of my sins, in Jesus’ name. I plead the blood of Jesus Christ over my mind, soul, body and spirit. Oh, God, let me live! I’m not ready to die now. You know it’s not time! Don’t let me die before my time, please!”
Just then, the Holy Spirit seemed to return to me. I had known God in years past, and it was as if I was being refilled with his Spirit. I knew. This was what I now remembered clearly from the past, my relationship with the Lord. “What has happened to me?”
I began to get better, immediately. It was gradual, but certain. My health was being restored. It became clear to me, as if God had given me this understanding, that I must not let them give me any more of this antibiotic.
Inevitably, though I couldn’t summon anyone to help me before, a nurse came in with my injection of ‘antibiotic’. I flatly refused. I was ready to physically prevent her from putting it into my I.V. line. She left without saying much.
In just minutes, in stormed the man whom I understood was ‘in charge’ of that section of the hospital. The one who had gotten angry when he found out I had cut my leg on purpose. He stamped in, red-faced, and began shouting at me before he got to my bed.
“What do you mean by this outrage, you are refusing the treatment that we are prescribing for you? Do you know more than we doctors? Or don’t you appreciate what we’ve done for you here? You would have died, if we hadn’t saved you. You will receive this medicine at once, or you will be kicked-out of this hospital, do you hear me?”
“I am sorry. I can not take any more of this medicine. You don’t understand. I tried to tell you people, this stuff, whatever it is, it’s KILLING me.”
“Then you will sign a statement, relinquishing this hospital of all responsibility for your health, and you will be kicked-out in the morning. And I hope you lose your foot. You certainly will, if you don’t take the antibiotic we prescribed!”
“OK, I’ll sign the paper. I just have to refuse this medication.”
“Very well! I will bring the paper now, and you will sign it, and you will leave here in the morning, you understand?”
I don’t have to say it, but this is highly unusual, I believe, to ask a patient to sign a paper relinquishing the hospital of all liability for what happens to them. It further raises my suspicions about their intentions toward me.
He came back in a few minutes, with a document, in the Czech language. I signed it. I didn’t care that I was to be kicked out. I understood very well that they either didn’t care if I died, or they wanted me to die.
A nurse came in and took out the I.V. tube. I had begun to revive steadily. Thinking back, it was really miraculous, the way I began to feel better and better. A couple hours went by. The other nurse came to look in at me. There was no checking of heartbeat, or blood pressure, nothing like that.
My student came, with some clothes. He was upset. He said, “I went into your apartment, and there was blood everywhere. So much blood, all over the floor. What have you done?”
I said, “Just give me my clothes. I am leaving.”
“Oh, no, you can’t do that, just to walk out. You must be discharged!”
He went and got the nurse. I can’t blame him for thinking I was crazy. She came and said I couldn’t leave.
“But the man told me that I have to leave, anyway, in the morning.”
“No, no. I will go and talk to the doctor.” Then she left.
Well, I had begun to feel right funny about all of this. First, I’m told that I’m being kicked out, I’m made to sign a form stating that they aren’t responsible for anything that happens to me. Now they are telling me that I’m not allowed to go. I got up and found that I could walk, and that I was feeling well enough, just very weak. I got my clothes on, and walked down the hall a few feet. There was nobody in sight. I saw that I could get into the stairwell, and I just walked down one flight, to ground level, and a door opened into a gravel parking lot. Well, it was painful, and slow walking barefoot across the lot, but no one saw me leaving the hospital, evidently. From there, it was only a hundred yards to a streetcar, and I was riding toward home.
I felt that God had delivered me out of prison. It really seemed rather miraculous. I was very relieved to be out of there. I had been in fear of my very life, or, worse, that they should declare me a mental case, to be held as long as they deemed necessary. But I knew that I could get home, now, and that with a lot of rest, I would recuperate. Thank God.
Once at home, I lay in bed for a few days, then, since I was feeling better, I went to my old friends at the Vinohrady hospital (a different one). They took the stitches out of my ankle, and wrote me a prescription for antibiotic tablets. My ankle was in bad shape, that’s quite true. I nearly did lose it. But I may have lost my life in the Nemocnica Na Frantisku hospital, if I had stayed one more day with those crazy, drug-addicted doctors in the intensive care unit.
I must say that I had a lot of wonderful medical care in the Czech Republic, previous to the horrible ordeal in the intensive care unit, which I just described. I had been having trouble with my heart for months. As I said, I had developed an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. The Czech doctors were much more proactive than American doctors have been, and aggressively tried to get my heart problem, and my resulting blood pressure problems fixed. After marrying a Czech woman, I had become a ‘family member’, and so almost all of my health care expenses were paid by the State. There was a small bill to be paid by the patient, but it was so small as to be insignificant. Prescriptions are very inexpensive as well.
It was socialized medicine, and it was wonderful. Everyone seemed to be happy with it.
Later, I will write more about what happened before and after this experience.
I had been hospitalized in Prague before, and had always received top-notch care. But in my last hospital visit, I just fell in amongst what must have been a rogue element among a few doctors at one particular unit. And I happened to be there on the wrong night, in the wrong bed (right across from the drug cabinet, on the night of a drug theft).
But what I really did wrong was to follow my lower, basic instincts for years. I had not really been trying to do God’s will at all. I hadn’t prayed for guidance from God in years. And I had become quite wayward, backslidden. I pushed my chances, pushed the grace and mercy, the forbearance of God about as far as I could, and it came down to a crossroads.
I am very blessed that God has been so gracious to me. There are numerous things that could have happened, and I would have been a ‘goner’. The ambulance could have been too busy, tied up in traffic for only 15 minutes. There might not have been my type of blood, in the blood bank. So it was all simply grace. It was God giving me another chance, due to no goodness on my part.
So I hope I can use these last years of my life that God has given me, to try to do some good. I’m not a preacher, not even really such a good Christian, though I do have my faith back. I’m doing my best, with God’s help, to live a good life.
Maybe I can tell the story of how I ended up in such a shape as I did. There’s a lot to it.
[Post script: After I got back to the USA, a doctor gave me a cardiovascular “stress test”. Those like me, who are unable to run on a treadmill, are given a drug that causes stress to the heart. When I got the drug injection, I immediately had the exact same symptoms as those I experienced in this account of my near-death experience in Prague: the taste in my mouth, the labored breathing and heartbeat. The only difference was that it was not so severe, during the stress test. I’m sure this drug would have been available there in the Prague hospital, and I’m sure it could be used to kill a patient, if given in strong doses.]
This is a very old picture of my Mother, her sisters, and my Grandmother.
My parents were southern people, from the hills of Tennessee. They were young when I was born. When Mom turned 20, I was a two-month-old baby. So, as you can imagine, they didn’t know a lot about child rearing, though my mother, Cathleen, had helped to raise her sisters, coming from a family of 11 kids. My father, Carl, had never known what it was like to have a mother. She had “run-off” when he was a young child, and his father, my grand-father, had died a few years later. So my Dad had only a few faded memories of his Father, since Carl had been quite young when Grandfather R.C. died.
While he lived, R.C. was a coal miner, which was not a trade that worked well with being a single dad. He had to walk to work, climbing over Walden ridge, a small mountain, then part way up the New River mountain. So, a work day was very long. So life was tough for this single father. The only thing that worked in his favor, his oldest daughter was able to watch over the younger children, while he was gone so much of the time at work. Still, the situation was untenable. R.C. needed a wife.
There was a local family who did have an eligible daughter of marrying age, Faye Foust. When R.C. found out she was eligible, he began to ‘court’ her, as they said in those days, and he was rather in a hurry, since he had five kids that needed to be taken care of.
Somehow he found a woman who was willing to be his mate. I don’t think Dad or anyone can remember her name. She is spoken of as “the one-eyed woman”.
R.C. didn’t have much to recommend him as a potential husband. He drank a bit. Maybe his drinking had been the cause of his first wife’s departure. But I imagine that maybe he was a good-looking man, with a playful sense of humor. Anyway, he somehow got together with this woman. Dad said it was a time of hope for the children. It seemed that their life would improve, if things went well with this new woman.
Evidently, their relationship did blossom, because she began to ‘show’, meaning that she was pregnant.
But it seems, in my mind, that there was some sort of blight on the valleys and hills of southeastern Appalachia during those tough times of the late 1930’s. Maybe it’s the way that dad spoke of those times, but everything seems to have been so blackened by bad luck, or by bad times, so that it was nearly impossible that a new family could really spring up for R.C., and last for any amount of time. She had so much difficulty in the childbirth, and the labor went on for so long, that the child was born lifeless. The young mother died as well. R.C. was alone again.
So now he was expected to care for these children all by himself, and somehow, to go back to the coal mine and work again, as well. He began to drink heavily.
I imagine that there may have been a conversation something like the following:
R.C.’s brother, my great uncle, Lonas, probably came over one day to see how he was doing. He wasn’t doing so well. “What the hell you doing, R.C.? You gonna lay in the Goddamn bed the rest a yer life? You won’t be alive, fer long, if you keep on this damn way!”
He struggled to open his eyes and turn over to see his tormentor. “Leave me ‘lone, you asshole. I don’t care if I do die, caint ya see?”
Lonas would not have been sympathetic. “That aint what matters, boy. You gotta feed these youngins, God damn it. I reckon I’ll have ta take one er two of ‘em, dammit, bad as I hate to. I got kids a my own! But I be damn if I’m gonna let you lay outa work from now on. I need money from you, and you’re gonna go ta work an get it, by God!”
Then one morning R.C. got up before daylight, and as he left for his long walk to the mine, he woke up Molly, his oldest daughter, and instructed her to get the children off to school. Dad had begun in first ‘primer’, as they called it back then.
It must have been very cold. The boys had gathered up some wood and built a fire. It was thought to be a lucky break, that they had come upon a bunch of pine-knot wood. It catches fire really easily, and burns hot. They piled a bunch of it in the wood stove, trying to get the cabin warm.
When they returned from school later that day, there was nothing left of the house but a big pile of ashes. The young boys had done too good of a job, building the morning fire. They weren’t aware of the danger involved in loading too many pine-knots into a stove. The white-hot metal chimney pipe had caught the wall on fire. They went up to Lonas and Hattie’s house. When R.C. got home, I guess he didn’t know for sure whether his children had perished in the flames, or not. He hopped around in the hot embers for a few minutes, looking for bones. Then he ran up to Lonas’ house.
This was the absolute end of R.C. His last days have been cloaked in silence by the family. It’s not certain, whether he used alcohol to purposely kill himself, or if he died accidentally, while overindulging. He just “drank himself to death”. I understand that it didn’t take long.
So the children were parceled out to the uncles, being finally orphaned. These uncles were not at all pleased with this situation, as you may guess. They had children of their own already. So, when Carl was thrust into this unfortunate situation, he was like the proverbial ’red-headed stepchild’. He ended up with the smallest, oldest bed, in the coldest, smallest room, the short end of the stick, if you know what I mean. He had to get up before anyone else, to feed the chickens, slop the hogs, milk the cow, all of that, whatever needed to be done. And he knew he had better do it, or suffer the stripes from Lonas’ whip. Even after all he did, working in the fields in the hot sun, even as a child, Luther would tell him constantly, “By God, boy, you’re costing me.”
This went on until Dad got old enough to run away. As I’ve written, a couple of his friends had gone off to Ohio, where the industries welcomed strong young southern boys into the labor pool of the industrial north. He was only 17 when he joined them in Cleveland, Ohio.
This worked out very well, since Carl had known nothing but hard labor, since early childhood. And cheap, southern laborers were exactly what the industry needed. And even though they thought they were working him cheaply. But in Dad’s eyes, it was good money.
As soon as he could, he returned to Tennessee to get a southern mother for me. She was a tall red-headed young woman, of Irish ancestry, Cathleen Stuckey. Carl had known her and the Stuckey family for some time.
They had also lost their father. Ballard, my other grandfather, had been an alcoholic. He was known to be a good worker, a brick layer. But Ella, my grandmother, had seen little of his money. Life had always been hard for Cathleen, the second-born daughter of Ballard and Ella.
Mom had witnessed a great deal of cruelty from her Father, Ballard, who had really become monstrous after he became a drug addict. Yes, somehow that was possible in the thirties, in Tennessee, to become a ‘dope fiend’, as mom called him. He’d injured his arm somehow, and the only pain medication was very addictive, so, that’s how it went.
When Ballard died young, Cathleen was openly glad to see him go. Maybe everybody was.
Mom said she once saw Ballard stand out in the most violent thunderstorm, weather that kept him from working, and curse God, daring Him to strike him with lightening. He would shake his fists in the air, screaming at the sky, the wind blowing his drunken body about, soaked to the gills with icy cold rain.
Then one day he got sick. This must have been some major illness. In those days diagnoses were sketchy; the doctor simply told him he was going to die.
He told this to Ella, who laughed when she first heard it, thinking it a joke. But she cared for him, as he began to change completely. He lay in bed, or sat around the house, very quietly, for about a week. He read the Bible a lot. Then one day he told them, “Today’s my dying day.” No one believed this.
Cathleen was angry, to think that he might have gotten ‘right with God’. She wanted him to go to hell, for beating her mother and sisters so many times, and for spending all the family money, raising hell and running around every time he got paid.
But Ballard Stuckey sat down, crossed his legs, set Ella’s Bible down beside him, and bowed his head, as if resting, or dozing off. Later, when he didn’t answer them, they saw that he had died, sure enough.
So my Mother had had only bad experiences with men. But with about eight sisters and brothers living with her, she was feeling strong pressure to get married, just to ‘get out of the house’. And Carl wanted to marry her, so she said yes. After the wedding and the trip to Ohio, she was horrified when Carl then wanted to have sex with her. She fought him off steadily, until she made a frantic call to her mother, back in Tennessee. “Mommy, he says that now that we’re married, I am supposed to have sex with him!” No, really. This actually happened. Of course Ella just laughed at her, and told her, belatedly, the facts of life.
So, you can imagine how she felt then. She was a prisoner of war. Not a good start to a happy marriage.
Carl’s only role-model had been his hateful uncle, and his aunt, Hattie. Cathleen and Carl soon had a baby boy. I was only two decades younger than my parents. They did truly love their son, and treated me quite well. They named me Thomas. This new son was a treasure to them, and Dad was determined not to let his boy be abused, as he had been by Lonas.
There were some minor problems, though. As I’ve said, Cathleen was a somewhat reluctant wife, and stayed angry at Carl a good bit of the time. Well, he noticed that while she was often angry with him, her husband, she was never angry at her son. I suppose some early resentment may have built up because of this perceived injustice. As I’ve said, we would have a strained relationship. And though I was, by all accounts, a well-behaved boy, I had inherited some hellacious genes from my Grandfathers on both sides of the family. This was bound to lead to problems.
I had a rather unusual birth. It seems that there had been a complication. I had been born, but after some minutes, I still hadn’t begun to breathe on my own, hadn’t taken my first breath. Isn’t there some kind of medical procedure to help such a newborn to survive? But the doctor had just plopped me down on a table, and had left the room, along with the nurses, just leaving me to die. Obviously, the doctors and nurses in attendance were guilty of some kind of neglect. My mother was crying, since she assumed there was no hope for her baby.
You see, there really was a lot of prejudice against ‘hill-billies’, in northern Ohio at that time. They were coming north in droves, hungry for jobs. They were willing to work cheap. They cared nothing for the labor unions. The locals felt that they were suffering, to some extent, because of these immigrants. And there was a strong and real stigma attached to the southerners. They spoke differently, and this was attributed directly to a poor education, and a perceived lack of intelligence. Hollywood helped to enforce this stereotype quite successfully. So, to the staff of the obstetrics unit, these were mere hill-billies, and not worthy of the care that might be given to a native local citizen. So, as I say, I had been cast aside, and given-up on.
However, another victim of prejudice became a witness to this scene. The cleaning lady came in, to mop up the floor. She was a black woman. Her name is unknown. She saw the young red-haired woman sitting there, crying. She saw the still and silent child lying there abandoned by the white northern doctors. She picked up the boy, and said, “Hey, you little red-head, I ain’t a-gonna let you give up that easy. And she grabbed me up by the feet and gave him a real slap on the ass.
“Waa-aah! Wa-ah!” wailed Thomas.
And so my life began. Two down-trodden races working together against the sons-of bitches, the powers that be.
“Don’t you say nothing!” the cleaning woman pleaded, to my Mother. “They’ll fire me.”
The doctors came back in, being summoned by my high-pitched wailing, and finally got me settled into a greatly relieved southern girl’s arms. She wouldn’t understand that she had been a witness to an act of criminal negligence. She was just so overjoyed, that all other thoughts faded away.
A Warm Summer Night
It was a very hot summer in 1961. It had been over 100 degrees that day. So we all went outside, and were lying on quilts, gazing up at the stars. This was done to escape the heat indoors. I was quite young, of course. With no sort of pillow, my body and head were completely horizontal. Suddenly, I knew that I was glued to the surface of this planet, stuck onto the surface by some mysterious power, without which I would begin to drift out into this endless blackness below us. Well, above us, but I knew that without gravity, above and below had no meaning.
You see, if you step away from the planet, remember, there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in space. So, if you aligned your body with the equator, you would see the earth rolling round and round, with America somewhere on the upper side of the planet, then on the bottom during the second half of the 24 hour period. This view would put the northern hemisphere on one side, and the southern hemisphere on the other side. Or, alternatively, one can simply orient your gravity-free body with your head on the South Pole side, and your feet on the north pole side. So the world would seem ‘upside-down’. But it is not upside-down. There IS NO ‘upside-down’, in space.
Our vision of the globe, with the northern hemisphere on top, is only a construction of our mental concept. This has been set in our mind by looking at the common orientation, but to turn the globe ‘upside-down’ would be just as scientifically accurate, and easily done, if you are floating in space. One only has to rotate your body 180 degrees. But I know, you are now thinking, “But really, north is up and south is down.” OK, have it your way. But you have just now placed yourself in the lower intelligence quotients.
Back to the warm summer night, looking straight away from the surface of the earth. I remember this very clearly, and so does my mother, who was lying beside me. She noticed that I was quietly crying.
“Momma, it’s so far!” I said. I had realized, for the first time, that it is millions of miles to the display of stars out there. It would be a long way to ‘fall’. Not that one would fall out into space, in the absence of gravity, but one would be equally likely to drift in any direction, and I sensed this. It was an awesome experience.
Mom describes it this way: she thought, “How can this little boy think so deeply about such a thing?”
But, actually, I understood it better then than I do now. That is, I comprehended the distance involved, and the wonder of the thing, better then than I have ever done since.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at me [ha-ha], but I’ve been around quite a while. When I was young, air conditioning in cars was rather rare. However, it was available, and perhaps the upper classes were riding around in cool comfort, but we didn’t know it, if they were. So long trips in the summer time could be uncomfortable in our un-air-conditioned car.
Mom was very close to her large family, and needed to see my grandmother periodically. We called her Mamaw. This was the common terminology of the southerner back then. In these modern times, some have shifted to using the more proper term, ‘grandma’ or ‘grammy’. But my parents were plain hillbillies, and didn’t try to hide it. And almost every year, we would get into our car, and make the long pilgrimage back to Tennessee, to visit. This was our vacation. We never considered going anywhere else at all. Well, mom was young, and they didn’t have a lot of friends in Ohio, so I suppose she was lonely, and anxious to see her mom and all of the sisters.
These were epic journeys, before the completion of the interstate highway system. We drove mostly on highway 25W, a curvy, two-lane road. Two other youngsters had been born into our family, my brothers. We rode in the spacious back seat of the huge red Pontiac. I have a vivid early memory of my father bringing this car home for the first time. The price was written on the windshield. That’s why I know it was our first ride in it. It wasn’t new. I must have been four years young, by the arithmetic of the model of the car.
In those primitive times, there was no such thing as the fast-food burger joint. Or, if there were such things in existence, such as McDonalds or Burger King, they were few, and far between. So, the common practice was to bring sandwiches. Or you could stop and buy ‘sandwich stuff’, at a grocery store, and stop somewhere and have sort of a picnic. This was so common a practice, that there were actually road-side picnic areas. It was the predecessor of the rest area. It seemed so pleasant to me at the time, stopping at these places. I am saddened to know that almost all of them are gone now.
Most of the time our traveling lunch would be bologna sandwiches, with mayonnaise. This day had been a rough one, somehow. I know it had been hot. Probably mom and dad had been quarrelling a bit. They never screamed at each other on these trips. Mom would just ‘get mad’ and ride along silently, until Dad got tired of wondering what the problem was, then he would ‘fish around’ a little, trying to find out why he was getting the silent treatment. When he found out what it was about, he might say something that made it worse, and after some unfruitful back and forth, he was ready to get back to the silent treatment. Probably we boys had been fussing with each other quite a bit as well.
As I said, there were the curves. On some stretches of 25W, the turns were pretty sharp, and just one after another, interminably. Well, after a long succession of these curves, one of my brothers just ejected his half-digested bologna sandwich and milk right into the floor of the back seat. They pulled over onto the grassy side of the road quickly, and mom tried to clean it up. But that bologna vomit smell had already become a long-term feature of our 1955 Pontiac. I’ll never forget that smell. Maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t have air conditioning at that point, because we certainly would have had to roll down the windows anyway.
This happened many decades ago. But the smell of hot bologna vomit in the floorboard of that car is one thing that was riveted into my memory quite permanently. It was a long day.
Conservatives and Liberals
I need to speak more about my Father, Carl, and our relationship. In my mind, it is a case study in how two people, born only twenty years apart, can be so different in so many ways. More specifically, I am a liberal, whereas he is a textbook example of a conservative. We’re both Christians, but that fact plays out quite differently in our lives.
Also, my relationship and my history with my brothers is excellent fodder, I believe, for a discussion about just what makes some people so very conservative, and another, from the same family grows up and grows old, becoming so opposite from them in my political and religious belief system.
And so this writing takes a bit of a turn now to look at this. At some times, in the past, I have been conservative, both religiously and politically; but now I find myself seeing things through the eyes of a liberal Christian.
Of course, I’ll write about other people in my life as well, but since I know them so well, I’ll use family members to illustrate the differences between us, as conservatives and a liberal.
I suppose I should clarify what I mean by the term, ‘liberal Christian’. First, let me tell you what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that I accept any kind of immorality. I know there is such a thing as sin, and that this is to be avoided, whether one is conservative or liberal. However, I tend to think of evil as violence, as a trespass against the rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Whereas conservatives tend to think of evil as a trespass against long-standing tradition. They look at victimless nonconformists as being the greatest evil, while tolerating violence quite easily, especially violence against non-conformists, or violence against people of different Faiths, different cultures, differing opinions about sexual morality. To me, being liberal means displaying love, in the form of acceptance of people of different Faiths, different attitudes and practices.
It all stems from one’s image of God, if one believes in God. If God is strict, and demanding, condemning forcefully any variance from the required code of conduct, then one tends to act this way, thinking it is ‘godly’. If one believes that God is loving , merciful, graceful, then one adopts that frame of mind, understanding that this represents godliness.
Our experiences, over time, mold our attitudes. The American experience has changed, over the years. My father is a man who came into manhood during a prosperous time in the USA. Carl is a man of strong convictions, politically and religiously. He has a highly positive attitude about the country, though he is unhappy with the present government, with President Obama, in particular. In his view, the best thing would be to somehow put George W. Bush back into the White House. But his faith in America, as a basically good country, is unshakable. To him, and to many American Christians, religious fervor has somehow been merged with patriotism, so that there is very little separation between the two, if any. To me, this is a primitive sort of jingoism. It seems ridiculous. Was Jesus patriotic toward the government that ruled his homeland, the Romans? Should North Koreans be patriotic, and cheer for war against the USA?
So I am greatly different from my Father in this way. But before I write anything else, I would just like to say here that I really do love my Dad. I actually have great respect for the man, though I will write critically of him. He has many good points of character; he is honest, an upstanding citizen. He’s been a hard worker all of his life. Everyone who knows him expresses their wonder at his good character. He has always been a hard worker, gardening, doing home improvements, on top of working a full-time job at all times. Only recently, at the age of 81, has he slowed down, and that was because of having hip and shoulder replacements.
And though our relationship was sometimes a troubled one, when I was younger, he was always kind to me, never abusive in any way. I always knew that he loved me, in spite of the fact that we had little contact after he divorced Mom. I was left to my own devices at a relatively young age.
I believe I was about twenty when Mom and Dad divorced. He was remarried within months, and Mom became engaged to her future husband about a year later. I don’t hold it against them, the fact that they both had very little time for me after that. There were reasons for this, what with Dad’s new wife having three young children, and Mom being very caught up in her new life, with a man who didn’t really like the idea of having older step-children such as I and my brothers were. I was made aware of his attitude about this, and made myself scarce, becoming quite isolated at that young age. It was a hard time for me. I began to drink alcohol regularly at that time.
So, though I write honestly about all of this, and I do complain sometimes, my affection for my family remains strong. I’ve been blessed to have been born into my family, and I love them all, holding nothing against anyone.
I think one reason my Dad is so pro-America, and so conservative, is the fact that he’s had a good experience with this country. He’s been lucky. He started out as a motherless child, the poorest, even in an area of the country that was economically depressed, Tennessee coal country. From there, he moved, as a teen-age boy, to the north, where he made a good working-man’s career in the unionized trucking industry of the state of Ohio, and later, working for a while in the coal industry as well. His greatest accomplishment, financially, was to purchase a 180 acre farm near his childhood home in Tennessee, for $13,500, in 1964. Land prices escalated, and he was eventually able to sell most of it off to home builders. With the profit, he was able to pay off the debt, and to remodel and renovate the old farm house. He was even able to build a new home, next to the old home place, where he lives today.
But I mustn’t just gloss over my Father’s experiences. I should point out the ways in which he has been, as I said, lucky. Of course he would say, “There’s no such thing as luck. You make your own luck.” This is what most lucky people say. They want to take full credit for every good thing that’s happened to them. They want to believe that they have done well because they made good decisions, worked hard, and did the right thing in life. They never stop to think that there are many people who worked hard, did the right thing, and then ended up failing miserably, due to no fault of their own.
It reminds me of the millionaire who recently wrote an article explaining the ‘difference’ between the rich and the middle-classes. He named off a list of fine attributes that describe the rich. According to him, the rich are positive thinkers, who love to work, and be creative. They are problem-solvers, who don’t shrink from a challenge. It was a long list, but what he didn’t realize was this: in naming all of his fine qualities, he wrongly assumed that unsuccessful people are totally lacking in all of these attributes. This is patently untrue, and an exhibit of horrible hubris, and prejudice against people whom he does not know, after all. As he said, rich people hang around with other rich people; the classes generally don’t intermingle in society.
People like my Father, who are not rich, but nevertheless have made a pretty good living for themselves, tend to be conservative, and patriotic. The rich are likewise conservative, and happy with the status-quo. They all seem to believe that things have turned out for each person according to their character. They have become well-off because they deserve it, and those who have not done well deserve their misfortune. This kind of person loves to say to someone who is in trouble, or financial difficulty, “You’ve danced, now you’ve got to pay the piper,” as my Father once said to me. The trouble was, I didn’t remember “dancing” at all. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he didn’t either. This type of smug judgmentalism is quite disgusting to me. But Dad always had this attitude, it seems. If anyone ever had an auto accident, then they were certainly doing something wrong, made some mistake, or failed in some way. He arrived at this conclusion in seconds, after hearing of the mishap. If anything goes wrong, you did something to cause it, or at least, “didn’t have any business being there anyway”
This reminds me of Mitt Romney, who was recorded exposing his utter disdain for the “lower 47%” of the population of the USA, who live just to get “free stuff” from the government. Romney’s a millionaire, and though he’s never needed anything from the government, he has reaped the benefit of unfair tax advantages that have cost the government a lot more than any welfare recipient ever has. Still, he feels that he can afford to talk like that. I think such hubris, such self-exaltation of one’s self, in contrast to such disdain for those who are “below”, this is disgusting to God, if one looks at the words and ministry of Jesus Christ. And Romney is supposed to be such a big Mormon!
My Father began his life in Tennessee, as a dirt-poor orphan. He thought he had nothing going for him. But in Ohio, industry was in need of hard-working young men. Somehow, one or two of his friends had made it up there to the union jobs available even to uneducated men. They contacted him, and invited him to come up north, where they shepherded him into a great job. It was hard work, but he made good money. By his standards, it was great money. He was able to do labor in the trucking industry, with no former training, no education, no experience. He even bluffed his way into convincing them to let him drive a truck. He said he even ruined one truck, learning to drive. But industry was in such a need for workers in the post-war economic boom, that they excused his inexperience, and gave a man in his twenties a job that allowed him to buy a nice car almost immediately, and to provide for a wife and children right away. In only seven years, he had enough to buy a modest home, on about ten acres of land, near enough to his job to commute.
Where and when, in history, has there been such a time, when thousands of uneducated young men found themselves in jobs that provided for them so well, with union protection and benefits, health insurance, and job security? So when I say that my Father has been lucky, even he would admit to this. He would point out, I’m sure, how hard he worked. Yes, but unlike many jobs of today, he didn’t have to worry about healthcare for himself and his family. He didn’t have to work more than 40 hours a week, unless he wanted to. He got paid vacations, something that is out of style in modern America, as modern workers often have temporary positions, with no benefits whatsoever. Still, Dad would tend to insinuate that any young man could be equally successful even today, if only he had enough ‘gumption’, enough determination. Well, bullshit. The America of today has changed drastically, for the worse. The elite and the corporations have shifted the costs of government and infrastructure off of the wealthy, and onto the backs of a middle-class that has been greatly weakened, has been impoverished, to some extent.
In four or five years, he sold the house in Ohio for a huge profit, as we made the move to the South. Union trucking jobs had become available there as well. Since then, he has waded in serendipity waist-deep, buying the Tennessee farm that skyrocketed in value, and working in well-paying jobs until he retired, with a pension from the industry. He has drawn that, as well as social security, and continued to work, though at lower wages.
Carl’s early success in life, having had no help from his family, probably helps to explain why he felt that all of his duty to me, as his son, was ended when I turned twenty. Dad had never experienced having real parents. His Father had died young, and his mother had abandoned the family, leaving little Carl to be raised by his hateful uncle, Lonas. So since he had become a self-made middle-class success, with no help from anyone (except his friends in Cleveland) then he thought that it would be good if I were simply left to fend for myself, cut off quite abruptly, as I was.
However, my experience has been very different, as a citizen of the United States, has made me into a different kind of man; I am dissatisfied with the USA. Like all children of my generation, I was taught that this country was undisputedly the greatest nation on earth, and the world’s best, both in lifestyle, standard of living, and in godly goodness. We believed that our country was certainly a positive force in the world; indeed, the most beneficent of all countries on earth. We had no doubt of this as children.
But my opinion has changed, over these many years. The more I’ve learned about the history of the United States, and the longer I live, I see that I have been misinformed. Much of our history has been white-washed by those who formed the curriculum of my school years. The same is true for many people of my generation, who grew up with the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, and the gradual disenfranchisement of the middle-class. Really, it has been the disappearance of a middle-class. We are all actually lower-class now, with few exceptions. Only the upper class now is successful. The upper percentile of Americans, whatever percentile one chooses to use, are now the only ones who have any financial security, the only ones with any hope of getting out of debt, the only ones who know they will have the health care they need, and enough money to retire on.
It is true. My life has been unsuccessful. I don’t mean to whine, and I know there are millions who have had it far worse than I have. But my life has been a real struggle ever since I ‘left the nest’. I did make wrong decisions along the way, yes, but so did my Father. Everyone goes through life making a mixture of good and bad decisions. Sometimes this makes a lot of difference in the outcome, but still, as the Bible says: (Ecclesiastes 9:11) …the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, but time and chance happen to them all. [End quote]In other words, the fate a person meets, or his level of success, is NOT always a measure of his or her worthiness. You don’t always get what you deserve, good or bad.
I won’t elaborate on the long story at this point, but I joined the Marine Corps at 17 years of age. There, I developed a fervent hatred of all things military. I applied for conscientious objector status, which I was denied. This began a stressful time in my life, during which I was in hiding, being A.W.O.L., I spent time in military jail, then was booted out of the Marines with an undesirable discharge. This left me ineligible for any of the benefits that are normally accorded to veterans, perhaps rightfully so, since I didn’t fulfill my duties. Still, there was a generous ‘G.I. bill’ at that time, and vets could borrow money for a home, and go to college with government assistance. All those things I had to do without. I couldn’t even draw unemployment, when I was sent home.
I’ve generally had a hard time all of my life, working unskilled jobs, until I was able to develop my sign-painting skills. And then, working for low wages in the non-union south, and even when I became a billboard contractor, success seemed to evade me. One could say that I brought all of this upon myself, by doing as I did, irresponsibly defying the military. But I honestly felt that I had no choice but to rebel against an unjust war in Vietnam, in the only way I could, as I saw it.
A short time after I got out of the Marines, my Dad kicked me out of the house for trying to find some marijuana for some friends. I moved into a rat-infested dump of a home, with a couple of my friends. This was a traumatic time for me.
A few months later, during an especially tough time, I visited Dad with my roommate, Ray, who shared the dumpy house with me. We told him, honestly, that we were hungry, and could he possibly give us something to eat. It wasn’t like I came home to ask for help; no, it was like visiting a strange household, some other family, where my Dad had taken up residence. It was the same old house, yes, but my new step-mother was very nervous, as we all were, with the awkwardness of the situation.
He had to say yes, sure, he’d ask Betty to fix us some breakfast. The sparse conversation came around to something like, “So, Tom, how did you get into this situation? What’s going on that you don’t have any food?”
I said, “Well, we’re poor, as it stands now. I haven’t been working regularly.”
His response was to get angry, and indignant. He said, “Hey, listen, don’t ever say you’re poor. There’s been times when I didn’t have much, but I would never say, ‘I’m poor’. No, no. You’re only poor if you say you are. You should have more pride than that.”
There was no discussion of what I was going to do, or of attempting to help me in any real way. I think he gave me five dollars. Looking back, it seems amazing to me that I had fallen so abruptly to such a position in life. A few months earlier, I had been the oldest son in a family of four boys, an heir to a large farm that I had labored upon for years. I had begun plowing with the tractor, and disking, baling hay, even working alone, at about fourteen years old. I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be a successful young man.
Then my parents suddenly divorced, and immediately my Fathers new family moved in, my step-mother and her three young children. I had no place there whatsoever. I didn’t question it. I racked it up to being a guilty rebel, since I had gotten caught dabbling in drugs. I felt as though I must deserve being cast away. After all, I didn’t know how a divorce was supposed to work.
I’ll rush through the story so as not to bore you. Incredibly, my parent’s divorce settlement left no property whatsoever to my Mother, though our farm was over a hundred acres. (How this is possible, I don’t know, except that my Mother has always been unselfish, and cooperative, to a fault). As I’ve said Carl seemed to feel that he had no obligation to help his older sons in any way after that. (The exception was the youngest, Terry, who was a child at that time).
Years later, Carl did do one thing for us boys. He gave each one of us a little parcel of land, up on the mountain. But these small lots were nearly worthless. Mine was inaccessible, due to legal trouble with easement problems. I sold it for $3000. The buyer told me, years later, that it was a terrible investment. Only Dale managed to bull-doze a driveway straight up the mountain, and to live there for a few years in an old trailer.
Now my step-brother and step-sister both have large, good tracts of land with homes on this property. And eventually Dale bought the old farm house from Dad, for market value. There are now five or six big nice homes as well, on fields where I used to bale hay, and hoe the beans as a very young man. Carl sold off plot after plot of prime frontal real estate. Most of this land now belongs to complete strangers, not to relatives.
To speed the story, I jump ahead now in time, to the end of that century.
As a result of the Federal Pell Grant system, I finally managed to achieve an Associate’s degree from a community college, in the year 2000. This was good, because I had to change jobs suddenly when I was badly injured that year. (I had been a billboard painter for years, and my injury was caused by a bad fall, and a bad break to my ankle, which has never healed up properly). To find a ‘sit-down job’, I went to Europe where I spent six years in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic, teaching English to Adults. This worked out for a while, though I was not financially successful at all, since, like most of the teachers I endured low pay, and a lack of job security. I worked for multiple schools, as well as having private lessons.
I taught in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic over most of the decade. But the financial slump of 2008 hit all of us, the ESL teachers, very hard (English as second language). The school where I worked closed its doors permanently. My private students suddenly became few and far between. A divorce with my Czech wife seemed to be the tipping-point, when I began to descend into depression and alcoholism. I had to come back to the USA as a defeated man. I spent months in rehab. Actually, I was in my preacher brother’s ‘Recovery Center’, as it all turned out, oddly enough.
Continuing problems from my old ankle injury, and a heart condition, have made me somewhat disabled. I can only work as a night watchman now, at a post where I can sit down most of the time. When I’m alone at work, on the weekends, I write… things like this, for instance.
Back to my point, the differences in my experiences and those of my Father have really molded both of us in different ways. This differing history seems to have led to us to have widely divergent views. There is a wide chasm of difference between the American conservative and those like me, who would be described as a left-wing liberal.
There is a world of difference between right-wing political thought and, on the other hand, the progressive wing. Closely linked to this theme, is another chasm between the traditional patriotic Christian, and the other end of that spectrum, the opposite kind of person, whatever one may call them. (Not to say that Christians are more patriotic than anyone else). I am quite different from the fundamentalist, evangelical church member, even though I really am a Christian. I am so tied to this Faith that I can’t imagine ever disavowing it. But I’m a different kind of Christian. I’m a liberal, socially and with regard to economics as well.
As I said, among my people, to be unpatriotic is thought to be synonymous to being irreligious. But there are Christians in Iran. If the USA and Iran became involved in a war, would God have me pray for their destruction? Should my link to any certain country be more important to me than my love for a person who, according to my Faith, is my brother, or my sister in Christ? As I pledge allegiance to the flag, should I condemn those who pledge allegiance to some other flag? [Though I refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag]. Should my Christian brothers in Iran be patriotic, though their nation is guided by a Muslim cleric? [This is not meant to disrespect the Muslim Faith].
Does the Bible, upon which we Christians base our Faith, teach that we should be patriotic? What did Jesus say about matters having to do with the secular government? Was Christ a patriot? In case an answer is needed for that rhetorical question, the answer is no.
Yes, my Father and I turned out to be such polar opposites. In every subject, from religion and our attitude toward science, to our political beliefs, we are quite different. But in fact, there is only twenty years between our ages. How is it that one came out with the opposite attitude from the other? What changed so radically from his lifetime to mine? My relationship with my father has always been somewhat strained. Oh, we get along fine now, but only because I learned years ago that one must never disagree with Dad. He is very opinionated and certain of his positions. Not only will you never convince him that he’s wrong, but he will doggedly try to make you see it his way, until it drives you crazy.
But I haven’t had any problems with him for decades. I’ve become adept at simply listening to him, without any comment, not agreeing, but not disagreeing, either. I make little positive statements every now and then, to hide the fact that I disagree, but only on a few basic things do we have any real agreement.
We have always been different in many ways. He had very dark hair, almost black, before it eventually became grey. As was the habit of many men, he slicked his hair back with daily applications of “hair dressing”, which was really nothing but perfumed oil. His short, oily hair was as much of a political statement, as was the long, shaggy hair of the young people. On the other hand, I resembled my mother much more than Carl, with my light, freckled complexion, and my red hair. It’s white now, too.
He always seemed to object to many things about me. He always felt I was not ‘manly’ enough, it seems. My parents seemed to think I might turn out to be gay, if they ‘babied’ me too much. It was as if homosexuality was a disease that could possibly just assail any young man who wasn’t taught to be tough enough. They felt that proper parenting was the only thing keeping us boys from gayness, and they weren’t sure how to parent a child, since they were so young, only in their twenties.
So their firstborn got a full dose of ‘toughness influence’ from Carl. He told us boys recently how he regretted “letting your mother stop me from hugging you boys.” She told him that once boys got to the mature age of five or six, a father shouldn’t cuddle with them. It was another way to guard against gayness, I guess. However, I happened to be born heterosexual, so all of these precautions were unnecessary as well as foolish.
And then there was the thing about my being a northerner, born in Cleveland, Ohio, while my parents were southern to their core, from poor families in east Tennessee, coal mountain country. I somehow managed to speak perfect Ohioan English, and adopted all of the scorn for “hill-billies” that I found in school, and on television in those days. This difference in speech accent was no small thing, to my father. He was a man of hot temper, though he kept it in check, most of the time. And he was never physically abusive, either. But I was keenly aware, from a very early age, of how he could quickly become very angry with me, because of something I had said, or because I was acting in a way that was so different from him.
Maybe this was the beginning of my rift with my father, this difference in our language accent. He probably felt as though he’d given birth to a damn foreigner. And there were some unfortunate little things that happened, along the way, which caused some stress between us. One that comes to mind happened when mom and we boys were leaving on a trip to Tennessee, as we were saying good-bye to Dad. Like many families of that time, we had only one car, so we were dropping him off at work before heading out onto the road.
As I mentioned, he was doing very well, working in the trucking industry. He usually drove a truck, but sometimes he labored, loading and unloading them. And he was a musically inclined fellow, had a good voice, and being, of course, a fan of country music, he’d written a funny song about his truck.
“The radiator’s busted, the motor is shot, the fenders are rusted, the seats are a rot. But treat it with care, man, it’s the best one we’ve got.” I had heard this song a number of times. I have all these clear memories, from when I was only maybe five or six years old.
When we got to the trucking company where he worked, he pointed to his truck. It didn’t look so bad to me. Actually, it was a nice truck. But I said, “That’s daddy’s truck?” I was surprised to see a decent vehicle. But he took it as if I was criticizing it.
Instantly, he was very angry. I always remember these times, during his anger, as if a hot radiation absolutely filled the room. It was pretty intense. But mom calmed him down, saying that Tommy hadn’t meant anything bad by it, and he let it pass without any reprisal. But I knew it was because we were saying good-bye, and he didn’t want any unpleasantness. This is not to imply that he would have abused me if things had been different. He would have spanked me, at worst. Carl was never violent with us, though the occasional spanking did occur, with a belt usually. But it never got close to abuse. I only mention the episode to describe my Father. His anger was part of his character, and influences his political attitudes, I think. The right-wing commentators on TV and radio invite their listeners to get angry. It provides an outlet for those who are predisposed to anger.
Another thing that came between us a bit later was when the Beatles came onto the scene. I was just barely old enough to be quite influenced by them. So I wanted to grow my hair out, right away, and to copy their style. I began to listen to Beatles records. I also bought the first Rolling Stones album that became available, with my mother’s help, of course.
Well, Carl was just old enough to resent the Beatles very much. He’d always copied the Elvis Presley look, and Johnny Cash, and the like. So Dad seemed to have a strong opposition to his very young son, way back then. I suppose it was made worse by my mother’s taking my side in many things, in opposition to him. She was a big fan of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and other modern music. I think she hated country music. But a decades-long cold war had already begun between my father and I. We argued endlessly about the length of my hair, about my clothes, politics, about everything, during my teenage years.
The long hair thing, and the youth of the Beatles, along with the British accent must have set off the gayness alarm once again. Dad tried to get us to wear those boxer shorts underwear, instead of the smaller, elastic underwear we had always worn. When we refused, he called us “sissies”. The very manly, slicked-back hair of Carl’s generation, and the strong macho maleness that was so endemic to the music and the culture of the fifties really clashed with the British invasion. It caused Carl a great deal of consternation for a lot of years.
I wish someone would have told me, when I was young, that I was a good-looking young man, in the prime of my youth. I really had no understanding of this. I thought I was just marking time, waiting to be old enough to really do something. I felt awkward, and nervous, and certainly not good-looking whatsoever. I guess my parents didn’t want to adorn me with too many confirmations, afraid that I’d “get the big head”. People are so very economical, when it comes to doling out compliments or praise of any kind. We viciously guard each other, to make sure that nobody is becoming too conceited. This is unfortunate, and it costs us all, in terms of self-confidence, and well-being.
My Dad and I finally made a truce at some point in the early eighties. And I made a truce with Elvis, and I love good old country music now. But in those days, I was secure in my knowledge that my generation was the very first to discover really cool music. Of course, this has been the case with every generation. But music played a big part in the whole drama of our lives. Our music was symbolic of a whole other way of life, though it was mostly only symbols, with no real structure, at that early time.
As I said, my father was highly concerned about the music we were listening to. He began an active opposition to it; and he and I were on opposite sides, in this war of modern culture. Even art and fashion became involved in this struggle between polar opposites. Somehow, Americans began to divide into two streams, one flowing in the direction of change, of liberation, and the other stream flowing in the opposite direction. Conservatives seemed to become even more conservative, as a reaction to what they saw as dangerous trends in society.
This divide has grown wider and wider, continuing right up until the present time. I know there have always been conservatives and liberals, but it seems that in my lifetime, the revolutionary atmosphere of the sixties seemed to be the dividing point. The young people were suddenly on the opposite side from their parents, on many different issues. When we finally began to vote, it began to make some amount of difference. Though now many of these same young hippy types are wearing suits, and parading down the street for conservative causes.
The political and social importance of the late sixties seems to be a key to understanding this big difference in my generation, as contrasted with my Father’s generation, born only twenty years earlier.
But can it all be attributed to the time in which we find ourselves? There have always been liberals and conservatives. What causes the tendencies in different people to adopt one side or the other? Society, in the USA, has now been divided into opposites, each side berating the other, hating each other, working towards opposing ends. What is this about? Is it something in the genes? Are we divided according to our intelligence, or our lack thereof? Is there some form of actual goodness, some virtue that belongs to one side or the other?
I have been exploring this since my adolescence. I myself have gone back and forth from one side to the other, changing as if going through different ‘phases’ in my life. I’ve gone from Beatle-mania to Sunday school Christian, to imitation hippy to joining the Marines. Then it was on to trying to become a ‘druggy’, then pivoting to join the most conservative Pentecostal Christian church, and trying to become a minister. I preached dozens of sermons in church and even on the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee. I married a piano player and we led the ‘worship service’ in a charismatic church. I got divorced and became somewhat alcoholic. This was during my sign-painting years. I got depressed, went to therapy and joined the Unitarian church. I learned some Buddhist meditation techniques and made friends of gays and atheists.
In Europe, in the English classes, I had many discussions with these foreigners who grew up under communism. These people look at things differently than they do back in the Bible belt, and I saw my country through the eyes of the Russians, and of the Czechs.
Since then, I have rediscovered my Christian Faith, but this is a different religion from that of my Father, or my brother. I have polar opposite opinions from them, on many subjects. I’m very different in many ways. I wonder how this came about. Why this difference, and why the difference between the Republican religious right-wing, and, on the other hand, normal people?
However, there is a large segment of the population who are neither conservative nor liberal. I reckon you could call it the party of the apathetic. In doing nothing, in having no opinion, these do more harm than good, in that they are doing just what the elite puppet-masters want them to do. Doing nothing aids the status-quo in a very destructive way. Doing nothing enables them to do whatever they please with our country, with our courts, installing people in office by spending enough money to convince those among us who are impressionable, which is most of the population.
By the way, what shall we call them, these new masters of our electoral process? They are the ones with enough cash to influence the outcomes of elections, but not only that; they are absolutely working against the interests of the people, the citizenry. I’m not speaking of those who are donating for good causes, those who are trying to counter the insidious machinations of the wealthy elite; they are our brothers. But I speak of those who are working to influence the tax code in order to even further increase their wealth, at the expense of the nation, for instance. What shall we call those who spend millions (in campaign contributions) in order to deny a few hundred dollars to someone who is unemployed, for another instance? Those who invest millions to deny affordable health care to those in need, using lies and misrepresentation to purposefully mislead those who vote Republican?
You know, something occurred to me lately. In associating with various kinds of liberal people lately, I have encountered a few people who seemed to me to be rather irreligious, in a bad way. I’m not talking about the normal atheist or humanist, most of whom are quite morally upright, though they may be unorthodox and nonconformist. No, I’m speaking of the kind who is morally flawed, knows it, and doesn’t care. The kind of person who says, “anything goes”. To them, there’s no such thing as sin, but if there is, they’re willing to do it. But, as a Christian, even a liberal one, I do understand that there is such a thing as sin. There really is such a thing as wickedness. Now, of course there are many kinds of sin and wickedness, and what one person sees as sin, another may see as simply a bad habit. But I’m talking about those who care only for themselves, to the point that they are willing to hurt others to get what they want.
This perfectly describes people like the Koch brothers, who would rather pay billions in campaign manipulation efforts, and in lawyer fees, than to pay the little bit required to do the right thing. The upper-crust, the one-percent, the elite, the oligarchy, whatever one wants to call them, those among them who are working full force to bring about the dystopian future that awaits all of us, fully deserve the title of ‘the wicked’. I think it’s time we started calling them that. When these people work to poison everyone in the world, by electing politicians who encourage further pollution, and spend millions in campaign contributions to oppose affordable health care, and to oppose raising the minimum wage. Progressives have avoided calling such behavior ‘evil’ for too long, while the pious religious right has been using the term against those who don’t deserve it at all.
Sometimes, you see, I get angry when I see so much in current events that upsets me. I try to guard against hating those who are on the side of the elite. Hatred leads to violence, and I want to be the farthest thing from violent. I want to be a peacemaker. Even when opposition and protest is necessary, I believe we must remain committed to pacifism. But, as I said, we should plainly call-out the wickedness of some people’s deeds, even if we understand that God loves us all as his/her children.
In fairness, I should write more about my Father, Carl’s good qualities. He lavished attention on us, his young sons, when he wasn’t too busy working. We went hunting, fishing, and camping out. There were walks in the woods, where he spoke to us about his childhood. He had actually grown up in the same area of our farm. He had lived quite close by, and had worked for the former owner, as a boy, and had walked up the same path on the ridge, where we walked together. He is a good man, by any measure, even if he has made some mistakes.
As I write this, I think of his basic mistake concerning me. I have endured a lot of hard times, beginning at about the time of my parent’s divorce. I have lived in poverty at times, especially in the time of my early twenties. And I have never done well; always changing jobs from one minimum wage crappy thing to another. I’ve lived in crappy rented apartments, and even moved in with friends for extended periods, during rough times. All through these times, he has never seemed to feel any obligation to help me, unless it was to give me ten or twenty dollars on rare occasions. There was a few times when he would loan me a hundred or so. The way he hid his loans to me gave me reason to believe he was hiding it from Betty, my Step-Mother. Maybe she discouraged him from helping me.
But one of the most shocking things in my life has been to find his attitude one of just accepting that He and Betty would have plenty, a nice home, new cars, and so forth, while his real sons (as opposed to his stepchildren) had major money problems, went bankrupt, drove ragged old cars, and just struggled along, constantly. The exception was the younger Terry, who lived with Mom and Dennis Walker, who were also well-off in those days.
This attitude displays a kind of philosophy that says, “Everybody gets what they deserve in life, and one must lift oneself up by your own bootstraps, without any help from anyone.” It’s an Ayn Rand philosophy. It says, why give anything to a son or daughter, it will spoil them, and they’ll just expect more and more. Let them swim or sink. A hard life will build character. And then the really strange one – “my son’s problems are definitely NOT my problems.”
It surely has a lot to do with the fact that he made his own way, being an orphan, raised by a poor, resentful uncle who never helped him.
But I sometimes think of how different things were for all the thousands of young men who were painstakingly nurtured by their Fathers. They did all they could do to help their sons, contributing all they could to get them through college, even going into debt to help them. Then after graduation they helped them to get a good job, if they could. They took an interest in them on a continual basis. There was never a ‘cut-off’ point, like the one I encountered so early in life.
In fact, almost without exception, every successful, remarkable person has had someone in their life, usually a parent, who helped to mold that young person into what they became. They had support, and encouragement, all along the way, in every way that was needed, (as much as possible).
Conversely, I believe there are a lot of people who are patently unsuccessful, even incarcerated for much of their lives, who bemoan the fact that they were not supported, loved, nurtured, and so-forth, in the way they should have been.
Looking at my beginnings in life, now that I am older, and it is so far removed by time, it seems shocking that a son who had been a good helper to his Dad, working on the farm, in the gas station, as well as a hunting and trapping partner to him, that this son should suddenly become basically homeless, and totally cut-off from his Father altogether. Why? There had been a blow-up over my involvement with drugs. That could be blamed, and the divorce and quick marriage to a woman with children. And finances were slim at that time. All of that has to be considered, to be fair. But the lasting, permanent nature of that split with him, was really an unreasonable thing.
What was it all about, really? I believe the answer to that is to be found in my original query into this whole phenomenon of conservatism and all other opposing parties. The conservative type of person feels that their belief system is very good, very certain, and that to reject it is a serious thing. So severe consequences should come to anyone who rejects their ideas. This is made worse in a father-son situation. There’s always some stress between a father and his son, especially a first-born son. The boy begins to feel that he’s approaching manhood, and so, therefore should have some opinions of his own, differing with his father. The father may react with anger, if he feels that he is suddenly being disrespected. This is even more true if someone is of a conservative bent, since their philosophy is imbued with a sort of sanctity, having roots in religion, and in tradition.
So, at its root, it was a self-righteousness over-emphasis on my supposed obligation to venerate his world-view, his philosophy. This triggered, in me, an equally over-emphasis on maintaining my independence and my differences with him. Unfortunately, I was a partner in it, though an unhappy one. And since I was only in my early twenties, and he was twenty years my senior, he should have had the emotional maturity to have at least tried to prevent my downfall. I just got further into drugs and drinking, and all the problems one would expect from that.
I have been upset by the result of the recent elections. Why do people vote against their own interests, for politicians who want to keep wages as low as possible? Why vote against unions, Medicare expansion, equal pay, marriage equality, and against environmental protection, reducing greenhouse gasses? Why re-elect the politicians who are responsible for many of the problems of the entire world, let alone the problems of America.
I embrace the progressive agenda of leaders like Elisabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. These people propose policies that are beneficial to the lower class (among whom most of us are, though we call it “middle-class”). They are concerned about income inequality, and about the take-over of politics by the wealthy, by the corporations, which is what led to this latest Republican take-over of Congress.
Look at the situation we find ourselves in. After the 9/11 attacks, the government adopted the Patriot Act, and began operating differently in many ways. Surveillance of the entire population became very important, and was fully financed and authorized. As a nation, we seemed to feel free to attack any other nation that, even remotely, might have had something to do with 9/11. The police began a militarization program, something that had never been contemplated before. The Geneva conventions went right out the window, and all of the torture tactics that we had condemned for decades, were adopted as standard procedure.
Secrecy became the watchword of this new order. Deception, the misleading of the American public, and even keeping congress in the dark, was adopted as necessary for national security.
Meanwhile, the main-stream media news outlets, having been deceived by the government into dispersing lie after lie, began on a mission of damage control. Rather than face up to the truth that we were all duped, the lies were perpetuated. Even today, we have the very architects of the present middle-east disaster, the Bush/Cheney crowd, are sitting enthroned on the major networks, blaming a successful President Obama for everything, and telling us what we should now do, as a nation. Naturally, their advice is nothing but “More war! More destruction! More profits for the companies that I am involved with!” And the Republicans love it.
An aside here: today, on NPR radio, a captive of the ISIS terrorists, John Cantlie, said that these terrorist’s hostages were being waterboarded, when they attempted to escape. “…waterboarded by their captors, as Muslim prisoners are waterboarded by the Americans.”
No criminal in history ever managed to actually endanger every single American all at once. Before Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and their associates, there was never any talk of “waterboarding”, worldwide, except perhaps as a forbidden thing that was done by criminal enemies. Now, in this present time, we have learned that some terrorist organizations are performing waterboarding upon their captives. The act has been made famous, has effectively been promulgated by these American war criminals. As a direct result of their actions, we are all now at risk of being water-boarded by some terrorist organization, if we happen to be traveling abroad, in countries where Americans used to be able to visit in safety. We all have more enemies, more people who hate us with greater intensity, than we ever had before this damnable “war on terror” was launched. And our present course, as a nation, promises to enrage even more people. And now we have to witness the disgrace of Dick Cheney’s bust being displayed in the Capitol, as if he were anything but despicable, as a primary actor in moving the military to embrace torture.
The drone war, begun by Bush, has been intensified ten-fold under our Nobel-peace-prize-winning President Obama. [An ugly blot on his otherwise pretty good record]. With such actions, our leaders are acting as recruiters for terrorist organizations, more effective than any radical website could ever be. Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam. Do you need a dose of anti-psychotic medication?
Just to mention a couple other things that make me wonder, “Why do we keep electing these people?”; global warming has gotten worse, to the point that we are now being warned that a worldwide release of methane gas, much worse than carbon dioxide, is going to occur sometime in the future, which will have a snowball effect on world temperatures. This is called a tipping-point, meaning that once warming gets to this point, the methane-release point, the methane released will be like pouring gasoline on the fire of global warming, and we are looking at catastrophic stuff happening as a result.
But we have an entire political party, representing about half of the population, who are the party of denial. To them, the science, agreed by 98% of all scientists, is all a conspiracy, done to drive environmental over-regulation. This is being loudly laughed at by every other nation on earth, none of which have a political party of denial, as we do. “We’re not scientists”, they say, “but we know better than the scientists, somehow.” Of course they would say it has nothing to do with fabricated “think-tanks” and phony political parties, created by billionaire professional polluters, such as Charles and David Koch, among many others. Such groups have managed to find a few of the climate-change deniers, and have financed their careers. Add this to the millions of dollars of now-legal bribes that are offered to every politician that will kiss the ring of ALEC (a Koch-financed cabal that wines and dines our politicians, and gives them proposals for legislation, which often make it into law, word-for-word).
So what is it in our society that creates this kind of populace, who votes to perpetuate such a scene? How can this be? Our country has become the greatest agitator of violence on the planet, with the second-greatest rogue-nation being Israel, whom we support generously, politically and financially. They are only able to commit atrocities against the Palestinians because of the USA’s continued support. (This is meant as a criticism of the Israeli government, and isn’t meant to disparage the Jewish people).
But apparently, the voters see no need for change, unless it is to defeat the ‘liberal peaceniks’, and to enable those who cry out for ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in every place we deem worthy of invasion. (We’re there already, only it’s secret–ops special units, or mercenaries of Blackwater ilk).
What kind of force could have produced such a population as we have here in the USA. I know there are many dissenters, but as a population, we appear to be happy with the present state of affairs, or just so stupidly apathetic that we are unaware of our government’s actions, and see no need for concern. Or, as many seem to do, we can perversely blame every problem on the other side, ignoring the advances that have been made during this Democratic administration, as if there is absolutely no such thing as truth or falsehood. It’s all become a matter of spin to them. In our media every question is debated by two sides shouting at each other, with equal credence and airtime given to the damnable evil bastards, paid-for by big corporations; though the truth is sometimes allowed to be aired in brief spurts, underneath all of the deafening noise.
In these recent mid-term elections; there was a record low voter turn-out, in which the majority voted Republican. To vote Republican is to vote for more pollution and environmental destruction, for the mega-rich oil companies going hog-wild to extract and sell as much fossil fuels as possible, while the atmosphere becomes irrevocably saturated with carbon dioxide, and methane. Voting Republican means less equality for women, and for minorities, and ever more economic inequality, as the number of billionaires grows, and the poverty of children grows as well. It means voting for war-mongers, fueling the military-industrial complex, which guarantees we will be caught up in endless wars.
This was the first election, in which the billionaires were ‘turned loose’ and allowed to spend as much money as they wanted to influence the outcome. The vast majority of this money comes from right-wing, Republican backers, though there were a few rich liberals who tried to counter this flood of money from the one-percent. The results of this has been the take-over of the Senate by the Republicans, who had the most benefit from the largesse of the wealthy. Those elected are proud to be associated with the super-rich and their causes. Their futures are assured to be successful. All they had to do is to sell-out the American people in exchange. It’s like Esau, of the Bible, who sold his birthright for a bowl of tasty food, only it is all of us who have had our birthright stolen, to pay for a life of opulence for our millionaire congress. But the average citizen seems to care only about what’s on TV, or which sports team is winning, or which superstar got married or divorced or went into rehab.
With the Republicans and ‘centrist’ Democrats in charge, nothing will be done to counter global warming, that is certain now. The next generation will live to see vast stores of methane released from the thawing permafrost, and from the ocean floor. This will cause the atmosphere to go over the “tipping-point”, with warming increasing exponentially, as more thawing causes more warming, and the reflective white of the frozen poles has given way to darker, heat-absorbing colors. Within our children’s lifetime, they will have to abandon the flooded coastlines and smaller islands, and get used to the strange and terrible weather events caused by global Warming.
This legalized corruption (unlimited campaign contributions), brought about by our corrupt Supreme Court’s decisions, will assure that we will have the best government that money can buy, but best for whom? It will be the best for our new corporatocracy, run by oligarchs who care nothing for the nation, since their multinational commerce includes numerous countries, and they have to buy friends wherever they operate, even on opposing sides of every conflict.
These wicked forces will eventually control all news and entertainment, and will eventually even buy control of the internet. The general populace, forced into hardships, will be afraid to oppose the state in any way, afraid to complain, to organize, to resist our abuse as mere expendable worker ants. Protests of any kind will be outlawed, and offenders will be dealt with harshly. Since they own the news media, and have great influence over law enforcement and the courts, they can turn the noblest political activist into a hated criminal. They will destroy even his/her name.
The adventurous militarism of the United States, led by those who profit from it, will eventually lead to the use of nuclear weapons, by some nation, one of the many nations who have these weapons.
This is not meant to be a warning of what might come about, eventually, if we aren’t careful. It is a simple prediction of our truly bleak future as a country, and even as a planet. The dark forces are winning, and they will win. Those who are noble enough to resist, to protest, to report the truth with independent media, these brave souls will be destroyed by our powerful State apparatus. Ever-increasing suffering will be inflicted upon us and upon the world by those whom we helped to spawn with our careless, uninformed voting, or by our failure to vote, by our timidity, as we become afraid to protest. We are no match for a militarized police force. Either way, we’ll be subjugated by the government of the oligarchs. Only in as much as we serve their purposes will we be allowed to survive.
In writing this, I make no apology; the truth should be told. There is no strategy here, like, “Oh, if they read this, they will wake up and make changes.” No, they won’t. It’s already gone too far.
What should be our strategy? I don’t know. Maybe we have no choice but to fight a losing battle to the last ounce of our strength. Everyone has to make his or her personal choices.
Personally, most of my life has been lived, at my present age of 60. Any efforts I might make in order to ‘fight the power structure’ are extremely stymied by my lack of resources. And it’s too late to think that some kind of success will change my life significantly. I’ve been dealt a certain ‘hand of cards’ and then played my hand rather poorly. Now the game is in the anticlimactic stage. It’s obvious which players came out well, and which ones came out less than well.
Some of my friends didn’t live to finish the game. We were children of the sixties, though it seems strange to remember that I was a little too young to go to Woodstock. Still in high school, my friends and I couldn’t be part of the anti-war demonstrations, and the heady, turbulent rebelliousness that all of the ‘cool’ people were caught up in. We watched from a distance, tried to do childish imitations of the hippy culture, and swore we’d make up for lost time as soon as we got the chance; which is what we really did as soon as we could.
You can see that I have a lot of problems with the USA, but it’s not a problem with the people, but with the power structure, and with the government/military-industrial police-state that we find ourselves in. We are all ten times more likely to be shot by a fat, white policeman, than to be attacked by a terrorist. Our black citizens need someone to protect them from the police.
Another disturbing trend, is the growing tendency to wrap every political issue in the cloak of religion. Nowadays, religion and politics seem to be moving towards the joining of church and state together, so that some are trying to make our laws in accordance with our holy books. This is upsetting to someone like me, who believes that in a democracy, church and state must be completely separate, and no holy books should be opened, when deciding matters of state or federal law. Of course the morality of any population is an influence on their legislative process, and morality is partially formed by the religion of any people. This is not only normal, but is indeed a positive influence. But when particular passages of scripture are used to deny the rights of minorities, it has gone too far. In a democracy, the civil rights of the individual supersedes any religious considerations. When Holy books become the basis for lawmaking, or for guiding foreign and domestic policy, conflict is inevitable.
But there are many in America who believe that our government should be ordered on Biblical principles, and they passionately believe they are right. As a matter of fact, they form the religious right-wing of the Republican party, for the most part. Some of these Christian political groups see themselves as being persecuted, because the law is telling them that they can’t discriminate against homosexuals, for example. This foolish argument, saying that they are the ones being persecuted, because the civil rights laws won’t let them persecute a minority group, is ridiculous.
But this is the mindset of people like Carl, my Dad. He sees the advances of the LGBT community as a shocking affront to everything he believes in. In his mind. He thinks we are all now living in Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s nothing left but to retreat, and to wait for the fire to fall from heaven, devouring the wicked. Or, alternatively, to begin to campaign for a country that’s guided by “Bible principles”. The Republican party has seen this, and has cynically put themselves forward as the American Party of God. And not just any god, either; this is THE God “of our founding fathers”. This is an imaginary construct, since our ‘founding fathers’ were dead set against any establishment of a national religion, and wrote words to that effect in the constitution.
Such religious attitudes are the harbingers of a tragic future. As we see more weather-related tragedies, more diseases, and more wars, due to climate changes, we will see this type of conservative American become angrier and angrier at those who they feel are causing these weather anomalies, those who have angered God, by discarding traditional “values”. The religious right will become violent towards any who don’t accept their version of ‘Bible law’. I like to put it that way to illustrate the similarity to those who want to impose Sharia law. But they will lump the Muslim converts in with the irreligious, accusing them all of bringing down the ‘judgment of God’ upon our nation and upon the world.
Such developments will bring forth a new kind of home-grown terrorist, the fundamentalist Christian extremist. The logic will be, “If God is being angered, and sending weather-related destruction upon the earth, will it not assuage His anger, for us to kill those sinners who brought this all to pass? And will we not be counted as righteous soldiers, if we fight and kill on “the side of God”? The belief in a second evil god, a devil, and the belief that people might be ‘possessed’ by them, makes it much more likely that those with a strong faith in Satan (fundamentalist Christians) will be willing to violently attack those whom they believe are ‘possessed’.
And no amount of scientific evidence will convince these people that climate-change is caused by mankind’s excessive burning of fossil fuels. They will say, “How could God let the climate get out of kilter, just because we were all living the American way?” No, they will assign blame to those who they feel have angered the Lord by their ‘free-thinking ways.’ Gays, atheists, liberals, and scientists will be branded as the enemies of the truth (as if this is not already happening, on some scale). The majority party now is, as I said, the Party of Denial. Polls show that most Americans aren’t worried about climate change, and many doubt that it’s happening at all. Never mind that even government agencies are making plans to deal with it. More conflict, over precious water resources, for instance, is a government prediction even now.
After writing this, which has turned out to be somewhat of an angry rant, I had the wonderful opportunity to see the movie, “Sing Your Song” about the life of the great Harry Belafonte. I highly recommend this movie for public viewing. It was very inspirational. He has worked throughout all of his long career toward fighting injustice, by peaceful, non-violent means. He has been successful, both in his work and in his tireless activism, bringing other famous people together to work alongside him, helping Martin Luther King, Jr. in his struggle for equality, working with Nelson Mandela, and lending his influential name and assistance to many worthy causes.
Mr. Belafonte spoke of being discouraged, just as I have been, that the causes he worked so hard for, all of these years, have suffered setbacks. He spoke of the injustice of the U.S. prison system, and of police cruelty. But even as we realize, as a society, how far we have yet to go, to achieve racial and social justice in our world, he said that “we’ve got to remain optimistic”. But I could see that even he was struggling against discouragement.
The experience of watching this movie, and hearing his inspirational words, has raised my spirit, so that I must now write that yes, we must struggle to hold on to what little hope there may be. We must try not to despair or to abandon all hope. Personally, I look to the example of Christ, as he worked relentlessly during his short ministry, knowing full well how it would end. We have to do likewise, as much as we can, to struggle on, even knowing we fight in what may be a losing battle. Never mind. If you can understand this, maybe we will ultimately lose, in a worldly way of looking at it, but we will certainly win in the other realm, the one that really matters; we will win in the spiritual realm. And Christ was certainly not a failure. His mission to point us toward a forgiving God was accomplished perfectly, though he didn’t institute an earthly kingdom. And we have a bright hope for when we cross over to the other side.
I believe this hope is not only meant for Christians, but for all of mankind. There is only one God, the God of all true Faiths. I think the false concept of some second ‘evil god’, or Satan, is a just a means of enabling some to point to other Faiths as being wrong. The fundamentalist (I would say radical) Christians point to the Muslim Faith as being followers of a false God, and some Muslims say the same thing about Christians or Buddhists. This is a contributing factor in the cause of wars and violence. But Harry Belafonte doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious man, and if there is a shining light among good men, he is one of these shining lights of goodness.
Looking over the writing above, I see that in describing the conservative person, I am describing, to some extent, my Dad, Carl. As I said, I love my earthly Father. He’s done nothing to hurt anyone. But like so many watchers of Faux News, he has been indoctrinated by the propaganda of the Establishment. It seems to be a partnership of the upper one percent, the governments, and certain self-aggrandizing politicians and clergy. (Not to tarnish them all, of course). These people, being so deceived, are the ones I would call the right-wing, conservatives. These are those who believe in unbridled capitalism, in a sort of Darwinian economics, where the powerful evolve to be ever more powerful, and the weak among us are doomed to extinction. There is nothing truly good or Godly about such a system.
To answer the question of “why people have become so polarized into these left and right extremes”, I have no answer, yet, except to say that access to real information, unfiltered by the propaganda machines, would be really helpful, that’s for sure. Maybe independent journalism, along with informational art forms such as music and cinema, can be a source of righteous enlightenment, and a means to free those whose minds are bound with hate.
There have been some studies that suggest that people who are generally more fearful tend to be more conservative. They value security over freedom. Historically, this is illustrated when national crises have the effect of making the population more willing to sacrifice their liberty in exchange for the supposed security of more state control. Think ‘patriot act’.
It is obvious that more educated, intelligent people have a tendency, generally speaking, to be more liberal. Less educated (I would say, generally, less intelligent) people tend to be more conservative. And what might be an obvious explanation for that? Less intelligent, less educated people tend to read, IF they read at all, books that are what I’d call fluff. It’s some romantic novel, or something about self-help improvement, or, if it is political or historical, it is something written by some right-wing fundamentalist. It only reinforces what they already believe. They’re not searching for truth, not seeking out new information, not exploring. The conservative’s discomfort with the unknown, the new, the challenging, this guides their reading, their TV watching, ant etc. And, actually, I believe there’s a sizeable portion of the population that just never reads. Oh, maybe a magazine article, or a little simple commentary on the internet, but nothing from the great minds of our time. These habits, or lack of reading habits, help to reinforce their ability to cling to things that really don’t make sense. They can hold onto their treasured myths, with no fear of being challenged, in their thinking.
Religion plays an obvious role in this conservative-liberal conundrum. As a liberal Christian, I want to get this part right. An entire book could be written on the subject, to try to do it justice. But briefly, I’ll just acknowledge the fact that believers tend not to be intensive thinkers. And thinkers tend not to be believers, at least, not easily. The believer doesn’t want to think about anything that would challenge his beliefs. And, where I come from, the southern USA “bible belt”, there is a real distrust of science, historically. This contributes to the problem of people clinging to misinformation. But the thinker is busy challenging everything, which is also true of the scientist; so he seems to be a threat, in the mind of the believer.
So there is a tendency among conservatives to avoid a lot of books, writers, and researchers. Every new thing is a possible threat, to one who feels that he/she has everything worked out. Or, at least, their church, or synagogue, has everything worked out. They tend to worry about excessive thinking. I know I’m speaking in wide generalities here, and there are many exceptions, of course. I am an exception, being a thinker and a believer. Still, that’s my opinion on the matter.
I love science, and I believe in it. After all, this is only saying “I love facts, and believe them.” Scientists don’t just sit around in discussions, deciding what to believe based on theories. By definition, science is tested, and peer reviewed, and is constantly progressing, with old misconceptions being rooted out, exposed, and abandoned, replaced by the new, clearer understandings. I think Christianity ought to be as dynamic as science. We must be ready to have our beliefs challenged, and then, faced with new understanding, to grow, to evolve, and yes, to change our belief system, if necessary. It’s no good trying to believe anything that doesn’t make sense. A real and good religious Faith should rule out all magical thinking.
I’m a believer because I can’t be anything else. I have experienced something that is undeniable to me, and that is my Faith. Also, even intellectually, the existence of a creator seems unavoidable, and this is logical to me. The lack of a creative force, the absence of an original designer, is illogical, in my view. I couldn’t muster the faith that’s required, to be an atheist.
However, I have spoken with atheists, and read their writings, and I understand their position. So many people fake their belief in God, for fear of being ostracized by their peer group, and that’s regrettable. People should be free to be non-believers. Similarly to me, they feel that they can’t be anything else. It’s not that they stubbornly want to resist religious thought. They simply can’t believe. Well, they can make many logical arguments. For instance, there is the problem of God’s invisibility. He hasn’t showed up, physically, at least for thousands, perhaps billions of years. Why doesn’t he just do a news conference? I believe the networks would interrupt their normal broadcasting for it.
I don’t believe God would be angry, then, under the circumstances, if people doubt his/her existence. If I were God, I would not be angry, and I don’t think I’m a nicer being than God.
A continuation of the history of my family:
My Mother had strongly resisted the move back to Tennessee. Her vision of the south was one in which everyone sat out on the old front porch, in an old bench-type truck seat, carefully avoiding holes in the flooring. You would be shaded by the ancient, rusted refrigerator that had died years ago. Chickens would be scratching in the yard, and depositing their grey decorations on the porch when no one was looking.
“What makes you think we can’t have a nice place down there? We fixed this place up nice, didn’t we? That’s a big, nice house. Used to be one of the nicest places in the valley.”
But never mind what she thought about it, Dad was the boss, and that was that. So we all began new lives as southern farmers. I learned, at the age of 13, to drive a tractor. At 14, I was disking up the fields, plowing, cutting hay, baling it, all while dad was at work in his day-job as a trucking company dispatcher. You see, by then, unionized labor had come to Tennessee, and enough industry to keep the trucking companies in business.
But yep, we got some pigs, some cows, and chickens. We put out tobacco. I was slopping the hogs and feeding the animals in the morning, as Dad had done when he was a boy. However, I had some help from the rest of the family, my brothers and Dad himself. I never did learn how to milk a cow, so he and mom had to do that. And yes, the chickens did sometimes shit on the porch, and on the car, too.
And, to some extent, Mom’s dread of a less luxurious lifestyle did come true. The house was large, a good house, but it was old, and out of repair, needing paint, flooring, and remodeling.
Dad made good money, in his trucking job, but he made lots of mistakes, like spending a lot of money on a tractor, a hay-baler, which was a piece of crap so he had to buy another hay-baler, and other machinery. He didn’t understand the economics of farming, somehow. He’d always done well by working hard, and he simply believed that if he worked hard in this, he could make good money in farming. But I think he spent almost as much as he profited.
Then there was the gas-station fiasco. I write about this later. He lost a lot of money in that business venture. So, there was little money for home improvement. And with all of Dad’s other worries, it was way down on his list of things to do.
Mom became resentful, but she was never one to complain, or to nag him about things. The place was not a mess, or anything. We got it respectable-looking enough. But things like furniture and flooring, curtains and so-forth, became somewhat neglected. Of course she knew very well that money was tight, and she knew that was the reason for Dad’s lack of home –improvement investment.
But the memory of those times made it all the more incredible, when, after the divorce and his marriage to his second wife, Betty, he threw himself into fixing up everything. The house got new siding, and a staircase was re-routed. Fireplaces were covered and decorated. The old barn was torn down, the yard was landscaped, erasing an old unsightly drive that used to go to the barn. All of this was made possible from the sale of tracts of land, as the farm was carved up and the money used for these continuous improvements.
But when we first moved to Tennessee, we lived for years on what did look like a somewhat run-down farm.
A little country school, down the valley, became my edifice of learning. I swear, the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades were all in one room. But my one teacher, during those three years, Fletcher Dale, who also served as principal, was a great guy. He was kind to me and to another of his favorite students, Ray Ranier.
Ray and I developed a close friendship that lasted for decades. We both seemed to have the same, zany sense of humor, and we would sit together in the lunchroom, laughing about silly stuff until we cried. We liked the same music, the same cars, the same girls, authors, just about everything. We even went to the same kind of church. However, there was one big difference between us. He had been forced to go to church, and he hated it. He, and also his older sister always ridiculed religion.
On the other hand, I had never felt that I was forced to go to church, and once I began to attend, I liked it. I had always believed in God, from my earliest memories. I took my Faith quite seriously, at least my personal Faith. I later became disillusioned with the Church. I dropped out, and after I got into drinking and taking drugs, I would join with Ray and his sister, in ridiculing the church. But, basically, I turned out to be a believer, and he was either atheist or agnostic, or just indifferent. But we never argued about it. It didn’t come between us, except during certain periods, when I avoided him, rightly or wrongly, thinking that he might be a bad influence on me. But I was a bad influence on him at times, too.
You see, my family had seldom attended church, in Ohio. But soon, after returning to the south, Dad had led his flock to a local Baptist church. I loved it, and accepted about everything as true, and adopted the Faith as my own. I tried to be true to it, but as a young man, I guess I was anxious to explore things that seemed ’grown-up’, such as smoking cigarettes, and drinking. It’s not that I didn’t keep my faith in Christianity. I continued to go to church, at times, though there were lapses. But over time I did stray from the Christian life, quite badly.
Tobacco use was more accepted in those days, even among young people. I suppose it was a little unusual, though, that most of we boys chewed tobacco at recess. But I never smoked in front of my parents until I was in the Marine Corps. So it was convenient to go to Ray’s home, and to spend time there, since he was allowed to smoke. Gosh, we were just 14 years old. The next thing we got into was alcohol, naturally. We went to great lengths to obtain a few beers, with Ray’s sister’s older boyfriend buying for us. Then we would make a huge ruse, an overnight ‘fishing’ expedition, or something.
Soon, when Ray’s sister got married, we had a willing partner, in helping us to begin our careers as budding alcoholics. I suppose this is where my addicted ancestors’ genes began to affect me. This is not to shield myself from responsibility for bad behavior, but I had always been afflicted with a nervous shyness. When I first got alcohol into my blood, I felt like saying, “Yes! This is what I’ve been needing all along.” I could finally be relaxed and uninhibited in a social setting. I swallowed the alcohol lie, hook, line, and sinker. And immediately began to float down that long stream toward the stagnant lake of alcoholism.
Well, I should say here that it took me about thirty years to get to a stage that would be considered alcoholic. There were periods, off-and-on, when I definitely had a drinking problem, yes. But I managed to work steadily, the whole time, to function, more or less successfully. And there were years when I didn’t drink a drop.
Alcoholism isn’t a ‘yes or no’ proposition. It’s not a matter of, “either you are or aren’t. It is a spectrum of varying degrees of problematic alcohol usage. There may be a very slow progression from one stage, to another slightly worse stage, and then a reverting back to a lesser problem with drinking.
But way back in my young days, my best friend, Ray Ranier and I began our individual journeys through life with varying degrees of misbehavior.
I want to include, here, an account of a typical visit with Ray, in about 1968 or ’69. I might get up on a Saturday morning, to the smell of breakfast. My Mom didn’t do a lot of fancy cooking, but one thing she did do, was to make sure we had breakfast every morning. During the week, this was often biscuits and gravy, with sausage or bacon, sometimes with eggs. But on Saturday, it was even more luxurious. There would be the usual fare, plus oatmeal, and there would be jelly on the table, and butter. This seems incredible now, that we would have such a big breakfast almost every day of the week, but this was a southern tradition, and Mom had gotten it from her mother. Lunch and Supper might be given short shrift, at times, but breakfast was always fabulous. Before I went anywhere, I would have to feed and water the chickens, and maybe feed the hogs. Then I would say to Mom, in early afternoon, “Hey, Dad’s going to be gone for most of the day, and he ain’t gonna need the tractor, so I want to go down to Ray’s, O.K?” I would typically drive the tractor down the valley, about five miles, to my friend’s house.
“Well, I reckon it’ll be alright, honey, you just be careful, you know.”
So off I’d go. That Massey-Ferguson was a great tractor, for going down the road, since it had two gear shifters, giving it a total of six forward speeds. High-third, as it was called, would put you up to maybe 25 m.p.h., which was lots faster than those old Ford tractors. And the little old road was only a gravel surface, with plenty of pot-holes, so there wasn’t much traffic on it, anyway.
When I got to Ray’s, he’d hear me pull in, and be standing in the doorway.
“Hello, asshole,” he’d say, with a big grin, “Come on in and sit down there, now. And roll ya up one of these kind of cig-rets like I’m smoking. Borkum Riff pipe tobacco. And look, Doug gave me some of these cool yellow papers, like he uses with pot, you know. It really makes it burn smooth.”
I was impressed, and wonderfully happy to see the new kind of exotic tobacco.
“But wait a minute, Tom, does your Daddy know you smoke? I don’t know if I should contribute to your delinquency. I really should call him, and notify him of your new habit.”
“Kiss my ass, Ray.”
“What’s that? And cussin’ too. I thought you was a goddamn Christian. Yeah, I remember when I was young, like you. I had to sneak around and do things, too. Kind of childish, don’t ya think?” (He was a year older than me).
Then he got all excited, suddenly. “Look at this! Doug got it for Linda.”
I brightened up too. “Wow. Led Zeppelin!”
“Wait till you hear it!”
He had one of the typical ‘stereophonic’ record players of that time. It folded up into a box, like a little hard suitcase. But it was bigger and better than mine. The record was a ‘45’, the small ones with the big hole in the center. Side A was ‘Whole Lotta Love’, and side B was ‘Mean Mistreater’. He put it on the turntable. We couldn’t play it loudly, at all, because his parents were at home.
Soon his father, Calvin, knocked on the door, then stuck his head in, smiling, but shaking his head, in mock derision. “Whoa, whoa, what in the world is that a-playin’? I reckon that record player’s done gone bad. We’ll have to throw it out, if we can’t get it to play no better than that!”
Sheepish grins from us. “Yeah, Dad, we can’t figure out what wrong with it.”
Calvin shuts the door back, grinning with his playful smile. He was not a man to be toyed with, demanding respect from Ray at all times. But he loved us, and treated us kindly.
Next, we might go next-door to Buzz’s house. Buzz was Ray’s Grandpa. He was such a wonderful, caring, and fun old man. However, in hindsight, he probably was only in his sixties. He was always glad to see us, and would invite us in happily.
“Well, well, look who’s here, Raymond and his buddy, Tom, I think it is. Come in, boys, come in, have ya a seat. Want some coffee? Minerva, get these boys some coffee, please. Yep, I was just a sittin’ here a-thinkin’, ‘bout when I was about you boy’s age, of something that happened to me.” Buzz invariably would launch into some kind of story, usually something with a ‘moral to the story’. As certain old men often do.
“Yeah, by golly, it was on a similar day like today, dry as a bone, but lots hotter. Well, I had to go to town, to get something or other, I forget what it was. But in those days, if I took a notion, why, I’d just walk over the ridge and on into town, ya know.”
“Gosh, Buzz, that’s a long way to walk!”
“Oh, no, not for me it wasn’t. But it was so hot and dry, that by the time I got to Brendle’s store, there by the rail-road overpass, I was right thirsty. Yessir, I was mighty thirsty, and hot. Well, I walked in there and asked them if they had something that would really quench your thirst. A man said, yeah. Said, ‘Here, drink this.’ So, I turned up the bottle, and had three or four swallers of it. And do you know, that stuff really quenched my thirst, like nothing I had ever had before. I asked them what it was, and they said, ‘That’s beer.’ Well, sir, I just throwed that bottle down and walked right out, it made me so mad. But by golly, it really did quench my thirst, I’m tellin’ ya it did.” There was such an anti-alcohol sentiment among the Baptists, it was extraordinary that Buzz had even told us the story.
After talking with Buzz for a while, Ray and I might go out, and sit on his front porch. We might be quietly plotting some excursion, some plot to get some beer, and go camping out with Eugene, Ray’s neighbor, our other compatriot. We managed to do that a few times, as I’ve written. Just a few cheap beers were all it took, and maybe one sip of some kind of alcohol, and we’d be yelling, running around, jumping over the fire, and laughing hysterically. Those were the beginning of my crazy times. It was dangerous, and led us into worse things, eventually. And I wouldn’t want to influence anyone to follow in my young footsteps. But it does seem like wonderful memories. But it was mostly because of our friendship, and our sense of fun, not the alcohol, that made it special times.
The alcohol had its negative effects, and soon my studies began to suffer, at school, in my later years of high-school. Looking back on it now, a confluence of factors led to my going wrong during these years.
For one thing, the ‘rock and roll’ scene had begun to evolve into the ‘hippie’ movement. My dad became a spokesperson for the anti-hippie faction, and I became an underground supporter of the same. There were constant battles about my hair, which was trying to escape the scissors. He was so upset by the protest scene in America, that he told me he would rather I didn’t go to college. He was afraid I’d become a communist or a hippie or something. This seems very strange, to modern ears, but at that time, it was considered a viable option to forego higher education. America had a strong tradition of a blue-collar middle-class workforce, which used to do very well. Computers were an experimental idea, of which IBM had made only a few huge machines, and the average person didn’t know what they were used for. Even many college educated men never learned to type. It was considered to be something for women to learn, since it was used mostly by secretaries.
Another factor, which discouraged my pursuit of higher education, was my family’s financial problems. Carl had made a disastrous adventure into business, quitting his job, and leasing a ‘service-station’. For those who don’t remember, this was the old-fashioned kind of gasoline station, where auto repairs and maintenance was done. He often speaks of it, to this day, as a big mistake. He lost a lot of money in it. He was able to jump back into the truck driving job, though, and we survived. But there was not an abundance of money.
I remember that it was somehow communicated to me that if I went to college, I would have to find some way to pay for it on my own. My Dad was actually afraid that if I went to college, I would become a hippie. He told me as much, and said he thought I might be better off without it. [One can certainly see here, a fear of excessive learning, in Carl.]So I lost interest in school, and began to think of some other way to make a living. I had vague ideas about being a photographer, or an artist. I had painted a few signs already. This just seemed to come naturally, though my technique was very amateurish. My occasional absence from school was spent hitch-hiking to town, to Ray’s sister’s home, where I could drink all day, then sneak back home before Mom knew anything.
Then Ray joined the Air Force. The next thing you know, here he is with a brand-new Triumph Spitfire car, a nice uniform, and everybody thinks he’s an hero.
All it took for me was one visit to the Marine Corps recruiter, and I had signed up for four years. I would be a photographer, for the Marine Corps magazine. I could get this wonderful position, since I had agreed with the four-year plan, instead of the meager two-year stint, which I could have done, during those years. All done without thinking that I could have ended up in Vietnam. YOUNG = STUPID. If this weren’t true, our armed services would never get enough recruits.
Recently, my son went to a recruiter. He actually graduated from the University as an engineer, about a year ago. But he was having a hard time getting a job as an engineer. Finally, he got tired of waiting, and took a short course in welding. He landed a good, union job, at a construction site. It wasn’t engineering, but, in my mind, any option would be better than joining the military, after having gone through what I did when I was young. But before he got the welding job, he had gone to a recruiter. The recruiter told him, “Oh, the military will respect your education, and take good care of you, since you have this degree.”
I said, “Yeah, you’ll be cannon-fodder.”
Thank God, an engineering job finally came up, and he’s been busy making good money for some years now.
We were all told, in ‘boot-camp’ (basic training), “We know, your recruiters lied to you, you got screwed. The recruiters lied to everybody. We all got screwed. Get over it.”
I went through the Parris Island ‘boot-camp’. I was quite shocked, as all recruits are, at the treatment we got, when we exited the bus, on Parris Island. We were under the impression that we had done something noteworthy, in signing up for the service, especially since it was war-time, and we were likely to be sent off to die in Vietnam. We thought we would experience a little appreciation, perhaps.
Of course, the drill Sergeants saw it quite differently. Here we were, “sissy, skuzzy civilians”, and we come “diddy-boppin” in, expecting to be given the same rights and privileges that belong to all the real Marines who have busted their asses all these years to build up their reputation as a kick-ass fighting machine. So there was a lot of screaming at us, calling us every name in the book, slapping us around, pushing and so forth.
Shortly after I graduated, (and this is just my luck), the military training camps all underwent a change, and drill-instructors were forbidden to hit the recruits. But such was not the case when I went through my training.
Also shocking to me, was the emphasis on killing. We were constantly shouting things like, “KILL! KILL!”. Then there was the casual way the instructors referred to “blowing someone away”. Also, we were told that we might die in the approaching weeks. They would laugh about the one who killed himself, in the last group. The drill instructor was still angry because after the boy died, he had been forced to pack up the boy’s things.
“So by God, if you wanna kill your goddamn self, that’s fine by me, but you better first pack your damn shit!”
Whether some of this was exaggerated for the effect it had on us, or not, there were actual accounts of recruits dying there. Some tried to escape, and since the island is surrounded by alligator-infested swamp, they usually never found. These accounts were what led up to the re-vamped rules, concerning the treatment of recruits.
Another terror for us, was the threat of being put into the ‘motivation’ platoon. One could be sent there for any minor infraction, or for no reason at all. It was a special platoon for problem recruits who needed ‘motivating’. Well, after a day there, one was more than willing to let himself be motivated from then on. Normal boot-camp training was hell, but anything was to be preferred to being relegated to the motivation troop. And once you were there, if you pissed them off, they could just make you ‘permanent’. I was sent there for the infringement of losing one of my socks. I was lucky enough to be sent back to my regular platoon after only one day. This was a hellish experience, spent crawling under barbed-wire, through what seemed to be water from a septic tank, while they shot live ammunition above our heads. While I was there, I saw a boy who seemed to have gone crazy. He was wandering around, as if he didn’t know where he was. The D.I. started screaming into his face, but he seemed to be unheeding, as if he had really flipped-out. I don’t know what happened to him.
I suppose that for a while, for a year or so, I ‘bought into’ the military attitude. It appeals to a young man. A culture of worship of all that is masculine. Anger is considered to be a good thing. Impatience is a trait to be cultivated. Hardness is to be sought after, above all. Hatred is a good thing, as long as it’s directed toward the enemy. Ridicule one another, point out faults and weaknesses, differences. This military-type identity appeals to many young men, especially when they basically had no identity when they arrived, and this is mirrored all around, so they think, “let’s have fun with it.” We’ll go shoot up the enemy, and have lots of masculine camaraderie. It’ll be great. But the falseness of this becomes evident to some, in time. Now, it’s repulsive to me.
On the news this week, were the new group called ‘Veteran’s Against the War’, marching toward the G-8 Summit, in Chicago. One by one, they stood, and had their say, then threw their combat ribbons away, symbolically giving them back, in disgust. Their message was this: they had been lied to. They thought they were going to punish someone who had something to do with the destruction of the Twin Towers. They thought that we were being forced to invade a country, to stop a mad man from using weapons of mass destruction. They were told that we were liberating a country, setting them free to practice democracy. They were going to liberate the women from oppression. These were all lies.
But now, they knew the truth. And the truth is that our country has been aggressively pursuing its own interests, and the interests of the oil companies, the arms dealers, and the mercenaries, and suppliers of the war effort, the Halliburtons, the Blackwaters. This has been accomplished with deficit spending of these unfunded wars, which somehow got unlimited funding. So we all bear the brunt of it now, but especially those who are affected by the recession, and the Iraqi veterans who are homeless, who can’t afford decent healthcare. But worst of all, it was done at the cost of so many lives lost, so many ruined, people who were young and healthy, now amputees, paraplegics. Families have been bereaved of loved ones. But George W. was able to have his wars. Thank you, George.
It’s no different than when we protested against the war in Vietnam. In those days, the government’s lie was that we were fighting the spread of communism. At least one did have to admit that there was some truth in that. The North Vietnamese were communists. But since the war, have they been a problem to the world? Did the Vietnam war benefit the population of that peninsula? Hell, no!
It often happens that when a man or woman gets into the battle zone, and sees what’s really happening, they change their mind about everything. That’s what those Veterans against the war were saying. “We have been over there, seen what’s really going on, and we now know that the American public is being lied to.” We are all being lied to, even now, with rosy projections about how soon all the troops will be home. But these veterans say what needs to be heard- when one sees the reality on the ground over there, your mind is changed. This happens even today. There are men and women who volunteered, and even got through a stint in Iraq, or Afghanistan, then, when asked to go back, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it, with a good conscience. They have become conscientious objectors.
That is how I describe my experience, when I was trying to get out of the Marine Corps. They said that I couldn’t possibly be a conscientious objector, since I had volunteered to join. But it happened to me as it has to so many, lately, who volunteered for the military, then when they see the reality of the situation, they change their mind. I never went to Vietnam. I only spoke to a number of them who had been over there, and, of course, as every American, I saw much of the carnage on the news. I was able to feel Vietnam, from my Marine Base in North Carolina.
I was advancing, in the Marines, at first. Within a year, I had been promoted to Private first-class (PFC, E-2). I had gotten my G.E.D., and had actually enrolled in night classes, in the University. But soon, my life began to get stressful, and I dropped out of college.
In 1972, the hippie thing had been going on for some years. But I was from a small town in Tennessee, and somehow, my carousing hadn’t gotten past the stage of alcohol. Well, I was only 18.
The Marine barracks were small rooms, with about three room-mates in each one. By chance, I was assigned to a room with a couple of guys who were big fans of Neil Young, among other rock stars. Well, they introduced me to marijuana. I hate to admit this, but I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was a panacea for the troubles of the entire world. All we had to do was to get everyone smoking pot, and everyone would just fall in love with one another, throw down their weapons, abandon their old hateful ways, and the revolution would be here. How naïve can one be, right? But, that was the basic silly message of the drug culture back then. And I latched-onto it.
And being young, I seemed to have no choice but to also be stupid. So I didn’t try to hide my new identity as a pot-toking hippie wanabe. I flaunted it to my coworkers, in our little utility outpost, and, by extension, to the management, my superior officers. We worked nearby a little wooded area, and every day, I would go out into the woods where I had my ‘stash’, and roll a big one, to get through the day. I began to lecture the Marines about how stupid the Vietnam war was, and all about how I should have been a conscientious objector, instead of joining “the crotch”, which actually was a common name we used for the Marine Corps, in those times of low morale. This enraged the officers. They began to make things hard on me, and soon my friends were telling me that they had been ordered to “beat me up.” They didn’t.
I did manage to be somewhat well-liked, among my fellow underlings, and a good thing it was, because I was warned, one day, that I was going to be ‘busted’ if I went into the woods again.
The next step toward ruining my military career, came with my discovery of LSD. It’s hard to believe now, that there ever was a time when young people would take a new drug, with only the recommendation of some acquaintance, or the knowledge that Grace Slick, of the Jefferson Airplane, had also taken it. But I remember my belief, in those days, that what people really needed, was better brain chemistry. And it was like a revelation, to my young mind, that rock and roll, long hair, and free love had solved all of society’s ills, and all that was needed was for the rest of us to catch up.
Well, I had gotten hold of some potent acid (LSD) the day before, and I found out that one can become quite nervous, not quite knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. I then discovered that alcohol could be helpful in calming one’s frayed, tripping nerves. I had over-done the whole thing. I was up all night, and was now feeling what we called ‘burnt-out’.
Then I found out that we were having a PFT that day, an important physical fitness test. In my muddled mind, I thought, “Oh, no. I can’t possibly do this. But maybe I would feel better if I just smoked a little pot.” So I did, and it set off the ‘trip’ again. See, LSD can last for 10 hours or more, and then, unexpectedly ‘kick in’ again.
Well, I showed up (like a fool) and tried to do the test.
In the first place, everyone was wearing short pants, and t-shirts, of varying colors and styles, so right away I thought I was in a comical cartoon. Then here comes the Gunny (gunnery sergeant), our C.O. He thought he was very funny, and he began to make wise-cracks, to which everyone obediently laughed, whether it was funny or not, in a blatant act of sycophancy. Then his eyes would dart all around the group, to make sure everyone was obediently laughing. Naturally, in my condition, I could do nothing but to look horrified, and frightened, since he saw that I couldn’t play the game, which he took as an act of rebellion. I tried to do the exercises, but I really couldn’t. I was physically unable.
I tried to do sit-ups, and the guy counting mine would say one, two, shoo, poo, doo-doo, thirty six, forty-six, shorfy snix…and I would burst out laughing, after I had refused to laugh at Gunny’s nice jokes. My helper knew I was high (everybody did). But the Gunnery Sergeant didn’t think it was a bit funny.
Then, they carried us three miles down the road, in a personnel truck, and we were to run back, within the allotted time. When I tried to run, I could feel the liquid in my stomach washing violently up and down, back and forth. I couldn’t run at all. So I walked slowly on. Then the urge hit me, I needed to have a bowel movement. Luckily, I was all alone by then, everyone having run away, and I was next to some woods. So I got off the road, and went far enough to be out of site, and did my business. I must have cleaned up with leaves.
After so long, they actually got tired of waiting for me, and came to pick me up in a jeep.
The Gunny was convinced that I had done it all for spite, though he knew I was on drugs. I tried to claim illness. (Why hadn’t I stayed home in the bed?)! But the battle was on, between that man and me. He wrote me up for failure to obey a lawful order, in reference to my failure to run in the PFT test. The atmosphere became so poisoned, at my job, that it was intolerable. In the following days, they set up a scenario in the carpenter shop, and wrote me up for breaking a pencil (destruction of government property), and, since I had said that I never wanted to be a carpenter, the carpenter sergeant wrote me up again (at Gunny’s behest). I saw that they were really out to get me. In the coming weeks I became afraid for my safety.
It was very difficult, during the Vietnam war, to get out of the military. My luck again. In following years, I knew of people that simply got tired of it, and went home. In six months they sent them a general discharge. Not great, but not dishonorable.
But in those days, this was impossible. So, I applied for a discharge as a C.O., conscientious objector. My reasoning was that I had changed my mind about combat, and so, following my motto, ‘What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD)’, I thought that Jesus would be reluctant to shoot at those whom he came to save, even if they were slant-eyed commies.
Seriously, I had changed my mind. You may think, “How can this guy be sincerely concerned about what God’s view is toward military combat?” Well, remember, in my young, impressionable mind, the military machine, the people involved in pushing the war, had become the ‘bad guys’. So, in a world where things are seen in black versus white, if one side is bad, then, the other side must be good. Also, there were, in those times, a number of people who called themselves ‘Jesus freaks’. I had read some stuff about them, and had been in contact with one or two. They had a sort of liberal Christian philosophy, mixed with a bit of ‘hippie’ attitude. Personally, even though I was experimenting with substance abuse, my beliefs hadn’t changed. I felt I was a Christian, and had only opened up to new ways of looking at things. So I was not just using the C.O. thing as a convenient way to get out.
With the help of a military lawyer, I sent in an application. In a few weeks, I learned that it had been hopelessly sidetracked, meaning that it was stuck in some file cabinet, neither to be accepted nor denied. He advised me to try for a U.D., undesirable discharge. My lieutenant lawyer was sympathetic to my cause, so he told me how to do it. He could see that my situation was becoming untenable, that I might be in danger, if I stayed there.
So, I went on vacation. U.A., as the marines called it, unauthorized absence. In those days, they would come looking for you, so I had to go someplace other than my home town. So I went to Kentucky. I had a friend there, a student in Williamsburg, who knew where there was a small apartment for rent. I tried to sell paintings, in this small college town, but my style was to imitate those day-glo posters that they used to sell in the ‘head-shops’ of those times. I actually used fluorescent paint. But of course, it was impossible to make any money there, doing that.
After about three months, I was out of money, so I had to go back. This was part of the plan, anyway, in trying for a U.D. discharge. I turned myself in to my commanding officer. He sent me to my barracks.
Having been AWOL (army acronym) for so long, and then simply showing up again, with rather long hair, I had gained popularity among those who were sympathetic to my cause. And there were plenty of them, during the last months of the Vietnam war. ‘Shit-birds’, we were called, or dopers. Morale was very low among all the armed forces then.
So a group of us were sitting around in the barracks the next day, listening to Rock music and smoking pot. Again we see how wise I was even during those years. Suddenly, in bursts the drug task force. There were at least four of them. I swallowed a joint. But a stem or two, and a couple of seeds, had remained in my pocket. I was charged with possession of marijuana, for that miniscule amount. They told me not to leave base.
Which meant, of course, that it was high time to skedaddle out of there, fast! So off I went, again. I drove home to Tennessee, but I knew I couldn’t stay there for long, since that would be the first place that they would look for you. In those days, the local police would come to your family home to try to arrest you, if you were A.W.O.L. Somehow, I talked my Dad into taking me up to New York City, riding on the passenger side of his tractor-trailer rig. He happened to have a shipment going there, anyway. He talked to me the entire trip, about going back, and trying to make a go of it, trying to finish out my term of service in the Marines. But I knew that I’d burned my bridges behind me. Still, I wish I had listened to him.
In New York, I walked into a situation that I thought was heaven on earth, but almost became my complete un-doing. Doug had gotten a job at a pharmaceutical company. It was his first job, after graduating from the University of Tennessee. He married Linda, my best friend’s sister. So here is Doug, a young man, a long-haired man with his first job, and a lot of student-loan debt. His duties on this job, (can you believe this?) included disposing of out-dated drugs, pharmaceuticals that have been discontinued due to the fact that they were so fun to take that they were frightfully addicting. Now, I’m sure there was an incinerator, where these pills were supposed to go, but large baggies full of them made their way into Doug’s closet at home. From there, they were making their way into the streets of the city. Doug didn’t put them into the streets himself. He took many of these large baggies to a drug dealer who did that for him.
He didn’t mind if I took a few. These pills were various kinds of amphetamines, or speed, as it was called. Speed, I soon found out, makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning, then you morph into a rock-star, whose time for fame and glory has finally come. The only draw-back, at first, is they tend to make you nervous as well. You become ‘jittery’. Well, this drug company had discovered what they felt was the answer for that jittery feeling. They had actually mixed in with these pills a barbiturate, an old-fashioned, powerful nerve pill, to calm you down. So, there you are, on the mountain-top, so full of power, energy, and glory that you fairly sparkle, and at the same time, completely calm. You have no worries, no fears, like a drunk. But you’re not drunk. You are the opposite of drunk; you’re supremely alert, alive, and capable of any task.
So what did I do, under the influence of this wonderful advancement in the world of super-drugs? I sat down, put on some head-phones, and began to listen to music (way too loud) non-stop for the rest of the day. And when everyone else went to bed, I kept up this endless session of audio joy all night long. The next morning, all I needed was to swallow another handful of these, and I was ready to do it all over again. This went on for nearly a week.
The only problem was this: the whole experience was a fraud, a deception. For one thing, I accomplished absolutely nothing while on these pills. Oh, I went out for a ride in the car with Doug and Linda once or twice, but mostly I just sat in a recliner, listening to records. Something else I didn’t do, was to eat. It’s the reason that these drugs used to be used as diet pills, before they realized that the side effects were too devastating to justify the temporary weight loss. So, for days, I ate absolutely nothing. Needless to say, I stopped going to the toilet. I drank a little water, after I realized that I hadn’t done so in a while. But I didn’t feel that I needed to eat at all. I thought everything was great. I had to increase my dosage quite a bit, every day. I found out where they were hidden, and so every time I found myself alone, I could simply go and fill up my pockets with the things. I don’t remember how many days I’d gone on like this. It was at least five days, maybe more. I never slept, never stopped listening to music. There were a couple of books there that I read, and I think I learned everything about some swami-author of some kind of esoteric meditation. I became his ardent follower.
Obviously, I could not continue as I was. Even Doug realized this, and told me to stop taking the pills. Oddly, I agreed. After some hours, I began to be intoxicated, like a drunk person. After it was over, we figured out that the amphetamine (speed) had begun to wear off, and the barbiturate (nerve pill) had built up in my system so much that I became quite ‘drunk’ on it. I went to sleep, in my clothes, on the couch. That’s where I stayed, for three days straight. Never got up to pee. Nothing, no food, no stirring at all. They said my breathing became very slow. They were worried that I might die. But Doug had a closet full of the very substance that would be found in my blood, if they took me to the hospital. He was so afraid of getting busted for having these drugs, he’d decided that he couldn’t take me to the hospital. So much for the wonderful loving nature of drug devotees of the hippie movement.
Finally, I woke up. But my God, did I ever feel bad. I was a strong, healthy young man when I’d arrived. Now, I was weak, and sick. They hid the pills from me. I could plainly see, then, what had happened. I knew I had to get straightened out. But the ensuing withdrawal symptoms, and the extreme depression made me look for the pills, ‘till I found some. But though there were many of them, I only took about three tablets. For me, it was only enough to ease the sick feeling I had. I didn’t take any more, having learnt my lesson. I was depressed for a long time after that experience. As a matter of fact, I had depressive tendencies for years. Medical science and psychiatry now understand that such drug abuse permanently injures the brain, to some extent. I can attest to the truth of that.
The only good thing that came out of it, I had a perfect understanding of the ‘roller-coaster’ effect of drugs. That is, one gets high, yes, but then you pay for it when you come down. The important thing to know, is that you more than pay for it. If it were an even swap, good for bad, then one might justify taking drugs. But the truth is that one pays much more than the temporary enjoyment of the high. Perhaps this early experience “immunized” me from the later inventions of street meth (methamphetamine), and crack cocaine, drugs with similar kinds of effects.
Doug had to pay for my bus fare back to Tennessee. My memory of this is very sketchy. I must have rested a few days, and then returned to the Marine base, turning myself in again.
You see, this was part of the strategy, in my quest to get an ‘undesirable’ discharge, a U.D. My Marine lawyer had coached me, as to the behavior that would result in getting this kind of discharge. I would go AWOL repeatedly, turning myself in every time. I expected to be put into the ‘brig’ (military jail).
I suppose a lot of people will think I should be ashamed of this behavior. I agree that it was a mistake, joining in the first place. Then, after I had joined, yes, I should have completed my obligation, and served out my term of enlistment. I would have certainly been better off, in every way. But remember, this was a time when the Vietnam War was still going on. I had truly become a conscientious objector to the war. I had grown to hate President Nixon, as the one main obstacle to ending the war. There were lots of people who were protesting the war, and in the process, were going to jail, and even being shot by National Guard soldiers, as in the Kent State incident.
I had applied for a Conscientious Objector discharge, and that had been scuttled, had failed. So, in my mind, I had only one choice, at that point. I had to follow through, whatever the cost, and get out by whatever means possible. If I had tried to stay in, after being branded a doper and an anti-war hippie, they would have made my life miserable. Tensions and emotions were running high, on both sides of this war issue, at that time. I believe my life would have been in danger, had I stayed in. Plus, at the time, I actually felt a lot of pride, as one who was taking an active stand, a protest against the war in Vietnam.
So, I just showed-up at my base one night. They sent me to my room, to sleep, with instructions to report to the Colonel in the morning.
This must have amounted to a bad morning for this commanding officer. I did put on a dress uniform, and, marched in to stand before him. But I had no apologies, no excuses, no desire to communicate at all. All I had was what he must have seen as a really flippant attitude. All I wanted was to convince him that I needed to be kicked out of the military, after all.
“Well, Private Ashez, why is your shirt so wrinkled? Don’t you have an iron?”
“I guess I didn’t think it mattered much.”
“Why are you grinning at me, and rocking back and forth, like that? Private, what do you want?”
“I want out.”
God, did he ever get hot at this point.
“You’ll be remanded into custody in the brig until further notice, pending court-martial!” He thundered. “Now, get out of my office. Wait in that room for the MPs, to take you to jail.”
I thought the brig was bad, at the time, but looking back, and knowing now what it’s like in the general prison system, it wasn’t really so bad. (Though I’ve never been in jail, other than this one time in the brig). The worst part was not knowing when I would get out. In my case, it was an open question. There was strict discipline, and we didn’t lay around in the bed all day, either. We had to go out on a work detail, or, if you refused, you had to sit upright, on your hard, wooden locker. In the evening, we watched television.
I did see one big Texan kind of go crazy. I don’t know what he did to get thrown into the brig, but he had an attitude that simply was not compatible with the military.
I was standing in line with him, and we were supposed to be standing at ‘parade-rest’ position. It’s something between ‘at-ease’, and ‘attention’. Well, he was standing any old way he wanted to, and talking loudly, which wasn’t permitted. A sergeant walked by, and, noticing this Texan, said, “Hey, boy, aren’t you supposed to be standing at parade-rest?”
Tex said, “You come here! You blanket-blank you-know-what! I’ll show you parade-rest! Come here, damn you!”
The sergeant kept walking.
Then, that night, they put that Texan in solitary confinement. He started yelling, non-stop, “Let me outta here! You blank-blank, bleep-bleep, rotten sons of blankity-blanks!”
And he wouldn’t stop. He kept the whole brig awake, officers and all, for hours. You had to feel sorry for him. They left him there to wear himself out with yelling.
I was lucky to have a good lawyer, who liked me, and became sympathetic to my cause. He’d seen how they side-tracked my application for a C.O. discharge. He managed to get me out of the Marine Corps with a U.D. What my commanding officer had wanted for me was a general court-martial, which would have led to what was called, ‘six-six-and a kick’. Six months in jail, six months suspension of pay, and a Bad Conduct Discharge. As it turned out, I ended up spending 45 days in the brig. I was given a bus ticket back to Tennessee. That was the last thing I got from the military, having no benefits because of the kind of discharge I received.
So I was out, after spending one year doing well, in the Marines, and one year trying to get a discharge. By the way, they neglected to demote me, so I may be the only private-first-class with an undesirable discharge.
After the Military,
I ended up staying with Mom and Dad, at home, for a while.
In the process of writing this, at this point I am realizing just how foggy my recollection of this time is, the time when I got out of the Marines, and my parents got a divorce. I don’t know the order in which things happened. This makes it difficult for me to proceed with any kind of history, since, by definition, history is supposed to be arranged in chronological order. It tells the reader what came first, what came next, and et cetera. As I’ve said, this must be a result of the marijuana I’ve smoked over the years, primarily, among other drug abuse, and the alcohol use as well. These things can be devastating to the memory. I wish I hadn’t abused my brain as I have. I know I would have a clearer view of my past if I had been straight.
So I must beg for the pardon of the reader, now. I must simply do the best I can. I can tell the stories, the things that happened, and say, “It happened around that time, I think.”
When I got out of the Marines, Dad and Mom were still together. For how long, I don’t know. It was at this time, that some friends I had made in Kentucky came to the house, and asked me if I knew where they could find some pot. Yes, they came from another state. Well, actually, they had a dual purpose, in coming. They lived in a dry county, and the closest place for them to buy liquor, was in Tennessee.
Anyway, we drove around, and could not find anything. But my Dad heard us talking, and at that point, basically kicked me out of the house for trying to help them get drugs.
I moved in with my best-friend, Ray Ranier, and his girlfriend, Sara. Actually, the head of the household was Millard, Sara’s alcoholic father. This was a crazy time in my life. This house was an absolute wreck. There was trash piled high on the back porch. We had rats.
We never had any food in the cupboard, or in the refrigerator, because, if you ever put anything in there, the next day, it would be gone, mysteriously. Well, it wasn’t really such a mystery; Sara had a lot of young friends, and since they were teen-agers, and needed a place to drink and take drugs, they would come and go all the time. As a resident there, it was always shocking to come home and find a bunch of people there, eating your food, and passing out on your bed. It caused me to have recurring dreams in which my home is being taken over by people I don’t know. So after a few months, a friend of mine went in together with me, and we rented a tiny store-front in town. The idea was that I would sell my paintings, and paint signs, and he would make and sell hippie head-shop type crafts. We would also be living there. This was a crazy time in my life.
The only problem with this store-front was that it didn’t have running water, and, oh, yeah, no toilet. But, we were determined to make this thing work, so we moved in. The one good thing about it, we were located next to a gas station, which did have a toilet. So, can you believe it? In the middle of the night, when I got up to pee, I would have to put on my clothes, and go next-door, to the gas station.
Looking back, now, the absurdity of this whole thing is really funny. The only thing I can say, in my defense, is that we were young. I think I was 19. And, one night, the place did come in handy, for a pretty young girl and me. She came, banging on my door, at about two o’clock in the morning, drunk. She planted a big kiss on my mouth, as soon as she stepped in. Then she began to push me toward my bed, which was a mattress on the floor. That’s a good memory, only my roommate thought we were inconsiderate of his presence on the other side of the room, in his mattress on the floor.
Needless to say, this arrangement didn’t last long, either.
During this time,
the early and mid-seventies, there were a lot of concerts in Knoxville. It was just about thirty miles away, and, in those days, concerts were cheap. The philosophy among the promoters was that the concert tour would be a loser, financially, and they more than made it up through record sales. So concerts were for everybody. Even if you had no car, and no money, you could just get a ride with a friend, then stand at the door, saying, “Spare change?” And in thirty minutes, you would have the seven bucks to get in. If you didn’t get the money from begging, about half-way through the concert, they usually stopped watching the entrance, and sometimes you could sneak in for free.
Now, I’m going to write about some of the things that I did back in those days. I want to say plainly that I do not endorse taking drugs, or living a wild lifestyle. There were some good times, and there were a lot of bad times. I paid a high price, for some things, in terms of damaged health, and emotional scars. And I was lucky. Many times, I could have died from an overdose, or a heart attack, or in an auto accident. I could have got in trouble with the police, and ended up in jail, with a criminal record.
Many young people in rural America end up in bad auto accidents. I have relatives that have been killed at a young age, tragically. After seeing how young people live in Europe, and giving it some thought, I have come to some conclusions. There is very little for young people to do, in many small towns, across the USA. This lack of opportunities for activities leads many of our young people into taking drugs, and drinking alcohol. They either end up just ‘hanging around’ or, worse, when they get a car, they get a group of noisy friends to distract their already inexperienced driving skills, and ride around, getting high. I know how this is done, from lots of personal experience, when I was young.
In Europe it is much better for young people. In Prague, and even in smaller Bratislava, there was public transport, all over town, and leading into the surrounding towns. It was open until late at night. I often saw young people, even quite young girls, going about late at night on the subway, or on the street-cars. Sometimes you could tell that some of them had been drinking (not the very young girls), but they weren’t as likely to be hurt in some accident, as they would if they were an American kid, driving around. And there were so many things for them to do. There are swimming pools open late, all year round, and theatres (cinemas also, but I am speaking of actors doing plays on stage). Every night, there were at least twenty places where bands were performing, and people were there dancing. There were shopping malls open late.
But, sadly, ironically, public transportation is only for poor small countries overseas, not for most cities and towns here in the richest country on earth. Here, we have to reserve most of the money for the top one percent, the “job-creators”, so some of it can “trickle-down” to the 99%, one of these days. However, I’ve been waiting since the days of Ronald Reagan to see this “trickle-down” effect.
This story comes from a part of my life that represents my wild side. In subsequent years I would change, suddenly, and get all religious again.
Unfortunately, I have to admit to being somewhat like the pendulum on a clock, during my early years. My character seemed to swing back and forth. I would be doing fine, going to church, then, either gradually or suddenly, get more and more crazy, daring, and irresponsible. And it didn’t happen only once. I regret this. I feel stupid for doing it.
What’s more, I was radical, on either side of the fence; when I got enthusiastic about reforming, I would go to churches that were stricter than my parent’s church. I went to the Church of God. And this was in the early seventies, before the Church of God got modern. I sought out authoritarian ‘prophets’, leaders of small cultish groups, that were more conservative than the Church of God. I preached in the streets. But when I first got out of the Marines, during the period before and after my parents were divorced, I was busy trying to fulfill my ‘hippy dream’. And I was radical about that.
A Johnny Winter concert was coming to town, so I had to go to see him. In the process of checking around, to try to find something to get high on, I ran into Johnny Webb. He said that Woodpecker had some ‘acid’ (a slang term for LSD). Commentary: to begin with, this is an insane plan. We were going to take LSD, then drive to Knoxville, from Clifton (about twenty miles), then drive back?
But we found Woodpecker, and he had this ‘blotter’ acid. It meant that the tiny dose of the drug was just put onto paper, a paper with little Mickey Mouse faces on it. Each face was supposed to have one dose on it.
He warned us, or was this a sales gimmick? “I’m tellin’ you guys, this is really strong stuff. You gotta be real careful, ya know what I mean?”
If it was a warning, we didn’t take it as such. We just thought we were in for a good trip. I remember that we tried to divide it up into half-doses, by ripping Micky’s face in half. But the bad thing about blotter acid, the drug had been put onto the faces by a dropper, by hand, and you never knew exactly where the drop had landed. Add this to the wildly differing strengths, from one batch of LSD to the next, and the unpredictability of the effectiveness of the stuff, and, in our case, unbeknown to us, an insidious contaminant, the poison, strychnine.
I don’t know why, but strychnine would turn up in the LSD sometimes, back then. It’s easy to know when you’ve got it in your system, because it has such a distinctive set of effects on your physiology. Woodpecker certainly must have been aware of it, when he sold us the stuff.
We got there, and went in. The warm-up band must have played, then Johnny Winter came onto the stage.
I remember it very clearly. To everyone else, it was simply great music, rock and roll blues. But to me, it seemed like it was just an extremely loud screeching noise, that wouldn’t stop.
We were standing on the floor section. Then, the next thing I know, the people behind me were lifting me up, I had begun falling back onto them.
They were concerned about me.“Are you OK, big guy?”
“Wha? Oh, yeah, sure. Sorry.” I was regaining full consciousness. It was a momentary lapse.
The screeching continued. I looked at Johnny, and he had a look of bewildered horror on his face. I knew he felt the same way I was feeling.
I said, “You ready to get out of here?”
“Yeah, man, let’s go.”
We began to walk toward the exit. But where was the exit? We ended up in some long corridor that seemed to lead to nowhere. A number of stern-looking men were staring at us. They must have been employees of the ‘coliseum’. Johnny was terrified. So was I. We kept walking.
I was saying, “They can’t carry us, because we aint bust nothing.” I meant to say that they couldn’t bust us (arrest us), since we weren’t ‘carrying’ (we didn’t have any drugs on us). But I couldn’t get it out right.
We walked up on Woodpecker, who was with a group of people. We said, “Hey, Woodpecker, how could you do this to us? Did you know this would happen to us?”
“I told you, man, you gotta be careful with it. It’s real good stuff.”
We walked around for what seemed like a long time, then we finally found ourselves on the outside, on the opposite side from Johnny’s car.
We walked to the car, got in, and began to discuss what was going on. We could hear the music of the concert.
“We’re really f___ed up, ain’t we?” HaHaHaHaHaHa!
“Yeah, but why are they playing so loud?”
“Shit, I don’t know, man, it’s unreal, ain’t it?” HaHaHaHaHaHa!
We were laughing, uncontrollably, but soon, we realized we weren’t really having fun. My sides were hurting, from the laughing, but also from an unnatural tightness. And my heart was beating too fast. It was so obviously abnormal, that I was worried. But, though I was not enjoying it, I couldn’t stop laughing. We understood that we had gotten hold of some bad acid. We were mad at Woodpecker. We knew the signs of strychnine, the tight chest, and racing heart.
We sat there, talking, trying to figure out what to do. Not that we had any idea what to do. Leaving, by driving away, hadn’t occurred to us, at all.
I know this next part is part comes from my drugged point of view, but it seemed to me that things outside the car went into ‘fast-forward’. Very quickly, everyone in the concert hall came streaming out, and left, leaving me and Johnny there alone. It seemed a shocking chain of events, to me.
Next, I found out that Johnny wasn’t quite as messed-up as I was. Because he decided to drive home. I couldn’t possibly have driven, in my state of mind. I was scared all the long way back to Clinton. It seemed that he drove way too fast, in my opinion. But he got me to the store, the turn-off to go to my house. I told him to drop me off, and I walked the rest of the way. It wasn’t easy, because, though I had begun to come down, my heart continued to race. I think I lay in bed awake till morning, just thinking a mile-a-minute, wishing it would be over. It’s a wonder I hadn’t had a heart attack that night.
The rest of my drug-related experiences around that time consisted of a lot of riding around smoking marijuana, with Ray’s girlfriend, Sara, and her little friend, who later became my friend for that one night in our ‘art-shop’. Sometimes Ray and I would get together and take some of that same amphetamine that I had taken so much of in New York. We just talked and talked. Then for days I would be depressed, as a sort of hang-over effect from the speed.
Jobs I’ve Had
I really have had a lot of different jobs. My philosophy, when I was young, was that one had to have a job, at all times. If I couldn’t get a good job, then I figured I would take whatever came along, and do that until something better turned up. But I was actually foolish for putting myself into positions that were quite a waste of time.
I had a job with the Trailways bus company, loading and unloading freight on the buses. I was so eager to get a job, that I’d gone to an employment agency. In those days these employment agencies operated differently. This particular agency was a shady outfit, indeed. The way it went, you went in and they got you a job, and they were to collect a certain percentage of your pay, over some certain number of months. That sounds fair, right? But after I’d worked only a few days, they invoiced me for their entire fee, payable immediately. This system is illegal now. But I fell for it, and somehow I paid them.
Then it turned out to be a back-breaking dead-end job. Many people don’t know that these buses are used to haul freight, as well as passengers. There were sacks of potatoes, and other large, heavy items, that had to be loaded into the luggage bins under the floor of the buses. Even as a strong, young man, it wore me out. I quit in a month, making only a little more, in total, than I paid the employment agency.
I worked for in an envelope factory, for a few months. They were abusive as hell, to their workers, and paid minimum wage, which I think was about $4.40 an hour, in those days.
I washed cars, in one of those old car washes, where a lot of it was done by hand. It wasn’t all automated, like it is now. Once again, though I had been a farm worker, and a Marine, the work was just so hard as to be unbearable.
I tried to sell vacuum cleaners. Tried to sell a sort of multi-volume Bible and commentary. There is nothing worse than being a door-to-door salesman. Once I noticed a woman in the window of a house, and approached it with my Bibles. She opened the door for me, as soon as I got to it. There she was, not unattractive, and dressed like she had just gotten out of bed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I remember that her look was that of the sex-starved housewife, ready for some mid-day action with a young man (me). But, as I said, I was blithely ignorant of her intentions. And my sales pitch, with these Bible books, was to simply ask right up front, “May I ask if you, are a Christian?” So I did.
I never saw anyone change their demeanor so rapidly, so drastically. She actually began to cry, and quickly shut the door, leaving me alone on the porch, to consider what had just happened. I just thought, “Wow. You never know what you’re going to run into.”
I worked as an assistant to an auctioneer, which was actually a good job. I got to drive around in Sam Furrow’s El Camino, to various auction sites. This vehicle had one of the early car-phones installed in it. It looked like a home phone, but the base was bigger. People would stare at you, if they saw you speaking on a phone in a car, in those days. It was very unusual.
But my boss had a powerful business partner, who took a liking to me, unfortunately, and took me away from Sam, the auctioneer. He put me in one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had; steam-cleaning garbage trucks! And he was terrible to work for. He had been a military man. (If he had known I had been kicked out of the Marines, he would have had a fit). He would come around every day, and get right up in my face and say, “Do you like your job?”
“Yeah.” I said, unconvincingly.
He invariably would then say, “Huh?”
“Well, OK then!” He would say.
These filthy trucks would have to be steam-cleaned. The garbage would fly in every direction, covering me with filth, after only a few minutes on the job. Once, something blew back into my eye, though I wore glasses. I had to have it removed in an emergency room. It was a small thing; but for years, I saw a tiny black spot, where it had been.
Since we steam-cleaned the engines, they often wouldn’t start. Then we had to spray starting fluid into the carburetor, in order to get the truck started, and moved out of the way. This caused an engine fire, more than once. We would put it out, with a fire extinguisher. Can you believe that he bitched about us using up too many fire extinguishers? I suppose we should have thrown our bodies on the flames to put them out. What we really should have done was to just let the whole business burn to the ground, rescuing only the unused fire extinguishers to proudly show him.
But I stayed with the job for about five months. He made me work overtime every day, for ‘straight pay’! A year or so after this job, I got a check from them. Someone else had reported him, and the company had been forced to pay all of the overtime back-pay.
I was hired to work for Southern Insulation Company, for the purpose of removing an old, giant, walk-in freezer. It was a huge room, the walls entirely covered with thick insulation, of uncertain composition. One component was fiberglass, and from all of the floating dust, which hung in the air all day, I know the other component was asbestos. Those white paper face-masks were the only protection we were given, to protect us from breathing in this dust. It was terrible. We were promised full-time jobs, at Southern, but as soon as the job was done, we were all permanently laid-off. Obviously, they were shielding themselves from any future lawsuits, as a result of our exposure to the asbestos, and the possibility of our getting mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. This is what John Wayne died of, by the way. Remember those winter scenes in the movies, with the white stuff falling? Asbestos.
I became a plasma donor, at a blood bank. This is similar to being a blood donor, but since they put your red cells back into you, I could come every two weeks. With my type of blood, I qualified for a special program that paid double the amount collected by the other donors. Over some years, I did this over a hundred times.
I worked for minimum wage at Camel Tent Company, for a few months.
At some point in time, around this general period, I had met my first girlfriend. She was a big, beautiful girl. By big, I don’t mean fat. Mona was just big for her age, being only sixteen years old. Well, I was just 18 or so.
Luckily, her parents liked me. And they knew I wasn’t the first man she had been with. Somehow, I rented a small apartment in her town, nearby, so we would have a place to be together. Mona was my first love. The words that come to mind, when I think of her, are the words, soft, and smooth. She had a nearly perfect figure, in a voluptuous sort of way. Nice, long, light brown hair that blew easily in a little breeze.
We had a bunch of fun together, mostly in bed. I remember feeling that for the first time in my life, something was going right. I had always been shy with girls. I was stupid, in the way that some quite young men can be stupid, when it came to women. But with Mona, somehow it seemed that everything I did was right in tune.
Unfortunately, after maybe four months, I simply caught her in bed with another boy. At the time, I blamed it on her completely. But, looking back, I suppose I had been trying to ‘play married’ with her, as if I was her owner. She was too young to handle that kind of commitment. So our relationship went sour. I’d taken our affair a lot more seriously than she had. That has been a repeating theme in my relationships with women. There haven’t been many of them, and I always took relationships seriously. I was either planning for an eventual marriage, or hoping that it would come to that.
I did get married, three times, in later years, but not to Mona. But she was my first heartbreak. I reckon as a result of my break-up with her, along with the other changes, I began to feel kind of messed up. It might have been depression and maybe a generalized sort of anxiety, relating to my many short-term jobs, that led me to turn back to my faith.
So I made a major change. I got religious, again. I suppose I should say, “I got right with God”. It was a flip-flop for me, having been quite hedonistic for some time.
I denounced drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I announced that I’d had an epiphany, and vowed to become a Christian, and even a preacher of the gospel.
I was serious about my newly-discovered faith. Stopped all drugs and drinking. I began to speak with a friend’s father about the Bible. Frank Webster was happy to know that I had straightened up, and he wanted to make sure I had enough faith to last me. He began to speak to me about “getting the Holy Ghost”. You see, all of this is important, if I’m going to explain my spiritual journey over these years. I had been a Baptist, and Baptists didn’t speak of “getting the Holy Ghost”. They talked of “receiving the Holy Spirit.” One would think it should be about the same thing, wouldn’t you? But it’s the difference between what is called the “Pentecostal” Christians, and the other kinds. The Pentecostals supposedly have an extra experience, and they liken it to that of the early Christians, on the day of Pentecost.
But for the sake of finishing my former point, I won’t broach this subject now. Let’s just say that I had the Pentecostal experience. In a few weeks, I began my ministry, by getting a radio broadcast slot on a little local station, on Sunday mornings. Even though this was not expensive, doing the half-hour radio sermons, it cost more than I had to spare. I was certain that enthusiastic listeners, and friends in the church, would support me in it. Ha- ha.
But, you see, there was a palpable lack of support for me, in my sincere efforts to become ‘on fire for God’, as the saying goes. If I’d simply gone to my old Baptist church and publicly repented, and blended in with the crowd, everything would have been simple. But I went to my pastor and asked him about “all of this Holy Ghost stuff, that the Pentecostals talk about.”
Well, That was one of the first times I ran into that ‘brick wall’, as I call it, a now familiar tendency of the clergy to be totally closed off, in their minds, from anything that doesn’t jive with their particular denomination of Christianity. Now, it’s easy for me to understand. It’s the old adage, “He knows which side his bread is buttered on.” In other words, the minister’s pay-check is dependent upon his complete agreement with his church’s teachings.
It’s just like the so-called climatologist who comes on television, and confidently proclaims that there’s no link between burning fossil fuels, and global warming. If you check it, you’ll find that his research is funded by a consortium of coal-fired power plants, or by the Koch brothers, or their brainchild, the Heritage foundation, who have worked tirelessly for years to pass their corporate fairy-tales off as legitimate science. It never ceases to amaze me, how a person’s opinions always seem to line up perfectly with the one who is signing the paychecks.
After speaking with the Baptists, I just went and joined the Pentecostals, who did give me some minimal level of encouragement, though they were always suspicious of new converts, who suddenly decide that they are ‘called to preach’. Maybe they’re right, in that.
[For commentary concerning this subject, the Pentecostal experience, see the section, “A Journey Through Controversy”]
It was about this time when I became acquainted with the people at The King’s Chapel, in Knoxville. There was a man there at the Church of God, Frank Keck, who had befriended me. He was close to my age, only a little older, and he encouraged me to go with him to the ‘King’s Chapel, a little Church in Knoxville. The King’s Chapel people were Pentecostals, though they were independent of any denomination. They were even more radical than the Church of God. They were street-preachers. Our pastor was a modern-day prophet, but a kind and humble man, unlike some of the other ‘prophets’.
It is embarrassing to me, when I think of how changeable I was in my young days. I was so serious, to begin with, about being a Marine. Then, when I became suddenly disillusioned with that, I became very serious about being a modern person, a liberal hippie, a freedom and thrill-seeker type. And then, in the tradition of the Southern Baptists, I felt that I could be transformed instantly into a dedicated Christian, with some kind of future as a minister, no less.
Well, that is the gospel they preach. There are many instances of such transformations in people. But, alas, there are many cases of temporary reform, something that only lasts for varying periods, before falling back into their old ways.
Often, people tend to gradually change, to some extent, becoming more conservative, or less conservative. They morph, over time, to be more constrained, in their habits, more fervent, in their beliefs, or, otherwise they may stray back into old habits and attitudes, over a long time. But I have been prone to radical shifts, as if I did a ‘flip-flop’ of the soul. During the times when I was religious, I was wrong to expect people to take me so seriously, when they could well remember that I was a new convert. During the times when I lapsed back into old ways, I expected people to be tolerant. And that was unreasonable.
But at that time, I was “on fire for God”, as they said. We were all quite serious about our faith, in The King’s Chapel. It was a small group, about 25 people, who met in our small church.
Our pastor, a gentle, elderly fellow, Brother Bryant, had spent most of his life in preaching on the street. He would gather with a couple of friends, on a street corner, a busy one, and begin by passing out gospel tracts. Then he would shout out to the passers-by, “Hey my friends, I come to you today in the name of The Lord Jesus! I want to tell you today how much he loves you, each and every one!”
It was always an uplifting, welcoming message of love. Never did he lash out at people, even if they were rude, or ignored him completely. After a short sermon, he would step aside, and it was time for one of us to step out onto the edge of the sidewalk, and start in where he finished. It was truly wonderful, in a way. It was so other-worldly, so unusual, for people to stand in the street and preach, and the fact that it was a happy, friendly message made it all work.
Of course, we didn’t draw a lot of converts to the faith, though we did occasionally attract some like-minded preachers, amateur preachers, like us.
I only did this a few times. Most of the time, I would just be there for support, and pass out tracts. A few times, though, I got a ‘leading from the Lord’, and went to some nearby town alone, and just started preaching, on the sidewalk, in some high-traffic area. But these adventures didn’t ever turn out the way I thought they might. They never turned out badly, but it seemed a bit forced, a bit too strange. I don’t know why I didn’t try to get someone to go with me, which would’ve been much better.
I had my radio broadcasts, with probably an audience of four or five sleepy old folks, since I had an early Sunday morning spot. And occasionally, some preacher would let me ‘take the pulpit’ for a Wednesday evening meeting.
So there I was, a special messenger for Jesus and Jehovah, after having been such a dedicated flower-child, rock-and-roller type only a few months before. Amazing, isn’t it? How about, embarrassing. I’m not sorry that I became a dedicated Christian, nor am I very ashamed about being so influenced by the popular culture of that time. I just seems so unseemly to have gone back and forth between these polar extremes, in such a short time.
But back to my work history.
For about six months, I worked a Daniel Arthur Rehabilitation Center, a school for “special” students. I drove a school-bus (really a van), and during the day, I was an assistant teacher, in a class of emotionally troubled kids, between 12 and 14 years old.
It was one of those wonderful institutions that used to exist before Ronald Reagan closed most of them down to save money, in order to provide tax breaks for the rich. We had many kinds of students there, mentally retarded students, students with psychological problems, even students with discipline problems, various kinds of learning disabilities, Down’s syndrome students, blind, deaf. When the Republicans came to power, they simply shut the school down. Since then, those who had affluent families were sent to private institutions. But in East Tennessee, most of our students were either funneled into the regular school system, or they were just kept at home, dropping out of school and society. Of course it was a disaster, when it was shut down, for all of these students and families.
In Europe, I saw many blind, and handicapped people going about in society, on their own. At first, I thought there were many more of these kinds of people in Europe, and that the numbers must be less in the USA. But since then, I have found out that since we don’t have public transport in most towns of America, leaving the car as the only means of transport, most blind and handicapped people simply stay at home. So the general public doesn’t see them, as a rule. We all think there must be very few of them. But we’re wrong. In Europe, and in most developed countries, these kinds of people are much better provided for, than here in the richest nation on earth. We’ve been convinced by the fiscally conservative politicians, ever since Reagan, that we simply can’t afford to educate them, train them for jobs, and provide transport for them.
Working at Daniel Arthur School was a rewarding job, in that it was wonderful to have fun relationships with the kids, but we were horribly underpaid, for what turned out to be a long day. And there were stresses involved, such as keeping discipline on the bus, with such a various group of children. Sometimes their interactions were upsetting for some of them. One child might be, perhaps, emotionally disturbed, sitting next to a retarded child, alongside another who had discipline problems. So it was sometimes difficult to keep things under control.
I always heard that if you hung around crazy people, you would pick up their crazy ways. I knew this was just a joke, but, actually, it really worked out that way for me. There was one boy, about 13 years old, who had a speech impediment. Every time he saw or heard something astonishing, he would exclaim, “Lordy mercy!” Well, with his speech impediment, it sounded like “wodey mushy!” I thought this was hilarious, and began to use it myself, when I wasn’t at school. For thirty years, I would say “wodey mushy!” Just to amuse myself. Still do. There were other little things that I picked up from them.
Another interesting aspect of my position, as an assistant teacher, I was under the constant supervision of two regular teachers. When I was at Daniel Arthur, I was in my Church of God phase. So I was quite the Christian fundamentalist, at that time. Well, the teachers I worked with were perfectly liberal intellectuals, from Massachusetts. Shiper, as we called him, was nominally Catholic, with long hair, and a beard. Jane Nell was an atheist.
I had been an amateur hippy, for a while, before I got religion, so you would think that we would have gotten along great. But one day, Shiper said, “Holy Mother of God!” And, having never heard such a thing, I broke out with a little laugh, and when he looked at me, I actually ridiculed him. “Mother of God. Really.” You see, Protestants never speak of Mary as “Mother of God”, and this is one of the main points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, the veneration of Mary. There was a lot of stress between us, so it was no surprise when I quit. They had reduced our pay suddenly. The County had sold the bus system into private hands, and the new owners were trying to cut costs. An early manifestation of the privatization craze. I mentioned that we were underpaid already.
Having been through these trials must have contributed to my joy at finding a job that at least had some meaning, and some potential for advancement. I became an orderly, in the University of Tennessee Hospital. In those days, this was an entry-level job, with low pay, but it was, at least, meaningful work, requiring a lot of on-the-job training. There’s no such thing, anymore. It was replaced by the newer position called ‘nurse’s assistant’. And, now, it requires a degree.
As an orderly, I did assist the nurses, and did some specific jobs that were deemed to be simple enough for a non-professional worker. We did a lot of heavy-lifting, and a lot of ‘dirty work’. But we worked with the patients, helping with simple medical tasks. We checked temperatures, cleaned up messes, and sometimes, we substituted for nursing assistants, taking ‘TPR’ (Temperature, Pulse, Respiration).
I think of those days now, as a wonderful time in my life. I was in my early twenties, and so it was no problem for me to run up and down the staircases, between the different floors. We normally served on two or three floors, so I walked almost continually back and forth between them.
It was during my first strongly Christian ‘phase’, so I was happy to be able to help people, to greet the patients, to help them with things they needed, to make them feel good. I looked at it as a ministry, and it really was that. I got a wonderful feeling when helping an elderly person to eat, or when getting them a drink.
I was interested in medicine, not as in becoming a doctor, but I considered going into nursing. I’ve often wished I had pursued this. But I was learning, and taking pride in doing a good job, in being helpful to the patients, nurses, and doctors. I did well for a while, for about ten months. I was going to church, and of course, not drinking or doing any drugs. I had changed.
One interesting story from this time, has to do with a patient I was working with, who turned out to be a doctor. There were some things I did, as an orderly, that required a good bit of training. One of these was the procedure for catheterizing male patients. It is learned during the OJT period (on the job training). I had watched an experienced orderly carry out the procedure a number of times, until he decided that it was my turn to try it myself.
So we entered the patient’s room, and it was a middle-aged man, who was obviously in a hurry to get this done. You see, it has to do with inserting a tube into the penis, so that the urine is drained into a storage bag. This fellow had been unable to urinate for some hours, and so, was beginning to feel very stressed about it.
So, I hurried, and immediately got the ‘kit’ opened, and soon he was happily relieved. I’d done a good job, but he could see that I had been coached, as to proper procedure, by the other orderly.
He didn’t say, “Was this your first time, doing a catheterization?” But he must have suspected. He said, “Did you know I’m a doctor?”
I was shocked. If I’d known that, I would’ve been even more nervous than I was, doing it for the first time. We said No, we hadn’t guessed that.
He laughed, and said, “You know, when I first became an orderly, years ago, and was training, I did my first ‘cath’ on this man, and didn’t have any idea that he was a doctor. When I found out, afterwards, I was flabbergasted.”
Of course, this was a remarkable coincidence. But, I guess we didn’t want him to know that we had used him as a training subject, so, we didn’t say anything at all about it, didn’t tell him that it was my first time as well. We just walked out without saying much.
There was a ward for psychiatric patients at this hospital, and I found myself working there on one or two occasions. I guess I’m interested in crazy people. I’ve never forgotten some of these experiences. There was one foreign woman there, a patient; and as a psychiatric patient, you would assume that she didn’t need any extra stress from the other patients. But there was this older guy there, who somehow had the illusion that he could speak in foreign languages. He would repeatedly try to communicate with her, upsetting her to no end.
He’d say something like, “Shlimmity bli bell, be stoffeny!”
And she would just say something in her language, probably, “I don’t understand, you jackass!” And look at us, as if to say, “Get this fool away from me.” But he would come out with something else, in gibberish, which seemed to mean, “Why won’t you speak to me, I know you understand me.” But it was really something crazy, like, “Bib bibbity bip, kip kippa dream.” We would gently take him by the arm, leading him away from her, and trying to get him to stop it. But he kept on trying in vain to speak to her, and seemed hurt that she wouldn’t acknowledge his language skills.
This same guy would speak gibberish to us as well. It was funny. He’d blurt out, “Hip hippa the bibbitz!”
We would look at him, and at each other, and say, “Excuse me?”
He had a reply ready. “I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I’m just the old baseball coach, that’s all.” And then walk off.
Then there was the emergency call that came from the psych ward one night. They were trying to hold down this muscular young man, in order to give him a shot of sedative. We jumped onto him, three or four of us, struggling to keep him pinned down. He seemed to have superhuman strength. I’ll never forget what he had to say to us, as he struggled.
He screamed, “How can you do this to me, to your own father? I gave you life, and still you try to take my life! People PAY ME to suck my penis!” On and on he went, a mixture of sermon and sacrilege. “You never my followers! In hell! The devil. F__k my mother!” On and on, then, only when the shot took effect, did he began to calm down, still muttering nonsense.
Sometimes that job was interesting, sometimes rewarding. People appreciated it when you did things for them. I fed people, cleaned their messy bottoms.
So, for a while, this worked out well. I was doing my job happily, and living a good clean life. But there were some stresses involved in the job, which became rather intense, after a while. And, being a young man, I was tempted every day by all of the young nursing students, and all of the nurses. Some flirting was going on, naturally. This was both stimulating, and stressful to me.
For no real reason, I was transferred to the intensive care units. I say units, in the plural, because I had to run back and forth between the heart intensive care, the normal ICU, and the semi-intensive unit. I had to work in the emergency unit at times. These units worked a 12 hour schedule, and it was usually night shift. On top of that, they usually had a week on, week off, (seven on seven off) schedule. This began to wear on me a great deal.
If I hadn’t been so young and inexperienced, I would have known how to pace myself, so as to avoid becoming so stressed. I could have found ways to give myself little breaks during these long shifts. But, I tried to do a really great job, trying to impress people, to be too helpful, and so, ironically, the quality of my work began to suffer. I was trying so hard, that I was burning myself out.
The contrast between me and the more well-paid professionals became very acute, with the seven on, seven off schedule. They were coming to work with tales of going to Colorado to ski, or to Florida during the winter, and generally taking a vacation every other week. But, with my small paychecks, I could only pay my bills, and maybe visit some nearby friend, or go to a public park. But basically, I was bored and depressed during my weeks off. So, I became a little resentful about my job. I felt underpaid, under-appreciated.
Working in any emergency room is bound to lead to some stressful situations. As an orderly, when it gets really busy, people bark orders at you from all sides, and it’s impossible to obey every order at once. Then there were the bloody situations, the nasty duties. One gets used to almost everything, in time, but what always bothered me, was to see someone experiencing a lot of pain. There were some procedures that would cause me to become nauseous. A really large needle being pushed through a patient’s rib cage, for instance.
And one particular stabbing victim was brought in, with a huge hole in his side. The doctor thought there was actually a knife inside this gaping wound, and was having to reach his hand way up inside him, searching for it. The blood ran into the floor, and I slipped a little, trying to stand there assisting. I got sick, and luckily, a nurse noticed my color changing, and took over for me while I sat down in another room.
One of our duties was to move the dead down to the morgue. There was the extraordinary case of the airplane-crash victim, who had so many broken bones, he was like a rag-doll. There was a homeless man, whose face had been eaten off by rats. I got used to being around dead people, though. We even went into the autopsy room, to look at the half-dissected corpses. I am glad that I never had to deal with children. The nurses took care of transporting their little bodies.
These are jobs that must be done, a normal part of the medical profession. It wasn’t detrimental to me. However, for what reason, I don’t know, I began to think it might be nice to have just a little wine, now and then. It always began with some similar kind of inner discourse. And I have never been able to convince myself that the Bible forbids alcohol, even for ardent believers. So I got a small bottle of Mateusz.
One way that alcohol has been a problem for me, over the years, was like this: I would wake up, and feel unhappy about having to go to work. So, if there was something alcoholic in the fridge, I would take a little shot, to make myself feel better. For one thing, I have had thyroid disease since I was young, which was undiagnosed for years. This makes one feel bad about getting up. It has always taken me a long time to get woken up.
Well, this took on an unfortunate form, during my last months at the hospital. I would go to the liquor store, on the way to work, and get a half-pint of Southern Comfort, and drink a good bit of it, on the way to work. I’ve always had a high tolerance for it, but I was pretty high when I began my shift. No one ever noticed, or, if they did, they never said anything to me about it.
Another unfortunate thing, I began to associate with my childhood buddy, Ray, again. Ray had always been an advocate of pills, of any kind, as long as one could get high on them. He undoubtedly gave me some kind of ‘nerve-pill’. Probably valium.
And it was one of my weaknesses, during these young years, in the early seventies, that I accepted the premise that all of us might benefit from some sort of chemical alteration of our brains. It seems insane to me, now. But the pharmaceutical industry has been pursuing this same course for many years.
So, I went to a doctor, and being unable to get Valium, I settled for a lesser version, Tranxene. To make up for this discrepancy, I went to two doctors, two pharmacies, and so, double-dosed myself. To be sure of gaining all possible negative effects, I mixed this with liquor.
WRITE HERE ABOUT GETTING FIRED FROM THE HOSPITAL.
That same day, I went to my doctor, and asked him to increase my dosage of Tranxene, I was so depressed.
He said, “I’ll tell you what, since it’s not having the desired effect, let’s just stop this medication altogether. I really think that’s what we need to do.”
I had never been so depressed in my life, at that point. I went home to my mother, in her little trailer/house, and asked to stay with her a while. I’ll explain how she came to live in a trailer.
I don’t know exactly what event brought on my parent’s decision to go ahead and get a divorce. It came to their sons as a surprise.
Equally surprising was the fact that Dad was already planning to marry my deceased uncle’s wife. Betty had been married to Mom’s brother, who had died at a young age, a couple years previously. We had known Betty all our lives. Now our cousins, three younger children, would be our step-brothers as well.
I reckon my parents had finally come to terms with the fact that they weren’t happy with their marriage, and that they didn’t want to be unhappy for the rest of their lives. It makes sense.
They had an amicable divorce. I won’t bore you with too many details. Divorces are not rare. But there were no hard feelings between them. They continued to treat each other in a friendly way.
So Dad tried to be generous about the division of property. We had a large farm, 180 acres, though some of the land was mountainside woodland. As a whole, the farm was very valuable, though. There must have been an eighth-mile stretch of roadside frontage. Now it’s lined with expensive houses, with owners that we have never known, personally. But at that time, there was only the large old farm house where we had lived, and one small place next-door, that had belonged to my Aunt. Dad moved in there, in the small house, with his new wife and her three young children. Mom got the entire remainder of the farm.
This arrangement went on for only a short time, less than a year. My mother actually felt sorry for Dad and Betty. They had to live in that tiny house, with all those kids. And I had begun to leave the nest, periodically. Dale may have gotten married, I can’t remember this time very well. But mom actually decided to trade places with Carl, my father. She literally gave away the farm, and moved into the little place where he and his new family had been living.
My mother, Cathleen, has always believed that one can’t possibly go wrong by being the ‘nice guy’. It’s a sort of faith that if you are generous, cooperative, and a nice person, that everything will work out so that, ultimately, you come out all the better for it. I, personally, had adopted the same view, being her son. I thought it was terribly ugly to be concerned about one’s own interests, if this conflicted with the interests of others. Plus, there is the guilt factor, ever-present in the lives of Christian southerners. Mom felt guilty for wanting to be divorced from dad. I felt guilty over a number of things. I’d been booted out of the Marine Corps by then. I had gotten caught taking drugs, and trying to seduce my second cousin. So I didn’t say one word in protest, though my entire future inheritance was being jerked right out from under me. None of us boys complained.
So when I asked her, Mom let me move into this little place with her and young Terry. And she even talked her fiancé, Dennis Walker, into hiring me at the Sheriff’s department.
Terry must have been about four years of age. I’m not sure, but I reckon Timothy may have also been there with us as well. She found it hard to find a job, having never worked before. She ended up working for about minimum wage, in a local supermarket. She was having a hard time ‘making ends meet’.
She had been introduced to the local Sheriff, Dennis Walker, and they were getting along well. Dennis was a widower. He was a nice guy, with a great sense of humor, so Mom was attracted to him.
My uncle, Jerry Lane, had been a deputy, even before Dennis became Sheriff. Since our father had become so preoccupied with his new family, Tim had begun to hang around with Jerry a lot. Later on, in following years, Tim became a deputy. But in those early times, after the divorce, he was still in high school, and so, lived with Mom.
So, as a single mother, Cathleen was introduced to the harsh realities of her new life, early on. I think Dad helped her somewhat with money, but he didn’t have that much to spare.
My Mother and Dennis continued to get closer, in their relationship, and he managed to get my mom a better job, as an in-home assistant to the elderly, though it was still a rather low-paying position. My Mom even got her sister, my aunt, a job as a dispatcher at the Sheriff’s department.
Well, I had gotten fired from my hospital job, so as a last resort, I went to Dennis to ask if I could work for him as a jailor. He reluctantly hired me. Of course, I’d never thought of myself as the jailor type (who does?) and I absolutely hated the job. For some reason, Jerry didn’t like me; probably because I really didn’t take the job seriously. He gave me a hard time. He told Mom that I wasn’t doing a good job. It was true. The job was so simple that I couldn’t do it. My mind was elsewhere.
As I said, I was living with mom. I was still only 21 or 22 years of age. I’d been working for Dennis for about five months. There had been a complaint or two about my performance at the jail. Dennis didn’t know me, so we never communicated at all, and, besides, he hadn’t really even wanted to hire me. Jerry had come to mom’s house once, personally, to tell her that I wasn’t doing my job well. I was ready to quit, anyway, and the pay had been so little, that I hadn’t been helping with the bills there. I think it was the day that Jerry had come to our house, to let me know, in person, that I’d failed to properly fill out some form, when Mom decided that I needed a little kick to get me ‘out of the nest’, so to speak. In her mind, I was a ‘grown man’ anyway, and I needed to get out and get my own place, and start fending for myself. You see, she was only in her early forty’s, and when she was my age (21), she had been away from home and on her own for a couple of years.
Now, my mother has always been a good mother. The best, so don’t get me wrong. But the stress of everything was getting to her at that time. I think that’s about the time when she began having some minor heart abnormalities. She’d had a minor ‘episode’ of some kind, I think.
So many things happened around this time, I forgot to even mention that we had been the victims of a house fire. The little house we had been living in was actually a mobile home, with a big room built onto it. I slept in this room. I believe that God, or an angel, woke me up. I had been sleeping soundly, and simply opened my eyes, suddenly. I thought, “Why did I wake up?” But just then, I saw a light, flickering in the next room. I got up, to find a window fan, on fire, and the curtains quickly flaming up into a big fire. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to get my pants on, or to find my glasses. I began running through the house, yelling “Fire! Get up!”
A mobile home goes up in flames so fast, it is unbelievable. By the time we got out, it was half in flames. The fresh air hit our lungs, and I realized that the house had been dangerously devoid of oxygen. We were all safe, but Mom ran back into the house, to get her purse and car keys, though I had fought with her to hold her back. She didn’t get the keys, but she burnt her hands badly, crawling across the floor. It was very upsetting for all of us. We had no clothes. Everything had been destroyed completely. We had no place to live, for a couple of weeks, until she managed to get another trailer on the lot, with Dad’s help.
So we had all been through a divorce, various job turmoil, and a house fire. So one can’t blame my mother too much for what she did next. However, this was the one time in her life when she did something that seemed to be rather hard on me and also on Dale, though he was married, and living with his new wife. Mom told me that she was going to marry Dennis Walker, and that she had assured him, that her older sons would not be a problem for him. The message was that I should try to keep myself as scarce as possible, and that I would not be a part of their “family”. It would be her and Dennis, and Terry. Terry was young.
She must have got this message to the other boys, as well. This business of shunting the older boys aside, out of mom’s life, affected Dale as well as me, though I have assumed that it affected Dale less, since he was married. But maybe I was wrong, maybe it did hurt him as much as it did me.
And that’s the way it became, soon after that conversation. I did quit the jail, and got my own place. Well, I rented an apartment. Mom must have made her point well, because I was absent from her life for a long time. She married Dennis, and I had very little contact with her after that, for quite some time. Timothy found a place to live on his own. He never lived with Dennis, though they did have a good relationship, what with Tim being a real deputy Sheriff on the force.
So Dale and I were shunted out of Mom’s life, and were made to feel unwelcome at our father’s home. I just hardly ever saw them, and if I did, it was for some specific reason, and I think Mom did even remind me of her ‘agreement’ with Dennis, that it would definitely be as if he only had one step-son, Terry. These were difficult times for me. It was a complete, sudden loss of my position, as a focal point of my parent’s lives. A total loss of my ‘specialness’.
The farm where I had grown up for years was now a place where my Dad lived with his new family.
Actually, though there was supposed to be some kind of ‘swap’, a trading of Mom and Dad’s position as landowners of 180 acres of farm land, including a large house, which Mom gave up to Dad and his new wife, Betty, in exchange for the small lot of land and what began as a house, built onto a trailer, and after the fire was replaced with a trailer. But my mother never got a deed of ownership for the little house and lot onto which she moved, when they did the swap. I only recently realized the magnitude of this ‘oversight’.
When Mom moved away, after a year or two in the little house/trailer, the land remained in my Dad’s possession. He first rented it to some local couple, then later, he and Betty gave it to Betty’s daughter, who had married a David Evans. This was done at a time when I and my brothers were having to rent housing here and there.
It’s astonishing that nothing was ever said about this, as far as I know.
Actually, something occurred that made it even more significant.
I had been living in a small apartment in town. On one of my few visits with Dad and Betty, I told him that I would be interested in buying the trailer from him. The financing would be a bit of a problem, though, so I asked if he would consider co-signing for a loan for me.
We were standing in front of their house (which used to be my home), and looking over at the trailer where Mom had lived. I’ll never forget the way Betty suddenly became so nervous. She was standing there, not saying anything, but she was fairly wringing her hands with anxiety. I suppose Carl picked up on her signals, he said, “No, I made a decision to never again co-sign for anybody, for any reason.”
As I said, soon Betty’s daughter was living there in a nice new trailer. I don’t know the particulars, whether it was given to her, or if she and her new husband had to pay for it, but they were a very young couple, just starting out with no money, so it must have been either a gift to them, or a ‘sweetheart deal’.
I hadn’t expected to be so excluded from my Father as I became at that time. I had thought that Carl, in particular, would have been excited to see me trying to become a preacher. Maybe it was a desperate attempt to attract his attention. But he ignored me, or criticized me. Mom tried to encourage me in it somewhat, but soon she was very busy with Dennis, making travelling vacations, and going to ‘the cabin’, in Tellico plains. And some of my church friends weren’t very supportive of me, either. Only the little King’s Chapel Church, in Knoxville, were supportive.
Did my parents do wrong, by getting a divorce? No. Could they have done better, in nurturing their children? Well, one has to realize the pressures that come upon a newly divorced person, especially when they are soon involved with a new spouse, in a new family arrangement. There are financial pressures. There are new priorities, as in making their new relationships work. Times were different, in the seventies. Women were somewhat more dependent upon being married, for their survival. Young men in their early twenties were expected to be out of the house, and on their own, to a much greater extent than they are now.
I will say that it was hard on Dale, Timothy, and me. Terry was so young, that he was able to adapt to his new life with Dennis Walker. But, no, my parent’s marriage simply failed, that’s all. It happens.
I had a rough time just trying to survive, to pay my rent, and so-forth, in the following years, living in rather low-rent places. I happened to get into the sign business at about that time, something for which I had a natural ability, luckily.
I could have used some help, some interest from my Father at that time, but he had plenty on his plate, with his three new young step-children. But I hold no hard feelings.
I believe that there will be a final judgment day, and in that day, all of God’s children will be completely forgiven of every sin, fault, and failure. But it gives me comfort, to know that, not only will we be forgiven, but we will be given a complete understanding of what we did to others around us. It will be as if a light will be shown on these things, for all to see, then the grace of Christ will erase them forever from the record. But first, we will see our lives clearly, as God has seen our lives. To me, this seems perfect. I don’t want to confront anyone, don’t want to argue, I don’t need anyone to say they’re sorry.
However, it is important to me, this faith that I have, that one day everyone will see what has happened clearly, in the undisputable light of God.
Some work needs to be done to segue to this.
The Sign Business
When I was working at the jail, I became aware of a small shop that was unoccupied, in a bad location, near the jail. Of course I didn’t realize at that time what a bad location it was. It was in town, at least. It just happened to be a little town, in a state of commercial decline. But I got the idea to put an art shop in this place.
Youthful optimism is what we all wish for, later in life. But in many cases, such as this one, it was just a tool for avoiding reality. For one thing, I wasn’t really an artist at all, at that time. But I knew I was a sign painter, albeit an amateur. So, if I couldn’t make money selling the paintings (which would surely materialize soon, when I painted them), then surely I could make a living painting signs. And what’s the difference, anyway, between a fine art studio, and a sign shop? Both involve paint, of some kind, and paint brushes, too, though not the same kind. (Ha ha!)
For another thing, Clifton was not exactly the Mecca of art lovers. I doubt there were two paintings in the entire county worth more than $50.
But sometimes real life is stranger than comedy. I went into the local bank, gave the man behind the desk my business idea, and in a few days, I walked out with $4000, an amount that doesn’t seem like much now, since we’ve had three decades of inflation. In my mind, I had gotten a business loan, with no collateral. I had borrowed it on my signature. I paid the rent on the place for a couple of months, which at least had an apartment upstairs, where I could live.
I began to remodel the place, to some extent, and painted signs on the outside of the building. I bought a reel-to-reel tape deck, state-of-the-art audio, in those days. I bought some marijuana, for inspiration, some supplies, and actually began to paint a few paintings.
An interesting aside story here, the loan I got from what was a major bank turned out to have been a totally fraudulent affair. The young loan officer was so eager to get a commission, that he didn’t care if it was done properly, or under false pretenses. I knew nothing about this falsification, but I found out later that he had given me this money as a home improvement loan, using ‘my home’ as collateral. Well, my ‘home’ was a rented apartment, above an old abandoned shop, in a bad location. I told the bank this, when I found out about it. They weren’t too surprised, since this character had evidently done a number of loans in similar shady fashion. He was long-gone, by that time, probably to Goldman-Sachs. I paid the loan off, anyway, though it took me years.
So there I was, in a bad location, selling a craft that the town didn’t need, but as with all aspiring business owners, I was confident, because whereas others had failed to make a go of it, I thought I was different. “I have good ideas, I’m LUCKY!”
I hired my friend’s wife, Tammy, to answer the telephone when I wasn’t there. People told me that she was impolite, when she answered the phone.
The fact that Clyde’s wife was “hanging–out with me all the time”, as Ray Ranier put it, became a subject of one of Raymond Ranier’s pranks.
In those days, I drove one of those massive 1968 Chevrolets, made even bigger by the fact that it was a station-wagon. Well, the back window stayed quite dusty. So when I wasn’t looking, Ray wrote, with his finger, on this back window, “Thomas + Tammy, with a big ‘heart’ shape. He quickly snapped a picture of it. Then, the next time Tammy came over to his house, which is something Clyde and Tammy often did, he showed them the picture. He assured them that I was “going around, bragging about my affair with her, to everybody.”
Luckily for me, Clyde and Tammy knew that Ray was a prankster, and so didn’t know whether to believe him or not. But Clyde had suspicions of Tammy’s faithfulness, which she tried to lay to rest.
When I saw what Ray had written, I just wiped it off, and thought no more about it. But, needless to say, when Tammy saw me again, she was mad as hell. I said, “What’s the matter?”
She whipped out the picture. “What’s THIS about?” She says, hotly.
“Oh. Gawd amighty.” I say, “I saw that the other day, after I left Ray’s house. He was the one done it, not me! I didn’t know he took a picture of it.”
And this was done in a day when you had to take the film to the drug store in town, drop it off, and come back later, and pick it up. There were no digital cameras. So think of the effort Ray put into that prank. He laughed about it for years.
And, years later, alone with Clyde, after a few beers, he said, “Please, Tom, tell me the truth. I promise not to be mad at you. Did you ever pork Tammy, or not?” I told him no, which was the truth.
Of course this business venture was doomed to failure. In a few months I was out of money, and looking for a job. I’d done only a few small signs, and one billboard. I’d managed to paint about five paintings, though, with nothing but the power of youthful optimism and mild hallucinations. I did oil colors of sunsets.
I painted a portrait of a toddler on a beach at sunset. The child had died, a year earlier, and the mother had commissioned the painting. She gave it to the child’s father, her husband, as a gift. He was horrified. He said, “Why would I want a picture of a dead baby?” They were soon divorced.
There was a small sign company in a nearby town, Southern Signs, Toby Barnes’ business. I got a job there. I had a real natural ability to paint letters, signs, even though I was woefully uneducated about how things were done, in the real business. But I was willing to work cheap, so they put me to work as a sort of assistant to their real sign painter. Luckily, he liked me, and was happy to have a person to make his job a little easier. This was the way it had been done, for a hundred years, in the sign business; it was an apprenticeship. The mature sign painter uses an assistant, and meanwhile, teaches the trade to him.
Working there turned out to be a lot of fun. Their sign painter, Buddy Brewer was a likable man, about ten years older than I was. The atmosphere there was very casual. There was a lot of joking around, and every day, or almost every day, after quitting time, everyone would sit around in the office, and drink whiskey. This was the first time in my life when I really got into a habit of drinking hard liquor on a regular basis. Of course, this part wasn’t good. I learned to appreciate good whiskey, yes, but I also found out what it’s like to be hung-over, and began down that road toward alcoholism.
It was also the first time I had ever enjoyed listening to country music. It was 1978, which, in my opinion, was a good time for country music. Some of the old-time greats of the country world were still playing, and putting out major hits. Plus, you could hear a good number of younger country artists, influencing things, and this was causing the popularity of the genre to grow among the younger crowd.
Well, whether it was good or bad, a lot of the music had a ‘drinking’ theme. So we were all riding the country music wave, on an alcohol ocean, even if we were in a ‘land-locked’ state.
Unfortunately, by this time, I had forgotten all about being a good, straight, Christian. So, one Sunday evening, I took some LSD again. I remember seeing a woman that I knew very well, at a back-woods night spot. I asked her name, since she seemed to know me. She told me “Oh, yeah, like you don’t know my name.” When I assured her that I really didn’t, she said, “You know I’m Sandy Woods, you silly thing.” But I thought she was joking. She was dressed up, and she must have had make-up on. I thought she was so beautiful, but could not believe she was really Sandy. There were other people there, talking with her, so we didn’t speak much. After a while, I had to tell her, “Hey, you really are Sandy Woods. I didn’t believe it, when you told me!”
“Uh, yes, I think I know that my name really is Sandy Woods. And what are you on, Thomas?” I told her. Nothing much else happened that night, I think. Her husband was in the band there.
But the next day, at work at the sign shop, I was still tripping, to some extent. The radio was playing, pretty loudly, as usual. The boss was standing near it, speaking with someone. I happened to walk by and I was singing along with the vocalist. But I made a mistake in the lyrics, singing it incorrectly for part of a line. Now, usually I am excellent at learning and remembering song lyrics. When I realized that I had sung it differently, I stopped, in amazement, and exclaimed, “Hey, did you hear that? He got the words to the song all wrong!” I said this with all sincerity.
At that point, my boss stopped his conversation abruptly, realizing that this employee named Thomas was not normal today. He looked at me harshly. “He’s been smoking that damn stuff.”He said to the other worker. Then to me, “You better not be, by God, I’ll fire your damn ass.”
I began to laugh, nervously, pretending it was all a joke. He decided to wait ‘till another day to fire me, though, since he needed me to go with Jesse-Ray to Knoxville, to take down a little sign.
We got in the truck, and the first thing Jesse said was, “OK, Thomas, let me show you how to f__k-off on this damn company today!”
“All right!” I said, “Can we stop and get some liquor?”
Jesse-Ray was a little shocked, “Well, I’ll be damned. Yeah, I guess we could. I’ll stop up here ahead.”
It was a trip, taking the sign down. I had to crawl out onto the crane’s ladder, to get to it. Directly below me, was the edge of city traffic, so that I had to look down on trucks going almost underneath me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the encouraging effect of the liquor.
We happened to be close to another sign company. I knew that Allen Brown worked there, and that Allen was a marijuana dealer. After we got the sign loaded onto the truck, I said to Jesse, “Hey, don’t you live near Allen Brown?”
“Oh yeah, me and Allen are good friends.”
“I thought so. Hey, let’s go over there, and see if he’ll roll me a little joint, can’t we?” Jesse said he’d try to talk him into it. We went there, then, and spent a while socializing with the guys there at Mills signs. The boss was gone, so it didn’t matter.
We got my joint, so I smoked it. Jesse wouldn’t take a toke, though. He was a bit older, and quite a ‘country’ type guy. Only young people smoked pot in those days.
We were heading back to the shop, and we saw a large flock of interesting birds, sitting alongside a local lake. I exclaimed, “Look at all those birds. What kind of birds are they, Jesse?”
He said, lying, “Those are goddamn Konies!”
I believed him, having never before seen that species. I said, “Wow! I wish we had time to stop and stare at them for a while.” He could see that I really meant it.
He laughed, “Why you son of a bitch. You really are crazy, aren’t you? They told me you were crazy, but I didn’t believe it until now. Let’s go get drunk tonight. We’ll get Albert to go with us to Tuckyho [A suburb of Nowhere]. What ya say?”
We did. These types of excursions didn’t really make any sense at all, but once you got underway, with a head full of alcohol, it seemed like great fun to us. There was no end to the jokes, and bullshit being laughed about. We drove around for hours, stopping in here and there at one beer-joint or another.
At one point, we were pulled over by some country deputies. I got out of the car, and, in an attempt to find my driver’s license, dumped all the contents of my wallet onto the road. Luckily, there was no traffic, as I picked it all up, piece at a time. Jesse got out and leaned up against the car, watching. He was a huge man, and muscular. I’m also tall, about six-feet, two. They saw Albert in the car too, and even though they must have known we were drunk, they let us go. They may have felt a little intimidated by us. And we were polite and respectful to them, after all. And, God forgive us all, driving drunk used to be tolerated much more than it is now, at least out in the country, on a country road late at night. We could speak plainly, and stand straight, and weren’t cussing, or yelling, so we were “good enough to go”. It’s not right, but that’s the way it was.
Somehow, I can’t remember how it happened, but I ran right over one of those temporary, folding traffic signs that night, on the way home. It was one of those kinds that you used to see at construction sites. Well, it hit the muffler, on that big old Chevrolet, and jerked it loose from the exhaust pipe. That big old V-8 engine began to sound as loud as a freight train. It was startling to hear, the next morning, when I miraculously got up and headed in to work, hung-over.
At this point I suppose must advise everyone that such behavior is not to be emulated. It’s a wonder we didn’t get hurt, or, worse, hurt some other innocent motorist.
We did manage to be sober enough of the time to do a pretty good business. In those days, there was better money to be made in the sign business. Just think, if you needed a sign, you had to have a sign-painter. This has been completely turned around, now, because of the advent of computer-generated vinyl signs. For some years, during the 90’s, we had to compete with the vinyl sign shops. Then, eventually, the sign-painter was rendered obsolete. We were like the type-setters, who had been so important for the printing industry, for so long. We had been made redundant, by the march of technology. But, as I said, things were different then. I was learning a good trade.
After working at ‘Southern’ for a short time, I learned enough to know I should be getting more than the meager wages I’d been getting, and also had learned that sometimes, the only way to get a pay raise is to change your place of employment, so I went to Brewer Sign Company.
There’s an interesting story about this particular change in jobs. You see, Buddy, the senior painter, had already gotten tired of working at Southern, and had left to go to work with his brothers, at Brewer sign company. So that left Toby, at Southern, without a painter. Well, as I’ve said, in those days, if you wanted a sign, you had to have a sign painter. So Toby was furious. On the second day of work at Brewer’s, Buddy and I were working on a billboard, out on a highway, away from the shop. Well, Toby showed up about ten o’clock, there at our job site, demanding to talk to me. I knew he was drunk, so I just kept on working. Well, he got his pistol, and fired it into the air, hollering that I’d better come and talk to him. At that point, I was afraid to talk to him. So Buddy went and talked to him for a while. They agreed that Buddy would go back to work with Toby, with a good pay-raise.
At Brewer’s, I met Fred Dunbar, who was even more skilled than Buddy Brewer had been. Fred also took a liking to me, which was the necessary element in the instructor-apprentice arrangement. And Fred was not into drinking. As a matter of fact, he’s one of the very few ‘old-school’ sign men who are still in the business today. He has diversified, into the vinyl sign side of the business, and also, into his niche market of doing authentic gold-leaf lettering. And he does paintings, as well, and framing.
Brewer’s sign company was sold to Sherwood signs, while Fred and I were there, so I worked for these two companies, during about two years.
I went to James Michael’s truck lettering, to work there about a year. He had offered me a pay raise, over what I’d been making at Sherwood. I lived in Norris, during this time, alone.
One day my cousin, Mark Mackey came over to visit. He told me about this girl he had met a few days before, who happened to know me. I said, “Yeah, she used to be my girl, when she was sixteen years old. He gave me her phone number. To make the story short, Mona had somehow injured her leg, and needed a place to stay while she recuperated.
She moved in with me, and we had a relationship again, this time for about six months. She had become a pathological liar. She told me so many different tales about her leg, that I don’t know how she really ended up with a bullet wound. But I fell in love with her, again, and I was determined that we would cohabit for the rest of our lives.
But she got over the gunshot wound, and lost weight, and got her hair done up in sort of a curly afro for white girls, like they had in the early eighties, and soon she was gone.
I think this break-up had the same effect on me that our first break-up had had on me. I went and got right with God.
I quit working at Michael’s Signs. I had gotten tired of James Michael. He wouldn’t consider letting me have a vacation, or even a few days off. This was especially aggravating to me, since the reason he couldn’t let me take any time off, was that he himself had to be off sometimes, to go to football games in other states. I went back to my old job at Sherwood Signs. There was a new foreman there, Tommy Callaway. Tommy was a charismatic Christian, and he asked me to go to church with him. It was a little independent church; you could say, a ‘store-front’ church. There was a good pastor there, and his wife had the gift of prophecy. She gave me a rather long ‘message’, that rang true to me in every way. That’s when I re-dedicated myself to Christ, again.
I moved in with some old friends from the King’s Chapel. I began to go to the Central Assembly of God Church. It was there that I met my first wife, Judy Rhodes.
This subject requires an entire section of its own. So here it is:
Terrible Tales, Marriage, Divorce
Earlier, I mentioned my first wife, Judy Rhodes. I had managed to remain unmarried, until the ripe old age of 28. She was seven years older than I was. But this didn’t seem like a problem to me at all, at that time. After all, she was really pretty. Built well, you could say. And she seemed to be not one day past her ‘prime’, as a woman, that was for sure. So, since I was young, and male, like all young males, I went completely ga-ga over her.
She was the kind of woman that attracted attention. And since she’d only recently converted to the charismatic Christian way, she had some quite sexy clothes, left over from her night-clubbing days, and that’s what she wore to church. It seems absurd, now, to think of her as she appeared to me in the church, kneeling in prayer, with her short skirt, split up the side. It should have set off some kind of warning in me. But no, not for a minute. I was sold on her at first glance, and began to envision her as a personal project. I would love her, and be a blessing to her and to her two adorable young girls. I’d be the proverbial knight in shining armor, to save her from all harm, sweep her up onto my horse, and just fix everything in her life for her.
It seems a strange thing, in a way, that just when I had, once again, forsaken all worldly ways, and moved back to Knoxville to be near my friends at the King’s Chapel, determined more than ever to pursue my ministry, that I should have one of the greatest misfortunes of all my life, in meeting this woman, Judy Rhodes. But, actually, it was predictable, that temptation would come along just as I was about to get on the right track.
I have to include this account of my time with Judy, because this was also my time with The Center Assembly of God, with Archie Carville as pastor, and later, with another pastor, in this same church, Tom Coltrane. Tom became a partner in my work, since he was also a sign painter, oddly enough.
I met her in this Center Assembly of God Church. You see, someone in King’s Chapel had found out that one of my old friends from the Church of God, in my little home town of Clifton, Archie Carville, had become the pastor of the Center Assembly of God, in Knoxville. Naturally, I had to visit. They had a lively worship service, with lots of the new kind of music and singing found in the ‘charismatic’ Christian movement. This was interesting to me, as was the Assembly of God denomination. It was like the Church of God, only much more contemporary. They would all stand up when they sang, and raise their hands up to praise God. When they got excited, they would dance around, or jump up and down, and shout, speaking in tongues.
This was all fine, when it first became popular. It was a form of freedom, in worship. Over time, it became the ‘norm’ in this kind of churches to the extent that you had to have your hands raised up in the air all the time. I began to feel silly about it at one point, since I realized that God is not “up there” as opposed to we humans, who are “down below”. So, really, “looking up” to heaven, or “raising ones hands toward heaven” is a misunderstanding.
But everything seemed fine back in 1981, in Archie Carville’s Assembly of God Church. Archie and Faye had a lot of respect for me, because, back when we went to the Church of God, we used to take off, on Friday nights, and go to the little town of Robbins, way up in the mountains, next to the Kentucky state line. We went there, because they had really especially ‘spiritual’ meetings. They would have a full set of drums, an electric guitar, and I would take my bass guitar, and when we would get really wound up, everyone would get out in the aisle to dance. They would dance until they were sweating. It was like religion on steroids.
My experience with these churches, with the people involved in them, and with this form of Christian churches has had a lot to do with the formation of my Faith. But there were some of negative experiences also, which began the slow erosion of my Faith. As I’ve said, I ultimately lost all faith in Christianity. I am trying to explain how this happened, over the years, to explain my ridiculous pendulum swings, in and out of religion, back and forth between liberal skepticism, and conservative fanaticism.
Anyway, there I was in Archie’s church, raising my hands and praising God, and when I opened my eyes, there she was, up in front of the church, down on her knees, in that short, split skirt. I guess you could say that she seemed to be everything a young man looks for in a woman. She had a pretty face. Even her hair was perfect – nice and long, and light brown.
She had been brought there by her father, Ernie. He had sort of taken her under his wing, then. She’d recently gone through a painful separation and divorce. She and her former husband had been living the good suburban life, in a nice, new home, with two young daughters. Everything had gone pretty much alright for about 13 years, until she had evidently fallen under the bad influence of a former schoolmate, Tina, who was in the process of going wild.
The two of them began to run around together, going shopping, going swimming, and so forth, innocent stuff at first. But this school friend began to lead Judy astray. It began simply, by introducing her to ‘romance novels’. It was probably some of the first reading Judy had ever done. She was swept away with the romanticism of the exciting lives of people in these novels, the heroines and the bad girls, the exploits, and adventures. She contrasted this idealized world of lovers and adventures, with her mundane home life with her husband and family. Her friend, Tina, had begun to fool around on her husband, having an affair with a man she had met at a disco. Her tales of this affair, and the fact that it was completely hidden from her husband, enticed Judy. She began to wish for adventure.
It began as just “a girls night out”, drinking together at one of the ‘disco dance clubs’ of that era. But a table with two pretty young women was a strong attraction to the men, and the game was to get up onto the floor, and dance with these men. Judy found that she was an attractive dancer. She thought she had become something very special. But in actuality, it was her willingness to move in very seductive ways, and her demand for the attention of the whole dance floor, that made her so popular.
She probably didn’t mean for this to get out of hand, but Tina was willing to pick up a man, and since she and Judy had come together, she influenced Judy to get together with a man also. Then, while Tina and her pick-up were ‘busy’ together, Judy was left alone with her pick-up, and one thing led to another, you know.
It didn’t take her husband, Steve, very long to figure out that something was wrong. And Judy was strangely willing to let him find out that she was seeing other men. You see, Judy had a sickness, a mental illness, really, related to jealousy. She was insanely, pathologically jealous. So she thought Steve would be jealous of her. She thought he would rise up, in anger, and demand that she be true to only him. She fantasized that he would realize what a fool he’d been, to neglect Judy for so long, and their love would be rekindled.
But instead, he just saw her for what she was, an incredibly stupid woman. They grew farther and farther apart, though still cohabiting, for the sake of the children. He began so find solace in Judy’s cousin, young Janie. She approached Steve with what she thought would be news of his wife’s infidelity. He wasn’t surprised, but he was grateful for someone to talk to about it.
Judy just went further into her ploy to incite Steve’s jealousy. People with her disease can’t understand the response of a normal spouse. She did become openly antagonistic toward Janie, which only made things worse, since Steve was forced to defend Janie. Judy did these sort of things, making her own problems in life, and then doing the opposite of what she should have done, to repair the situation. She was obsessed with fears, and these fears would drive her to cause the very thing she was afraid of, to actually come to pass.
Then, inevitably, Judy found one of her dancing lovers that she cared about just enough, and she began to act jealously toward him. She had to dominate any man in her life. She began to ask him questions. “Where were you last night? Is there some other woman you are seeing behind my back?” This kind of jealousy required some level of commitment, to justify her attempts to dominate the poor stranger. So she ended up spending more and more of her time with him. She had to police his activities, to watch him, to keep him as hers exclusively.
This left Steve to spend more and more time with Janie. He needed help with the kids, with the housework, the laundry. And Janie was all too happy to use these things as reasons to be there late in the evening. She cooked for him, but these meals had to be rather late, because of her job. Then, why push her out as soon as they were finished eating? There’s a movie coming on the TV.
Judy’s lover, Jeff, was getting tired of Judy’s violent form of jealousy. She had probably lit into him once or twice with a slap in the face, or a hard yank of his hair. Most men don’t take too kindly to being physically attacked by a woman. He broke up with her.
That was the day before Steve announced to Judy that it was high time that their marriage ended. He wanted a divorce ASAP, and by the way, he and Janie were planning to wed.
So, Judy found herself alone in life, and basically homeless, though she could still come and go, temporarily, as long as she didn’t harass Janie when she ran into her in her erstwhile bedroom. As you can imagine, it was an awkward situation.
Judy had made herself into the guilty party, she was the obvious cause of the problem, with her running around so wildly, her infidelity. Steve had built that house himself, with his own hands. He wasn’t about to surrender half of it to her. She could have demanded some form of compensation from him, but she was so overcome with guilt and remorse, that she only asked for a small amount of child support. Her father, Ernie, and her mother, were willing to help her. She moved in with momma. The kids were back and forth between these two places. There wasn’t a lot of room at Grandma’s.
So Ernie took Judy to church, the Center Assembly of God, where she got down on her knees, and came up as “a new creation in Christ”, or, that was the hope. And I was a firm believer in sudden, miraculous conversions, that could change one’s character in an instant. I was very willing to disregard the past of such a woman.
After all, I had done it myself, twice, getting on my knees in front of a church, confessing my past sins, and begging God for rebirth, regeneration, redemption. This process is a wonderful aspect of the people of the Christian Faith. One gets another chance in the community, to prove their worth. All is forgiven, all is forgotten, and, hopefully, there is a real and genuine change in the repentant sinner.
However, there are some cases in which this process doesn’t really work. There is a phrase used to describe a certain kind of ‘conversion’, a conversion that doesn’t really last very long, doesn’t really convert so well. It’s called, “fox-hole religion”. This brings to mind the desperation of a soldier in the heat of the battle. They may have gone all their life with not a thought about God, or their relationship with God. But when the shells start landing close by, the prayers begin to flow. Promises are made, vows of a new kind of man (or woman), if only God will get them through this battle safely. Then, when the fire-storm is over, they quickly forget their prayers. No real change was made. This analogy is meant to apply to anyone who has found themselves in any form of dangerous, desperate situation, and has some sort of conversion, only to forget about it when the ‘storm’ is over.
Another unfortunate occurrence is “jail-house religion”. The person has been caught red-handed. They’re at the mercy of the court. They’re hoping, begging for leniency, as their sentence is determined. Wouldn’t it look somewhat better to the jury, if the offender could point to his recent discovery of the Lord Jesus Christ, and speak of his denunciation of everything that the devil made him do, and his hope for forgiveness, so he can begin a new life, and teach others not to make the same mistakes he has made. It’s for this reason that “everybody in jail is a Christian”. Or, of course, nowadays, they may become devout Muslims or Buddhists, but that won’t benefit them nearly as much with the parole board. So a mock form of Christianity is preferred among the inmates.
I don’t mean to disparage the value of a true, genuinely repentant conversion experience. I don’t mean to cast doubt upon the ability of God to make a real, lasting difference in anyone’s life, when they’re willing to receive it. But it’s all a matter of the authenticity of the person’s heart-felt attitude.
And, over a lifetime of observation and experience, I’m now quick to caution that even in the best-case scenario, one can expect old habits, old attitudes, and old problems to try to raise their ugly heads, and reassert their position in the newly converted individual. So it has to be an ongoing process of reform, not such an instantaneous, miraculous event as some expect. And how can we see into the heart of another individual?
All of this meaning, “Judy didn’t really get it.” With hindsight, I can see that she had a less-than-perfect conversion. But I was certain of her goodness, of her angelic nature, being thoroughly convinced by her appealing figure, and her pretty face. Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth!
In reality, this was the wrong time in her life to go starting off into a new relationship with a man. But that’s exactly what she seemed to be intent upon doing. Incredibly, her father, Ernie, who also should have known better, seemed to be encouraging her to do just that. He introduced us immediately, and took us both to a dinner, to get us better acquainted. It seems that this woman had never been alone, in her life. She had married young, right out of high school. Ernie seemed to know that she couldn’t possibly be without a man for any length of time, and so, was trying to get her together with a good one, a Christian. And, with me, she would be going to the same church where he was a member, so he could keep a watchful eye on her.
Her whole life seems to have been a bit screwed up, with the only exception being that she had been in a good marriage, with a good man, for about thirteen years. She had two wonderful children, and, before she deserted it, she had lived in a luxurious new home. You see, one reason that her father knew Judy so very well, was the fact that he’d had a sexual relationship with her, beginning from a very early age. She was reluctant to speak of it, but during the time I was with her, I pieced this together from various references to it, from her.
It is no wonder that she felt that no man could be trusted, and the fact that I was a Christian didn’t help at all. She was absolutely consumed with a jealous distrust of me, the whole time we were together. Her father had been a church member all of his life, too. Her parents had got a divorce, when she found that he’d begun to try to begin a sexual relationship with her younger sister. She had been furious, a fury born of jealousy, and told her mother the whole story, of her history with her father, and his advances toward her sister.
Then, to compound her distrust of church members, her father subsequently married another woman from their church. A woman the family had gone to church with for years, who had left her husband to be with Ernie.
So Judy had all of that guilt on her head, of breaking up her own parent’s marriage. She also felt guilty about all of her adulterous affairs, most of which were consummated with married men, by the way. So guilt and mistrust were a big part of her psyche. This guilt translated into a belief that everyone should feel guilty, that everyone was probably guilty. This was the guilt that she tried to lay on me, after we were married.
It was one of the saddest things in my life, that she just couldn’t believe I really loved her, only her, and that I was determined to be true to her. Well, honest to God, I was so perfectly in love with her, while we were together, that I never even thought of looking at another woman.
But if I had only allowed a little time to get to know this woman, before I married her, I would surely have seen how horribly hard to live with she was. But in the beginning she was careful to keep her jealousy hidden, in the way that we all tend to be on our best behavior in the early stages of a relationship.
Unfortunately, even though we were both constantly talking about religion, to each other and to everyone else, neither of us was very strong, when it came to resisting the sexual urge. Then, as occurs so very often, among religious people, after we’d slept together, we felt that we had an obligation to ‘make it right’. We felt we should get married right away. People in this situation often even refer to such concepts as “being married, already, in the eyes of God”. Of course, this is erroneous. But very often, Religious people rush into a relationship in this way. This is exactly why that Christians about the same divorce rate as non-religious couples. They often feel obligated to get married, since they have had sex. Or, if they are determined to wait, this may actually cause them to be in an even greater hurry to marry, because of their pent-up desire.
Judy and I were victims of this kind of rushing to get married. It’s embarrassing now, to admit to being so stupid as we were, in getting married so soon. But, at the time, we both seemed to be glad to know that the other was also in a big hurry. She had suffered a big defeat, in losing her husband to Janie. Nothing could have made her feel better than to introduce me to Steve and Janie, a good man, younger than Steve, and to announce our plans for a wedding. An additional impetus, was my budding plans to become a minister. In her mind, this helped to erase her well-known past indiscretions. I think we were married about a month after we met.
Another odd thing, Judy knew right away where we could rent a house. Well, it was a duplex, since there was an apartment in the basement, with a man who had been living there for some time. There was no time for a honeymoon. We just began our attempt at family life, with her children, right away.
The first time I noticed her jealousy, was right after the wedding. I had invited a friend, a woman, to the wedding. This woman was a Christian girl, who was studying psychotherapy in the University. She wasn’t a ‘girlfriend’ in any way. But I had met with her a few times, to let her practice being a therapist. She would simply speak to me as if I were her patient, in a practice session. I enjoyed this, since I’d been a therapy patient, for depression, and I missed having someone to meet with, in this way. She had come to the wedding, and brought her friend, another student. We had a simple wedding, in the chapel, at a hospital, where Judy knew the hospital chaplain.
After we drove away from the hospital, on our very first drive, as a married couple, (you would think everything should be all happiness and joy), she says,
“Why did you invite those two girls to our wedding, the tall one and her friend?”
I was surprised, since I didn’t expect her to begin right away in our life together, by complaining about something. I said, “Oh that was Suzan, she has been a friend of mine for about six months. She’s just a friend, a psychotherapy student at the University. I met her at the Life Worship Center, when I went there once.”
She says, flatly, “Well, you won’t be seeing her again, ever, will you?”
I was incredulous. “Never again, you said?”
“Yes, Tom, I don’t think you will need to see her any more, now, since you have me, right?”
I knew I would have to give in, to keep things pleasant between us, and it didn’t mean that much to me, so I agreed to it. “Ok, Judy, yeah, sure, I don’t need to see her anymore.” This bothered me, even if it wasn’t a big thing. It was unusual. And soon, the big problems did begin. Her jealousy began to be a constant problem.
We were going to church every time the doors were open, of course. In this kind of church, there is always a song-leader, who stands up in front of the congregation, to lead the entire church in singing. In Archie’s church, the song leader was his daughter, Kim. As fate would have it, Kim was a pretty, young woman. The way it’s done, everyone watches this person. They are instructing the congregation. “Ok, everyone, let’s raise our hands to God. Now everyone clap their hands, like this.” And so forth.
Well, when church was over, Judy was mad. When we got home, she says those words every man hates to hear, “We need to talk.” Which means I have to follow her back into our room, where she can give me a good lecture about what I did wrong.
She says, “Why were you looking at Kim Carville today in church?”
“What do you mean? When she was leading the singing? Uh, Judy, everybody is looking at Kim when she is leading the singing.”
“But you were really looking at her, I mean, with lust in your eyes!”She said, accusingly.
Of course, I couldn’t believe this. For one thing, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t have “lust in my eyes”. “Judy, if I’m going to go to church there, I’m going to have to look at Kim. I did not look at her in any way wrongly.”
“Oh, so you care more about looking at Kim than you care about my feelings!”
I have never liked being accused of doing wrong, when I am totally innocent, which is the case with most people. I resisted. “I’m not saying I want to look at Kim, but she’s the song leader! What am I supposed to do? Look at the floor, or the ceiling, stare out of the window?”
“Well, if your lust means more to you than I do, I don’t think you should have gotten married. I know you think Kim’s sexy, and I know you used to like her. I’m discerning a bad spirit. I want you to get on your knees, and ask God to forgive you of lusting after Kim Carville! Let’s get rid of this bad spirit right now.”
About this time, in an argument, I would actually feel something entering the room. When this thing came in, I learned later, I knew that there would be no way to avoid having a long, terrible argument with this woman. If I sat there, and said nothing, honest to God, she would actually just go on and on, with one accusation after another. Just like anyone, I didn’t want to admit to doing something that I hadn’t done. But to her, this was proof that I was guilty. I once held a tape recorder, right in her view, and recorded both sides of a 90 minute cassette full of her going on and on, always accusing me, criticizing me, trying every way to ‘push my button’, to get me to become angry.
But if I agreed to something I hadn’t done, I knew that it would make the situation worse. Later on, in desperation, I tried that. I got on my knees, and let her pray over me, casting out the lust demons, the spirits of adultery, whatever she wanted to cast out. And it did have a negative effect, since it reinforced her damnable jealousy.
But she continued, “I see, my feelings aren’t important. All you care about is Kim Carville. You just care about what other people think. What if I started staring at every man who walked into the church, how would you like that? Why don’t you want to pray? You want to keep that bad spirit, don’t you? Aren’t you ever jealous of me? Don’t you love me? What’s wrong with me? You can’t be satisfied with looking only at your wife. I guess you look at every woman, when I’m not there to watch you.”
She would keep this up as long as it took, to get me angry. Finally, in desperation, I would try to take some kind of control of the situation, to put an end to the problem. I might say, “Look Judy, listen to me. I am not the problem here. Your insane jealousy is the problem.”
At that point, she would instantly fly into a violent rage. She has done various things to me. She often would smack me, knowing that it would bloody my nose, since I wear glasses. I mean smack me as hard as she could. She might grab my hair, pulling it as if trying to pull it out, and refusing to let it go. She has picked up large ash trays, and hurled them straight into my face. If I tried to get away from her, she would bite me, holding on with her teeth. I had big, black bruises from this.
My response was to try to “turn the other cheek”, according to the teachings of Jesus. After all, I had always been taught, “You don’t hit a woman.” I believed that if I just prayed enough, and tried to live for God, as best as I could, that God would fix this problem for me. I believed in ‘true love’. And, God knows, I really did love that woman. I suppose I’ve never loved any woman as I did her. If only she could have known it, there couldn’t be a man who was more true to her, in my heart, and in my actions. She really had nothing to worry about, no reason to be jealous whatsoever.
It went on, almost constantly, one problem after the other, all concerning her suspicion of me, her jealousy. I went to church, and tried not to look at the song leader. I’m sure I seemed ridiculous, nervously looking toward the window, the floor, looking at Judy, as she watched me constantly, to monitor the direction of my view. I learned that if a pretty woman was in a room, I kept my gaze far away from her, self-consciously turning my head toward nothing, toward the other side of the room. It was crazy, and it nearly drove me crazy.
During the year we were together, I became good friends with the younger daughter, Amy. Once, Amy stood up for me. We had gotten gasoline at a convenient store, and Judy had accused me of looking at a woman there. (As if there were anything wrong with that. A normal glance.) We were at the table, and Judy started in about it. Amy said, “Momma, why don’t you be quiet. Tom didn’t do anything wrong.”
Judy was never so shocked. “What?”
Amy went on, “Well, I saw him, and Tom didn’t do anything wrong.”
Such little victories were rare, though. And for me to try to write of even half of the horrible arguments we had, it would tire out the reader. Suffice it to say that this went on, even escalated, over a year with this woman.
One episode I must mention, though. It was the day that my brother, Timothy, died. It was a Sunday, and after church, she’d decided to be upset about something that had happened, or something I’d said, I don’t remember. There were so many of these stupid arguments. I was down on my knees, praying to God for help, for strength, for something to stop her from ranting and raving, on and on. She would march back and forth in the room, with her hour-long speech, all about how wrong I was, how right she was, how it was all my fault, and so forth. It really was abnormal behavior. I don’t know how she did it.
The phone rang, and it was for me. My mother told me that my brother had died early that morning. Tim had had a bad heart for years, a result of rheumatic fever, when he was young. But it was totally unexpected. He had been working normally, up until the day he died. Judy had met him. We had eaten dinner together once.
When I put down the phone, I got back on my knees and began to cry. I took my tee-shirt off, and began to wipe my eyes on it, and blew my nose on it.
She said, “Eee-yuk! That’s gross! Don’t do that.” I couldn’t believe she was concerned about a tee-shirt, at a time like that.
Then, she began in again, right where she left off, in her damn tirade. I saw that she was actually going to try to continue the argument!
I got up, and said, “I’m going to see my mother.”
“Without me?” She was shocked. She was so possessive, that it was impossible for me to go anywhere without her. But this time I’d had enough.
I said, “No, you can’t go, because you’ll run your mouth in the car all the way there, and I’m sick of hearing it! My brother, Tim, has died, do you understand?”
“Oh, no, I won’t. I promise, Tom. I’ll be quiet.”
Half-way to Clifton, I swear, she began again with the same damned argument that she’d been ranting about before the phone call. My brother had suddenly dropped dead, but she couldn’t keep her mouth shut, even for that.
Even after thirty years, it’s hard for me to control my anger, as I write this. I should have responded to her actions that day in a harsher way than I did. I told her, “I can’t believe you are doing this.” I didn’t do much else. And she didn’t stop. She actually went on with her tongue-lashing of me, while I drove on in utter sorrow. I would like to write of ‘what I should have done’ to her. But it’s really my fault. I shouldn’t have been with her. I could have, at least, parted ways with her right there, half-way between Knoxville and Clifton.
It was in vogue, at that time, in these charismatic churches, to have studies on the subject of “dealing with demonic possession”. There were countless sermons, on cassette tapes, and books on the subject. The preacher, on Sunday, would mention the devil and demons, as much or more than God, in the sermon. Our pastor, every time he prayed, in church, would rebuke the devil, ‘bind’ the devil, cast him out of the building, and so forth. And, in our conversations, we would often talk about bad spirits, demons, and the devil.
It went something like this, “When my sister, Sara, started talking about her art and her paintings, I just began to feel a bad spirit.”
Sister Brook’s reply, “Well, why didn’t you just rebuke that thing, in the name of Jesus?”
“Well, I will, the next time it comes up.”
Sister Brook: “I’ll tell you what, let’s just pray right now, and bind up that art spirit, and cast it out of her.”
Anyone reading this can easily see how that Sara could be upset, if she had overheard this conversation, or if, during Sara’s next visit with her sister, she blurts out, in the middle of a sentence about her art, “I rebuke that demon, in the name of Jesus!”
This seemed a crazy coincidence, to me, that just when I first run into a situation in my life, where my sweet little wife begins to magically morph into a monster, right before my eyes, along come all of these people describing her perfectly, in these teachings about someone who is being influenced by a demon (no one can be “possessed”, in my view). But the next thing I ran into, is that none of their teachings seemed to help at all. Contrariwise, it seems that the more we talked about the devil, and studied about how to combat the devil, the more problems we had with the devil.
But the sad reality was, that as long as she held to this thing, this insane jealeousy, there was nothing that even God could do, to help us. She had developed a strong attachment to it, built upon fear, and upon a belief that no man could possibly be trusted. She believed that it was the only thing that could keep me ‘in line’, that it would keep me in her grip.
But, of course, it had the opposite effect. In time, I found it harder to resist the urge to protect myself from her violent attacks. I began to fear a real assault, perhaps with a knife, or scissors, or God knows what. I knew that I would have to protect myself, if I were going to keep my two eyes, and my teeth intact. And so I saw that I would become violent, myself, if I stayed with her. This is one thing that I’ve managed to maintain, all my life, whether I was going to church, or living a wild life; I’ve never hurt anyone, physically. I’ve never been in a fight, even as a child. Never did I have to go into battle, thank God, never hit nor hurt even this woman, who was physically abusing me for most of a year. If I had known that it were possible, I could have had her arrested, or put into mental health care. The best thing I could have done would have been to leave her at the first sign of her violence.
But she was so determined to keep me, it would’ve been difficult. I would have to struggle to get away from her, when she got into one of these hysterical, panicked, states. She would refuse to let me out of the house, physically blocking the way, following me to the car, and trying to steal the keys, then she would position herself in the doorway of the car, refusing to let me shut it. It was absolute insanity.
Once, a counselor told us, something that I already knew, that the best thing, in these situations, was to get a little distance between us, by taking a walk alone, or with a short drive, to get away from the argument, for long enough to calm down. But she was in a panic, as if everything depended upon her preventing me from getting away from her, even for a walk. She would follow me down the street, her mouth going a mile-a-minute, shouting her crazy mixture of fanatical ravings about God and Satan, my failures and infidelity, with no end.
Once I did manage to get away from her, I was walking down the road, and she followed me, catching up to me in her car. She followed me for a mile, at least, shouting out her window at me, crawling down the road at walking speed. Our problems got more and more horribly absurd, and steadily more violent.
Archie Carville had left the church, and a new pastor had come to take the church over, Tom Coltrane. He visited us at our home, and asked us if we would come back to the church, since we’d been away for a while. We’d been visiting some other churches. We knew Tom already. He had been painting a billboard, near Gatlinburg, and we’d stopped by the side of the highway, gone over and spoken with him a few weeks earlier. I was interested in getting into the billboard painting end of the business, and offered to work with him. I hadn’t heard from him, but there he was at my door, surprised to see us. He’d gotten our names from the church roll book.
We started attending, and found that the piano player had left the church, when Archie left. Well, Judy was an excellent piano player, being able to play almost anything by music or by ear. So she began her place as the church pianist. The song leader had been Kim Carville, as I said, so that left the church without a song leader. I’ve always been musically inclined, and I knew scores of church songs, both traditional, and the newer, charismatic sing-along type of songs. So I volunteered, and so there we were, the song-leader and the pianist for Center Assembly of God. So then, I was the one standing up front, being stared at, by every person in the congregation, including every woman.
As you might guess, it was trouble immediately. If some woman came up to shake my hand, after the service, I was in trouble. We even had a big row over an eighty year-old woman, holding my hand for a minute, as she spoke to me. I got into a habit of heading for the door as fast as I could, after every meeting. And before the service, I would stay in the ‘prayer room’ until it was time to go onto the ‘stage’ area, and begin the singing. But try as I might, it was impossible to stay out of trouble, though, of course, I was completely innocent. It was just that with Judy’s form of insane jealousy, it was impossible to please her. I couldn’t be ‘good’ enough to keep her from getting mad at me.
Our so-called ministry with this church got to be really crazy. But we were sincere, in that we really did try to do the right thing. We would go to the church alone, sometimes, to practice songs for the next service. Sometimes, I would go into the prayer room, and pray for an hour, by myself. But once, while we were at the church doing this, we got into a terrible argument. I think I may have said something like, “You know, Judy, I’ve been praying about this, and I really don’t think I should have to come into the church and hide away from everyone, until it’s time to begin the service. And after church, I have to race for the door, and not talk to anyone. It’s unnatural, that’s all. I just want to be like a normal person. I should be able to relax, and talk to people.”
She would have said, “Well, go ahead! I didn’t tell you that you couldn’t talk to anyone after church. But who is it you’re wanting to speak to? Francis? I guess she’d like that.” [Francis often came, and played the organ, across the room from the piano]. “Francis could actually just play the piano, then you wouldn’t need me here, would you? Then you and Francis could just go have sex together somewhere after church, couldn’t you?”
In the process of being a song-leader, it was necessary for me to look over at the organist occasionally, which had been a problem for Judy.
“No, and there you go again, making it impossible for me to live a normal life, by constantly accusing me of wanting to do something wrong. But what would be wrong, if I did want to speak to Francis sometimes? I should be able to tell her that she did a good job on the organ, for instance.”
“Oh, so I was right! You have been wanting to talk to Francis, haven’t you? I think you need to get delivered right now, while we’re at church, from a demon of lust. You get right down here on your knees, and I’ll pray for you.”
“I’ll tell you who needs to get rid of a bad spirit. It’s you, Judy, and your Jealousy!”
That’s when she started screaming at me, took off her high-heeled shoe, and threw it at me with what seemed to be superhuman speed and strength. It landed painfully on my chest. Then the other one was off, and I jumped away, to see it slam loudly into the front door of the sanctuary. I went out of this door, and shut it. For good measure, I locked her inside. Instantly, she was banging on the inside of it, screaming abuse at me.
It was a small church, on a rather crowded, small street. This commotion had the neighbors looking out of their windows. I would hate to think what someone would have thought of us, if a church member, or the pastor, had heard of such foolish behavior. But Judy cared not a bit.
The fact that this woman could go to church, and seem so pious, even in private, with me, sometimes, praying in church so often, and then turn into such a hellion, was unbelievable to me. And at one time, I did believe she really had gotten ‘saved’, that she had had some kind of true religious experience. But in spite of my belief in miracles, in the power of ‘true love’, she only got worse. And as for my habit of turning the “other cheek”, over time, she actually developed the idea that I was afraid of her. Her violence got worse. She took pride in making me worried, picking up a pair of big garden shears, in the middle of a fuss.
And she never once apologized for hurting me, for attacking me. Her attitude was, “Well, it may have been bad, to slam the door and break your finger, but after all, you had said _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _!” Whatever. I had said, “I should be allowed to speak normally to [Ms. Whoever] if she approaches me after church.” Or, “I shouldn’t have to tell you, every day, if I spoke to so-and-so at work, when I come home. (She had forced me to absolutely ignore certain women at work). But she was perfectly justified, in her mind, for everything she’d ever done to me. In her mind, all she expected was complete loyalty to her, though even she would have to admit that her kind of extreme fidelity would require some strange behavior. In her perverted mind, it was only her constant suspicion, and her constant control of me, that kept me from going ‘hog-wild’ with all of the other women.
And she did keep me under a tight control, though she had no reason to do so. But after maybe ten months of this abuse, I managed to get away from her long enough to get to a lawyer, and got papers drawn up for a simple divorce. She was so angry, that she actually signed them. We were on our way to a divorce, in a matter of three months, a waiting period.
But she talked me into coming over for a talk, and as I did many times, I would break down, and take her into my arms, tearfully swearing my love for her. We called off the divorce.
To explain, I can only say, it was my first marriage. I didn’t want to be the victim of a divorce. As far as my religious belief, concerning divorce, I believed the biblical saying , “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:3-12). I wanted to be sure that I had done everything that I could to try to salvage the relationship. You may be asking, “Why on earth?” after what I’ve described. But, unfortunately, I’ve left out all of the good things about our love. It’s hard for me to even remember the good times, but there were some. Also, I had grown to love having a family, had grown close to the younger daughter, Amy. She was small enough to want attention from me, and to play with me. She had a good sense of humor, for an eight-year old, and she laughed at my jokes, which is something I’ve always wished for, and never found, in any of my marriages.
For years, I had the fantasy that I would find a woman, and she would understand, and appreciate my sense of humor. It would be great. She would be laughing half the time, and just love me so much. Nothing could be further from the reality that I’ve found; they either don’t understand the humor, or they think I’m serious, completely misunderstanding, or, they think I’m being too silly. Usually, I find that I can never even relax enough to exercise any attempt at humor. Only Mona, my first girl, ever loved my sense of humor. And she was an intolerable liar, and unfaithful as could be.
Of course, the best one in the world was my old best-friend, Ray Ranier. We both had the same kind of sense of humor. One thing that would always be certain, when we met, we would have each other laughing. We were both thoroughly heterosexual, but we had a better kinship, mentally and emotionally, than I’ve ever experienced with any woman.
When I began talking about Judy, I left off of the parallel history of my many different jobs. I was working at Neon Sign Service when I met Judy. I had been there for around a year, and found out that Federal Sign Company needed a ‘pattern man’. Federal was a huge sign franchise, with a big shop in Knoxville. It was a better position, with a bigger company, so I took the job.
Everything would have been fine, but Judy was so inquisitive about my job, I ended up telling her about the women at Federal. I was not smart about how to keep the peace at home, or I certainly would have had better sense than to mention that I worked with a number of young women. Well, I only actually worked with one. The others just happened to cross my path occasionally. They worked downstairs. And, in my defense, I must say that I didn’t know that Judy was crazy, when we first got together. With any normal woman, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Anyway, she was asking detailed questions, and since I had nothing to hide, I thought I should tell her everything. I thought it would reassure her, if I was completely open with her.
But then, every day, she began to ask me, “Did Martha come to work today?”
“Oh yeah, she was there.”
“So you saw her. Did you talk to her?”
“Well, just, ‘Good morning’, you know.”
“So, do you have to say good morning to her every day? What do you do, go downstairs to her office, and pop in for a little chat? A little tete-a-tete?”
I was surprised, at first, to find this behavior from her. I thought, I’ll just give her every detail, and it won’t come up again. “No, not at all. We just happened to cross paths, for no reason, and I said hello, just like I say hello to everybody in the mornings.”
“Does it mean a lot to you, to be able to talk to her every morning?”
On and on it went. She would carry on with this shit, until we would be in an argument nearly every day, over my speaking to some girl. The other girl there, the one I worked with every day, of course, she had to admit that I had to speak to her, since we worked together. With her, it was a question of whether I was being “friendly” to her. Then she had to know how old she was, and the trick question came up, “Is she good-looking?” If I said no, she would see her, and call me a liar. If I said yes, I was in deep guano.
She was an expert in devising questions, and setting up situations, in which I would be ‘in trouble’, no matter what I said, or did. I hate these situations worse than anything, just because it is so unfair.
She came to my place of work, just to look these women over. Well, she was mad. Right there, while I was on the job, she starts in: “You didn’t tell me she was young! And you said she wasn’t pretty, too, Thomas Steinbreck, you liar!”
I was so stressed out by this, and humiliated. I was desperate to get her away from there, afraid we would have an all-out fuss, right at my workplace.
Every day, it got worse, and worse. She would start up her accusations, and keep me up half the night, yelling at me that I cared more about my “precious lust for these women” than I cared for my wife.
I went to work, and avoided the girls in the office, and ignored them if I happened to meet one of them. I was so glad, when I was able to make it through the day without speaking to any of them, because I knew she would ask, grilling me with questions, when I got home. Finally, I could take it no longer. I should have left Judy, but instead, I quit my job. I thought I could make a living painting signs, working out of the basement of our house.
I also started working with Tom, our Pastor, who had a sign company. Sometimes he would give me jobs, to do on my own. He helped me by loaning me equipment. He let me work in his shop sometimes. When this first began, everything was hunky-dory, there was no jealousy between us, as potential competitors. After all, he was the older, well established businessman, and I was the young guy trying to get a start. I was impressed with Tom for this reason.
However, by the end, he had gotten angry with me once or twice. There had been a misunderstanding one day about whether I was working for him, or had he given me the job? Since this situation was different every day, it was bound to spark some conflict eventually, I suppose. But it did hurt my feelings, and it disillusioned me about a man who was also my pastor, by then. I saw that he could be selfish. I was disillusioned by many people, along this spiritual journey of mine, but I’ll speak of all of that later, maybe in a section for religious topics. Right now, I want to give you the basic history.
Finally, the last straw came along, and it broke the back of my first marriage. I had begun to take on sign jobs, on my own. One of these jobs consisted of repainting all of the signs in a ‘water-park’ in Gatlinburg. The water park was closed, since it was early in the spring, but she was actually so afraid that I might end up in the same place as a bikini-clad woman, was too much for her. She had to come with me, “to help me”. She did this most of the time, coming with me on jobs. The real reason was that she felt she couldn’t trust me to be out of her sight for a day. This was not convenient. Amy was kept out of school, and forced to go with us, since she had to be picked-up after school, and Gatlinburg was too far away. By the way, for us to go swimming, around other women, was out of the question. No kidding.
Since she was there with me, I did let her paint sometimes, doing simple things, like filling in the letters, after I had painted the perimeter of a large letter. So, one day, we were on this large sign, in a grassy area, which was lucky, since she spilled a bunch of paint. She’d begun one of her tirades, about how all I wanted was to get away from her, so I could lust upon every woman in sight. She’d said something about Janie and Steve, and somehow, I had said that I didn’t think that they had as much trouble with their relationship as we did. I said one thing, though, that triggered a terrible attack. “Janie isn’t nearly as jealous as you are.”
She was holding an open pail of paint, gallon-size, though only half-full. Without a word of warning, she threw this steel can of paint right into my face, with all her might. Luckily, I was able to deflect it, somewhat, so I didn’t get this harsh, oil-base sign paint in my eyes. But it hurt my arm, and splashed straight up, getting all over me. And this stuff won’t wash off with water, like house paint. It takes mineral spirits to remove it. As usual, I didn’t retaliate. I just broke down, crying, but finished the sign, anyway, sobbing. I saw that things had gone too far, that it was having an effect on me, mentally.
I left her in secret, and hid at friend’s homes, until I rented an apartment, where she didn’t know the location.
This was necessary, since, at times, when I had tried to get away from her, she would somehow find me, and follow me. She had done this once, when I had walked to a motel a couple of miles from our home. I simply needed to get some sleep, which she would not let me do. She would keep me awake most of the night, ranting about whatever infraction she had imagined that I had done, and trying to get me to admit to doing, or feeling, something ungodly.
So I walked to the motel, and got a room. She showed up about an hour later, demanding to be let in the room. I resisted, since I knew she would get me thrown out of the motel, by running her loud mouth. She was convinced that I had a woman with me. I had to let her in, thinking that if I could prove to her that I was alone, she would leave me alone for a while. She came in, and looked quickly into the shower, under the bed, everywhere. She then proceeded to run her mouth, as I knew she would, while I begged her to be quiet, to leave me alone.
The desk called twice, asking us to be quiet, or to leave. Finally, she left. That was a bad night. I remember, there was a print on the wall of some terrible painting. The painting was so very bad, I covered it up with a towel.
How I evaded her long enough to get free of her, I can’t even remember now. I know that I managed to get a lawyer, and file for divorce a second time. This time, she wasn’t so cooperative. Her lawyer took the lead, and for six months, she dragged me in and out of court, threatening with lawsuits, demanding ‘interim support’ that I didn’t have. She sued for alimony, and at one point, the judge had told me to come up with $400, or to report to jail on a certain date. But in the end, I was free. The best thing about it, I haven’t had to see her at all since then. I moved to another nearby town.
If I had stayed with her, the police probably would have come to our home some day, to find her sitting on my lifeless, bleeding body, just laughing madly, while she continued to stab me hundreds of times. She would say, “But officer, you don’t understand. He said I had a jealousy spirit! I’m just keeping him from going out behind my back and screwing everything that moves. I’m a child of the King!”
For years, when looking at a newspaper, every time I saw a case of some woman killing someone, I would check the name, thinking it would be Judy Rhodes.
And after thirty years, it still makes me angry, when I think of the things she did to me. I have forgiven her, yes. But, as I’ve said before, I feel comforted in knowing that she will know exactly how wrong she was, on judgment day.
The fact that I put up with her for so long is embarrassing. And, what is so bad about it, I now have a completely different attitude toward any woman that I’m with. It’s as if my going through these things, putting up with this kind of nonsense, as I did, has made me that much less tolerant of that kind of behavior in a woman. I am still committed to non-violence, of course, but I really won’t put up with any kind of jealousy from a woman. Not unless I’ve really done something to cause her to be jealous. And I wouldn’t let a woman mess up my job situation, not at all. I reckon I carry this emotional baggage, from this past problematic marriage. Now, I say, “Life’s too short, to put up with a bunch of aggravation from a woman, (or a man, for that matter).”
I am sorry to have written so much about her. I left out some major stories, to shorten it down.
About the same time that Judy and I broke up, I seemed to break-up with my Pastor and partner, Tom Coltrane. The next step in my life, was to move into an apartment, underneath the home of an elderly widow. I had been working out of my basement, doing the sign work, when I was with Judy. So my business was completely disrupted, when I was forced to leave there. I was only able to do a few things, then, painting on location. So, I was basically unemployed for a while. But, in a way, it was good for me. I had a simple life for a month or two.
I was healthy then, and athletic, as well. I would run on a track at a nearby football field, a little public park. I ran every day. I remember that I could run a long distance, a long time, and when I turned on the speed, other runners were surprised at what I could do. It was fun. But I was burdened with worry, about my work situation.
During this time, I began listening to a radio preacher, broadcasting out of a small town in South Carolina. He claimed to be a prophet, which was of interest to me, so I listened to him. His name was R.G. Starr. He was similar to another preacher whose teachings I had followed, another man who claimed the ministry of a prophet, David Tyndale. These preachers appealed to a certain kind of person, and I must have been attracted to them. Their manner of preaching was harsh, and they were absolutely certain that they were right, and others were wrong. They both sprang up from nowhere, being self-appointed, self-anointed prophets. They spoke for Almighty God himself.
David was prone to making a lot of predictions, mostly things that happen all the time anyway, such as tornadoes, earthquakes (with no particular location), and airplane crashes. One interesting item of prophecy that had come true, according to him; he had foretold the explosion of Mount Saint Helens. This was still fresh in people’s minds, at that time.
R.G. Starr, on the other hand, didn’t seem to make predictions. It isn’t necessary to make predictions, to be a prophet. It has more to do with being a mouthpiece for God, a spokesman for the Divine.
But both of these had some kind of attraction. They told people that they were wrong, with a strong authority. They had no backing denomination, hadn’t been to seminary. They might tell you that you were stupid, weak, foolish, and not nearly dedicated to God as you should be. This kind of preaching was hard to take, if one was a follower. But, if you harbor a normal, southerner’s load of guilt, and self–deprecation, you can believe you deserve it.
Also, there is another aspect that’s key to these men attracting followers. The hearer, the receiver of all this verbal abuse, can dream of the day when, after fasting, and repenting, and reading the bible, and praying enough, maybe God will see fit to reach down and touch him, too, as He did these prophets. Then, follower becomes leader, a leader who has sprung up from nowhere, has no backing from any denomination, no seminary training, and, though you may call him self-appointed, he knows that he speaks with the authority of the Almighty. This is nothing to scoff at!
Somehow, I found another young man who lived nearby, who had heard of R.G. Starr as well. We sat around, talking, and listening to tapes of these prophets, and decided to travel together, down to South Carolina to attend a series of revival meetings, at R.G.’s commune.
You see, over the years, in dealing with various churches, I have always had the experience, eventually, when I would ask a question, and it couldn’t be answered. That’s no great thing; there are thousands of theological problems, which have been the topic of many debates for centuries. But what bothered me, I would study the matter for myself, and maybe even search to find what some other church said about it. Then, when I confronted my pastor with a possible solution to the problem, he was unable to even consider it, because it was not part of his church’s doctrine. Even worse, you might confront them with something from the Bible which seemed to contradict their position, and this would cause an even more negative reaction.
About this time, a blindness would seem to take hold of them, a willful resistance to the truth. This tendency disturbed me to no end. To me, it seemed to prove that they simply weren’t interested in the truth. And so, I felt that I had to go elsewhere, to find the answers. This has led me to study almost every denomination of Christian church, as well as other Faiths, such as Buddhism, and Hinduism. I was looking for the ‘true way’. So I thought maybe I could learn something from this radio prophet.
So we went down there, and endured a week of meetings, twice a day. It was an old motel, with a meeting-house built next to it. Also, there was a house for Brother Starr. No air-conditioning. The water tasted like sulfur. No TV allowed. No smoking allowed. Mr. Starr’s son actually showed up, which seemed to be a rare occasion. His relationship with his father was obviously quite tenuous. This was borne out after the young man lit-up a cigarette. I didn’t see the confrontation, but later R.G. said angrily that he had “run him off” for smoking.
Rev. Starr had a beautiful young wife, obviously not his son’s mother, who played the piano and sang during the services. Once, after a sermon, she was sitting there, playing softly while R.G. continued to speak. Then his speaking turned into preaching, which left her in the position of playing while he was shouting at us. He stopped abruptly, and shouted at her, angrily, “Shut that thing up, will you? I’m trying to preach!” She seemed so profoundly hurt, and frustrated, but at the same time, it was obvious that she was resigned to having to put up with this from him, and, no doubt, a lot more.
Ultimately, I found out that what it all boiled down to was this: If you were willing to be completely submissive to this tyrant, you could donate all your money and property to his organization, which consisted of him and his property there around the motel/commune. You could then live there in your own motel room, and eat in the communal dining room (no vegetarian or kosher diets), for the rest of your life. A daily work routine must be adhered to, unless you had a job off premises. R.G. was the ‘boss’ of everything.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But after the meetings he let us know that if we didn’t have any money or property to donate, then he really wasn’t interested in us, anyway.
David Tyndale didn’t have anything like a commune. He didn’t even have a church. There were a dozen or so small churches, scattered across the south, some located back in a forest, off the beaten path. These were attended by his ‘followers’. A portion of the money taken up in the offerings went to Brother Tyndale. He only visited occasionally, since he was always travelling around having revival meetings, sometimes in big tents. I went to one of these. It was way down in Etowah, quite a drive for me, and on a Tuesday night.
He went on and on, singing and playing guitar, and preaching. He was more successful than Starr, more entertaining. But he was harsh, screaming that “God is angry! God is going to damn these damnable sinners to hell. Most of these church-goers are going right to hell along with them. And there’s gonna be be three plane crashes, one after the other.”
He went on for quite a long time. After a couple hours, since I had to work the next day, I got up, and made for the door. Well, he noticed me, and was instantly angry. He said, “Just go ahead, and walk out on me before I’m finished. You might not live long enough to hear me preach again.”
Well, I had enough sense to know that God wasn’t angry with me for needing to get back home and getting to bed. I had come a long way, trying, in my way, to serve the Lord. But a strange thing happened on the way home that night. I was travelling up I-75, at a normal speed, on a smooth trip, when suddenly, out of nowhere, this guy appears to be trying to step out in front of my car. Since it was night, I only saw him for a second, quickly swerving to try to miss him. But there was an impact, and my windshield was broken. Not completely broken through, just a star shaped crack, with one long crack.
Of course I stopped, thinking I had run into him. In a minute, he appeared at my open window, shouting at me. He was as drunk as any man I have ever seen. “God, I didn’t want you to hit my hand. I was just trying to get you to stop! Nobody would stop for me, and I gotta go get some gas for my car! I waited so long and nobody would stop, so I decided to MAKE somebody stop.”
He had lunged out, holding out his hand, and had hit my windshield with it. He wanted me to take him to a gas station. He was so drunk, he wasn’t even aware that his hand was hurt. So I let him in, and got back on the highway.
He was a year or two younger than me, I guess, and looked like a Mexican, but with long hair. He was explaining himself. He knew it wasn’t my fault.
“Yeah, man, like, my car just ran out of gas back down the road a ways. I been walking and trying to flag somebody down. I left my car with a hitch-hiker. He’s watching it for me. I left a bunch of my stuff in it. My girlfriend kicked me out, and I’m moving to my new place.”
I felt terrible about what had happened, and felt sorry for the young man. But at the same time, I knew that I was a victim of his stupidity. He had purposely lunged out, hand outstretched, thinking that he could simply force someone to stop for him. Luckily, there was a hospital in the next little town, with an emergency room. I pulled up near the entrance, and saw that it was open. I let him out. He shook my hand, thanking me for the ride, as he left me. His hand was swollen, and feverish.
Legally, I should have called the police, and reported the matter. But I had a vision of myself, sending him checks for the rest of his life, to compensate him for an injury that he caused. He was so drunk, I knew he wouldn’t know what kind of car I drove. He didn’t know my name, nor anything about me. So I just left him there. I’m guilty of a hit-and-run.
I don’t believe that this had anything to do with my leaving David Tyndale’s meeting early. However, if I had stayed until it was over, or even a few minutes longer, he would have walked out in front of someone else. Maybe they wouldn’t have had my youthful quick reflexes, and driving skills. He could have easily lost a leg, or lost his life. Or maybe they would have seen him sooner, and missed him completely.
There was only one thing that I did get interested in, through my association with these two ‘prophets’. They both emphasized the importance of keeping the ‘seventh-day’ of the week, as the Sabbath (Saturday). So, I looked up the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in my area, and went there the next Saturday.
My associations with the charismatic groups had left me feeling the need for something different. They’re not a bad lot, and for some people, these churches can be a great place for them to sing, and to enthusiastically praise the Lord. They are fine, for those who feel at home there.
But, to be honest, after seeing so many things, as I had, that were disturbing, I felt that I had had enough of them for a while. For instance, the obsession with demons and the devil, and casting out demons. I saw how foolish much of this behavior really was.
I have seen a pastor’s wife, in a real argument, right in the church, about which person should be in charge of the exorcism of a young lady that we’d invited to the church. For one thing, they were taking Judy’s word for it, that she even had a demon. I doubted it. And then, to have open discord, between these two women, obviously all hope of helping this woman was lost. She was only confused by the whole mess, and probably worse off. She might have had all kinds of anxiety and fear, thinking that she might be “possessed”.
So far, at that time, I had seen other things in the church that were disturbing; fake healings, preachers begging for money, false claims of miracles. And I was sick of all the ‘prosperity’ preaching, all of the faith talk. I don’t even want to discuss it now. And even now, as sick as I was of all of that, I have to qualify my writing, by saying that there was actually some of it, that I believe was real and genuine.
I suppose I could summarize my feelings about it like this; there always going to be grains of falsehood, opportunities for abuse, in every kind of religion. But you can’t throw out the whole thing because of them. This can be said of almost every faith.
But I was ready for a church experience that was more orderly, more ‘normal’, in my mind. And that’s what the Seventh Day Adventist Church is. I looked in the phone book, and found the nearest one. I was interested to find out, when I showed up Saturday, that most of the members of this church were black. But that didn’t bother me. I was pleased to find that it was a nice, orderly, simple church.
In a few days, I received a visit from two ministers from the Seventh Day Church. I hadn’t ever seen them, but I was glad to have the visit. They were interested in me, and were happy that I was interested in their church.
I was. After all, they believed in modern-day prophets, didn’t they? [In actuality, they believe in ONE modern-day prophetess, E.G.White]. The reason for their visit was obviously to invite me to church, but not to the one I had attended. This was 1982, so it’s possible that this church has changed by now. But at that time the church was effectively segregated by race. It wasn’t an official policy, but they were there to gently suggest to me that it might be better if I went to their church, rather than the one I had gone to last Saturday.
Maybe I should have been disturbed by this, but I was so grateful for their interest in me, that I agreed to try their church, while not promising to stop attending the one with my black brothers.
Things were going fine, in our conversation, until I brought up the subject of prophets. “Yes”, they said, “We feel very blessed to have the writings of the late Ms. White.”
“I believe in prophets, too, in the present-day church.” I announced.
An eyebrow went up, on one of them.
“In fact, I believe that I may be a prophet. Nothing special, like Ellen White, you understand. Just sort of a normal ministry, but as a prophet.”
I think I could have told them that I believed I was a priest, and it would have had the same effect. The younger one lost interest in me, and seemed to be in a mood to go. But the older one still held out hope for me. I was only a misguided young man, who could be salvaged, with a little work.
This attitude, among preachers I talked to, hurt me, to some extent. Yes, I reckon I was delusional, in my belief that God meant for me to be a prophet. I think I was mistaken to think I should try to become any kind of minister. But, concerning the concept of being a prophet, this is something that IS in the bible, and not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament books, as well. There were plainly prophets in the early church. So why should they look at me as if I had announced that I was the first homosexual Pope, from the planet, Zberzhek?
It just doesn’t fit into their comfortable little system. It’s something they haven’t considered, and refuse to do so. Just one more brick wall to have to run into.
So, I felt this aversion, on their part, but the older fellow was so nice, and insisted that I should come to their church, that I did. I ended up going there for about a year, even becoming a vegetarian (It’s another teaching from Ms. E. G. White. They may have become less strict about this in recent years).
On the route to the Adventist church, I saw a church that I was interested in. It was called Faith Temple. I figured it was an independent off-shoot of the Church of God, more or less run by some ‘one-man denomination’, which was exactly what it turned out to be. The pastor and I had a lot in common, it seems, it terms of our beliefs. He liked me so much that he let me come and preach there a number of times. This was a common practice back then, among this kind of church. They had many ministers who weren’t seminary-trained, nor even educated at all. It seems strange to some people, but it was almost something to be proud of. They could say, “I didn’t get my Faith and my message from the seminary. I got it on my knees, straight from the Lord!” And, they wanted to encourage the young ministers, so, on Wednesday evening, when there weren’t many people there anyway, they would let you preach.
During that time, I went to the Seventh-Day Church on Saturdays, and the Faith Temple on Sundays. I tried to minister to the people at the Sunday church, to some extent. I failed to mention, in this writing, that I have actually preached a number of times, in the Church of God in Clifton, once in the Baptist church, in the Assembly of God, and a couple of times in the Island Home Church of God, and a couple of others, probably a score or two of sermons, and teaching.
After some time, the pastor at Faith Temple decided to close down the church. He owned the property, and the building, so he could do this. This is one of the dangers of being involved in one of these kinds of little churches. They were a group of people who had dedicated years of donations to this effort, and then one guy just closed it down, pocketed all the money, and they were left with nothing.
They actually organized a meeting to decide what to do, with the pastor absent. I discussed it with them. If I had been a little older or wiser, I could have joined with them, and they would have begun another church of some kind. I think of this whenever I think about opportunities to serve God, that I have simply overlooked through the years.
I had bought a motorcycle, and I used to ride it to church. I’ll never forget a beautiful summer day, a Sunday afternoon, when I was riding up the highway toward Gatlinburg. I was on my way to the church, ostensibly, but it was such a pretty, sunny day, I was torn between going to church, for the Sunday evening service, and going for a ride in the Smoky Mountains. When I got to the church, I decided to keep on going. It was a wonderful ride, but I think it was the wrong decision.
As I said, the congregation at Faith Temple found themselves with a discouraged pastor who was going to sell the church, with no discussion about it, except a monologue from the pulpit. It was a pitiful, short sermon. He had prophesied a number of big things concerning the future of the church. So it was sort of an apology, a case for saying that prophecies are always conditional, and contingent upon certain conditions, which the people involved must live up to. Amazingly, he said, “God changed his mind.” Obviously an absurd notion, as he must have known. This had a discouraging effect upon all of us. The church was abruptly closed.
As for the Adventist adventure, with all due respect to Rev. Ellen White, who may have truly been a prophetess, I found a few of the church’s teachings to be a little bit hard for me to swallow, personally. They are, all considering, a fine church. And her writings are some of the greatest works of religious literature. But, like all churches, since they have such fine teachings, from those dear departed leaders of the past, they can’t possibly consider admitting to any fault whatsoever. It’s like the thing with the Pope- an infallibility problem. And, at any rate, I wasn’t willing to subject myself to years of instruction, in their schools, to become one of their ministers.
That disappointing realization hit me at about the same time that Faith Temple closed down. I quit going to church. I had moved back to Clifton, which would have made a long trip to either church, anyway. Another factor, I had begun to drink again, just a little.
[For a discussion about the Seventh-day Sabbath, read ‘Journey Through Controversy’]
Lands and houses
My little plot of land, up on the mountain, as I said, had an old decrepit trail leading into it, which crossed two of my neighbor’s properties. They were adamant, that I could not cross their land. I sold it really cheap, while I was with Judy. My third brother, Timothy, was bequeathed another hill in the woods, next to Dale’s land. Tim died in 1981, and that land became Terry’s. Terry briefly considered building on it, but quickly realized that a driveway would cost more than the land was worth, plus, there were easement problems with it, too. (Easement problem = land-locked). He sold it cheap.
Back to the history:
Dale had divorced his first wife, and so, was living alone, in his trailer, up on the mountain. He was having some tough times. His water pump had failed, and his car had broken down. He had no time to do any house-cleaning at all, and I was determined to help him. So I moved in with Dale.
The reason that his water pump had failed, his trailer was about 300 feet higher than his spring, his water source, and even a heavy-duty pump had a rough time in pumping water that far uphill, and it broke down often. I began to haul water up there, in a big cooler. I washed his dishes, which had sat in the sink, dirty, for so long, that they stank. I flushed his toilet for the first time in many days.
Dale had been going through a hard time. He was struggling to fix his old car, which he couldn’t even drive, it was such a major problem. His ex-wife was harassing him, terribly, not letting him visit his young daughter. He had been so foolishly generous, in the divorce settlement, that he was having financial trouble. This is when Dale became religious. He started working with our old local Baptist church. I think that is the only thing that kept him from going crazy, during that time. He’s been a good Christian ever since. Soon, he began to work for the Sheriff Department. He met a really nice Woman, who began to help him to manage his finances. They were married, and took on foster children. They adopted one of these children. He soon began his work, helping the local drunks and drug addicts, at his Clifton Recovery Center.
My Father must have insisted upon doing one good thing for at least one of his real sons, because he later sold the old farm house to Dale and his wife. It’s a heck-of-a nice place, with four acres of land. The way it came about, my step-mother wanted a new house, and Dad was building one for her. Dale and his wife, Janice, were in the market for a house. However, Dale had to get a mortgage, to pay for it, which is still one of his monthly bills.
An important note:
After reading this, I realized that I come across sounding rather bitter about all of this business of how the land was divided up, and so forth. It occurred to me that the reader wouldn’t understand that this writing is the first mention of it, in my life, aside for maybe one small confidential conversation with my brother over a decade ago. Which was just a discussion about how worthless these small plots of ridge-top land turned out to be. Other that that, It’s a subject that has never come up, in dozens of Christmas’ and Thanksgiving get-togethers, when we got together with Dad and Betty and her children, and everything has always been all smiles and politeness, however artificial our relationship with our step-siblings might have been.
Honestly, when it was happening, I was so young, and my recent failures were so present in my mind, (the Marine Corps debacle, and my drug use), that I felt enough guilt to believe that I deserved whatever happened. Or, in other words, that I didn’t deserve anything. Also, there was really a strong ethos in my family that one simply didn’t make a fuss about anything that might cause hard feelings. One didn’t fight over things, one didn’t expect more than he received. We felt that it would be a very ugly thing to do, to complain about anything.
And so I haven’t. Honestly, I haven’t said anything about it all these years. Maybe that’s why I feel that now, as we all slide into old age, it’s about time these things were addressed. Not so that they can be argued over, but precisely because it’s far too late to do anything about it.
My intention is that my parents will never read this. I’m writing secretly, under an alias, changing names, and keeping it under wraps, as far as my family goes.
Terry, the youngest of us four brothers, was always taken care of. Dennis Walker was affluent enough, and Carl took an interest in him, and, between the child support, (which continued through his college years), and scholarships, his education was paid for. He’s done very well.
Timothy died way back in ’81, and was happy as Dennis’ Chief Deputy, having achieved this high rank at a young age.
Dale has had to work hard, and to struggle somewhat at times. But he was lucky to have a fine companion, who worked, making pretty good money, and then he ended up with the big farm house, though he had to buy it.
Myself, when I was young, working menial, low-paid jobs, I had a hard time of it. Even when I got into the sign business, my pay was low for years. My failed marriages caused me financial distress. I went bankrupt in 1990.
So there have been numerous times when I was unsure what I was going to do, to have just some place to live. Only when I got established in South Carolina with Abner signs did I finally have enough money to make ends meet. But even then, I have never owned a home, except for the year or so that Carol and I owned Dale’s old trailer on top of the hill. Most of the time, I’ve lived in an old double-wide trailer, that is owned by the Abner family.
This is all fine and dandy, sure. But what I have never understood, has been Carl’s attitude toward me, all those years, whenever I have been in need, or when I have been simply ‘having it rough’. I’ve driven old cars, worked in ragged old trucks, had times when it was really tough going.
There was Carl, happily remodeling, building extensions onto his home, trading new cars every couple of years, buying such nice furniture and replacing carpet that wasn’t even dirty. And his attitude was always, “Well, that Thomas has problems. But it’s all his fault. If only he’d listen to my advice. But this is as it should be. I have plenty, he has nothing. It’s because I’ve worked hard. Thomas should work harder.”
He seems to see nothing wrong with this state of affairs, where he has it well-off, Thomas has it tough. Like all people who have been lucky in life, he doesn’t believe in luck. “You make your own luck,” he would say, “by working hard and doing the right things.”
I don’t believe I could ever have such an attitude toward my son, Micah.
If I had been a constant screw-up, or lazy, or a criminal, one could say I deserved it. But I have worked constantly, being very seldom unemployed, at hard jobs. I have painted hundreds of signs, working outdoors, climbing up to 100 feet in the air, in the heat, and in the cold.
I’ve never been disrespectful, nor disruptive, never been in jail, except for that once when I was in the Marines. I have a perfectly clean record. Never even been arrested, nor charged with any crime.
If I did anything wrong by going to Europe, I don’t know what it was. I could never figure out what people thought I had done wrong. I guess they thought Europe was like some big playground, where everything is fun and easy. I don’t know what they thought.
To be fair to Carl, I reckon he had to sneak behind Betty’s back to help me out with the few times he did give me a 20 or a hundred dollars.
And as far as Carl making good choices in life, he would admit that the farming, and the gas station ventures were failures. What he did do right was to buy 180 acres at a time when it cost him thirteen thousand, five hundred dollars. He got through a divorce in which the property was divided up 90% to Mom’s 0%. He then sold off about half a million dollars worth, and still has a home. (The remaining 10% is insignificant, the worthless land Carl’s sons were given.)
He did always work hard, in union jobs, labor unions that have been decimated by his favorite politicians, from Reagan’s days to Scott Walker.
Continuing with my story:
After my divorce, I had been unemployed for a few months. I survived by painting a couple of billboards. Finally, I got hired at B. P. Sign Company. There, I was once again paired-up with my old friend, Buddy Brewer. He’d worked with me at Southern Signs. At first, I was talking religion to him, of course. We would go to lunch each day together, in a local public park. Buddy was an intelligent man, and a nice guy, who had been exposed to religion in a rather unfortunate way. His brother was old Walton Brewer, the head overseer of the ‘World’s Only’ (true) Church of God. I had met Walton once, briefly. I was back when I had my radio broadcast on the little WCVX, the Clifton radio station. I was coming out of a live broadcast, and he was going in to do his broadcast. He said, “I heard you, boy, on the radio. You need to get into the Church of God.”
I said, happily, “I am in the Church of God, the Clifton Church.”
He growled at me, “I know about them, son, that’s that Cleveland bunch. [The Cleveland Assembly, part of their ‘brand-name’] You need to come over and see us in Knoxville.”
I stammered, “Uh, well, sir, what kind of Church do you go to?”
“There ain’t but one real church, boy, it’s The World’s Only! See, this bunch you’re with, they want to let WOMEN PREACH!” He had begun to preach to me. “Now that cain’t be right NOW, CAN IT?” He had terrible, hot breath.
Buddy, his brother, had become an atheist. He was surprised to find that I had gotten religion. When I had been at Southern Signs with him, I was praising the virtues of marijuana, and inventing ways to ridicule the church. It’s embarrassing for me to write this, but it’s true. Now, I was sitting with him in his car, eating lunch, and telling him that I believed myself to be a prophet. He laughed so hard, he got apple juice on his windshield.
When Dale moved out, this left me in his trailer on the hill by myself. I don’t remember how it happened, but over the months of working with Buddy, I began to drink alcohol again. Oh, now I remember. His brother, not the preacher, his other brother, the alcoholic, had come to eat lunch with us. (More like drinking lunch). They insisted that I join them in a toast to his birthday.
I remember talking to Buddy about meeting Carol, the woman who became my second wife. Dale had mentioned her to me. They worked together at the Sheriff department. She was a dispatcher.
I remember telling Buddy that I thought she would make a good wife. My first failed marriage had been to an extremely pretty woman. This one was cute, but my image of her was, in my words at the time, as a “utilitarian wife”. I remember struggling with the concept of whether or not I could really love her.
“You know what I mean, Buddy, true love.”
Another outburst of laughter from him. “True love! What are you, crazy? There’s no such thing.” I suppose I never did really love Carol, but I convinced myself that I did, at that time. I’d had such a bad experience with a very pretty woman, I thought life would be easier with one who was less pretty.
I recently found out that Buddy died some years ago. He was only a decade older than me, so he must have died rather young. I don’t know how he died. Actually, all of the Brewer brothers have died. The preacher, Walton, had an ugly cancerous growth that grew onto his face. The alcoholic died while I was still working with Buddy.
From my job at B.P. signs, I went to Lamont Outdoor Advertising. This turned out to be my last job in Tennessee for many years. Then, after that, I began a long period of painting billboards as a contractor, first for National Advertising, then, for about eleven years I stayed with Abner Signs, in South Carolina. That’s where I was working when I fell from a billboard, which put an end to my sign-painting career.
So, since I mentioned Carol, let’s go to an account of my time with her.
Rather than fixing Dale’s old water pump, I put in a gravity-flow water system, tapping a spring higher up on the mountain. The spring wasn’t on our property. It was on a large section of the mountain land, that had been in the hands of some distant mining company for many years. I did this by running about 1500 feet of heavy-duty garden hose from a water spring to the trailer. This spring was a very good one, with good-tasting water. And, the fact that it is located high up on a mountain makes it unusual.
It was quite an experience, carrying big coils of garden hose straight up the ridge, plowing through thick underbrush. I couldn’t have done it at all, if I hadn’t been is such good shape, physically. I look back on such things now with awe, since my body is so radically different now. For one thing, there’s the bad ankle, which makes it nearly impossible to walk up a steep incline. Then there’s my heart, with the irregular beat. It simply doesn’t pump as well as a normal heart. This causes me to be short of breath, even if I try to walk too fast, or if I walk up any kind of hill.
This water system worked pretty well, after I worked out the problems, until the temperature dropped below freezing. I had thought that if I kept it running, on cold days, it wouldn’t freeze. I was wrong. I even went to the trouble of running electric heating tape along a section of the hose. But it didn’t work very well. Did you know that electricity diminishes, if your extension cord is hundreds of feet long? I didn’t know this either. But when the water froze up, I could still use the water in my fifty-gallon reservoir. It was a basic, problematic existence, during the winter. I took showers at my mother’s house sometimes.
But I suppose you remember that I’d been somewhat excluded from my mother’s life, for some time. There was a change in that situation. I must tell you of my stepfather’s problems.
Sheriff Dennis Walker was a good man. He had a good sense of humor. He enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. His favorite thing was to go to his ‘retreat’, his little cabin, way out in the woods, on the Tellico River. There, he and Mom would work together on little wood-craft projects, hand-made walking canes, and so-forth. My mother would do the painting.
He did like to travel, driving by car to distant states. He’d become so used to driving, having been a State Trooper for twenty years, that he could go hundreds of miles a day. But he and Mom had simple tastes, a simple, small home, nothing elaborate. But, evidently, Dennis had a lust for money. He began to take bribes, as the local Sheriff.
At the time, I was absent, living in Knoxville, all consumed with my failing marriage to Judy, so I know very little about the circumstances surrounding this episode. But of course I got the news, when Dennis got ‘busted’ by the FBI. He didn’t do anything but to take bribes. He hadn’t been involved in any illegal activities, but he had taken ‘protection-money’ from some pretty busy criminals. In the eyes of the FBI, this made him guilty of drug-dealing, prostitution, and a host of other stuff. He wasn’t guilty of everything he was accused of, but he wasn’t innocent, either.
So, off to prison he went. Naturally, my mother became quite depressed, after such a tragic misfortune. My Aunt, Kathy, Mom’s sister, was trying to cheer up my Mom, trying to get her out of the house. Kathy was good friends with Carol, who also worked at the Sheriff Department. Carol became my second wife.
Somehow, she had seen me, somewhere, so she got my brother to drive her up to my trailer in a patrol car. At first, I wasn’t interested in her, but the idea of having some kind of girlfriend began to grow in my mind. I was going to say, the idea kind of lay there in my mind, until it festered into something just large enough to take action upon.
Soon, I got in touch with Carol, and I became aware of my mother’s depressive state, since they were all friends. So the four of us, Carol, my Aunt, my Mother and I began to go out together. We typically would go to a country music dance hall, and then to an all-night restaurant. This was great fun. Carol really loved my Aunt Kathy, as I never saw her love anyone else. Carol was on her best behavior around us, at that time. She seemed like such a wonderful, fun-loving girl.
At times Carol and I would drink some whiskey, when we were with them, and the natural thing was to go to her place afterwards, so we could be alone. We both seemed to have been alone for quite a long time, and were starving for affection. She said she couldn’t get pregnant, because she had an I.U.D. (intrauterine device), so we didn’t worry about it. In a couple of months, she was pregnant. The doctor said that the IUD must have fallen out.
She was very surprised, and unhappy about it. When she gave me the news, I said, “Well, we’ll just get married.” I thought I would just go ahead and say the ‘right thing’, and then think about it later.
This seems supremely crazy, now, to get married because of a pregnancy But, in 1986, in the southern States, it was not uncommon. It was thought of as being the right thing to do. The logic was, “Well, I want the child to have my name.” And abortion was looked down upon, and I wouldn’t have considered it anyway.
What made our union even more crazy, we never really got along very well at all. From the beginning, we had quarrels. She seemed to acquire a bad attitude, at times, for no apparent reason. Then, since I’ve always been sensitive to such things, I would tell her she was acting badly, and at times, I would leave her for a while.
I really know how to pick women. But, I would be better off, it seems, if I would let someone else choose my wives. Perhaps I could appoint an old blind mule to pick my next one, and I would do better. I could turn it loose in a random crowd of people, and the first female that it bumped into would be my choice. Whomever she happened to be, she would certainly be a better wife than the ones that I’ve actually married. But, for their sake, to be fair, I will admit that these ex-wives could have been worse. Except for my first one, Judy. She could not possibly have been worse.
Carol was my second wife. She seemed to go through life with a chip on her shoulder. As far as she was concerned, everyone was always “doing her wrong”. Her coworkers were conspiring against her, and “no one liked her”, she would say. With me, she seemed to have a constant resentment that had no basis, except that I was a man, and worse, I was one of her “damn husbands”. I was her husband number four, actually.
But she made pretty babies. Crystal was about seven years old, when her mother and I were wed. She was a delightful child, since she had, early in life, made the commitment to be the opposite of her mother. My son was the most lovely creature that had ever been born, in my eyes. Even complete strangers would comment on how ‘pretty’ he was, even though he was a boy. I named him Micah, a good bible name. In a way, I was naming him after myself. You see, in the King’s Chapel, the prophet Brother Bryant had told us that he believed everybody had a “spiritual name”. I believed mine to be Micah.
She traded her car in for a four-wheel drive Toyota, sold her house, and moved in with me. These were things that she decided to do, of her own volition. (In following years, she said that I had talked her into selling a perfectly nice house, and expressed resentment that I had talked her into trading off a wonderful car for a Toyota that turned out to be problematic. But I swear, she at least acted like she wanted to do these things. I purposely tried to be neutral in these decisions, just to keep her from thinking that I coerced her in any way). She had a way of manufacturing situations in which she could feel that she had been misused, as I have said.
Unfortunately, winter soon came, and the water system that I had worked so hard on froze up. We moved in with Mom. It helped Mom to shake her depression anyway.
I had changed jobs again. I began working at Lamar Outdoor Advertising, a billboard company. I’d done some oil color paintings, so I knew I could do the pictorials. I learned to paint animals quite well, and car advertisements. Since then I’ve done only a couple of portraits, on billboards. I was never really good at it. I was pretty good at all of the other things. I liked to do animals, but I could handle the car pictures, and the rest of it. I have done a few portraits on canvas.
Anyway, Carol and I managed to struggle through that first winter, going back and forth between Mom’s house and the trailer. I was happy with my little family, though Carol and I were never really close, emotionally. I loved my son, and since Carol was working every day, I did a lot of child care, which I enjoyed. We bought Dale’s trailer and land.
The job at Lamar wasn’t bad, and I was learning a lot. It was a good feeling to be an experienced craftsman, having done every kind of sign work, and in doing so, making myself pretty valuable. I had done hand lettering of small signs, and large, windows, and trucks. I’d done spray painting of all sorts of paint, even spraying the plastic sign faces. I’d cut letters out of every material, done lay-out and sign design (using pencil and paper, on a drawing board). I had done a little silk-screening. I had made wooden molds for the forming of plastic lighted signs.
But the pay was never quite good enough. In east Tennessee, all wages tended to be low, compared to the national average. The good money, in billboards, was in becoming an independent contractor. I say independent, because, technically, a contractor was a one-man business of sorts. If you could afford a partner or a helper, then it became a two-man business. But the way it worked, you did signs for a large company. And most contractors worked mainly for one company. So it was sort of a hybrid between a business and a job. But you were paid by the job, so if you did a lot of work, you made good money.
The alternative, for the companies, was to let contractors do their billboards, on-site, up in the air, or, to have a system of bringing the signs down to be painted in the shop, by employees, who earned substantially less than the contractors. After about two years with Lamar, I contacted National Advertising Company. To get the job with them, I drove all the way to Charleston, South Carolina, and met with the people there, in the Southeastern Region office.
I was a little surprised to find that Carol was all in favor of me doing this. It was a risk, to go into business. I would have to buy a truck, ladders, and equipment. I would have to go on the road, traveling to nearby cities, and working for days, or even weeks, away from home. But she encouraged me to try it. Of course I didn’t tell her, but, secretly, I thought it would be nice to get away from her for a few weeks every month. I wonder if she was thinking the same thing.
Usually, while I was at Lamar advertising, I got off from work before she did. I would pick up the kids, Crystal from school, and Micah from day care, and we would be home for some time before she got off from work.
She was always in a bad mood, when she came home. She was always angry about something. Police work is stressful, and she was working the telephones and the radio communications, in the ‘dispatch’ office. But Carol seemed to just stay angry all the time. Even my son will tell you, to this day, he loves his mother, but she has been angry for 90% of her life. It seemed to be what she lived for – kind of a martyr’s complex, I would say. I found myself dreading the time for her to get home, and tensing up when I heard her car coming up the long driveway
Her father passed away when she was young, and her mother re-married, and had two more children. These were Carol’s half-sisters, but to her mother’s new husband, these were his real children, whereas Carol was an unpleasant reminder that his wife used to belong to another. So, Carol was never treated quite as well as the other children were.
Evidently, this was the beginning of her ‘martyrdom’. She felt a righteous indignation, with the injustices that she endured. Somehow, this seemed to become her life-long attitude. Everywhere she went to school, everywhere she worked, in every relationship she had, she was constantly being slighted. Someone else was always getting preferential treatment, and she was being ‘done dirty’ at every turn. It gave her that constant rush of righteous indignation. This helped her to deal with her guilt, since she felt that she was just like Jesus, with everyone around her trying to crucify her every day. It was also a way to deal with her bad decisions, and her subsequent lack of success. After all, how could she be expected to do well in life when everyone she had to deal with treated her as if she had a target painted on her back.
So her constant anger was, in her mind, her salvation. Speaking of salvation, she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Not really, in practice, since she acted quite irreligious. A combination that would produce feelings of guilt, wouldn’t it? But she believed in the JW Church, very strongly. What else could she be, needing a Faith that was the subject of derision among so much of the normal churches? They are all martyrs.
She tried to use this religion against me, as is the case with so many women, in their quest to dominate their husbands. If she could have established herself as ‘the religious one’, in our relationship, then that would’ve given her the right to do just the opposite of what I wanted, at any given time. But I fixed her, I was interested in this church, anyway. I invited them to come to the house, and to talk to us. We had bible studies. We started attending the Fellowship Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Actually, seriously, they are a pretty good church.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses live good lives, and they’ll even let you drink beer. They point out the fact that there are no dietary laws, in the New Testament. Of course, the Baptists will eat anything, but they don’t even realize that being a tee-totaler, on alcohol, is to observe a dietary restriction. So, I studied their teachings (the J.W.s). They have some good, sound beliefs. They don’t believe in the trinity, though. I don’t either (see my writing, ‘Journey Through Controversy’). But they handle it differently than I do. They just state, outright, that Jesus is not God. This is “anathema” to the other churches. But, they do teach that Jesus is the Son of God. And they do believe that we are saved by faith in Jesus, the Christ, through the grace of God. At least that’s what the best ones believe. As in all churches, there is a tendency toward the belief that one is saved by being a member of some particular group, though they will not admit this.
Also, as in all churches, there are a few troublesome teachings, and a tendency to venerate their founding prophet, or their founding fathers, their equivalent to a pope. Charles T. Russell was the originator of this group. They are stuck in his chosen path, overemphasizing his teachings, though they won’t admit that, either.
Incidentally, of course, there are many people who should not drink alcohol, not as a religious prohibition, but as a precaution against falling into alcohol abuse. Also, a person who was brought up in a church that teaches against alcohol may feel like it is a sin to drink. Such a person does well to obey his conscience.
On the Road
They were impressed with me, at National Advertising, in Charleston, for driving all the way down there to talk to them about working for them. They told me to get my stuff together, and be ready to start work.
I got a small loan, bought a truck, some ladders, some paint, a big roll of big rope, and I was ready to go. I also bought a small, used camper-trailer, and hitched that up to the truck. I quit at Lamar, of course. Lamar had used contractors, in the past, but they had gone to using hourly painters, and doing the boards on the ground, by the mid-eighties. I think they had one or two contractors when I left, but it was impossible to go from being an employee, to being a contractor, at that time.
By the way, billboard painting had been done the exact same way for a hundred years. The entire painted sign industry had been the same for even longer. For all of that time, if you needed a sign, you needed a sign painter. Some tried to paint their own signs, but these turned out to be patently amateurish, in appearance, which was a warning for all wise consumers to stay away, since the entire business was thought to be amateurish, as well.
Then, just as I was beginning to do well, in the sign business, everything changed. Well, I did paint signs from 1976 to 2000, so for quite a while. But changing technology had an effect upon my life.
First, in every print shop, the type-setters were all sent into early retirement, by the invention of computerized word-processing. This technology was soon being adapted to make sign design computerized, and then the painters were all put out of business, more or less, by the vinyl sign-writing machines. The last to go were the billboard painters, just because the printing machines had to be so large. They were expensive, in the beginning. We’re talking hundreds of thousands. But, inevitably, the prices came down, and we were all sent home.
Now, ex-sign painters are all either drunks, or security guards. Many are languishing in mental hospitals, victims of depression, or, if they are old enough, they are drooling into their uneaten tray of bland food, in nursing homes, with a towel wrapped around them, to hold them erect in their wheel chairs.
But, in 1988, I was all excited to be working with National. And at first, things went great. They had a bunch of “block-outs” to be done, between Knoxville and South Carolina, and in western North Carolina. But soon I found out that I was in for some difficulty. Many of the boards they were giving me had access problems. I found cases where fencing had been put across the access road, or even, as in one case, a man had built a garage right in the access road. All throughout my career as a billboard painter, I had trouble with access roads. These were little more than a path, in some cases. These roads, or driveways, were only used by the painter, so they were only used every four or five months. Sometimes, they might be used only once a year, or less. So, they were very poorly maintained. A smart painter would have a four-wheel-drive truck. I didn’t.
Another very bad aspect of the job, that I was unaware of at first, was the fact that the available work was being vetted by an older, more established billboard contractor, who also worked for National, in the same area. He was picking the best ones for himself, and I was getting the jobs that he didn’t want. He knew these billboards, and much of the time, there were real reasons why he didn’t want to do them. They were in terrible locations, with nearly non-existent access roads, old, rotting, falling down, with no ‘cat-walk’ (a built-on walk board, along the bottom of the sign) or, worse, a rotten cat-walk. Nowadays, we are used to seeing metal signs, atop of metal poles. In those days, many of the signs were made entirely of wood, nailed to wooden poles. These were the older ones, so they were often in terrible shape. I had to judge which ones were safe enough, under strong pressure to get the job done and to get paid for it, even if I was ‘taking my life in my own hands’.
During the next months, I spent lots of time on the road, everywhere from Knoxville, to Charlotte. I spent a lot of money on gasoline, camp-site fees, paint and brushes. Right away I was hit with the realization that it is difficult to work out-of-doors. The least bit of rain would put a halt to all billboard work. Wind was a problem, causing the boards to move dangerously, and jerking the paper pattern out of my hands. In the winter, it is possible to paint, as long as the temperature is above freezing, and the sign is free of ice, but it was a terribly miserable business, painting in the cold. It was strenuous work, getting set up, lifting up the walk-board, the hooks, and ropes, climbing up and down, with no helper on the ground to tie things onto a rope for me. But once that was done, it was simply standing, and lettering. Standing and painting is not an aerobic activity. So it was miserable, on a cold day. But it had to be endured.
And then there were the other difficulties, which were myriad. In order to do the work, one had to be a rolling sign shop, which meant keeping an inventory of supplies, which were constantly being depleted. All of the necessary colors, pencils, yard-sticks, all sizes of brushes, paint thinner, rags, chalk or charcoal, tape, tape measure, chalk-line, and a dozen other various things. If one of these was forgotten, all work had to be halted, and a trip made to the nearest hardware, or paint store (and not every paint store carried the special sign paint). This was especially troublesome, since I couldn’t always leave all of my stuff unsecured, and would have to go to a lot of trouble loading up things, so I could make the trip to the paint store.
If I did have every necessary item I needed, it was still no good if I climbed the high sign (some of which were difficult to climb, having no built-on ladders), and then found that I’d forgotten the blankety-blank thing, and left it on the ground at the foot of the sign. I got good at climbing up and down a lot. It’s a good thing I was so young and athletic, at the time. Even then, my elbows often got quite sore, and by the end of a day, in this kind of work, one would be so exhausted, that it was hard to get up and do it again the next day.
The ground, underneath these signs, was often covered with thick briers, or with deep, thick kudzu. They were often located on hillsides, or in a gully. Billboards are a favorite place for wasps to build their nests. It’s quite shocking, to be climbing, and notice a big nest, when it is right in front of your nose. It is hard to run away from wasps, while on a ladder, or a walk-board, 60 feet off the ground.
I mentioned the cold, because that was one the most dreaded things, to me. But most of the time, in the southern summers, it was unbearably hot. Added to that, a billboard might shade you from the sunshine, or, just as likely, it will reflect the heat right into your face, making it seem doubly hot. I started to deal with the heat by drinking a lot of beer. It served as a sort of partial anesthetic, as well, making the briers seem not quite so sharp. But, over time, as you can imagine, this was unhealthy for a man with alcoholic tendencies.
On top of all of these things, there was the pressure of managing the erratic money flow. The National Advertising Company was faithful to pay you, but you might get paid twelve days after doing a sign, or it might be twenty days before the check came. And, one never knew how long a job would take, to get it done, since everything was contingent upon having good weather to work in.
This brings me to an episode that occurred early on. I was in North Carolina, staying at a campground. It seemed like a good situation, at first. I had a billboard to paint, and it was not a high one. It looked like a pretty good job, from the interstate. Also, the manager of the campground had a sign that needed repainting, so that was to be an additional bonus for me. But in the year I began my work, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of daily rain showers. And at this time, as soon as I parked the camper, it began to rain, and it rained almost constantly, for about three days. It was maddening, having all of that work to do, and having to sit there in that tiny camper, with no television, just waiting for the rain to stop, so I could get to work. Finally, the morning came, and it was dry. Cloudy, but dry. I hurriedly went to the sign, but I couldn’t find the access road. I drove up and down the road a few times, and finally pulled into a driveway, and was going to ask the occupants if they knew where this access road might be. When I got out and looked, I saw the sign, some distance back in the woods behind their house. A middle-age housewife said she didn’t know anything about any road back to the billboard, but after a brief glance, I was shocked to find that they had built a garage right on top of it. I was completely blocked off from the sign. There was no way to get around it, since it was next to a hill-side.
I was not to be deterred, though. I just pulled up as close as I could, and began to unload my equipment. I would carry my stuff out there, about forty or fifty yards, I think it was. It took extra time, of course, and effort, to get set up on the sign, but it wasn’t a high one, so that was a good thing.
But, I’ll swear, as soon as I got paint on a brush, and started to paint, the sprinkles started, then soon it was a full-blown rain. Ironically, if it had been a high sign, I could have left my equipment hanging on the sign. I did leave the ropes, but since the sign was so low, so accessible, I had to carry my heavy twenty-foot walk-board back to the truck. There were also a couple of metal frames, called stirrups, that had to be carried back, as well, and, of course, the paints, and patterns. I couldn’t have risked getting my equipment stolen, by leaving it there.
I went to a pay phone to talk to Carol.
“Hi Honey”, I said, when she picked up.
“Hi. What’s up?” No ‘honey’ from her side.
“Well, hell, I just got rained out. It’s been raining here for three days. Then today, I thought I could get something done. But, I got on the sign, and as soon as I started to paint, the rain started.”
“It hasn’t been raining here.”
Never mind we were on different sides of the Smokey Mountains, there shouldn’t be any variation in the weather, and if there was, it was my fault.
“How are the kids?” I asked.
“They’re fine. Hey, Tom, don’t come home ‘till you make some money, this time.” She said, coldly.
“Well, sure, I’ll make some money. The campground where I’m staying needs their sign repainted. But then I’ll have to wait ‘till they mail me a check for this sign. Did that other check come in yet?”
“Nothing has come, and we need some money soon, you know.”
Something felt patently wrong, and it had been a rough day for me. But I sure wasn’t going to feel any better after that conversation. I went to a gas station, and got a bottle of cheap wine, and went home to my little camper, to gaze out the window, morosely watching the rain.
I went back the next morning, it looked about the same as the previous day had, cloudy. I drug my stuff out to the sign again, set it up again, and hurriedly began to paint. Then, in just a few minutes, I felt the sprinkle of rain. I looked around, and there were the clouds, just like the previous sad day.
I couldn’t take it all. Carol was acting strangely. I could do this sign, so easily and quickly, and then do the other sign for the campground, if only it would STAY DRY LONG ENOUGH! I began to complain, “God, why does it have to be this way?” I began crying, like a baby, complaining to myself, and to God. Cursing the damned rain.
But, as I sat there for a minute, I realized that the rain had stopped. I felt like holding my breath, hoping it would hold off long enough to continue. The billboard wasn’t really wet yet. In ten minutes, I began painting again. It looked like it would really stay dry enough for me to do some work! I really ‘went to town’ on it, getting it all done, except for a small line on the bottom, which could be done without my walk-board, the next day. “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!”
The next few days turned out to be quite productive. The old guy who owned the campground had a number of signs to repaint, and I did a couple new signs, in a little shelter he had.
The first year I was in business, there seemed to be the darnedest weather patterns, in these states of North and South Carolina. It seemed that every day, in the afternoon, thunder showers would come up out of nowhere, and screw me up, interrupting my work. And it was terrible, to get caught in a sudden rainstorm. I used big, paper patterns, which I made myself, and if they got wet, they had to be laid out flat to dry. And the paint was oil-based. To get a lot of water in it, was to ruin it, and it was expensive. Then, as I said, in many cases, I would have to load everything up, ladders and walk-board, because I couldn’t risk having it stolen. Some of the signs were far from my camper, or from my home, when I got a house.
There were so many things that caused me stress. In the beginning, before I settled down with Abner Signs, I had to either travel many miles, to the National shop, to do the patterns. They were done using a large projector, so one needed a large place, indoors. It was possible to do them by another method, working without a pattern, but that was not good for doing the more complicated billboards. And then, there was the ‘feast-or-famine’ aspect of the business. I would be completely out of work, with nothing to do, then the company would give me three boards, all of which had to be done within a short time. I even took on another company, in Asheville, Able Signs. Then it really got stressful, when my schedule would jump from nothing, to suddenly having more than I could possibly do, and having to decide which sign company to disappoint.
There were times, after I got established, that it was fine, doing the billboards. I worked on my own schedule, taking off for days, to visit home. Sometimes, I made darn good money. Sometimes it was great fun. But, all considering, it was simply a hard way to make a living, not to mention dangerous. There was the problem of having to put money back for paying taxes. I got behind, with the IRS, and had to make payments to them for years.
As I said, I took some extra days off, visiting home, to be with my little family. I hated to be away from Micah for very long. Once, when I was in Knoxville, I stopped in over at Lamar Outdoor Advertising, just to say hello to the old gang there.
Things were changing fast. They had basically gotten rid of the hourly workers, my comrades. I reckon it’s just as well I quit and went into contracting billboards when I did. They were changing over to doing the big ‘flex-faces’. These were billboards done by stretching a huge piece of vinyl over the surface, over the ‘face’ of the billboard.
One of my friends was still there, old Lynn. He’d been a painter all of his life, one of the best portrait men anywhere. It used to be a real art form, doing painted billboards, when it came to ‘pictorials’. This meant advertisements that included some kind of picture, or portrait. The simplest were just a picture of a copy machine, or something. But the liquor bottles, pictures of cars, or of animals were more challenging. But the hardest was portraits, pictures of a person, that had to actually look like the person. Generic ‘people’ didn’t have to be as well painted. And Lynn was the best, at portraits on a large scale.
Lynn and I were commiserating on the sorry state of affairs in the industry. It may have been a technological advance, to use the computer-generated, printed flex-faces, but it was bad for the workers, who had honed their valuable skills all of their life. There is a wonderful effect to having decades of experience under your belt, and building up a personal value, along with your work history, your reputation as an artist, or even just as a tradesman.
There really was a detrimental effect upon a lot of these workers, these craftsmen of the painted sign industry. Some, but not many, made the successful transition to doing signs the new way, with big specialized printers, using computers. But these printers were a major investment, especially in the early days. Add to that the fact that most middle-aged men and women, in the mid-eighties, weren’t even “computer-literate”. And even if you were educated in computer technology, every sign company seemed to use a different sign writing program, requiring special tutoring for each one. I speak from experience.
I was able to use my sign painting skills right up until the year 2000. But I was in a rare position, being the only painter for a company that had signs, and also multiple fruit stands on the interstate highway, as well as a home gas and oil supply company. These businesses required simple signs, with frequent changes, and so their signs were suitable for using a painter, rather than to go to the vinyl sign methods. However, in 1995, I went to a community college, where I learned to type on a computer, and to use the Adobe graphic design programs. Then I went to work briefly in the vinyl sign industry, doing some design, and some vinyl lettering work. But, even though their programs were similar to the Adobe programs I had learned, there was enough difference to cause me difficulty. I needed to be trained, and no one was willing to be patient enough to take the time to do that. So, though I worked in it briefly, I never really ‘broke into’ the computerized sign business.
But in 1988, when I was speaking with Lynn, I was simply having trouble in dealing with the uncertain work flow from the two companies that I had been contracting for. He told me to call Dean Abner, in South Carolina, a man he had worked for briefly. This turned out to be my employer for the next decade. This was the company with the billboards, oil company, and fruit stands (actually stores, selling fruit, fireworks, and tee-shirts).
I called Dean, and he said, “Well, come on down here and we’ll talk.”
I got ready, hooked the little camper-trailer up, said goodbye to Micah and Crystal, and hit the road. About half-way there, the old truck developed a problem. Reverse disappeared from my available gears. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just have to work it out so that I can keep going forward. I figured I could fix it in a day or two. That was one good thing about having an old truck like that. Everything was so simple, and the Chevy model was so common, you could get parts at any junk yard, cheap, and put it in yourself, with a minimum of tools, and a minimum of mechanical skill. So I continued on down the road, pulling my trailer behind, a one-way operation.
When I got to the little town in South Carolina, there was an Abner fruit stand right at the exit. I went in and met old Bill, Dean’s father. He greeted me kindly, but told me to come back tomorrow. They were “fixing to close shop.”
At the KOA campground, a stroke of luck, I was able to pull into a campsite, going only forward. Early the next day, I left my trailer at the campground, and found Dean at the Fruit stand. He had a billboard that needed to be done, a McDonald’s sign. I was relieved to find that it was in the middle of a big parking lot. No need for a reverse gear. I was often in a situation, in those days, of operating with very little money. I remember that I was desperate to get that sign done, so I could be paid. It was a good thing I had all the colors I needed. Well, McDonalds was always just Red, yellow, and white. It went well, and he was satisfied with the sign. He actually gave me another job to do the next day, a nice, low sign, in a big cow-pasture (so there was no need for reverse gear – a major concern).
So, I was in business. Another stroke of luck; Dean happened to have a campsite hook-up on his property. It was an excellent place, next to a barn. I pulled in, moving forward, hooked up to the electricity and sewage. I was glad to have met this man, Dean Abner. He seemed to be happy to find a sign painter. I found out that he’d gone through a number of itinerant painters, and found that it was hard to find someone who would stay around for any length of time.
Dean was a likable guy, with a good sense of humor. Somehow, he liked me, ‘right off the bat’. It really did work out well for both of us, my coming along when I did. The other billboard companies I’d been working for were both turning out to be somewhat unsuitable for me. I continued to do some work for them, but when I saw that Dean was willing to work me full-time, I quit the others. Dean knew that I’d quit the other two companies, on the basis that I would work for him, more or less exclusively. This impressed him so much, that he began to supply me with a steady flow of work. Winter was approaching, which is a bad time for billboard painters. He had an old double-wide mobile home, which he let me use to work in. It was perfect for me, since it had been a ‘modular school room’, a special kind of trailer. It had only two large rooms, and so was a great place to do the sign patterns with a projector.
But it was a basic, lonely existence for me, during that first winter. It is a strange thing, living in a small camper, with snow and ice outside. And I didn’t know anyone in the area. I didn’t go to church, didn’t go to bars, I really didn’t do much. I began to drink sometimes, to ease the boredom.
It was an adventure, though, and I actually liked the place where the camper was parked. There was a pretty horse in the pasture, outside of my window. The little town was kind of nice, too. Actually South Carolina is a nice area for any kind of outdoor worker. The weather is warmer than in Tennessee, so it seemed that spring came early. At times, I was happy with the job. I made my own schedule, I had no pesky bosses. When I worked hard, I made good money.
But it became harder, when Carol left me, and we were divorced. Losing her didn’t really bother me so much. I had the usual heartache, I reckon, but, as I said, we hadn’t ever been close; we had never really been in love. But I had been in love with the ideal of having that little family. I’d gotten close to Crystal, Carol’s daughter. And I loved my son like I had never loved anyone or anything on earth. And he was very close to me. Honestly, I loved him more than Carol did. Well, he was my only child. And he loved me, and was closer to me, than he was to his mother. I’d spent much more time with him than she had, ever since she went back to work, which was about ten days after Micah was born. We both took it hard, Micah and I both became depressed, after the break-up, though he was only about two years of age.
This divorce was simpler than the first one. All I remember about it, Carol and I hadn’t been getting along so well. Why, I don’t even know. She was the least communicative person I’ve ever known. She just started sleeping on the couch. Then, after I didn’t come begging her to return to our bed, she remarked, one night, “I don’t want to be in a marriage where I have to sleep on the couch!”
I replied, “Did I tell you to start sleeping on the couch?”
Women love to set up these situations, so that all their man has to do, to be in trouble, is to do nothing. In her imagination, I should have come to her, kneeling by her side, and asked her to communicate her complaint, her reason for sleeping on the couch. Since I didn’t do that, then I deserved whatever happened to the relationship after that. My third wife, Strasna, worked out my failure in this same way; she announced that she wanted a divorce, and then, unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to come begging her to reconsider. She hadn’t really planned to go through with a divorce, but since I failed to read her mind, and only remonstrated rather mildly, then a divorce was really necessary. I did nothing, so I did wrongly.
But that was all it took, to break up my second marriage, to make my child a victim of a broken home. I told her I didn’t want a divorce; that we should think it over. But her mind was set.
In what seems to me a very short time, just a matter of weeks, I returned to Tennessee, to make a visit to my young son. I found that Carol and my son were no longer living there.
It was not a complete surprise, though I hadn’t been told about it. I had known that we were to be divorced. But I was not prepared for what followed. I was told that Carol had moved into a trailer next to the railroad tracks, some miles away. When I get there, I found that she had moved in with Gerald, a guy she had met rather recently. I had never heard of him. When I walked in, and picked up my son, she said,
“Hi Tom. This is Gerald, and this is his friend, Bobby.” She was referring to one of the two men, sitting there in the room.
Well, I didn’t know which one was Gerald, or which one was Bobby. I was so nervous, I forgot both names immediately, anyway. But, the bad thing was, one of these guys was to be my son’s new step-father, and one was a visitor. I didn’t even find out which one was which. I just got Micah, and left for a visit. In later visitations, I took Crystal with us, when I visited.
At least Carol never gave me any problems about visiting. I often took Micah down to South Carolina with me for days at a time. I visited with him every two or three weeks, for as long as I wanted. So Carol could have been worse. She never resisted my visitation with Micah, and we did a lot of fun things together, right up to the time when I went to Slovakia, in 2002.
The worst thing about the whole affair was Micah’s reaction to being dropped off with his mother, and seeing that I was going away. He would cry, and scream, clawing at me, not wanting to let me go. His little world seemed to be falling apart, and he didn’t know why. How do you communicate to a two-year-old that Daddy is coming back soon? It upset me just as badly. I would break down and cry too, which made Micah even worse, I suppose. Then, there was the long trip back to South Carolina, alone, after being with him, having such a good time for a couple of days. Then, of course, I was alone in my home, which hadn’t seemed so bad before, but I would be depressed for a day or two, after each visit.
This was repeated many times. He would be really happy to see me, and we would have a great time, visiting my Mom together, and other relatives. But then, in a couple days, I would have to take him home, and he would have the same sorrowful tantrum. He was so upset to see me go.
It took a long time for him to realize that I would always come again, after a while, and we could spend two or even three days together. This was one of the toughest times in my life.
Winter came soon, and that year there was a lot of ice and snow in South Carolina. I was alone in that little camper, with little to do, much of the time. As is the case in most divorces, the money situation deteriorated rapidly. Dean was giving me enough work to keep me fed, but winter has always been a rough time for billboard painters. I filed for bankruptcy. It seemed that there was no other choice. I could survive the winter, with Dean Abner’s help, and I would continue in the spring, and even prosper. But it was a depressing time.
About that time, I met a man named Phil Harrell. I don’t know how I met him, but he seemed to feel sorry for me, since I was living in such a small trailer, all alone, a guy from another state, with no friends or family in the area. He began to visit, occasionally. He would take me to a fast-food place, and we would talk. He invited me to his church. Phil was a special person, who was always looking for some way to be of service to someone. It was his way of serving God.
I went to his church, and went up to the “altar” and prayed. He and I began to meet periodically, talking about the Bible, and so forth. We went to a nursing home, with another of his friends, and read the Bible to the elderly patients, and talked to them. I had turned to God again, in a time of trouble.
I believe it was about this time that I had a religious experience that I should tell you about. All of my life, I’ve enjoyed walking on the Walden’s ridge, behind my childhood home there near Clifton. I would walk up the ridge, on this old trail, praying, and then sit on this big rock, where you could see for miles, and just meditate, taking in the beautiful scenery. Twice, during my fervent religious phase, I took a tent up there, and ate no food for two or three days, doing nothing but praying.
I was traveling back and forth to Tennessee, visiting Micah, so I made it a point to go back there, and walked to the top again. I had been feeling burdened, and maybe depressed. I got down on my knees to pray, then all the way down on my face. That’s when I had this experience.
I must explain here that I now believe this to be one time when I was mistaken, in what I thought I “heard from God”. But at that time I believed it to be a genuine revelation. I seemed to get a kind of story, a mythology, about my life.
Having been through this, I can describe what I think happens to some people, when they begin to feel that their life has not turned out right. They look around, and think, “Hmm, I’m getting older, and I seem to be a bit unsuccessful. A young man doesn’t worry about such things, because he always feels that he has plenty of time, and eventually, things will all work out, and he will accomplish something big. But then, one year, it comes as a huge shock to him, to realize that he has passed his ‘prime’. For some, it’s a time of sheer panic. For others, a time of depression. Some turn to drink and to drugs. Some turn to religion. The religious one may invent some sort of epiphany.
He says, “There must be some special mission for me. There must be some reason that I have come to this point in life. Yes, there have been mistakes, failures, but all is not lost; it all happened for a special reason.” At this point, they might join the priesthood. They might become a Buddhist, or even a Monk. They may become a missionary, join the Peace Corps, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If they’re in Pakistan, and unemployed, they may become a jihadist, a suicide bomber.
As for me, I got a prophecy of my future death. I would be martyred for the sake of doing a special ministry. As I said, I now know this to be incorrect, since I was supposed to die in 2002, according to the ‘message’.
I reckon I really did become delusional. I needed a special revelation and a special mission, so I created a fantasy. I didn’t mean to do this. I didn’t know I had done it. It just seemed to ‘come to me’, and in memory, it grew even more realistic. I guess, to be honest, I did always doubt it to some extent. But I held onto this specious ‘prophecy’ for about nine years, to some degree.
This is how it went: my life had been divided, by the Lord, into four periods, like the four seasons, each period lasting twelve years. The first twelve years would be a ‘springtime’ of life. Then at age 24, I would complete a ‘summer’ period, a second twelve-year period. The ‘autumn’ period would be my next twelve years, ending in my 36th year. This was supposed to be analogous to my maturing, gaining in color, as does a leaf of a tree. The leaf becomes very beautiful, as it matures. Eventually, in its end, the leaf falls, dying, giving its life for the future health of the soil. It returns to the soil. It becomes a martyr, a sacrificial lamb. At that time, I was 37. However, I would complete four ‘seasons’, being martyred at the end of the twelve-year ‘winter’ period. I would be murdered at the age of 48, in the year of 2002, around mid-December, I believed.
Ironically, this faux ‘revelation’ cured me of my depression, temporarily. My thoughts about it were, “Well, nothing really matters, now. If I’m all alone, if I seem to be unsuccessful, if I have a tough, difficult job, it’s alright. I only have to go on for another eleven years, and it will all be over. I can put up with anything for eleven years.
I even had a plan of action. Now here’s where it gets a little blurry, a bit difficult to know what was real, and what was delusional. I had studied a number of theological problems, over years, and had come to some conclusions, much of which seems pretty good, even to this day. I had developed, at about the same time as the above experience, a plan of action. I would write a number of small booklets, print them up, and begin to pass them out, and to speak publicly of my beliefs. Then, eventually, some preacher, or some mob of violent Baptists would get mad and murder me, for preaching the truth.
I was content with this future, especially in the beginning. After all, eleven years left to live seems like a long time. And there’s plenty of time to work it all out so that it happens according to the expectation. But as time went on, it began to look unlikely that any of it would work out as I had envisioned. Also, as I got closer to the end of the last twelve-year period, I began to think I’d like to live a little longer. And, by the last year, with me being in Slovakia, not having preached at all, and not having aroused any attention from any violent Baptists, I hardly kept track of the ‘final count-down’. I knew it had been a mental mechanism, formed in my own mind, to give me something I thought I needed.
But in the beginning, I had been convinced that it was real. I’d done seven booklets, of about ten pages, each, with what I felt were important messages. They had been meant to be corrections of church doctrine, stuff about the second coming of Christ, the trinity, and so forth. Back in 1990, I wrote them out by hand, being unable to type, at that time. I paid a woman to type them up for me, and had about fifty of each booklet printed. I passed them out in various ways. Many of them were mailed to random addresses, that I had obtained in various ways. I am uncertain how valuable these booklets were. I threw the last few away.
The last time I read them, I found that my views had changed, and I no longer believed parts of them. Even that which I did believe, and still believe, I wonder as to its importance. Much of the doctrinal nit-picking that goes on among the varying churches is counterproductive.
The whole thing could have turned out much worse than it did. It is a mental illness to invent imaginary voices, whether it comes in a mild form, or takes a more destructive form. I guess I owe it to a number of psychotherapists, who have been helpful over the years since then, that I’ve come through the whole thing with so little damage. It is entirely possible, in some cases, to force these kinds of ersatz ‘prophecies’ to actually come true. There is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It was difficult for me to be in a different state, away from my son and my family, with no real friends. I am not an outgoing person. Far from it, I’ve always been an introvert. And though I did drink, I’ve never liked to go to bars. Then there was the endless struggle to get the difficult work done, in spite of whatever weather problems were happening, and to get back on the road to Tennessee, to have a visit with Micah. At least I was able to do that. I had become very close again to Cathleen, my mother, and with Dennis Walker, after he got out of prison. They let me and Micah ‘camp’ there at their home in Clifton, whenever I wanted to come in and visit.
Micah’s stepfather, Gerald, turned out to be a reasonably good guy. The only mishap that happened, concerning him, was this; he took my eight-year-old son fishing, and let him get a really bad sunburn. He didn’t know that light-skinned people, like those of my family, get sunburned very easily. In his defense, he said that he “told him over and over” to put on his shirt and long pants, and the boy didn’t obey. But this episode was severe enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, it was so bad.
I had been in South Carolina, so when I came in to Tennessee, I went to the doctor, to look at Micah’s medical record of the event, since I was majorly pissed-off about it. Would you believe, in Tennessee, the father of a son who is in the legal custody of his divorced wife, has NO RIGHT to see his son’s medical records.
So some things were going well and some things were going, well, less well. At home in South Carolina, one of my few friends, Phillip, began to disappoint me. He was one of the many with little tolerance for anyone who tried to tell him something that he didn’t already know.
Here’s a little story that goes along with Phil. As I said, at one time, we were going to the nursing homes together, to talk to the elderly. I found that he was doing lots of things for various elderly people in the community. He would mow their lawns for no charge. I met his family once, when he invited me over to his home for supper.
It occurred to me, later, that Phil was spending a lot of time away from home, doing these good deeds. I felt strongly that I should ask him how things were at home. “Phillip, you’re a good man. You’re always doing things for people. How is your relationship with your family? Do you get to spend enough time with your wife, and your children?”
He didn’t like such meddling in his affairs. “Yes, everything’s just FINE with my family.”
A few weeks later, his wife left him. She actually ran off with the pastor of their church. The pastor simultaneously left his wife as well. It was a huge scandal in the community. I never saw Phillip again, as it turned out, though this was not a conscious decision, on my part.
After these things, a couple of years went by, and Micah was about to begin kindergarten. This seems like a small thing, I know. But I would no longer be able to visit him on weekdays, as I had done. Our visits would be limited to weekends after he started school. I’d been visiting him regularly, and even taking him to South Carolina with me sometimes. But things were going to change. This was what triggered my depression and my going to the Greenville Area Mental Health Center, as an out-patient.
But there were other factors that caused my depression. There was a long period then, when I lived quite alone, having no girlfriend at all, no social life. Even if I have had three wives, over the years, and one that wouldn’t get married, there were long periods between these women, when I was totally alone. And, like all young men, I felt that being alone was very unfortunate. [I’ve since changed my attitude].
I’d heard about the antidepressant, Prozac. And even if I had learned that drugs are not the way, I still held onto the hope that a pharmaceutical drug, used under the care and guidance of professionals, might be beneficial to me. So I went to my doctor, first, and then to the psychiatrist he had recommended, and got a prescription. The psychiatrist, to his credit, encouraged me to go to a psychotherapist, for talking therapy. So I began this kind of treatment, going to a therapist weekly, for a number of years. I would highly recommend the talking therapy to anyone who even thinks they might need it. The Prozac, well, I took it for many years. It helped, yes, especially at first. But I believe depression has roots that must be dug up, somehow, by therapy, or by prayer, and meditation. No drug can ‘fix’ depression.
It is unusual for professionals to recommend any particular church. But mine told me that I should try the Unitarian church. She saw that I’d become very isolated, and since I told her I was dissatisfied with all of the churches I had been to, she told me to go there. I was happy to check out another denomination. The Unitarian Universalists have a reputation, well deserved, of being very tolerant, and of accepting everyone who comes to them.
Back to the subject of taking Prozac, Even the information in the packaging of the drug says that it might take 10 or 20 days of taking the medicine to see an effect from it. But, for whatever reason, the first time I took it, I felt a strong effect. Only an hour or so after the first pill, I noticed an unusual ease, a calmness, when I went into a mini-mart, to buy a few things. I had always experienced a certain amount of unease when dealing with the public. Also, I had a palpable sense of elation. It seemed as if a little faucet of joy had been turned on.
This is very different from the experience of my aunt, Kathy. She started taking Prozac, and after 20 days, felt no effect whatsoever from it. I had recommended it to her, and her experience made me feel like a liar.
But with me, it was quite a change, before and after starting Prozac. I had a lasting sort of little ‘high’, that made me feel what I think of as an almost manic state. I have never been manic, really, so I may be mistaken, in this characterization. But I was a little excited, all of the time. I was so happy with my newfound comfort around a crowd of people, that when I began going to church at the U.U. I felt like hugging everybody. I was probably too talkative, too positive about myself, and for a while, I seemed to get too much of an effect from it.
This initial euphoria began to wane soon, and I became more normal. Eventually I did still have mild bouts with depression, but they were short-lived. Then, after a long time, maybe eight years of use, its effect was only felt when I ran out of it. Then I would be alright for a week or so, but then get a blue mood, and think, “Oh yeah, that reminds me, I need to get some more Prozac.” And even with the pills, I had depression anyway, at times. Now, I haven’t taken any drugs at all for years, and I’m doing fine, never having any real depression, nothing serious.
But it seemed wonderful to meet the nice folks at the church. They even had a Christian group. No, it’s not a Christian Church. It’s not even really a church at all, in the true sense of the word. It’s more of a fellowship. Some of these congregations actually choose the title of fellowship, rather than claiming to be a real church. This is because they have no set doctrinal dogma. That is, they don’t specifically worship any God or anything at all, in particular. They encourage their members to practice their individual beliefs, or their lack of beliefs, according to the dictates of their individual consciences.
In simpler terms, it’s a Church where you can believe whatever you want, as long as you accept their broad guidelines. Their statement of beliefs, in summary, says that they pledge to respect, and to accept the value of every human being, regardless of their Faith, whether Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, or whatever. They are a thoughtful, good bunch of people. Their watch-word is freedom. Freedom of religion, separation of church and state, no racism allowed, no homophobia allowed. They will tolerate most anything that’s legal, except intolerance. The only people who won’t get along there are the intolerant fundamentalists. But I suppose even they would be welcomed, if they could just keep their mouths shut, enough to get along with the others.
So you can imagine a young Thomas going to the Unitarian Church, the Christian study group, and meeting with people who actually were so bold as to question the teachings of the Bible. I’d been obsessing over the true interpretation of the scriptures for years (when I wasn’t in one of my hedonistic phases). I’d framed all of my arguments around ‘what the Bible says’ (you can’t argue with the word of God). But they did. I would quote my scripture, and their first reaction was, “Well, what if the Bible is wrong?” Or, “What if they don’t believe in the Bible at all?” They would talk about the Apostle Paul as if he had some character flaws (he was the writer of the books to the Corinthians, the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and etc.
This was a shock to me. But it opened my eyes to the realities of dealing with a multi-cultural world. Outside of the Christian group, there were even more shocking kinds of people to deal with, in this church. These ‘fellowships’ have a variety of every kind of person, of varying Faiths, and also those of agnostic persuasion. There are people of various minority groups, persecuted sectors of society such as gays, and transgender people. They are all united under the ideals of mutual respect, acceptance, love and respect for all, and for our precious earth.
Someone from a “normal” church might wonder what good such a group could accomplish, but since they actually believe in being socially active, rather than just sitting behind closed doors and praying about things, they accomplish quite a bit of good. They’re active in environmental causes as well.
This is in sharp contrast to this ignorant attitude found among some Christian groups that we don’t have to worry about global warming, since “God is in control”. Yes He is, but if you set your house on fire, He’s not going to put it out, unless someone can get the fire department to come, with their human hands, and their man-made hoses, to aim God’s water in the right direction.
If we change the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, by burning all kinds of fuels for centuries, the planet will warm, with all of the consequences that come with it.
My Polish Girl
It was at this U.U. Church that I met Jana, my Polish immigrant Girlfriend, in about 1997. I mentioned her in Part Three of this writing. I happened to have my son with me that day, in the church. When I saw Jana, I immediately felt drawn to her. And when I heard her speak, with that sexy Polish accent, I knew immediately that I would try my best to get close to her.
She said that she liked the way I treated my son. That was what made her feel less threatened with me. After all, I’m a big guy. We went out to lunch that day, after church, and soon, we were seeing a lot of each other. She has two sons, who were a year or two older than Micah. Also, her mother, Sophie, became a big part of my life. She was a Jehovah’s Witness, a very religious person, a nice woman who became my friend, in time.
Jana was my introduction into all things European. I got to know her Polish friends, and their families. I grew to love and respect them a great deal.
Jana had been divorced, from her immigrant husband, a couple years before. She became what I believed was the love of my life. She is, without a doubt, the best woman I ever had the pleasure of living with. We were together for over three years, which may have been a short time, but it is my all-time record, my longest time of being in a relationship with a woman.
Over the time we were together, I became less and less religious. It’s not that she was a bad influence, she was not. I don’t know why, but I began to drink more and more alcohol, as time went by. I was trying hard to make enough money, and using beer instead of Gatorade, at work every day. She is a nurse, and so had many friends, some of whom were doctors, and pharmacists, who made good money. So, among these friends of hers, I stood out as being patently less successful. We would go to parties with them, and there were times when I drank too much, embarrassing Jana.
She had kept the house, when she split up with her husband, so she had the mortgage payment, which was pretty high. If she had one fault, I guess she would admit that she wasn’t so good at managing money. I tried to contribute to our expenses, and I did. But I did it in ways that were hard for her to see. Every day or so, I would buy paper towels, a few groceries, milk, gasoline for the mower, things like that. It adds up to a lot, over time, but it wasn’t noticeable to her. And I didn’t say, “Well, here is an itemized list from the last month.” So it was easy for her to think I wasn’t earning my keep. I did build a large deck on the back of her house, replacing a smaller one that had become rotten, and I painted the house, the parts that weren’t brick.
I believe her friends began to tell her that she could do better than to be struggling to make the house payments, living with this ‘loser’, Thomas. Also, being from Poland, she had seen, as a girl, the effects of alcoholism, over time. She was right to question the wisdom of being partnered with me.
We bought a computer, and we were getting used to surfing the web. One day she casually mentioned that she had heard that they needed nurses in Alaska, and would even pay for air fare and housing for nurses who were willing to come there. She wondered if there was anything on the web about that. It was supposed to be for a short stay there, a temporary job. I looked it up, and easily found a nice offer for her. I gave her the information, and by golly, she made arrangements to go! They had hired her.
Things began to change between us, once our relationship became a long-distance affair. I could tell something was wrong. I thought she needed to be away from me for a while, in order to think things over.
In only a few weeks, she told me she wanted to break up. It came in a phone call from Alaska. She had been planning to break up with me for some months, I think.
At least it had been hard for her to do. And she did everything to make it a soft landing for me. She had gone to Alaska for a while, to work there as a nurse. I guess she needed to be apart from me, to think straight about our relationship. Also, I suppose it was easier to break up with me from a distance. But she wrote me the nicest letter I’ve ever gotten from any woman. Actually, all my other women have left without a word, more or less. But it was her very goodness that made it all the more painful for me. That was one that I hated to see ‘getting away’. About Jana, I’ll just say that of all the women I’ve been together with, she is the only one that I really missed, and grieved about losing her. Years later, I was talking about her to my Czech students, saying I wish I had begged her to stay with me. But she needed to do what she did.
I really loved her, and had grown to love her two sons, and her Mother, who had taught me a little bit of the Polish language. I grew addicted to having a foreign woman, and through her, I met a number of wonderful Polish people.
My injury, and journeys abroad.
I had been a billboard painter for the past 14 years or so. I knew that the technology was changing. Computerized vinyl signs were the coming ‘wave of the future’. So I went back to school in the late 90’s, to study computer graphics.
It was the smart thing to do, though my career in vinyl sign writing never did really materialize. However, a major change in my job situation did come about, rather suddenly. It happened ten days after my breakup with Jana.
I fell from a billboard, and broke my ankle very badly. The doctor said it was in “sixty pieces”. I don’t know if she actually counted them all, but she ended up building an ankle for me, using cadaver material. It took me nearly a year to recuperate to the point that I could walk.
This injury occurred on the job, so at least my bills were paid for, and I received a small settlement, some money. It was the year 2000, a rough year, during which time my hair actually turned gray. Well, more or less gray. It had always been a dark red color, and it went to a light blonde, the same way my mother’s hair had done. I had never believed the saying, that troubles can turn your hair gray, but this happened in my case.
But what a year it had been for me. In February, I slipped on ice, and fell from a sort of loading dock, and broke both of my wrists. One required a metal frame, with pins in the bone. I had only been back to work for a couple of days when the ankle injury happened. I wish I didn’t have to admit that it happened as a result of being a bit careless. I was climbing up a vertical sign, carrying a large sign in one hand, and so climbing single-handed. And I have to admit, also, that I only fell about twenty feet, onto a grass surface. I remember thinking, as I was falling, this is no big deal. I am going to get right up, and continue to work. As I hit the ground, I heard a loud ‘snap’, as if someone had broken a piece of that strong, white plastic pipe, the kind they use for plumbing. But, God, what a break it was. If it had happened before these days of rebuilding bones from dead-person’s bone material, I would have lost my foot.
I was working alone, as usual. I lay there, helpless, for a few minutes. It was the worst pain I had ever experienced. My foot was turned in a completely unnatural position. I kept telling myself, “I will not die.” Because it felt as if I would. Luckily, the billboard was next to a business, but still, I had to crawl on my stomach for about 50 yards, to get to the front door.
There was no one around outside, where I was, except for one man, who drove into the driveway of this business, and went right by me, offering no help to me. So I crawled on up to the front door, and rang the doorbell. A man came to the door, and he called an ambulance for me. The guy who had passed me by also came to the door, and said, “I saw you out there crawling along, but I didn’t know you were hurt! I just thought, you know, thought you was handicapped or something.” I am happy to be able to finally memorialize this person, with this recommendation: Please find a nice stick of lumber, a 2 x 4, and hit yourself over the head with it.
‘Temporarily disabled’, would be an accurate description of my condition at that time. After all, a simple broken ankle is something that happens all the time, and people get over it really quickly, and go on with their life. Well, this was different. It was so badly broken, that the doctor actually had to ‘build’ an ankle for me, making it out of cadaver bone material. When people hear, “bone material from donor cadaver material”, they thing of a solid bone from some dead person, but it’s wasn’t like that in my case. The way my doctor described it, it was a ground-up sort of bone-paste, that solidified, and my bones grew attached to it. She had thrown away a section of my ankle, and replaced it with this. I was outfitted with a big metal rod, on the exterior of my ankle and leg. Actually, not only was my ankle broken, but the leg, and my knee.
Initially, I had huge fracture blisters. These occur with very bad bone breakage, when the swelling is so severe, that liquid gathers in these big bubbles in the skin. I battled infection.
At that time, I asked my brother, Terry, to come to South Carolina and help me, just for a day or so. You see, I have really had so many tough times in my life, that I feel compelled to write about it. I know, there are thousands of people who have been through ten times worse trials and troubles than I have. Maybe they should write also.
But there I was, in the hospital, needing someone to drive me home, for starters; but I also had another problem. Before I fell, I had painted a double-faced (two sided) sign for a local shop. I was supposed to put this sign up, on poles, at this shop. And I needed the money.
I was totally unable to walk, so I was confined to my wheelchair. But we went to the shop, and I instructed Terry, and he put the signs up for me. Even though he did the work, there was a lot of moving about for me, and it seemed so exhausting for me, having been released from the hospital, literally, the day before. The owner paid me, and I paid Terry. Also, Dean Abner owed me a little bit from the work I’d done earlier, but not much. This was the only money I had to live on. Meanwhile, my boss had only heard that I broke my ankle. So he is expecting me to be back at work soon. No one was very concerned about me. After all, it was “just a broken ankle”. And Terry had to go home right away, to get on with his busy life.
The next months were very difficult for me. My parents, brothers, and so forth were all in another state. And since I was on my own now, I had to move my things out of Jana’s house. I had a pickup truck, without an automatic transmission. So when I got out of the hospital, I had to run a piece of wire to the engine throttle linkage, and into the dash-board, so I could work the ‘gas’ with my hand, allowing me to drive with one leg. Of course I could use my left foot on the gas pedal in the floor, but taking off from a stop, particularly on a hill, required the use of this wire. I had to move everything out myself, while confined to a wheel-chair. To this day, when I see someone pushing someone in a wheel-chair, I get jealous, because no one was ever there to push me, when I was wheel-chair-bound.
I moved to a place with five steps leading up to the front door, so I had to crawl in, to plug in the electric tools, and build myself a ramp, so I could go in and out with the wheel-chair. I installed a window air-conditioner, myself, using a system of dragging the thing with a hand-cranking wench, then lifting it with the same wench, to the height of the window.
My recovery took a long time. There were a couple months in a wheel-chair, then a ‘walker’, then crutches.
Much of my days were spent in bed, or sitting, staring at the view from my porch.
I’d developed a few friendships, at the Unitarian Church, but for some reason, I didn’t call them. Jana and I had completely broken off all contact, and I knew that she was still going to church there, so I suppose I’d decided to give her that entire space. I lived in seclusion. The only contact I had was when I went to the grocery store, wheeling up to the door of my little truck, standing up on my one good foot while I threw the wheelchair into the back. And I did visit Tennessee a few times, especially when I got to the point of using a ‘walker’ to get around with.
The only good thing was that I had gotten a wonderful female lawyer, and she’d helped me to get insurance payments, to survive on, during my convalescence. So, all I had to do was to go to her, and pretty soon, there were periodical checks coming in the mail.
However, these checks came in such an unpredictable way, that it nearly drove me crazy. I had to make the payments on my truck, and pay the other bills. I might have to wheel myself down the big ramp, and down to the street, to the mailbox, every day for two or three weeks, waiting for a check. Then, I had to go backwards, up the ramp, to get back in the house, kicking with my feet, to aid in the ascent.
Finally, I got the small settlement, compensation for the work-related accident, about a week after they repossessed my pickup truck.
The Foreign-Woman Obsession
In time, I decided that what I needed was another foreign girl. I had come to love having a woman with a sexy foreign accent. So I did what a lot of other men were doing at the time, I went online! There are dozens of sites for meeting women from Russia, who just can’t wait to meet you. Looking back at it, now, this seems like a lesson in, ‘What foolish young men will do in the name of finding ‘true love’.
I had actually made contact with one in Novosibirsk, can you believe it? This is in Central Russia, a good four hours farther than Moscow. It also has a four-times-more-dangerous reputation than Moscow. But, to be fair, I never actually went there, so it could be a perfectly nice place, for all I know. But I did go to Russia, only to a better location, and to meet a better prospective girlfriend.
I guess I was saved from ruin by this: I happened to mention to a friend that I was planning a trip to Russia to meet a woman, and he said that he knew a man who had done that very thing, and was living with his Russian bride in Greenville. He gave me the man’s name and number, and put me in touch with them.
Well, when I went and met the couple, there they were, this middle-age run-of-the-mill guy, and his beautiful, younger Russian wife. Momma had even come over to the states as well, so they had a great family. One of the children was his, one from a former Russian father. And they were getting along swimmingly, a lovely couple. Naturally, I showed her the picture of my Novosibirsk girl. We even called her on the telephone. But this woman did know a thing or two about central Russia, and she was concerned about me. She said that she personally knew a woman in Kazan, a good, upstanding woman, who wanted to meet an American, and why don’t I talk to her? This seemed like a good idea, so I spoke to her by phone, as well as we could communicate, (I knew no Russian language).
I guess I hurt the Novosibirsk girl’s feelings, but this was obviously much better, knowing someone who knew the woman I was going to meet. So I got a ticket on Aeroflot, and went to Moscow, non-stop. The girl had travelled from Kazan by train, to meet me there. This was an eight-hour trip, by train. No small thing. Her name was Anna Baraninova.
To be honest, I was a little surprised when I first saw her. This is to be expected, though, because every one of these women have had ‘glamour shots’ done on their picture portfolio. So, having seen only professionally enhanced photos of her, she seemed a few years older, a few pounds heavier, and a bit less glamorous than I had expected. But, even so, she was a beautiful woman, with unique light-blue eyes. In the Russian language, there are two kinds of blue. The light one is pronounced ‘gul-o-buoy’, I remember this because I remember telling her that she had pretty eyes. I forget the word for darker blue. She was impressed that I had taken the time to learn a few Russian words, and so, knew the word for light-blue.
But her greatest asset was her honesty, and integrity. As soon as I got to the airport exit, I was thronged by taxi drivers. This is common. Somehow, they can spot a foreigner a mile away, and all of them run to be the first to get to them, so they can charge them a highly inflated taxi fare into town. But she ruined their plan, cursing at them loudly, and shooing them all away. She led me to the bus stop, where we were transported for pennies. This wonderful honesty was a great blessing to me, the whole time I was there. I wanted to marry her for that reason, if for no other.
On the other hand, I had secretly arranged to meet a second woman there in Moscow, unbeknownst to Anna. The way this was worked out, my Russian friend in Greenville had given me a large bag of gifts, to deliver to her relatives there. Anna would take me there, where this young school teacher was waiting, in order to make this covert meeting with me. I know this seems underhanded, but I had traveled a long way, and it simply made more sense to meet two women, increasing the chances that at least one of them would work out, to begin a relationship with.
So, Anna and I arrived at a large apartment building, with the bag of gifts. Even though this building was about 10 stories high, the elevator didn’t work. Also, many of the hall lights were burned out, so we had to walk up to the apartment in partial darkness. This is common in Russia.
But once inside the apartment, everything seemed perfect. They welcomed me so graciously, that I was overwhelmed. They had set a large table for me, replete with a dozen Russian foods, vodka, wine, and beer. This is not unusual, in Eastern Europe, when welcoming important guests. And, lo and behold, there was the even more beautiful teacher, speaking English even better than Anna, to meet me enthusiastically. Anna was a bit confused, wondering why this other woman was there. They made some excuse for it, in Russian. I acted surprised to see her, as if it was unexpected. Luckily, Anna bought it, partly because I pretended not to be very interested in the other girl.
I was so appreciative of this wonderful happenstance, I immediately got buzzed, by drinking vodka, and washing it down with beer. I hugged everybody repeatedly, and tried my best to communicate that Russians and Americans should all consider themselves to be blood-brothers. And (I really did try to say this, in English and in Russian) I was so sorry that my country had so often been a problem for their country. The whole cold war was an unfortunate mistake with no basis at all. I apologize! I kept trying to say to the man there, “You are my Brat!” (brother, in Russian). But he refused to accept this, of course, and kept correcting me, with the word for ‘friend’ (kamarad). While I was in Russia, I repeatedly tried to apologize, even to strangers on the bus, for the fact that the USA and the USSR had been at odds for so long.
Looking back on all of this now, it seems remarkable that serendipity smiled upon me so brightly then. Only a dozen years ago, I was such an object of desire, for such lovely, exciting young ladies. Now, the case is quite different, what with my diminished state, having been changed by time.
Actually, I had been very interested in the second Russian girl that I met that day. But Anna became impatient to leave, in a short time, and I couldn’t resist her, in this, for fear of seeming to want to become acquainted further with the teacher (I forget her name). Then, in following days, when I could have gotten away from Anna, and went back to see the other woman, I decided against it. It seemed an unrighteous sort of betrayal, after Anna had gone to so much trouble to meet me, and had been so kind. Plus, she and I had become somewhat intimate, in a short while. There was just no time to waste. I had only five or six full days with her.
We made the train trip to Kazan, her home town, together. She had arranged for us to have our own private cabin, on this train. And I love riding a passenger train. I always had fond memories of train travel from when I was a child. Riding this train through a foreign land, with strange sights, odd-looking trees, and buildings, dirt roads, seemed like a dream come true.
To make this story short, I had a marvelous time there with her. She turned out to be a fine young woman, and a good friend to me while I was there, guiding me, interpreting for me, negotiating for me, saving me lots of money. But even though it turned out well, the truth is, one simply can’t decide whether to marry someone in a seven-day visit. So we parted as friends. But it was a wonderful experience. Moscow is beautiful, and vibrant. Her home-town, Kazan, was very interesting as well. There were a lot of Muslims there, and they were building a new mosque, which we looked at while we were there. A large, nice edifice, for such a small city as Kazan.
So, I went ‘back to the drawing-board’ as they say, back to making a new plan. I knew I wanted to travel again, and I knew that it was possible for me to meet an interested foreign woman. But I needed to have more time, if only I could stay in some Eastern European country for some months, or a year!
Then, I saw the ‘teach English’ advertisement. You see, English is becoming the language of international commerce in the newly integrated Europe. People are rushing to improve their language skills. So much so, that there was quite a shortage of English teachers in Eastern Europe at that time. I wanted to go to Poland, of course, but the jobs seemed to be more plentiful in Slovakia. One of my Polish friends actually knew a Slovak man. He told me, “If you like Poland, you’ll like Slovakia, it’s the same.” Which turned out to be true, for the most part.
And I wasn’t an English teacher at all. But I learned that I did have an advantage over many European English teachers – I am a ‘native-speaker’. And the job market in Bratislava, at that time, was such, that a school told me to “come on over”. So, off I went! It was January 2002. I put some things in storage, and got a flight. My first night in Bratislava, I had a room in a hotel, that was certainly a perfect example of Soviet-era, modern design. In the huge dining room, there were tons of red steel beams going in every direction. The building had been designed with balconies on every room, with just enough space between these balconies to make a perfect nest for the pigeons. Worse, it would have been nearly impossible to access these places, to clean them, so the entire building smelled of pigeon droppings.
But I was excited, I was happy. I had noticed that that in my very hotel, there was a strip club, open every night of the week. And, glory be, there were six kinds of little liquor bottles in the refrigerator in my room.
So that evening, there I was, in the strip club, ready to have a big time, and not knowing what to expect. On stage was the most beautiful and youngest stripper I had ever seen, right on the stage before me. It must have been a slow night, because soon, she was sitting close beside me, drinking a vodka and tonic, which was probably water. Well, they know an American in one minute, as soon as they see you. And they figure that you must have money, since you are travelling.
Well, I was in love. Seventh heaven. But I had failed to notice her homosexual lover, another stripper, looking at us with green eyes. She came over after her dance, at sat on my other side. Everything seemed lovely. I was drinking, yes, but that didn’t adequately explain what happened next.
The room began to swim slowly around, rotating sickeningly. I started awake, realizing that I must have nodded out momentarily. People were looking at me funny.
I got up, and stumbled out, bumping against the walls. I made it to my room, somehow, but I remember attracting some looks as I stumbled through the lobby. I passed out face-down, in my room, lying there all night with the door open behind me. I had been drugged, and robbed. Welcome to Slovakia.
I spent the next day just recuperating. Then, after a quiet evening in front of the television, understanding none of the language, I awoke the next day, and contacted the language school. They happened to be literally walking distance from me, so they sent a fellow over to meet me.
He guided me to the school. I was surprised to see that it was really only a couple of offices. They may have had one small ‘classroom’. But I found out that this is common, since most of the classes are held on-site, at the businesses where the students work. They were startled to find that I had actually taken it literally when they said by email to “come on over” and teach English. There was the matter of my Slovak visa. “I did have one, didn’t I? No? Well, that changes everything. We don’t employ people illegally. You must get a visa, and that might take three or more months!”
Naturally, I was upset to hear this. We had obviously not communicated sufficiently at all. But, at that time, I had some money in my American bank account, which I could access with the Slovak ATMs. Not a lot. I wasn’t rich, by any means. It wouldn’t last very long. They did feel sorry for me, since they knew they had influenced me to come so far for what turned out to be a dead-end. But not sorry enough to do anything to help me, other than to tell me of another language school, where they had no qualms with using teachers who had no visas. It was the Canadian Bilingual Institute.
You see, in the past, before they became a member of the European Union, things were kind of confused in Slovakia. Everything that was done was not done entirely legally. This included the operation of language schools. Americans routinely worked there, as teachers, though it was technically illegal to work without a visa. All we had to do was to take a short bus trip across the border every few months, and our time as ‘tourists’ began all over again, permitting us to basically live and work there in a sort of ‘gray area’. If one wanted to be upstanding about it, you could actually apply for a visa, and you could show the paperwork, to prove that you were doing everything you could to comply with the rules, and, besides, if you crossed out of and back into the country last week, you had only been there for six days, technically speaking.
This opened the door to some abuse of the Americans. You see, it was mandatory for companies to withhold 10 or 15 % of your paycheck as income tax. They did this to the Americans, and we didn’t complain. Only after we had been there a long time, did someone clue us into the obvious fact that if we weren’t working legally, it was impossible for us to pay taxes. What were we going to do? File an income tax return? Get a rebate? But almost all the schools did this, routinely pocketing the money. A few schools simply gave 100% of your pay to you, then filed paperwork to make you liable for the taxes due, which we never really paid. But add this to the fact that the pay was quite poor, with no job security whatsoever. We were like contractors. We got paid when we worked, for hours worked. No holidays, no money for rent, food, travel, nothing.
What’s more, they would continually lay us off for long periods of time, with no warning! They knew the class was for three months, then an automatic lay-off, but no communication about this at all. “Surprise! Have a nice vacation.”
Speaking of abuse, after this experience in Slovakia, I went to one of the T.E.F.L. schools in Prague. In their system, at the Caledonian Institute, student-teachers pay $1500 to attend a four-week course, during which you are taught how to teach English to foreigners. It seems like a good deal, because if you graduate satisfactorily, they guarantee about 24 hours a week of classes for you to teach in their school. However, the caveat is that you pass the course with a sufficient grade. This means that they can fail you, if they choose to. Then, they are under no obligation to use you as a teacher at all. Also, they may give you courses that are far from Prague, or typically, you can get one class on the east side of town, and the next class requires an hour’s journey to the other side of town. And the whole thing breaks down when there is some ‘vacation’, like the entire month of August, or December. Just think, if they get more TEFL graduates than they need, they can simply fail ten percent of them. Meanwhile, the tuition is non-refundable.
[I taught in Slovakia for a year, then returned to the U.S. for about two years. It was then that I made the second trip to Europe, to Prague.]
But in 2002, I began my career as an English teacher after only a two-week course at Berlits English School, in Bratislava. I had spoken with Henry, at his Canadian Bilingual Institute, but I had opted to take the course at Berlits, anyway. They offered this short cram-course on teaching, with the prospect, not the promise, of teaching for them afterward. I must admit that the knowledge I gained there, the methods and principles, stayed with me throughout the next years, and they were very helpful. Was I really qualified to teach English when I began? No, except in this sense: I, like every American, north of the border, was an expert in the way Americans speak. Very few foreign teachers of English could equal us, in that respect. However, like most native speakers of English, I had forgotten most of the grammar, and rules of English. And the art of teaching is something that takes more study and preparation than I had received. All in all, I think my first students felt justifiably indignant, that they had been subjected to such a teacher as I.
But with experience comes skill, and soon, I was doing just fine. Most of my students liked me just fine. Of course, I had good days and bad days, especially with the excessive drinking, and late nights of partying. Teaching these classes requires some preparation, and some level of enthusiasm. This was difficult to muster up, during a hangover. And the hangover cure, for aspiring alcoholics, is more alcohol, consumed first thing in the morning, and between every class, if at all possible. So, I got into a shape, a few times, that was noticeably tipsy, during a class. But alcohol is part of the Eastern European culture, and they were forgiving. But slowly, the disease was progressing.
Also, to be fair to myself, every English teacher will tell you that while some classes seem to go so easily, and can be so fun to teach, others can be just the opposite. Many of these students feel that the teacher owes it to them to make the experience constantly fun and exciting. Hey, it’s hard work, learning a new language. It involves repeating boring things, learning the same things over and over. And some people simply could not be pleased, no matter if you stood on your head, and quoted entire Shakespearean plays. And the schools were quick to replace you, if there was any hint of complaint from the students. So it was tough, and stressful at times.
When I got through the little teaching course at Berlits, my classmates and I were finally told how much our pay would be. I don’t know how it happened that none of us had been told, but we were all shocked to find that it would be about $6 per lesson, at the present rate of exchange. More than one of us left immediately to find some other place to teach. That’s when I went to the Canadian school. It was called ‘Canadian’ because the owner’s family was from Canada, though his parents were Slovak. And, though it was called an ‘institute’, it was only an office, with about six classrooms. It is not the only ‘mom-and-pop’, storefront ‘institute’ in Europe. And they paid twice the rate of Berlits.
They took me on-board, though, when I had no experience at all, and put me to teaching. It went slowly, though. There weren’t enough classes to pay my rent, and I was doing quite a bit of drinking. Then, if I was hung-over, I would have to take a day off to recover from drinking, so my money was running low.
I was robbed once, by a Gypsy woman. This is an embarrassing story. I had been sitting in a pub, drinking with a bunch of guys for quite a while. I guess it was getting late. Well, out of nowhere, this dark-skinned, young woman comes along close to my seat, and smiled so sweetly. Naturally, I smiled back, and she took the opportunity to kiss me full on the mouth, right there and then. She sat down by me, as if she were my long-lost lover, finally returned.
A guy asked me, “Do you know her?” I had never seen her before. But did that matter to me?
She indicated that we should get out of the place. I said, “OK, let’s go to my place.” She didn’t understand, nor did she speak a word of English. But she followed me. We went to my place, and sat down on the couch, had a drink, kissed. Things seemed to be going just lovely. Then she motions toward the bathroom, and starts the water running in the tub.
I figure, “She’s a conscientious girl, concerned about hygiene and stuff. Good. And, no doubt, she’ll jump in with me, and we can play splishy-splashy. So, no problem, I take off my clothes in the living room, leaving her alone with my pants, (though, as I said, I expected her to follow me). DRUNK = STUPID.
Of course, the next thing to happen, she scurries out the door and down the stairs with my pants and my wallet. What was I to do? Chase her, dripping and naked? A wiser man may have done so.
The two or three hundred dollars cash she found in my wallet didn’t satisfy her. During the next half hour, according to bank records, she tried about seven times to withdraw money from an ATM, using my bank card. Luckily, there was no credit card. She couldn’t guess the PIN number, 1234.
The next day, I was relating the account to a Slovak friend. He asked me, “What did the girl look like? Did she have dark skin?”
“Yeah, it was dark, like a Mexican or something.”
“She was a Gypsy! What were you doing, taking a Gypsy home with you? She probably had an accomplice working with her. It’s a wonder you didn’t get beaten up.”
“Gypsy? What’s a Gypsy?” I had heard of Gypsies, but I had never actually seen one. Not that I knew of.
“Come with me,” he said, “I’ll show you.” So we went about a block down the street, to a small casino, a gambling place, with slot machines and such. Every person there had the same dark skin, and black hair, as the woman who stole my wallet.
He told me, then, about the ethnic ‘Roma’ population in Eastern Europe. He warned me to beware of their tricks.
Since then, I’ve spent years there, and have had my wallet stolen again by a gang of ‘pick-pockets’. I’ve been aggressively targeted by Gypsy women, working together with their men, who were hiding, not quite out of site. I escaped only by quickly ducking into a shop or restaurant, so that they couldn’t follow me.
I have given this subject a good bit of thought. Everyone in the west thinks that the Roma are simply victims of racial prejudice. I will admit that people are prejudiced toward them. But whether they are crooked because they are victims of prejudice, or whether people are prejudiced against them because they are crooked, is a ‘chicken-and-egg’ question.
The truth is that every American that goes to Europe should be given some kind of warning. Because if you are there for any length of time, if you are not careful, you will be victimized by thieves or scammers. And chances are that the perpetrators will be Gypsies. It’s a simple fact, the truth.
I was there to find a girlfriend, though, remember. But that unfortunate episode with that little thief was the only time I took a woman home for quite a while. I really have, always, had bad luck with women. I could’ve found someone to go to bed with me, sure. Prostitution is much more open and available there. But I was looking for LOVE, you know. Which was a difficult thing to find, and even more so, since I was interested only in women born after about 1970.
I was only 48, but somehow, I was not the popular playboy that I had aspired to be. This puzzled me for a long time. In fact, it was a long, hard lesson that I had to learn over time, but I was somewhat older than what my ‘target audience’ was wanting. But I kept working at it. Of course I should have set my sights on someone nearer my age. My only defense, in this silly misconception, this constantly looking for a very young girl, is that I think most every man makes the same mistake. We just see a young woman, it makes us feel young, and we make the mistake of thinking that we look as young as we feel.
Another aspect of this, most of the women who are free and available are quite young. There aren’t a lot of women sitting around in solitude, saying, “There’s plenty of time. I’m going to wait ‘till I’m somewhat past my prime. I believe I’ll sit around a few years, and keep myself free until I meet an older guy to marry.” This is NOT what happens. So, by the time most women are 25, they’re married, or at least ‘in a long-term relationship’. Heck, some have been married, divorced, and are re-married to a second guy by that age. But very few are available. Fewer still, in Europe, than in the States. Here in the USA, there does seem to be a sizeable contingent of women who’ve gotten divorces, and then decided to be free for a while. They want to be independent, if not alone. This type of woman may ditch a man, for some good or bad reason, and then she ends up being part of the single population, for a while. This doesn’t seem to happen very often in Eastern Europe. There, most every woman, except the very young, seems to be with somebody.
I did finally meet Maria. But let me tell you the circumstances that surrounded this event.
When I got to Bratislava, I was lucky enough to get a very nice apartment, in a nice, quiet area. The rent was a little high, but not too bad. My finances were deteriorating, slowly, due to my sparse schedule, and also due to the very nature of the job. There was simply not much money in teaching. Not for most of us, anyway. You had to be one of a few, well-connected teachers, and able to stay busy most of the time, in order to make enough money to actually live on. It would be possible to make a fair living, as I actually did do, in later years, but not for one so fond of ‘partying’, as I had become.
So when I heard of someone who was looking for a room-mate, I was interested. It was a guy named Jay, another teacher at the school, an Irishman. He seemed to be a well-respected teacher there, and had been there a long time. So when he told me the price of his flat, and how much we could save by sharing the apartment, I decided to do it. I thought, since I’m running low on money, I’ll pay him two month’s rent, and that way, I’ll at least have a place to stay where I’m ahead on the rent. Then, if I run short of money, I’ll have a month to get caught back up.
I don’t know the reason Jay did this, but as it turned out, he simply pocketed the money, and NEVER paid the rent at all. In hind-sight, I should have given the money to the land-lord myself. But this man seemed to be such a stable person, a fellow-worker in the same school, and no one seemed to have anything bad to say about him. But he actually just blew the money, and very quickly, mostly on non-stop drinking.
He turned out to be an alcoholic. He was much farther along, in the progression of the disease, than anyone I had ever known, personally. He was a few years older than me, and, though he had been able to build and maintain a life up until that time, he was about to come crashing down. I hadn’t seen it coming, that’s all.
Looking back, and thinking of it all now, I understand that I did reach a similar stage, years later, myself. But I reckon I picked a bad time to become involved with this fellow. He began to get drugs, pain-killers, from his girlfriend’s mom, who was a nurse. He would argue with his girl, then pass out on the floor, in a puddle of piss. He began to come in at all hours, and was impossible to wake up in the morning. So he began to miss classes in this way, a fatal error in the teaching vocation. He began to sustain injuries, with no obvious cause, except for his drunken stumbling. For this he needed more pain-killer medication.
Then I learned that the land-lord, whom I had never met, was about to kick us out. That’s when I found out that the rent hadn’t been paid for a long time. Needless to say, I got away from this Irishman.
But actually, it wasn’t so easy, getting away. The day I left, Jay went on a BIG binge of drinking and pills. The day after, I went back to get a couple of things that I’d left. I met police in the staircase. I said, “vsechno dobry?” (is everything alright?) They laughed, wryly. “Ne dobse”. (Not alright). Then I saw the blood on the steps. The night before, Jay had fallen down the steps, falling into flower pots and other things, so it was a big, bloody mess. He was in the hospital. I gave the police my information, and talked to them as best as I could, since they knew little English.
Then, after a week, or so, I learned that I was to meet with Jay at the police station. He was claiming to have been robbed. He had already pulled this stunt before, getting drunk, and hurting himself, then claiming to be a victim of a mugging. This was used as an explanation for his lack of money, which he had actually spent on alcohol and drugs, and it also bought him sympathy. He was able to get some financial assistance from the Irish embassy as well. So I went down to the police station.
I had been there for some time, talking to the police, and to Jay, who showed up, all smiles, having mostly recovered from his “mugging”. Then I found out from the interpreter that Jay was trying to say that I had been the one who attacked him. He’d been angry at me for leaving him with his big rent bill. But, as I told him, I had paid for two months rent, and had lived there only one month. But this was his attempt at revenge against me. I was really angry, when I heard that. I told the police of his previous scams, claiming to be robbed, when he hadn’t been. A quick check confirmed this, and they believed me. But my opinion of the entire Irish nation has been forever changed, for the worse, since my experience with Jay.
I had been so very disgusted with Jay, because of his out-of-control drinking and drugging. There’s nothing so disgusting as someone who is totally making an ass of themselves in that particular way. But I’ve always thought of the words of Jesus, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” The longer I live, the more examples of this principle I see; that if you judge someone harshly, you will eventually end up doing the same thing, or something worse, yourself. Eventually I fell into a similar kind of being out-of-control myself, for a while. I’ll talk about some of that later.
Up until then, I had never been low on money in Europe, but I was beginning to run out. That was about the time when I met Maria. It was a school picnic for students and teachers. Maria wasn’t a student, but her best friend was, so she was invited.
It was a wonderful, sunny day. The school put on a really nice outing, in a local park. We all played games, and ate and drank. There is never any kind of social event in Europe without alcohol. I’ll never forget, Maria and her friends were drinking from a huge bottle of Fernet. I had never had it before, so I wasn’t fully aware of its potency. It’s about 40 % alcohol, and a sweet, brown drink. We were doing shots, one after the other. Soon, though it wasn’t even dark yet, we were both staggering.
We left the party, and after that, I can’t remember anything. I woke up at home, though, the next morning, with her by my side, and the understanding was that we were now a couple. Which made me immensely happy. This girl was 24, and gorgeous. Long, super thick black hair, nice white skin, and bright blue eyes. Rather like Elisabeth Taylor, actually, though I didn’t think of that at the time.
But all was not rosy in my world. She had cursed out everyone in the management of my school before we left. You see, Maria was a fun person, and good to her friends, but she was very selective about who she liked and who she didn’t like. And if she didn’t like you, she would let you know in no uncertain terms. So she had this character flaw. I was constantly apologizing for her, and being embarrassed by her antisocial ways. Also, the whole thing swung back and forth with her level of alcohol consumption. When she was high, everything was OK. If she was in need of an alcohol ‘fix’, she was hell to be around.
But I felt that her good points outweighed her bad. After all, I was interested in the physical side of the relationship. Oh, I was serious about her, though one had to worry about her bad attitude about people. But as long as it was just her and me, or her and me and her friends, then everything was fine. We began to see each other every day. I would cook for her. I love to cook little, simple things, nothing fancy. And she loved for me to cook her breakfast, especially Saturday mornings, when she had to watch cartoons all morning long. They have a marvelous cartoon series in Europe, about two cats, who own a house, and some roaches that are constantly doing battle with them. It’s French, but there are no words at all, only exclamatory noises. It was evidently done in this way in order to be internationally appealing, and this works quite well.
Things went along pretty well, like this, for about five months or so. I thought I had found my dream girl, a beautiful, young woman with a strong Slovak accent. She spoke English very well, but she had a few habitual language mistakes, things that she could never seem to correct. This made me love to hear her speak. This was part of the reason that an American girl could never be any good for me, that’s the way I felt back then.
I was somewhat happy with her, and with my life, though money was always a bit of a problem, after my reserves ran out. But I advertised by printing up fliers, and placing them around town. I was managing to survive pretty well. I had moved away from Jay, and back into my nice little flat, that I had been in before. Maria loved the place, and came over often. She would buzz me at the entrance and say, “Open me door”, meaning to say, ‘open the door for me’, so I would reply, “Maria, if I open you, I should be a surgeon”. I don’t think we really talked about marriage, but I had it in mind to marry her.
But eventually, problems began to crop up. Both of us had an alcohol problem, but I began to notice that she would get in a really bad mood, if she needed a drink, and there was nothing in the fridge. She wouldn’t hang around, if I didn’t have money and alcohol. She began to find reasons to go places without me. It was a night for ‘just the girls’, or an outing with her school friends. When I began to press the issue, she pushed back. It was very important, it seems, that I not go with her, sometimes, when she went out. And it was suspicious that I was not allowed to meet these school friends.
2002 was the year, and the Republican administration was pushing to invade Iraq. I followed the news, and I heard the constant beating of the war drums. I somehow knew that the Bush White House was lying, manufacturing false evidence, to push the country into war. Also, Blair was lying to Britain. The Fox news machine, and the Murdoch media empire was misleading the public, and the politicians, and, amazingly, even deceiving the mainstream news outlets. I can understand. The Bush people wanted to gain entry into Iraq, thinking it would make a lot of money for their oil friends, and benefit the economy, and therefore ensure George’s re-election. And Cheney wanted to benefit his Halliburton friends.
All of that made sense to me, though I hated to see it coming. In the English classes, we had a lot of discussion about these things. I was able to hear the European attitude, and that was scary, knowing that we were becoming the ‘bad guys’ in the eyes of most of the world. And I was able to accurately predict that no matter what Saddam did, no matter what Hans Blix said, Bush was determined to have his war, and would have it, regardless of anything. I told my students it would happen, no doubt.
But what I couldn’t understand, was the Religious Right’s unwavering support for that war. The so-called Christian Coalition, the church-going population, was as blood-thirsty as the Republicans were. This made no sense to me, and never has. I began to ask the questions, “How can it be that the very Church of Jesus Christ has so easily been persuaded into pushing for a military invasion of another country? What has this got to do with Christianity? How does this fit in with the concept of separation of church and state? How is it that, suddenly, being against the war, and criticizing the President, has begun to be thought of as being non-patriotic? [These days, criticizing the President is thought to be a requirement of being patriotic!]And, by the way, where, in the Bible, does it tell us, as Christians, that we even should be patriotic? Should those Christians in Iraq, at that time, also have been patriotic? Should they have been expected to support their leader, Saddam Hussein, and to fight in the Iraqi army? They are our brothers in Christ. Shouldn’t it be the same for them as for Christians in the USA?”
My feelings, concerning these things, didn’t arise overnight. I had been struggling with the rising war-fervor, among church people, for many years. This looks like a good place to insert the following. It illustrates how I slowly lost my faith in the ‘so-called’ Church people who have mixed their religion, their patriotic nationalism, and their politics, into one monstrous thing.
A Diary, from 1991. The first invasion of Iraq
This comes from an actual cassette tape that I had made. It’s extraordinary, because somehow, the thing stuck with me for 22 years, though I had made no effort to conserve it at all. It was just thrown into a box, or bag, or, for some time, in the console of my work van. Then, evidently, it accidentally was taken with me to Slovakia, then back to America, briefly, then to the Czech Republic for five years. There, it was thrown into a box of random old tapes. Then, when I returned from Prague, half drunk and drugged, with all my worldly belongings in a duffle bag and a carry-on type bag, somehow, it survived even that. When I left Prague, I had just grabbed a handful of old tapes, and thrown them in. Then, when I was got to New York, because of a strange turn of events, I got lost, and was walking around for hours, looking for the bus terminal. At that time, since my bad ankle was hurting me so much, and I was so tired, I took out a number of items from my duffle bag and abandoned them on the street. I left clothing, books, I don’t know what. Still, after all that, and so many years, I discovered this old cassette, there among a few other tapes, that had survived intact, all these years, and had survived the trip.
It seems important, because it had been written at a time in which I was trying to live for Jesus. Written so long ago, and now I was in an alcohol and drug rehab, living for Jesus again. But by this tape, I was taken all the way back there, to see that I had been such a religious fellow, so dedicated, so idealistic. And I thought with wonder, “How could I come from such a place, spiritually speaking, and, over time, fall so far, so deep into addiction. How could I have begun so well, and to go from that through such a long, twisted journey into a complete renunciation of my faith in Christ, and then, out of control, to death’s very door, staring into the abyss.
But there it was, in my hands, this old tape that, miraculously, would still play. I’ve lost so many things. I came back with so little, but yet, God had put this into my hand, and said, “Listen to it.” I knew there must be a reason for this.
[Diary] Alright, ladies and gentlemen, here is the daily diary of Thomas Steinbreck, from, let’s see, what is the date? February, 1991.
Well, today was a, well, a heck of a day. I never could seem to get my act together all day. I’m, of course, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, living by myself. And it’s been pretty lonesome. I guess it’s because I miss my son, Micah. And because I haven’t had a decent conversation with anybody for about two weeks.
[In 1989, I moved to South Carolina from Tennessee. This was a town where I knew no one, except my employer, and his secretary. This was not a social relationship, either. Just business. I worked alone, on billboards, so in secluded areas. Well, socially secluded. There was the passing traffic, with quite a lot of road noise, in most locations. So, loneliness was a real problem. I wasn’t going to church, wasn’t going out at night to bars or restaurants. The recent divorce was still on my mind, though I can’t say I was heartsick for my ex-wife. But I did truly grieve over what seemed to me like the loss of my family.
We had lived in a trailer in Tennessee, on the side of a small mountain. My son was only about two years old at this time. And his half-sister, Crystal had also been part of what was my family. I had grown to love her as a part of the family, and the love I had for my son, Micah, surpassed any emotion I had ever experienced. The divorce, and my move to South Carolina, had taken him away from me. To make it worse, the baby hadn’t taken our separation well at all. We had frequent visits, yes, but he would get very upset every time I tried to return him to his mother and leave him again. It just ‘tore him to pieces’, as we say here in the south.
Also, as a young man, I was afflicted with the strong conviction that a man could not possibly be happy without a woman, a girlfriend at least. And there was no one in sight, no prospects for love at that time. Lately, I’ve decided that it is not only possible to be happily single and alone, but it is preferable.
Now I begin to speak of Phillip Harris, a man who had become my friend. He was the owner of the trailer where I was living at the time of this diary. Since he was almost my only friend in S.C., I seemed to over-emphasize his importance. In those days, I had a lot of what I felt were important discoveries concerning the Christian faith. I was busily writing a series of short booklets, or pamphlets, in an effort to, well, it seems that I actually thought my writings could have some sort of effect upon the church-world. This is what I am referring to, in the diary, when I speak of my writings. I couldn’t type, so I was doing it in longhand, and paying a woman to put it into Microsoft ‘Word’.
It’s no wonder that Phillip had developed an attitude about me. Here I was, quite younger than he, but convinced that if he would only listen to what I had to say, it could open up his eyes about a number of things. Things that he had settled in his mind long ago, things like the ‘Trinity’, the seventh-day Sabbath, the name of God, and so forth.]
[Diary] I talked to Phil a few days ago for a little while. I have the feeling lately that there’s something wrong in our friendship. He seems to have rejected me, to some extent, as a Christian brother.
Yeah, he acts like there’s something about me that he doesn’t like. I don’t know what it could be.
Then last night this guy who lives in the trailer across from mine came over, and asked me if I “partied”. By this he meant, “do you like to drink and take drugs?”
Well, it flustered me. I need to have some kind of social life, to meet some people and so forth, but I had to say, “No, I don’t party.” I could have told him I used to drink and take lots of drugs and run around, but I didn’t. And thank God, I’ve been delivered from that mess.
Last night Evelyn, the old lady next door, came over and asked me if I needed to borrow a heater. The weather was predicted to be very cold, and she was concerned. She’s a good old girl. She has little gatherings on Saturday night with her friends. I don’t think she goes to church anywhere. But she’s becoming kind of a friend. She was worried about my having enough heat, bless her heart.
I did a little work today, it being Sunday, the first work-day of the week. I fixed my mailbox. Went out to the shop and did a few of the little ‘logo signs’. Just ‘piddling’ work. I came back here and tried to do some writing, but I can’t write. I tried to do some studying, but even that didn’t go too well.
Yesterday, I had a good day of prayer, and seeking the Lord. I don’t understand why that today, for some unknown reason, I just never could get my act together. I’m not very spiritual today at all. I’ll ask the Lord to forgive me for allowing my mind to wander off into foolish, wild thinking. I guess I really enjoy my humor, and I reckon I’ve always had a hard time figuring out the difference in humor that’s harmless, and, on the other hand, foolishness that becomes rather ungodly. The line between these becomes blurred to me, sometimes.
[next day] Well, today’s been a very good day. It was raining, so I couldn’t do any work. If it even sprinkles a little rain, or if the wind blows, or if the temperature drops below freezing, there’s very little that can be done, painting billboards on location. So it’s like being laid-off, without notice. But today I didn’t even care. I just enjoyed the day. I went to the drug store to pick up some pictures. I got to see the wonderful pictures of Micah and Crystal. So that was nice. That girl that works there is cute. I don’t know, she probably has a boyfriend. And, one thing that strikes me about her, she seems to be very ‘worldly’, so not really the Christian type.
I have had some good prayer today, and got quite a bit of writing done. I think it turned out to be pretty good. It’s about ‘great Babylon’, which is the modern-day so-called ‘church’, really a false church.
[Next day] Today it was really cloudy, but it seemed to be dry enough, so I got dressed for work, and went to a billboard to try to paint the monopole support of the sign. Well, wouldn’t you know it, the very moment I start up the ladder to work, it began to rain. And the wind also kicked-up a bit about the same time. So I decided I was wasting my time. I went back home and I’ve been looking at a photo album.
Gosh, it seems like I lived in a different world back then, when I was together with Micah and Crystal, and Carol – my little family. In these pictures, everything looks so beautiful. The grass is green, the trees are green. And of course, I miss my son. And the way things are going, it looks like I won’t even have enough money to be able to go in and see him. I’m going to have to wait ‘til pay-day to make the trip, if I even make enough. And my guitar and amp are in the pawn shop. I’m worried about that.
[The next entry]
Well, it looks like President Bush [Bush, Sr.] is about to start the ‘ground war’ over in the gulf. It’s the 20th of November. I figure that in a few days, they’ll begin the invasion. But one thing that I know for sure, the Lord spoke to me about this war: peace has been taken off of the face of the earth. Until Jesus comes, and sets up his kingdom on the earth, there will never be a time when we don’t have wars going on. We are in a time of permanent war now. There may be short periods, when it seems that there is some semblance of peace, but there’ll be a war here or there, at all times from now on, until Jesus comes.
It reminds me of the second rider, of the book of Revelations. It’s as if that rider has gone forth, to remove peace from the earth. It’s as if that rider has begun his journey now. They say the war will be over in a while. Well, part of it may be over, but peace will be an elusive goal, ever increasingly.
Also, the hypocrisy of the whole thing bothers me. These church people down here in South Carolina are so supportive of this war. Everyone has got a little flag on his car now, or in his yard. Of course, I pray for our troops. But I pray for both sides in the conflict. I can’t pray for victory for our side, because if our side wins, that means defeat for the Iraqis. It means more will die on their side. It means that mothers will lose their sons, wives will lose their husbands, children will lose their fathers. Are we supposed to pray for that? According to these churches around here, that’s exactly what we should pray for.
I mean, if Jesus were here, as a man, would He tell the American soldiers, “Yeah, go over there, and face the Iraqis, and tell them that I love them. Tell them I came to die on the cross so that they could be saved, so, we want you to accept our religion as being superior to your religion. This way, you will go to heaven, because we are going to kill you all, as many of you as we can, any-way.” Or maybe, if we kill enough of them, after the war, we can send missionaries over there to tell them how much Jesus loves them. They will come into the church in droves!
As an American, as a citizen, I can see that this country is doing the best thing as far as advancing our goals. Part of me wants to see Saddam Hussein driven out of Kuwait, and driven out of power. But at the same time, I know that this is not the Christian part of me. That part is the human impulse, that masculine urge to see an injustice avenged [the invasion of Kuwait]. The Christian within me cringes in disgust at this fervor of war, that’s taken over the country.
In the churches everywhere, now, they are calling for us all to pray. But I know that they are actually praying that our bombs will be well guided, to cause as much death, destruction, and suffering as possible among the Iraqi troops. There will probably be some Christian Iraqis, among those that are killed. Even if there are none, there could be. And they all could become Christians, couldn’t they? So they are our Iraqi brothers, aren’t they? I just pray that God will have mercy on us all. There’s no victory in war. There’s no end to violence. There’s nothing righteous about this war. There’s nothing about the United States, that God should want to take us to be His ‘pet nation’, and to go and fight in wars for us. I just wish that these American Christians would pray for the mothers in Iraq, who will lose their sons, for doing exactly the same thing that our soldiers are doing. They’re fighting for their country. They’re standing up against what they see as aggression, as an unlawful invasion of their territory.
And, I don’t know, I guess to some extent, I’m just like everybody else; I’m callous. I watch the news [of Iraqi deaths] and just think, “Well, that’s good enough for them. They’re getting just what they deserve.” Because if I weren’t calloused, I would be crying in pain for those Iraqi mothers and wives who are losing their men.
I just wish I could point out to this so-called Church in the U.S. that God is NOT an American God. The Church of Jesus is not a nationalistic church, it’s not the Church of America. He loves those people as much as He does us. And they actually live more righteous lives than American Christians. They are more devout, more dedicated to their faith. And they don’t have the high crime rates that we have here in the States.
My God, help us all.
I was in tears at the end of that diary entry. As you can tell, this was the beginning of a long process of my becoming disenchanted with the American Church. Ultimately, after witnessing the America of the second Gulf War, or the Afghan war, and the invasion of Iraq, and the occupation of both countries that was undertaken by George W. Bush, Jr., I became so upset with the whole situation, that I decided that any religion that advocated such a horrible mess cannot be a true religion at all.
This is not to justify my loss of faith. There were other factors that were unrelated to these things. I was at fault, myself, and I own the responsibility for my fall from faith. But the involvement of the nominal Church in encouraging the war effort was certainly a factor in driving me away from the Church. It even drove me away from the continent. I tried to distance myself as far as possible from my association with the USA, physically and spiritually.
I was wrong to let anything turn me away from my faith. Now, I can hardly believe that I went so far as to deny Christ. It took a long, slow process of going down a slippery slope. I hope I can shed some light upon this, as a warning to others.
When I returned to the Lord, in 2010, and felt the wonderful glow of His Spirit again, I knew that this is the most beautiful, most perfect religion. So how does one reconcile the fact that the most Christian country in the world has become very destructive? And how can we understand that the church has been the biggest supporter of the war effort, and of the liars that tricked this nation into going to war?
It’s important to understand some things. First, and most importantly, there is a difference in real, true Christianity, and the product that we have been sold on Sunday mornings. So, one must have a sense of separation between the true and the false.
Also, there must be an understanding that there is a difference in politics, and faith. It is possible for people to have the true faith, and, yet, to be mistaken in their political views. The majority of Christians in the U.S. have just let themselves be misled. There is a factor involved here of loyalty. People want to have solidarity with their community, their ‘herd’, if you will. Also, people feel that they should be able to trust their pastors, who have, unfortunately, become their political advisers. So the Shepherds are leading their flocks, but the shepherds are being led, themselves, by the wrong side, politically. And it’s a difficult thing, trying to fit our politics and our religion together. Both extremes of the political spectrum have good points, and bad points. America is not a theocracy, whether we would like it to be, or not. Of course we ask God for guidance, personally. But, if this is a democracy, rather than a theocracy, then, as a nation, we can’t get on our knees and ask God who He wants for our next president. Why not? Because the first question we run into is, “Ask who’s god? Ask Allah? Jehovah? Jesus? Sri Krishna? Buddha?
So, if the church and the state are to be separate, then we must separate these two aspects of our lives, our faith, and our political views. The only form of government that is ordered by God, the political form of the Bible, is a kingdom, with Christ as the King. Until the time that He does come to be the King of all peoples of the world, politics will be deeply flawed, at best.
This brings me to another thing to be considered. The flawed nature of every person, whether Christian, or not, ensures us that we will all make mistakes. And we even teach that everyone who is saved, must be saved by grace. This means, by my interpretation, saved in spite of our faults.
This is how I reconcile these things in my mind. People can be very wrong; even Christians. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t sincerely good people. I was wrong to let the flawed views of Christians turn me against the Faith. The Faith is true. People are flawed.
[Next Diary entry] Well, today’s March fourth. It’s been a number of days since I did anything with this taping of a daily diary. I went to Tennessee, and had a good visit with Micah.
[Actually, these visits were somewhat stressful for me. The divorce, and subsequent bankruptcy, had happened about a year before this. He and I both were upset when I had to leave. And I was depressed for a day or two, when I got back to South Carolina.]
So I forgot about the taping for a few days. They say the war in Iraq is over already. They had a preacher on TV saying, “Thank God that He gave us the victory! And not only that, but we won in far less time than we even thought we would.” In other news, they showed an Iraqi man, crying over the death of his son. The Iraqis are crying, and the church folks are praising God for victory.
Well, I don’t care what they say, I cannot ‘rejoice’, that we have won a war, with a low casualty rate. The casualties weren’t low for the Iraqis.
Today was a tough day. I came back from the trip absolutely penniless, and had to ask Dean [the boss] for some money. He gave me twenty dollars. I went straight to Dean’s [illegal] dump after that, to get rid of an old recliner that I needed to get out of my way.
Well, the ground was quite wet, and dang if I didn’t get stuck in the mud. I struggled to get it unstuck for a long time, jacking it up and putting wood under the tires, and so forth. I was covered with mud by the time I realized I was wasting my time.
[In a time before cell-phones] So I walked to a nearby truck repair place. Luckily, they had a wrecker, and a mechanic was kind enough to pull my van out of the mud, for exactly twenty dollars.
So I was back to not having any money at all. I went to Dean’s father, old Bill. He loaned me ten. I went back home, to change out of my muddy clothes. I was so worried that Dean would wonder why I wasn’t getting anything done, now that the weather was finally cooperating with me.
I went to a billboard, and set up my ‘stage’ on it, and started to try to paint. But I found that I had forgotten my safety catch, for my harness, and besides that, I had forgotten to bring any of the ‘logo signs’ for the apron. So, I decided to just do a ‘brush-cut’ job that Dean wanted done, cutting the briers and underbrush under a nearby billboard. This was difficult work, wading into waist-deep kudzu, on a rough incline. I hated doing these brush-cuts. And I kept slipping down, and tripping over the saw-briers.
And, for some reason, I thought about my brother, Timothy, who had died years ago. He was a big, happy guy, and everybody loved him. Well, no matter what anyone says, you never really get over a thing like having your brother just up and die suddenly. And I thought about my poor Dad, Carl, as they were shutting the casket on Tim’s casket during the close of the funeral. He seemed to go insane with grief, for a moment. He jumped up and, running toward the closing casket, shouted, “Goodbye, son, I hate to see you go. I love you, son.” And I thought about that Iraqi father I had seen that morning, on the news footage, crying for his dead son. And I just dropped down, and began to sob.
God, sometimes everything seems so sad, so tragic and upsetting. But I just had myself a good prayer, and talked to the Lord about everything. And I talked to Timmy, though he is dead. I wonder if he hears me, but it seems to be a good thing for me to do.
But I just said ‘to heck with the work’ after that, and came on back home here. I get so aggravated sometimes with this work sometimes. The weather’s always a problem, when you’re painting outdoors. And there are so many things that can go wrong. I have to remember to bring so many things onto a job site, to get the work done, and there are trips to the paint shop, to the hardware, then something goes wrong, like the artwork and the billboard aren’t the same size, or whatever. So sometimes I get mad, and don’t act like a Christian. Sometimes I don’t feel very Christian.
Anyway, I came on home, and had a good supper, and had a good prayer. I ask the Lord to forgive me when I have a hard time, and get frustrated. So I feel better now. I’m fixing to go to bed.
I’m going to listen to one of these bible scripture tapes now. These are really good for me. I find that, more and more, I am remembering the scriptures that I listen to.
End of Diary.
All of the right-wing war-talk began to wear on me. Over the following years, I slowly began to believe what so much of the world says about the American right-wing Christians: that they are easily misled. I began to doubt my very faith. I felt that it must all be a delusion, if the followers of Jesus have become the most aggressive, blood-thirsty war-mongers on the face of the planet. Then perhaps the agnostics are really the good guys.
I know, there is no excuse for allowing myself to become so disillusioned. I now say that, “To be disillusioned, one must first become ILLUSIONED.” My original illusion was to think that the majority of Church people are actually true Christians at all. That’s almost as stupid as believing that God prefers the Republican party, or any political party.
But now I know that God is God, and Christ is Christ. Love is love, and peace is peace. And I have peace through my personal relationship with Christ. I simply understand that, politically, a lot of Christians have their politics wrong. The religious Right is wrong. And there is nothing Godly, or Christian about being right-wing, or conservative, or certainly not in being a Republican.
Back to the story of my Slovak girl. With Maria and me, things got worse, as winter came on, and people began to go on vacation (in Europe, people take much more time off from work). I wasn’t getting enough classes, so I was out of money. So she said, basically, “Well, I can’t hang around here with you if you don’t have money. I’m going out, and I’ll see you again when you get some more money.”
To her, this seemed perfectly reasonable. I was to be lonely, alone, until I made some more money. She shouldn’t be affected by my problems.
Then came New-Year’s Eve, and something remarkable happened. It really does seem to me that God helps me to see things at times, whether I’m living right, or not. Similar things have happened to me before.
I was facing an evening alone, eating macaroni and cheese and drinking water, going nowhere. But it occurred to me that if I would just get dressed, and go downtown, I would catch Maria doing something. Now, Bratislava is a pretty big city. It is the Capitol of Slovakia. And there were thousands of people on the streets that night. They take their holidays seriously, especially one that has a built-in pretense for drinking. But I did go downtown, wandering around seemingly aimlessly, though I knew I would find her. To be fair, there was a street concert, though I hadn’t known about it. A lot of people were there.
But it was after I’d left the concert, and begun to walk down the street, I saw her, coming down the street toward me, with a young woman I had never met, one of her ‘school friends’, though that was perfectly all right. But Maria was so nervous, obviously not happy to see me, but play-acting as though everything was fine. But, no hug, no kiss, no “well, now we can be together tonight.” She had to walk away, out of my hearing range, and quickly call someone, with the bad news that her boyfriend had shown up, and now she wouldn’t be able to meet him as planned. The other girl kept me busy while she did this. But it was easy to see what was happening.
Then she came back, and stammered around, couldn’t tell me where they had been going, what her plans for the night were. She knew she had been caught, though there was no boy in sight, but me, at the time. She said that the public transport system would shut down completely, and very soon. Stupidly, I wanted an excuse to leave her, so she could get on with her plans. She was visibly happy to hear me say that maybe I should get home, if the trams would be shutting down so soon. So I left, thinking, ‘how is she planning to get home?’
But I knew, I knew what I needed to know, anyway. She’d been lying to me, probably the whole time I’d known her. I had run out of money, and had run out of luck with Maria. So I got a ticket back to the USA. It hurt, losing Maria, but though I loved her, I guess I always knew she didn’t love me. But I have to admit, I have many wonderful memories of my time with Maria. She had bad character flaws, it’s true. But she was loads of fun to be with, when she wasn’t hung-over. And she always made me feel good about myself. She never ridiculed me, was never cruel. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for some of the other ones I’ve been together with.
I must add some more accounts of stories from my European odyssey. But for now, I suppose I’ll summarize the thing by saying that I went there both to see the different things and places, and to find a woman. I had also sought to disassociate myself from the United States, since I had seen that it had become a violent, aggressive nation, a problem for the world. That is, if America has ever really been anything other than an association of aggressive invaders. (I speak of the European settlers, and our invasions under George W., not the native inhabitants).
But the native inhabitants were not angels, and neither are the European nations of today. And neither am I, personally. So now I know there is a place for a man like me here in the States. We need dissenting voices, as a force for moderation.
And as far as my present state, as a loner, a resolutely single man, I am happier than I’ve ever been. All of these experiences, all of these years seem to have taught me that it’s perfectly all right to be alone. It’s not a hindrance to happiness at all. Relate this to conservative-liberal thing.