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Archive for July, 2008

Trippin’ Through the ’70s – Chapter Six

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on July 29, 2008

November 15, 1969: 500,000 people, protesting The War, march by a barricaded White House in which the President watches football.

December 1, 1969: The first draft lottery since 1942 affects the lives of 850,000 men aged 19 through 26.

April 30, 1970: President Nixon announces U.S. invasion of Cambodia, a fait accompli, considering that incursions into Cambodia were by then routine.

May 4, 1970: National Guardsman, “only following orders,” kill four and wound eleven student demonstrators at Kent State University.

May 15, 1970: Two Jackson State students are killed by police who riddle a dormitory with automatic weapons fire, following protests over discrimination and the Kent State killings.

March, 1971: Lt. William Calley is found guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 unarmed civilians at My Lai, Vietnam, but is paroled shortly thereafter.

Death stalked Sean’s thoughts. Not only were U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese dying, but U.S. students were being shot and killed. It began to look as though protest was not only ineffective, but deadly. So far Sean had been lucky, the draft had passed him by, and he wasn’t in jail. He’d marched in demonstrations, and spoken out against The War. Nothing had changed, but the excitement of protest had been exhilarating.

Imagine agreeing with half a million other people all assembled in one place! At the ‘69 demo Sean had been to, he’d been swimming in a sea of people. The crowd had swelled from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. There had been entertainment between the speeches, and that time the Broadway cast of Hair performed, and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and even the Beach Boys sang and denounced The War. Kathleen was there for that one. She and Sean were too far from the stage to see much, so Sean offered to put Kath on his shoulders, as many others were doing. She accepted, much to Sean’s shock and delight. The feel of her legs in his hands was incredible. Her mound pressed against the back of his neck. It was hard to concentrate on the speeches, but the music was fantastic. Most of those people had marched thought the D.C. streets: working stiffs, college students, high school students, feminists, civil rights workers, unionists, and children in baby strollers, chanting and shouting around the Nixon White House. It had been surrounded, barricaded with bumper-to-bumper D.C. transit buses. Nixon had been freaked out! That was the biggest anti-war march of them all. Not even Johnson had drawn so many people to D.C. President Johnson had been running the War when Sean had first gotten involved in protest. His administration had increased spending on social programs and the War. There had been good legislation passed during his term of office, so there had not been the tremendous backlash of hatred that Nixon was now enjoying. Nixon wanted to broaden the War, increase military spending, and cut domestic spending.
So there was the feeling that the protests were ineffective. Neither Johnson nor Congress had ended the War. The Nixon government seemed to think that people who opposed the War were naive, misguided, and of no consequence compared to the silent majority, who wholeheartedly supported their government. There were some people, seeing only the ineffectiveness of marches and lobbying efforts, who said, “Bring the War home.”
The Weathermen, formally part of the Students for a Democratic Society, hoped to start another American revolution. They called attention to local infestations of the war machine by bombing them. It didn’t seem like such a bad idea to Sean. ROTC, Dow Chemical, and weapons research labs sure seemed to deserve it, and burning down a branch of the Bank of America made sense – the bankers were financing and profiting from The War. But Sean didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Wasn’t he opposed to war? to violence? to the settling of economic and political differences by short-lived military solutions?
Sean really liked the SDS chants though, things like: “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.” There were others too, people who supported a North Vietnamese victory. They had chants: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, N.L.F. is gonna win.” The N.L.F., as Sean understood it, was an organization of people in South Vietnam who opposed their own corrupt government and were collaborating with the North. More and more, it appeared, the Vietnamese were fighting a civil war not unlike the US’s own, and the US was not welcome in Vietnam.
Anyone who opposed the U.S. government was alright by me, Sean thought, but he wasn’t about to join any of the crazies, not yet. Sean saw what the cops did to them, and how little difference it made. The real power, he thought, lay in the ability to organize people of diverse backgrounds, having different ideas, into one solid block of opposition to The War. Sean sure as hell didn’t know how to do it.
Many people had answers. Some of the socialists wanted to see more mass demonstrations: “Power to the people!” The Communist Party, America’s bogeymen, called for more participation in electoral politics, especially within the Democratic Party. The Communists’ influence was already weak. By asking us to keep on believing that we could reform the Democratic Party, they alienated themselves totally from the anti-war movement. Other groups wanted to form “The” workingman’s party, but couldn’t agree on who would head it. Every little group knew that they were the only ones who could “lead” us to victory using “the lessons of history.” Some of these weirdos had split off from one group, formed their own “correct” group, and spent most of their time and energy just attacking each other. No strategy, no coalition, no party was allowed to accomplish anything for long. Every proposal was argued to death.
“This meeting is being run by men, I’m tired of male planning.” “The meeting is not addressing the issue of discrimination against gays.” “We can’t stop war and injustice until we change ourselves.” “This is wrong, Lenin said….” “Marx said….” “No he didn’t, what Marx really said was….” “Trotsky….” “Mao is the only true socialist.” “You say you’re for a labor party, but you’re all middle class kids.” “Only the ‘oppressed’ can lead us.” “Only a Party of trade unions can win.” “Only women can get us out of this mess.” “You’re all racists.” “I object to using Roberts’ Rules of Order.” “I object to making decisions by consensus.”
People objected to the clothes people wore, to the food people ate, to the way they lived, and the way they worked. “You support the system of injustice and war by consuming.” “You can’t change the system, you work for it, you benefit from it.” Sean knew he had to do something, but what? Beats the hell out of me, he thought.
He went to a different kind of demo next time he was to D.C. Several groups had called for a C.D., a civil disobedience, in celebration of May Day – an international distress call, a pagan celebration of spring, and also a working peoples’ holiday in other parts of the world. May Day had begun in the US, but few knew it. Using Gandhi’s technique, the streets of Washington would be blocked, and bring business-as-usual to a halt.
Sean couldn’t find anyone else willing to go to D.C. this time. There was more of a risk involved. Few people seemed willing to risk arrest as Gandhi and Martin Luther King had. Sean asked around the Free Medical Clinic that he volunteered at, but no one was going among the people Sean knew. The people in his night school classes said that they couldn’t take time off work and miss school too. Some political “activists” claimed that the whole thing was just a schoolboy adventure. Even Sean’s own brother John said that Sean just wanted to get arrested. Eventually Sean took a Greyhound to D.C., and the Greyhound people there told him what bus Sean needed to get to the park by the Washington Monument. There were thousands of people there already, and a sound stage was being set up.
Once again, the performers were there. Music blared out a rebel beat all the first day and night. Words of protest bounced off Washington’s monument and rippled the Reflecting Pool at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln sat listening, as usual. There were planning meetings and strategy sessions with all the usual bickering, but in spite of those who wanted to take over the planning, and those who wanted more violent actions, they managed to agree to block streets in an organized fashion. Sean would go with a Washington-Baltimore group to a specific street at 7:00 a.m. Monday. We will shut D.C. down, and force the business-as-usual war machine to listen to us, Sean thought. On Saturday night he listened to the familiar sounds of rock’n’roll, and slept peacefully, knowing that he was with good people, and that he might be able to affect the course of The War. The police had other ideas.

May 2, 1971: 242 people arrested at antiwar camp.

Dawn catches most people asleep, but not the police. Squad cars drove across the grass forcing sleepy people out of the way. Paddy wagons gobbled up everyone who didn’t run fast enough. Night-sticks were swinging. Sean got the hell out of there.
Some were able to regroup, later on that day, in safe-houses, churches, and empty offices. Many people were afraid to use the phones (wiretapping was so common) so runners carried messages around. Everyone was determined. The vote, no, the consensus, was to proceed as planned. No one knew exactly how many people were left. Whereas previously there had been groupings by affiliation, as from a certain church, city, state, or other organization, now there were simply groups, groups large enough to block a street each. Sean hooked up with some people who worked out of a church office that what used as a command post. He saw the runners coming and going. He felt like he was in a war zone. He couldn’t find out much. Some runners reported that people were going home, some said that people had been arrested, and he heard speculation that everyone was being hunted down; that the police were searching everywhere, and that we were all going to be arrested just to keep traffic flowing. It was depressing, exciting, and unreal at the same time.

Next day, a cold grey D.C. morning, Sean and so many others advanced – by foot, thumb, bus, or van – to designated streets. The police were waiting. Sean stood, with others, on a corner looking at the police across the street. He crossed the opposite way with a large group, and the police followed from corner to corner, with their riot helmets, tear gas, and clubs. But everyone obeyed the traffic signals! It was clear, however, that the cops weren’t going to let the streets be blocked. Some people elected to stay behind to keep the cops busy. The rest ran up the block and jumped into the street. No one knew if the vehicles would stop. People, especially union pickets during strikes, had been run over before. The cars did stop, but then police began rerouting traffic. They found ourselves blocking empty streets.
Now, from up the street, Sean saw dozens of little white motor-scooters, with the men in blue. He waited with the others for the clubs to start swinging, but the cops would just ride straight on to spook them. They held on, for a while. Then the cops got the idea to come right at them, and, if they didn’t move, to brake and slide sideways right into people. That broke the line. People traveled up the street in groups, and the cops followed. Sean watched one cop, whose activity defined him as a “pig”, tap a guy on the shoulder from behind, and squirt Mace into his eyes when he turned his head around. Someone stayed to help the poor guy but got a club across his chest. Both were arrested, probably for assaulting a police “officer”. Sean kept going. The police stopped every once in a while to make arrests, but Sean managed to stay ahead. There were no contingency plans, so they were forced away from the main streets. Then more cops showed up, and they began chasing people down with their scooters. Sean took off running, pulling trashcans off the sidewalk into the street as he went, hoping to slow ’em down, and keep the streets closed a bit longer.
Elsewhere, streets remained blockaded when not enough police were available, but within an hour, the Mace, clubbings, and arrests cleared the streets. Sean wandered the sidewalks with one large group until he saw a transit bus pull up fast. Helmeted police jumped out and started clubbing people with the biggest night-sticks Sean had ever seen, four-foot riot batons. Sean saw people go down, but there was nothing he could do. Sean spotted Phyllis, from the Free Clinic at home, running the wrong way. Sean grabbed her hand and ran down an alley. The police were waiting on the other side, but at least the riot batons were behind. As they came out of the alley there were fifteen to twenty people leaning against the wall being searched. There was a cop directly in front who calmly asked them to stop and motioned them off to the side. Sean and Phyllis just stood and watched.
“Phyllis, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Neither did I. But Carole was coming, and I came with her and some other people from the Women’s Center.
“What happened?”
“I don’t know. We were walking down the street, and the police started grabbing people all of a sudden.”
“Weren’t you blocking traffic?”
“Hell no. We tried it earlier, but they chased us off. We hadn’t even gotten to our designated street yet.”
“Where is everyone else?”
“I don’t know. Somebody said, ‘Run,’ so we ran. People went in every direction. I lost track of Carole.”
“What do you think is going to happen to us now?”
“I wish I knew, I just want to get out of here.”
“Well, nobody seems to be paying any attention to us, let’s go!”
“OK.” They started to move away.
“Where are you two going?” the calm patrolman asked.
“Well, we haven’t been arrested, we’re leaving,” Sean said.
“Get back here.” Still more people were brought over and searched. They were arguing with the cops about The War. “Won’t you join us?” “Please join us, together we could stop The War.” The cops asked: “Would you support us when we ask for higher wages?” “Of course,” was the immediate reply. The cops laughed, and everyone relaxed a bit. Another bus finally pulled up, and the cops made us get on it. It was an ordinary bus. Everyone found out how to open the windows because the little sign said: “Push Here in an Emergency.” Sean saw people jump out of a bus in front of them, and Sean wanted to do the same, but Phyllis wasn’t going for it. Sean didn’t want to abandon her, so they rode along, flapping the windows like wings and calling out to the people we passed: “No more war! U.S. out! Stop the killing!”
The destination was a football field. What was this? Sean wondered. As it turned out, the jails were full. There were about two thousand people herded into that field, surrounded by a fence, a ring of National Guard, and a ring of cops. We’re that dangerous? Sean wondered.
A large group of people did try to bust out. Sean remembered the chain-link fence bent and sagging to the ground with their weight. The police moved in, past the Guardsmen, and beat them back with tear gas and clubs. No one tried that again. Everyone on the field got the gas. Most couldn’t see for awhile; the fumes were so intensely acrid that Sean shut his eyes, trying to squeeze the obnoxious irritant out. The police didn’t trust the Guard, so they increased their strength. One Guardsman said to Sean: “I don’t know if they’re guarding you or us.” He told him that many of the guys like him had joined the guard in order not to be sent to Vietnam. “We’re with you, hang in there,” he said.
Phyllis had found her friend Carole, so Sean wandered around trying to figure out what was going to happen. A meeting (of course) was called. They found tarps, ordinarily used to over the field, and constructed a tent, using a goalpost as the support. They met in the tent, but, naturally, couldn’t agree on a plan of action. No one knew what was “going down” anymore. More of the tarpaulin was ripped up and used to build privies for the women, and trenches were dug to carry waste to the rear of the field. The Guardsmen lent them shovels, and a water tap was available. They begged the guard for cups and canteens to get water, after it got muddy and slippery around the tap from hundreds of people trying to run water into their mouths. When night came many people were huddling together for warmth and comfort. Sean was desperate for a little physical and human warmth, so he sought Phyllis out. Sean liked her and he hoped to use the occasion to snuggle up with her, at least. When Sean found her she was with some smoothie, a stranger, who had his arms around her and was taking her to a small tent he’d made – so that she could warm up. “Oh, God! I want to be warm,” she said, and snuggled up against him. How the hell had that happened in the short time I was in the meeting? “Me too,” Sean said. The guy, Bruce, said, “I’m afraid there’s barely room for two, but you’re welcome to use my space blanket.” Phyllis had her hand in Bruce’s. “Thanks,” Sean mumbled. I suppose I should be grateful, he thought, but he wasn’t. It had turned into a lousy day. The main tent was full by then, but Sean found a space behind it where there was some shelter from the wind, and he managed to grab a few zees – it was a good blanket.
Around midnight the lights Zapped! on. Amazing how noisy those floodlights are in the still of the night. The buses were back. They were being moved out. It was pitch dark past the floodlights, and no one could see anything with those things blasting sleepy retinas. They were herded onto the buses, packed in like cattle. There were no families or press around. Sean was scared. No one knew what the government would do. Sean and most other people conjured up nightmares of concentration camps, or worse. After all, hadn’t the U.S. government rounded up and imprisoned Japanese-Americans during the last war? And, hadn’t Nixon and Agnew called peace activists traitors to America? The buses drove away. Sean tried to get back to sleep, but that’s not real easy to do standing up. Sean couldn’t see where they were going, and he wasn’t much relieved by the sight of a huge fortress-looking structure. It turned out to be Washington Coliseum, and they were taken inside. Everyone was exhausted, and tried to sleep on the concrete floor. The Guard finally brought in wool blankets. The police did nothing.

May 3, 1971: Using tear gas and night-sticks, police arrest 7,000 antiwar protesters in Washington, D.C., including 1,200 who are arrested while legally assembled on the Capitol steps.

As daylight penetrated to the deep floor from up above the bleachers, they were awakened by shouts. More people were being brought in! Some had been released from jail. Most were people who had heard of the bust from them, and joined them in the streets that morning. They got a standing ovation, with cheering and singing. Sean was totally freaking amazed. No one had any idea how many people had been arrested. The news media spoke of only a few hundred busts. Clearly there were thousands. Every D.C. jail was full. People sang songs and told jokes and wondered what to do. The police came in with bullhorns. They said that anyone could leave, if they admitted to resisting arrest – a felony! The entire assembly split up into three groups, discussed the “offer”, and passed word back and forth (easy to do in those crowded conditions). The consensus: “refuse to cooperate.”
Later, after Sean ate two of the several thousand bologna sandwiches that suddenly showed up, the “offer” changed. Now, they were promised no felony charges would be brought, but the arrests would be misdemeanor charges only! Another meeting followed, and the huge group rejected that plan too. A few people left, but Sean figured that was their right. He looked everywhere for Phyllis. He liked her a lot; they were both volunteers at the People’s Free Medical Clinic in Baltimore. She had an infectious smile, and wore thick coke-bottle lenses. They worked as patient advocates, people who stayed with a patient through their visit, to explain things, ask questions, take medical histories, and follow up before the patient left. He and Phyllis made sure that patients asked questions of the doctors, got explanations of treatment, and were given treatment options. As advocates they received frequent group trainings, and had even gone on retreat together to Assateague Island, camping among the wild ponies. Sean found her very attractive.
The A.C.L.U. lawyers finally found out where everyone was and began negotiating with the cops. The Guardsmen tossed Frisbee’s back and forth with the protesters, carried messages for them, and even brought them chocolate bars (talk about feeling like a POW) until their Commander caught them at it. He forced them all to stand at attention. Sean heard it start and he joined in: “…sit down. Let them sit down.” All three thousand or more chanted: “Let them sit down. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down.” In fear of a riot, for that is how the media reported it, the Guardsmen were allowed to sit back down in the bleachers. Victory! Sean thought, and felt better.
Of course, no one else was allowed to sit in the bleachers. People wandered aimlessly around, ate more prison-fare bologna sandwiches, and tried to get messages in and out. Sean finally got access to the phones, so he called his boss to tell him that he couldn’t make it to work. Sean’s boss asked him where he was. Sean told him, but he didn’t seem to believe him. “I heard about a ruckus in Washington where some people got arrested. You weren’t involved in that were you?” Sean told him that the police had been arresting everyone on the streets, and that he wasn’t sure when he’d get back to work. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “No,” Sean told him, “I don’t think there’s anything you can do now, but the ACLU is trying to help get us out of here.”
People sang, some people performed roving plays, and some chanted. Someone got the idea to do a round with om. Sean joined in a continuous ommmmmmm that was maintained for over an hour by having large groups start at different times. Feels great! Sean thought, and such cooperation! The effect was mesmerizing – there were at least 3000 people jammed into that place. Another night passed in this way.

Sean still hadn’t found Phyllis, so he curled up in a wool blanket and tried to sleep. Some crazy guy ran around half naked, danging his penis and balls in women’s faces where they slept. A roar of disapproval echoed around the collesium, and he was gone. Next morning they were offered a new deal. Who’s in charge here? Sean was not the only one wondering. If they allowed themselves to be “processed” – fingerprinted and photographed – they would not be charged. Sean was ready for that. It wasn’t a bad deal, despite the contradiction of being booked without having been arrested, but no one would be charged with a crime.
Some were against it, pointing out the contradictions, and wanting to maintain the “revolution”. A group calling themselves “Weatherwomen”, presumably a split-off from the “Weathermen”, who were a splinter group from the nonviolent Students for a Democratic Society, argued against it vehemently. They passed word around that some of them were wanted by the F.B.I., and that we had to help prevent their arrest. They actually screamed at the crowd to stay, but they’d had enough. No one knew these people anyway. They could have been police agents. There was no more to be gained by staying. At least people knew what had happened. A vote was taken and it was agreed to leave. Sean managed to find Phyllis again; her friend seemed to have disappeared, and they stayed together for the rest of “processing”.
It turned out to be a real gas. People borrowed each others clothes and hats, and painted mustaches on each other. Sean borrowed Phyllis’s thick glasses and they both stumbled through the lines. People with P.O.W. tattooed on their foreheads with magic markers signed their names as Mickey de Mouse, Donald Q. Duck, Tricky Dick Nixon, Ho Chi Minh, Mao ZeDong, John Hancock, or even John Mitchell, the U.S. Attorney General who had illegally ordered the mass arrests. The F.B.I. got everyone’s fingerprints, but a judge later ordered the records of the illegal arrests destroyed. No one was left in jail, and no one had been seriously hurt.
Sean’s boss had been understanding, after he’d heard the whole story, so Sean still had his job. Public opinion had changed. Day-to-day organizing, in churches, in synagogues, in PTA’s and labor unions, was finally beginning to pay off. The end of The War would come soon, or the Government was in serious trouble. Sean saw only two options for his future: jail or Canada.

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Posted in 1970s, Life, madness, My Life, politics, Writing | 3 Comments »

Trippin’ Through The ’70s Chapter Four

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on July 29, 2008

“Leaving home is a kick, you know? kind of like summer vacation? Only it’s no more screams, no more fights, no more parents’ dirty looks,” Sean had told Lenny a few weeks before he would graduate from his high school. Lenny had a new job teaching, downtown, and a new apartment nearby. Sean’s part-time job was only eight blocks from the apartment. He could leave home now, and he was gradually shifting his books and clothes into Lenny’s new place.
“So when are you moving in?”
“Just as soon as I graduate.”
“Have you told your parents yet?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Well, I don’t want any trouble with them. You are kind of young, Sean. And you told me how they run your life.”
“Don’t worry about it. I looked into it. There’s not a damn thing they can do if I have a job, and I start full-time a week before graduation. I’m really looking forward to this.”
“Won’t you miss home?”
“Are you kidding? What’s to miss? An old house with bad plumbing? Holes in the walls? Freezing in the morning because the heating oil ran out again?”
“What about your parents? Won’t you miss them?”
“No fucking way, Lenny. I think they’re crazy. You should have heard some of the fights they had: cursing each other, throwing things, breaking things.”
“Kind of infantile, huh?”
“You said it. I couldn’t see much difference between them and the younger kids.”
“Don’t you love them?”
“No, I don’t care anymore. I’ll miss my brothers and sisters, but I don’t want to ever have to go back there once I’m out.”
“Well, you’ve gotta go back there now. Do you want some help?”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine this way, moving things a little at a time. I don’t want to get into a fight right now.”
“Why’s that?”
“Hell, Lenny, I’ve got finals coming up.”
“For high school?”
“Hey, it’s a good school.”
“From what I’ve seen, public education sucks.”
“Maybe so, but I’ve got a job already, at Johns Hopkins, in a Physics lab.”
“Well, don’t forget the rent. I hope you can give me some money soon. I have to have it by the fifteenth of every month.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t be such a worry-wart. I’ll have the money. Look, I’ll see you later, O.K.?”
“Sean. Wait. I was planning on going down to David’s tonight. Don’t you want to come with me?”
“Can’t. I told you I’ve got finals. I’ve gotta study.”
“I’ll help you.”
“With Chemistry? Analytic Geometry? You teach English!”
“Oh, you’re right,” Lenny laughed. “Well, when are you coming back?”
“I’ll bring some more books down tomorrow or the next day.”
“How come you have so many books? I thought your folks didn’t have money?”
“I stole most of ’em, one or two at a time, and I flipped burgers for the rest. See ya later.”
“Yeah. See you,” Lenny said, but he was thinking about keeping his dresser locked.
Steve didn’t have much money. His new roommate worried him. The guy’s only eighteen. Can I trust him? We’ll have rent and bills to pay. What if he won’t pay his share? I want him here, but I sure can’t afford to keep him.
Lenny was not the most stable of people himself. Sean didn’t know it, but Lenny had almost not finished college. His relationship with Henry had almost destroyed him. Henry had quit school and disappeared. Lenny hadn’t taken enough pills to die, but the psychiatrists had helped. Now he was getting by with weekly outpatient visits and a little help from his Thorazine pills.
Oh, well, at least Sean’s good looking. Maybe he’ll come around. Things are looking up, Lenny thought, as a smile brightened his face. I hope he doesn’t get drafted.
Lenny didn’t have to worry about the draft. He was eighty pounds overweight and the letter from his psychiatrist had assured his 4-F (last to be called) status.
Sean passed his exams. His parents looked forward to the graduation ceremony, but Sean didn’t want to go. He wanted to just grab his diploma and join the real world. The more interested they were, the less interested he was. It’s just another dumb ritual, he thought. He had read about the protests and boycotts of college graduations over the war and other things.
“What do mean you’re not going?” his mother asked.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Since when do you decide? This is your graduation. It’s important to you, to us. You have to go.”
“I have to go? No I don’t. Not anymore.”
“Not anymore? As long as you live here you do what we say.”
“I don’t live here anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m moving out.”
“What?”
“I’m leaving.”
“You’re not going anywhere. Your father will talk to you.”
Mr. Emmet took Sean to the cellar to “talk.” There had been a lot of spankings, whippings, and lectures down there, so Sean wondered what kind of talk this would be. His father preceded him down the narrow stairs. A small piece of old linoleum flaked off a stair onto the concrete floor below. Sean was acutely aware of the damp smell of the cellar, ducking his head to avoid the ceiling joists at the bottom of the stairs. His father turned around to face him. Sean almost didn’t recognize the look on his face, but then he remembered. That look, I saw it before. Yeah, it was the way he grinned when he gave me and Paul that cryptic birds-and-the-bees talk.
“What is all this about your leaving? Where are you going? What are you going to do?”
“I have an apartment, and my job is full-time now. I’m moving Saturday.”
“Saturday? You can’t go just like that.”
“You’re the one told me to go.”
“What? Me? When?”
“You said, ‘If you don’t like it, get out,’ so I’m going,” Sean said, defiantly, but ready to duck.
“What?” Mr. Emmet asked, more puzzled than angry. Then he snapped. “That? That doesn’t matter. Uh, you know your mother doesn’t want you to leave. This will be real hard on her.”
It didn’t matter to Sean. His mind was set, but he agreed to go to the graduation. What does it matter, he thought, I’ve won. In two days I’m out of here.
On Saturday Sean was up and dressed faster than he had gotten up in twelve years of the same routine. He threw a tie around his neck, adjusted the two ends and let his hands take over tying the knot. I can do what I want, go where I want, stay out all night, Sean thought, as he pulled the longer end over the other, and up and over, and around the left loop, and behind the right side. And I don’t ever have to talk to them again. He pulled hard on the almost completed knot, wrapped it all the way around the front and up the back and then down through the front of the knot. He pulled it tight. “Aw, shit,” he yelled – the wide front end was too short.
“You’re gonna be late for your own graduation,” his mother yelled up the attic stairs.
He pulled the tie apart, and slowly, fixedly, re-tied the knot. He tucked his shirt in, grabbed his rented black jacket, and ran down the stairs – sideways, in order to give his feet maximum purchase on the crumbling narrow boards – fingered the attic door lintel and swung through the gap. From there, he jumped the rest of the stairs from the second floor three and four at a time, grabbed the railing post and swung onto the hallway floor.
As soon as he and his parents got back from the ceremony downtown, they were going to give him a ride to his new apartment with the rest of his things. He was ready.
No one talked on the way down, except for Mr. Emmet’s ritualistic cursing of all other drivers: “Where’d you get your license, in a box of crackerjacks? Horn works, try your lights. Idiot! Learn how to drive,” etc. Sean was used to it, only this time he was as anxious as his father to get somewhere – he wanted to get this over with and finish moving.
He found his seat on stage and looked around. There were four hundred and ninety-one other guys on stage, and four hundred and ninety of them in black suits. One guy came in a white suit, all the way from the white tie down to his white shoes. Now that was an idea, Sean thought, better than not coming at all.

Baltimore’s Mayor Tommy D’Alessandro gave out the diplomas. Principal Burkert had the people stand up who were going to college; over half the class stood. Then he had the people stand who already had a job. Most of the rest stood, except for Sean, who didn’t give a rat’s ass anymore.

Mr. and Mrs. Emmet brought their son back to their house. He left his diploma on the table in the hall while he ran up the stairs to gather his few remaining clothes and books. The small roll of paper looked out of place with all the family rollar skating trophies and medals. Only Sean had rejected the competitions. Trophies and medals weren’t sufficient incentive for Sean. The endless hours of practice and travel hadn’t interested Sean in the least, and his school work had required endless hours of study, just to graduate. Somehow Paul did both, but Sean had struggled through his courses, even repeating his junior year.
“This is all your fault,” Mrs. Emmet accused.
“How do figure that? You’re the one that spoiled him for so many years. I’m surprised he had the balls to do this.”
Before they could continue, Sean came down the stairs with some clothes, a few books, and an old suitcase that once belonged to his maternal grandmother. She’d died when Sean was two. He didn’t remember her, but the suitcase was still good, and the stuffed animal she had bought for him before she died was in the case. His father took it out to the car, and they drove silently to the apartment on Twenty-fifth and Calvert streets. The buiding was old but well-maintained. Not far away the city was already tearing whole blocks of dilapidated slums down.
They carried his things up the two flights of stairs – against his protests – and looked the place over. He was anxious for them to leave.
“I guess this is it,” Mr. Emmet said.
“Call us sometime,” Mrs. Emmet urged.
Sean just nodded his head. His mother moved to hug him, but he backed away. “We’d better get going,” she told Mr. Emmet, and they left. Sean was elated. That was easy, he thought, This is all easier than I thought it would be.
“Welcome Sean, I see your parents brought you.”
“Yeah, yeah, they insisted.”
Lenny carried the suitcase to Sean’s bed in the small bedroom. “You know,” he said, “You don’t have to sleep here.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“I mean I have a nice king size bed out there. We could both fit easily, and then we could use this room for storage.”
“Uh, no thanks, Lenny. I like it just fine in here.” Aw, hell, what have I got myself into now?

Posted in 1970s, family, Life, My Life, relationships, Writing | 1 Comment »

Trippin’ Through The ’70s Chapter One

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on July 17, 2008

“Wash your own clothes,” Mrs. Emmet had barked out one day. “And you know how to use the iron,” she had told John and Sean, “You know I don’t have time anymore, not with five other kids to take care of. Six, counting your father.” Sean understood the logic in that. After scorching a few shirts and putting extra creases in his pants for a couple weeks, and mopping up the suds, which had the annoying habit of leaking out the top of the washer, he had learned how to do those things. By the time he was in high school, he was pretty good at it.
As he ironed his pants one morning, Sean realized that he sort of enjoyed the work, enjoyed the time spent in the meditative removal of wrinkles from his clothes.  He had come to enjoy any repetitive task for the peace he found in concentrating on something other than his parent’s demands, his grades, or his endless obsession with things he could’ve done, or should’ve said, or should not have said.
He could love his parents more. He should never again sin against God. He should study more. He shouldn’t have written love notes to the girls in his fifth grade class. Not only was that embarrassing to have them read to the whole class, but his father brought out the leather strap for that.  He shouldn’t have talked in line – he had been dropped from serving mass as an Altar boy for that.

He knew now that the boys in grade school had teased him no more than they teased each other – if only he’d not felt so insulted, he might have had some friends. He worried about everything, this morose boy with downcast eyes. He was afraid of people, even to the extent of crossing the street to avoid having to speak to someone, or even look at them. He knew he’d say something for people to laugh at. Always straightening his shirt, adjusting his pants, or combing his hair, even in his dreams. He used to have nightmares of being chased, or falling into bottomless holes when he was younger, but as he got older his nightmares were about his shirt not being tucked in, showing up in class barefoot, or being altogether nude in public.
Damn, this knee’s torn, he noticed, and yelled up the cellar steps: “Mom, have you got anymore of those patches?.” 
“What patches?” she yelled back from the kitchen at the top of the stairs.
“You know, the one’s you iron on?”
“I think so, look in the box on my sewing machine.”
He ran up the stairs, found the packet of patches, and jumped groups of stairs back to the ironing board. He was going to be late for school if he didn’t get going. None of the gluey strips of cloth matched his pants, but he found one that was the right color. Damned things, he thought, When I wanted a corduroy patch I couldn’t find one. Now I’ll have to use one on these pants. It’ll have to do. At least it’s the right color. He carefully placed the patch over the center of the tear, and meticulously pressed the iron around the edge. He pulled the pants on, shut the iron off, grabbed his lunch, ran out the door, across the street, and down the hill to the bus stop. A bus was just pulling away.
Damn it. And John’s gone. He must have been on that bus.

Sean’s brother John had started high school the year after Sean, and since then the years of being inseparable had yielded to the pressures of socialization. John had found new friends, been invited to parties, and even gone on dates. They didn’t talk much anymore, as John was seldom home. The entire family, including John, but except for Sean, roller skated every weekend and one to two nights a week as well. They were either at roller-skating lessons, practices, or contests in three states (his parents had been Tri-State champions). skates.jpg It was not something Sean wanted to do, so he was often left at home to study. Studying, however, had it’s upside. Sean got to stay in the peace and quiet, to study. Nerds back then didn’t have video games, or Internet, or role-playing games, but they had books, coin collecting, and science kits. Sean loved to mix chemicals up to see what would happen. For awhile, he kept a jar of piss and spit and fingernail clippings and hair. The results were disappointing. chem.jpg With real pure chemicals though, he didn’t do much better, often just creating smelly and/or smoking goo. It kept him entertained though.

John combed his hair down, a la Beatles, and even found a part-time job after school and summers on a PC-board assembly line. He never said how he got the job, or where to go, but many years later told Sean that all he would have had to do was to have gone to a place downtown and applied, but he had never mentioned it. Both kids had worked together with a snowball stand for a few years. food_trad8.jpg It made money, but only enough to buy a few pair of socks, or candy, or books, or things like that. They had tried, unsuccessfully, to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. They had both worked at the same hamburger place. ginos-menu.jpg Sean liked that job, not for the pitiful amount of money it brought him but for the free food. He was spending increasing amounts of time in the attic by himself (hence the human waste experiment). He read a lot, of course, and studied. He also discovered masturbation. He told John about it, but John had spent his freshman year going to a pre-seminary high school out of state and had learned about it from those guys. Once, they tried doing it at the same time. (If seminary students did it, why not?) It was exciting to discover this fun fact about their penises. “How high can you shoot?” John asked.  “Pretty high,” Sean told him. Everything was a competition. penis.jpg After that though, they kept it to ourselves, but it was hard to completely hide it when the covers of your bed were inexplicably tented in the middle of the night. They had discovered masturbation before they even knew what sperm was for or what sex was.  John had a vague idea about putting one’s penis in a girl, but neither of them knew how or why. It wasn’t so easy to know about in the 50s and early 60s, and their dad took his time getting around to ‘the talk’, which was actually so vague and confusing they had to complete the lesson through books and magazines.

Sean had gradually retreated into himself, spending more time than usual at the library, or browsing comics at the drugstore. Or he would hole up in the attic with classic novels like War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, or To Kill a Mockingbird. His favorite reading was Science Fiction, especially the mix of easy to understand science and science fiction by Issac Asimov. Sometimes, however, he cut pictures of half-naked women out of his father’s True Adventure magazines, which he then hid among the rafters under his bed.

Aside from that, he spent a lot of time in clubs after school: Science, Coin Collecting, Camera, computer, and even in burlesque shows (which the school called plays). Those were odd, since the school had no girls, so they wore wigs and sock-stuffed bras and took on those roles. (This was a very different time.) Even the captain of the football team and many of the teachers got into the act, donning wigs and dresses. smallprocessionkick.jpg These were Christmas plays, and The Poly Follies. They were not serious drama, but just for fun; with even a faux can-can. Sean couldn’t cut it as a dancer, but ended up as a female nurse with a line or two that year. One time he was a folk singer – not too bad at that. Other times he was one of many singing sailors or soldiers crowded onto the stage. Drama showed up later on with the introduction of the Drama Club. mrroberts.jpg The first production, Mr. Roberts, had only one woman, but they borrowed her from the girls’ high school, which was now next door.  A new school had been built during his junior years.  Sean got a part in one of the girl’s school plays: Sorry, Wrong Number, in which a man plots to have his wife killed (yes, those were indeed very different times). He was the hired killer, and all of his lines were delivered into a fake phone. There was only one girl and her drama club director, so he didn’t get to meet any other girls in the school. sorry-wrong-number.jpg

So far, his adventures with the opposite sex had been, simply put, painful.

He had dated his fourth cousin Theresa; fallen in love with her. His mother had urged him to get to know her, even though it bothered him to have his mother and her mother involved. He hadn’t wanted to initially, but he agreed to take her to a CCD dance logo.gif (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – for Catholic students not attending a Catholic high school). She was breathtakingly beautiful. beehive.jpg Dancing with her close, besides the thumping of his heart and the burning heat everywhere her body made contact with his, he also noticed how stiff her hair was. The style at that time still included beehive hairdos, glitter sprinkled onto it before the hairspray hardened. Of course, when you are 15 and you have a beautiful woman in your arms, such things as glitter sticking to your face hardly matter. He was dumbfounded, of course, to have danced with such a beauty. They had dated a little after that, once going to a swim social at the Knights of Columbus pool. There was music there, but the girls danced among themselves. Sean was torn between wanting to dance with Theresa and his fear of being laughed at. 60sgirls.jpeg The boys stayed in their corner, the girls in theirs. Thus continued Sean’s pattern  of regretting all of his actions, obsessing over everything he should have said or done.

Still, he had seen Theresa more and more. He would stop by her house on the way home. She was also the oldest in her family, and often in charge of the younger kids. Usually her parents weren’t home. One time, after he’d been doing that for awhile, she led him by the hand upstairs into the bathroom so they could kiss. Sean was nervous. “Maybe we should go into the bedroom,” he suggested. Theresa shook her head and shut the bathroom door. She put her arms around him.  He wanted to kiss her real bad, but there were those other kids running around, and two nearly Theresa’s age, so he didn’t want to get caught. Her father was really strict. They had barely gotten started when someone knocked on the door. It was one of her sisters. She was needed downstairs. Theresa left. Sean jumped behind the shower curtain. He had thought the sister would leave, but since she came in and closed the door, he jumped out and and went, “Boo!” He left the house right away, more embarrassed than he had ever been.

Sometimes John would show up there. He knew where Sean was, of course. They had always been together before this, and it was not unusual to have one know what the other was doing. Sean did not, however, expect him to hit on Theresa, but that is what he did. He went so far as to try to get her to think Sean looked like Howdy Doody, the puppet from the children’s show years earlier. Sean did have the big ears and goofy grin. 14.jpg However, Theresa told him about it, and he resented John for that. Puberty tends to do that. New friends push out old friends, especially if the new friends are female.

Sean had been in the Boy Scouts for a time, although both he and John had switched to the older-age, more sophisticated Explorer wing. As Explorers, they would do things like visit a Nuclear Power plant or an aircraft carrier (the USS Enterprise), fly in a small plane, or run the Boy Scout encampments. At one such encampment, they had played poker long after the younger boys were put to bed.  No lights for the younger Scouts, and one of the other Explorers had produced a bottle of Thunderbird (a bottle of the cheap whiskey was embedded in a wooden post at the entrance to Camp Thunderbird).

Then there had been that party at one Explorer’s house. Sean brought Theresa with him.  When he had gone to her house to pick her up, her dad had warned him not to come home late, or he’d be waiting for him with a shotgun.  This was going to be the ideal chance for the two of them to do what they wanted, away from siblings and adults. They danced to Louie, Louie, and other rock ‘n’ roll. The song was reported to have hidden meanings, and even deliberately-slurred profanity. (The song was banned on many radio stations and in many places in the United States, including Indiana, where it was personally prohibited by the Governor. The FBI became involved in the controversy but concluded a 31-month investigation with a report that they were “unable to interpret any of the wording in the record.”) kingsmen.jpg

Inexplicably, Theresa disappeared. Sean waited for her to came back from the bathroom, but no one stays in a bathroom that long. He had been completely crushed. There were boys and girls going off together, and he’d seen Theresa with Louis, whose house this was. Louis was a weird one, claiming to have an incurable disease that would kill him in a few years. Sean never found out if it was true, but Louis used it to impress girls that he was dying and accelerate the ‘game’ from base to base. Sean could have killed him when he saw him return from another part of the house with Theresa, with her hair and makeup messed up. I couldn’t believe she’d go off with Mr. Sleezy after the way we’d danced and touched on the dance floor. It was very late by then, so Sean called his dad to pick them up to get Theresa home. She had avoided his eyes, but it was obvious she’d been drinking. Her dad was at the door, but he didn’t say anything. Sean had never called her or gone over after that. Maybe John did. He probably told him about it, or he heard from one of the other boys. He was the type to tell their mom, who would have called her cousin, Theresa’s mom. Theresa called Sean. “Sean, I’m really, really sorry. Louis gave me some wine and I don’t know what happened. Can you forgive me?” Sean said, “No.”  It sounded too forced of an apology to Sean, he just couldn’t buy it. Never saw her again. He heard, not long after, that she had run off to Texas with an older guy.

Then he discovered opposition to The War.

A rally had been held in Sean’s high school auditorium, and leaflets were scattered around the parking lot. Sean picked one up as he got off the bus. He’d had to wait fifteen minutes for another bus, and ten minutes waiting to transfer. He was late.
“The war in Vietnam is central to all the problems of America,” he read. He skimmed the paper quickly, intending to throw it away, but certain phrases caught his attention: “A war of questionable legality and questionable constitutionality.” “Questionable?” Sean wondered, “Who is this George Romney character? The only thing wrong with Vietnam is that we don’t drop the bomb and get it over with.”
His eyes kept reading, even as his brain disputed what his eyes saw: “The United States…cannot stand apart, attempting to control the world…by violent military intervention.” “What?” he said out loud, “We have a right to be there, we were invited.”
And there was more, and Sean couldn’t stop reading: “Our role is not to police the planet. A war that is not defensible even in military terms. A war which is morally wrong.”
Sean folded the leaflet into his pocket, he’d read it later. He ran into the main building of the school, and screeched into his assigned seat.
“Hey Test-tube! Make any babies lately?” Ellis called out. Bill Ellis was no friend of Sean’s, having one time taken a slice of dill pickle and dropped it in a rip in Sean’s pants. At the mention of Sean’s nickname several other boys snickered and jeered. Sean ignored them. He’d given up trying to explain artificial insemination or test-tube babies, and he wished he had never heard of the ideas at all.
It had all started with an English assignment. Sean had read The Biological Time Bomb and used the idea of artificial insemination as his topic for the oral presentation. He thought he’d done a real fine job. There were supposed to be questions at the end, but his classmates just stared. Finally Frankie Marconi asked: “Do you think women shouldn’t have babies?” and Sean fell into the hole in the ice that Frankie had broken.
Even as he tried to explain that he was just giving a report, the questions started coming: “Are you against sex?” “Did you ever have sex, Sean?”
“You don’t have to answer that, Sean,” the teacher interrupted.
“No,” Sean said, defiantly boasting of his moral superiority, but secretly wishing he could be more like Frankie.
“Don’t you like girls?” “Didn’t you ever eat a girl out?”
The teacher broke in with: “That’s enough, let’s get back to the reports,” but before he even finished speaking, Ellis had answered for him: “Yeah, I’ll bet if he did, he’d use a spoon.”
Sean avoided people now, but he noticed the snickers. Once in a while, someone would ask him a straight question, like “Do you believe all that?” but it was usually just an excuse for more laughter, so he ignored the jeers.
Lately Sean had begun to wonder more about other, newer things. He read a lot, and since the war in Vietnam was in the newspapers and on TV every day, he’d read everything he could find on both sides of the issue. The news media in Maryland was anything but biased against the war, but he found out that there was opposition. Demonstrations were news, and there were plenty of those just forty miles away in Washington, D.C. He’d read about peaceniks, but the pictures in the paper were of religious groups with priests and nuns in the middle of ban-the-bomb demonstrations.

Then there was the news one night that the Pentagon was surrounded by a huge group of people who wanted to “exorcise” the place. He watched people being arrested. That’s exciting, he thought, those people are standing up for what they believe, even though they know they’ll be arrested. Then one day, there was local news: two Jesuit priests had dragged files out of the draft board offices in Catonsville, not all that far away, and poured blood on ’em. After they were arrested, and released, they did it again, using homemade napalm to actually burn the files. Sean was impressed.

He read all he could find about the war in Vietnam, and decided that the Government should withdraw from the fighting and leave the Vietnamese to solve their own problems. Sean remembered the leaflet that he’d picked up. He remembered the name of the candidate: George Romney. Unfortunately, Romney had dropped out of the race to be the Republican candiadte for President. Now there was another candidate calling for peace in Vietnam: Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat. That was good enough for Sean. He went down to the Students for McCarthy office near the medical school, and even though the people there were all college students or older, he was treated respectfully. These were the”kids” – according to the media – “McCarthy’s kids”, and they had rushed to support Sen. Eugene McCarthy when he’d made opposition to the war in Vietnam the focus of his campaign for President. Sean felt secure with them. They were rich kids, and they were older, and more mature, but no one seemed to be taking them very seriously either. We’re all in this together, Sean thought.
At first he went door-to-door with leaflets and other campaign materials, but he wasn’t much of a talker, and he found politics about as rewarding as selling magazine subscriptions. Then there was the trip to Indiana.  He shared a seat with Lenny, a college student, someone who said he was a member of S.D.S., the Students for a Democratic Society. They rode together on the way back and always found time to talk together at the McCarthy office, or went door-to-door together.
As he carefully stretched a shirt-sleeve out one morning, meticulously smoothing out both sides, he thought about Indiana. The trip had been, well, educational. He had had interesting conversations with Democrats who seemed to believe as he did, but he knew how they were going to vote when he saw the smiling pictures of Pope John XXIII and Pres. Kennedy enshrined together on their mantelpieces or TV sets. Robert Kennedy was the late President’s brother, and he had suddenly entered the race too. Damned rich kid, Sean thought, Why should I support somebody like that? It pissed Sean off to hear Kennedy blurbs on every radio station and see expensive TV commercials, and full-page newspaper ads for this rich kid. And he’s using his brothers name to get elected President, Sean thought.
Then there were the allegations that the governor of the state was illegally using state offices and state employees to campaign for office himself. Governor Branigin had some kind of favorite-son plan to keep as many votes away from both McCarthy and Kennedy as possible, and then instruct his state’s delegation to vote for his own choice for President. Sean was outraged. This ain’t Democracy, he fumed, and he decided, Politics sucks.
After Sean returned to Baltimore, he did what he could to influence people to vote for McCarthy, but, after all, not only was he too young to vote himself, but so were his peers. He watched the democratic national convention on TV. His father joined him. They didn’t do much together anymore, but before Sean could be surprised, they both saw police charging into crowds and maiming people. There were demonstrators yelling at the cops, and the cops were breaking heads, and arresting everyone they could grab, including bystanders. They even knocked cameras out of the hands of reporters, and knocked TV cameramen down.
Sean and his father just stared at the screen, and then looked at each other. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Mr. Emmet said.
“It’s incredible,” Sean answered. Damn, I missed it. “Did you see those students get clubbed and arrested?”
“Yeah, and they weren’t doing anything. I saw it myself.”
The results of the convention were disappointing. Sean knew his father, as a Republican, didn’t care much, but he had really expected McCarthy to get the nomination and go on to win the Presidency, and end the war. Instead, even though Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, McCarthy had lost, and lost big, to President Johnson’s vice-president.
That was depressing. And then political arch-conservative Richard Nixon won the Presidency anyway. Sean no longer had anything to believe in. His one chance to stop the war – and actually do something important – had failed. He felt like a fanatic who had lost his faith, but he dutifully went to a meeting called by one of his high school’s history teachers. Mr. Blond was fresh out of college, and he’d been to a convention of the Students for a Democratic Society. Sean hoped to hear something exciting. He wanted to do something. Blond, however, told them about a convention unable to agree on a single plan of action.
“What do you think should be done?” Blond asked this small collection of high school intellectuals, and then the arguing started. “I think we have to start organizing for the next election,” said an engineering student. “No way,” yelled a writer on the school paper, “I think we need to get out there on the streets. Now.” “Yeah,” a science major added, “We tried the electoral process. It didn’t work. Now’s the time for action.”
“You’re all crazy,” shouted Vernon, a rich “liberal” from the suburbs, “This is America. We have to work for change legally. We had our chance this last election, and we lost. You can talk about protests if you want, but I’ve got better things to do.”
“Like what?” Sean wanted to know.
“Well, like being a volunteer, and collecting money for needy causes. There’s lots of good things we can do.”
“That won’t change anything,” Sean replied.
“At least I’ll feel good about myself.”
Sean thought about the people dying in that war, as several other people loudly reminded Vernon. The meeting broke up after that, as people took sides and most left with Vernon.
Sean took the bus to Lenny’s, instead of home. His parents wouldn’t expect him to come home right away, they’d expect him to be with his Science Club, or Drama Club, or something like that. He had to transfer twice, because Lenny lived up near the State Teachers College that he was about to graduate from.  Sean enjoyed the respect Lenny showed him and his ideas.
On the way, he wondered about marijuana and why it seemed to have no effect on him. He had smoked it three times already, making the rounds with Lenny, visiting Lenny’s friends. At first he had refused it, but eventually he had sucked the harsh smoke into lungs that were scarred from several bouts with pneumonia and years of breath-stealing asthma, and he had chocked so much that Lenny’s friends had stopped laughing long enough to worry about him. Again and again he made the effort, trying in vain to feel what the others felt. I wonder if Lenny gets high. He never seems to hold it in his lungs at all, and then he starts giggling and laughing right away. It’s probably all a trick, some kind of mass hallucination, he thought, like the way people in a crowd say that they see what other people see. I wonder if John’s smoked?
Lenny lived alone, in a small rented room. They talked about religion, and politics, and drugs.
“Hi Sean. Good to see you. You want a beer?”
“No. Thanks, but I really don’t like beer. Smells like rancid piss.  Hey, listen. There was a meeting after school today. One of the teachers talked about a convention of SDS that he went to. He said that there was a lot of arguing and that people split up into different factions. He said SDS doesn’t know what to do anymore. You know anything about that?”
“Oh, I don’t belong to SDS anymore.”
“Why not?”
“Well, it was getting to be like that. There were a lot of arguments over strategy, people dropped out, and the chapter broke up. It didn’t make any difference, we weren’t doing anything.”
“What are you into now?”
“I don’t know, I don’t care about politics. Look who we have for President. Hey, you know what? I have a friend who guides people through LSD trips,” Lenny offered Sean, “Do you want to try it sometime?”
“Nah, I don’t think so, I hear people do strange things when they’re tripping.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Well, like jumping out of windows, and stuff like that.”
“That won’t happen with David. He’s a trained psychologist. He knows how to keep people from freaking out.”
“How?”
“He’s done acid, himself. It’s amazing, but he always seems to know just what you’re going through.”
“Have you done it?” Sean asked.
“I’m not saying,” Lenny answered, pushing his face into Sean’s and trying to sound mysterious, but coming off corny, like a bad actor, laughing like the villainous landlord in an old melodrama. Sean enjoyed Lenny’s company, not that he didn’t suspect that Randy was just a little weird, but because of it.
“You’ve gotta try it, Sean.”
“Maybe. But hey, it’s late. I’ve got to get going,” he told Randy.
“No, stay awhile,” Lenny pleaded.
“No way, man, I’ve got homework to do. See ya’ later.”
“Hey, listen, come back Friday, we’ll go down to David’s.”
“All right, maybe then.”
Sean wondered about David on the way home, wondering if LSD really was OK, but mostly he wondered why Lenny wanted him to try it so much.

Soon, his curiosity would lead him to the mythical drug.

Posted in 1970s, Life, madness, My Life, Writing | 2 Comments »

Trippin’ Through The ’70s Chapter Five

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on July 17, 2008

Sean found a room to rent, from an Indian doctor, closer to the University where he worked and attended classes. For twelve dollars a week, it was OK, he thought. He shared the upstairs floor with a real quiet cabdriver, John, who mostly watched TV or sat in a stuffed chair by the window overlooking the street, newspaper in hand, and a strange little old lady who always wore white gloves, expensive-looking dresses, lots of makeup, and a puffed out hairdo. A smell of Indian spices drifted up from Dr. Thakkar’s kitchen all the time, but, the aloof Dr. Thakkar never offered the use of it. Without a kitchen upstairs, Sean would eat out on paydays, and then he lived on peanut butter and jam sandwiches and jars of grapefruit slices. The little old lady, Just-call-me-May, had a hotplate in her room for tea, and hundreds of mementos of her life. There was a silver tea set, and knickknacks, and clocks, and framed pictures, and more things that Sean thought possible to cram into one tiny room. She was friendly and nice, but even older than Sean’s grandmother. He couldn’t believe anyone could be that old. She was wrinkled and wattled, and smelled old.  The cabdriver never talked, and May talked too much, so Sean spent most of his time alone, reading or studying.

The machine clattered along, pap-a-pa-pap, pap-a-pa-pap, ching, pap-a-pa-pap, sometimes for fifteen to twenty minutes, unattended, which gave Sean time to wander through the lab. He spent eight hours a day there, turning dials, flipping switches, and moving an x-ray detector back and forth. The machine he operated could measure the physical length of an x-ray, or it could use those values to measure the spaces between atoms in a crystal of some mineral.   It had all seemed very exciting to Sean, fresh out of high school, but the novelty was wearing thin. Every day he moved dials along the “great circle” at the base of the instrument, and pressed buttons to send information to the teletype, which punched out coded rows of holes – pap-a-pa-pap – in rolls of pink or purple or yellow paper. He took these rolls to the computing center at the end of every day; a machine there turned them into piles of rectangularly holed punch cards. He added a small stack of cards to the top of the stack.  That was the program to interpret, average and print the data points he’d collected all day.  He left the stack of cards there on a counter, to be fed by hand into the great computer, which would turn it into rows of data points, averaged and printed in tabular format.

Wandering through the lab, he came upon the glass case where the bomb fuses developed for World War II were on display. These were not the kind of fuses one could light, but instead were clever mechanical devices that used a mercury switch to prevent an artillery shell from exploding too soon. After that war, Sean’s boss had turned to measuring x-rays. Dr. Bearden was out of the lab, as he often was. Sean went into his office to look around.
The molecular models were interesting, but the bookshelves were even more so. There were stacks of papers dealing with Dr. Bearden’s research into the nature and use of x-rays, and papers on a variety of topics in Physics. A high school kid could think up some of these, Sean thought. With a Physics book in one hand, and a funding request in the other, he could imagine himself making a career out of Physics research. I want to investigate what would happen if I did this to that, under these conditions, he fantasized. Growing the perfect Crystal, by Sean Lee Emmet. Or, The Structure of Compound X, by Dr. S.E. Emmet. It wouldn’t be too hard, he imagined. But how much of all this goes into new and better weapons? he asked himself. I’m going to be just as much a part of the war machine as anyone in ROTC, or the people in the weapons factories. Why does this war just go on and on?
Even without Lenny’s interference, his relationship with Plask never went any further. One day he received a letter from her, a Dear-Sean letter. He ripped the envelope open. On the top was a nude sketch of herself. Sean stared at it. He had never seen her nude. It was a good likeness of her face, so the rest of it looked to be accurate too. Under it was written, in a banner trailing under the feet: “All I want from living is to have no chains on me.” Next to that was neatly printed: “Look at me. 18, Naive, and Vulnerable,” The rest of the page was written in a clear, flowing script. Sean read down to the end of the page. She had written that Sean was too serious, that she didn’t want to be tied down, and that, “I think it’s for the best if we don’t see each other anymore.” Sean read the letter again, and traced the nude with his fingertips. Then he called her.
“Plask?”
“Oh. Hi Sean,” she answered, lightly. Sean hoped she would say that she wasn’t serious.
“I wondered, Plask, why you don’t want to see me anymore?”
“Oh, you got my letter?”
“Yes.”
“Well, I tried to explain. I thought you would understand.”
“No. I don’t. I want to see you, to talk to you.”
“That’s not a good idea, Sean.”
“Look, Plask, I need to see you. Can’t you explain it to me in person? I don’t understand.”
“Well, alright. Can you come over to my grandma’s?”
“Sure. When?”
“How about Saturday?”
“Two o’clock?”
“Just this once, Sean.”
Sean got off the bus, and walked over to Plask’s grandmother’s. He had never been there before. The neighborhood seemed unusually quiet, until the dogs started barking. Sean imagined that everyone was looking at him from behind their curtains. As he walked up to the door, he could hear yelling: “God damn it, I’m her father. She’ll do what I want, not what you say.” Sean hesitated. The yelling moved away from the door. He knocked.
“Who the hell is that,” Plask’s father yelled. Sean heard Plask say: “I’ll get it,” but her father yanked the door open. His face was beet-red, and his eyes glared accusation.
“What do you want?” he demanded of Sean.
“I came for, uh, Susan?” Mr. Plaskowitz turned and yelled for her, and left the door open. Plask came to the door and motioned for Sean to go out into the yard. “I’ll be right outside, daddy,” she called in, and she closed the door behind herself.
“What’s going on, Plask?”
“You came at a bad time. You heard my father yelling?”
“Hard to miss.”
“We’ve been fighting.”
“Why?” Sean asked, and they sat down on the iron lawn chairs.
“I can’t explain. My father is the reason I moved away from my house. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Should I leave?”
“No. Oh, no. Let’s talk out here.”
“Plask, I don’t understand. Why is it exactly that you don’t want to see me?” Sean asked, desperate to hear a reason, any reason. Just then her father came out. He walked clumsily over to Sean, and Sean smelled alcohol, lots of it.
“You stay the hell away from my daughter.”
“Why?”
“Listen, you long-haired punk,” Sean’s hair just covered the back of his shirt collar, but Plask’s father grabbed it and jerked him to his feet. “I don’t like you, and I don’t want you coming around here, understand?”
Sean was confused. He wanted to punch this drunk in the face, get his clammy hands off of him, but, It’s Plask’s father. She’d never forgive me. He tried to pull away, but his hair was wrapped tight in the older man’s fist.
“Daddy!” Plask screamed at him, and he released his grip. He turned toward her, fists clenched. Sean moved to intercept him. He’s toast if he touches her, he thought.
Her father pointed a finger at her, “I’ll talk to you later.” He turned back to Sean and told him to “Get off my property.” Then, the old woman, Plask’s grandmother, and the mother of this strange man who so little resembled the man Sean had met earlier, came outside and talked to him by the door for a few minutes. Sean looked over at Plask, but she avoided his eyes. “You’ve got five minutes,” Mr. Plaskowitz yelled over.
“Jesus,” Sean said softly, “What was that all about?”
“Let’s go for a walk, OK?”
Sean took Plask’s hand while they walked. His hand was sweaty around her cool fingers. “Plask?” he began.
And Plask cut him off with, “Sean, I’m sorry about my father.”
“Oh, that’s OK,” he answered her, “I think I understand.”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
Sean stopped, took hold of Plask’s other hand, and looked at her. He looked at her lips, compressed into thin determined lines, and he shuddered. He felt alone, and hurt. He pressed her hands tight and looked into her eyes. She looked back at him, and he thought he saw the face of the happy, lively coed he’d first danced with. He could almost feel the impression of her lips on his and her arms around his neck. Her eyes are such a beautiful brown, he thought, and so friendly, so alive. He wanted to kiss her eyes, but she suddenly looked away. “What do you mean?” he asked her.
“You don’t understand family, Sean,” Plask said, turning to him.
“What?!”
“Didn’t you tell me that you don’t want to see your parents anymore?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t see – ”
“How can I explain it to you?” she asked. “Don’t you see? My family is important to me. My priorities are too different from yours. I can’t be that way with my parents.”
“Doesn’t look as though you’re getting along real well.”
“That’s family business. But we’ll take care of it. Do you understand how different we are?”
“No. I don’t. That’s the way my father is too.”
“Sean, we can’t see each other anymore, OK?”
“Well, no. It’s not OK. But if that’s what you want, I don’t think I have much choice. Can I call you?” he asked.
“I don’t think that would be good idea. Look, Sean, I told you that I had a boyfriend who went to school in Michigan?”
“Yeah?”
“Well, he’s wants me to come up there.”
“To live?”

“Maybe, I don’t know. But even if I stay here, he doesn’t want me to see anyone else. You do understand, don’t you?”

“No.”
“Sean, I have to go. I have to get back. Good-bye,” she said, and she kissed Sean lightly on his lips. He kissed her cheek and she turned and ran back to her house. Her cheek had been wet, and Sean couldn’t forget the salty taste that remained on his lips from her cheek. He started walking towards the bus stop, but later on that night, as he was undressing for bed, he suddenly realized that he couldn’t remember what bus he had taken or who had been on it.

Sean wasn’t a quitter, however.  Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was playing in movie theaters at the time. Sean hadn’t ever thought to ask Plask to see it because it was a kid’s flick, but now he called his mom.

“Mom.”

“Hello stranger.”

“Hey, I was wondering is the kids would want to go see a movie with me.”

“Probably. What movie?”

“That new Disney movie? Fantasia? ”

“Well, it’s OK with me. I’ll ask them. Hang on. Kathy! Karen! Brian! Betsy! Get in here!

Sean could hear her talking to them. They got excited. They missed their big brother a lot, and he didn’t visit. He missed them too.

“OK, they’re excited. How are you going to take them?”

“Oh, I think my girlfriend will drive us.”

“A girlfriend, huh? ”

“Yeah.”

“That’s all you’ve saying?’

“Yeah.”

Sean called Plask the next day.

“Hey Plask?”

“Sean?”

“Listen a minute, OK?”

“OK.”

“I want to take my sisters and youngest brother to see Fantasia. I can’t take them on the bus, and I really want to spend some time with them. This is real important to me.  Would you be willing to take all of us?”

“Well, I guess.”

“Great!” How about Saturday afternoon?”

“That’ll work. I have time if we go early. You know, I’ve been wanting to see that myself.”

“There’s a show at 3:00. I can meet you at your grandmother’s house.”

“No, that’s OK, Sean. I’ll pick you up.”

Saturday came, and Sean was as excited as he could get. Maybe there’s still a chance, he thought. Plask drove him to his parent’s house, but waited in the car. “We have to hurry, Sean,” she said. “If I go in we’ll end up being late.”

They were ready. Betsy jumped right up on Sean, clumsily. Sean didn’t know what to make of that. He didn’t think they’d been that close, since she was the youngest. She gotten bigger in the last year, and he couldn’t just pick her up like a baby. She calmed down. Kathy and Karen looked excited. Brian was a little sullen looking, but he wasn’t going to miss out on something the others did. It was, after all, an adventure. They’d never gone anywhere before without the parents around.

They drove downtown. Sean introduced everyone. None of the kids said more than hello. Like Sean, they’d been trained to not talk to strangers, or ever discuss family business outside the home. They seemed surprised to see Sean with someone else, but didn’t have much to say. No one in that family ever talked much.  Plask seemed animated and really happy to be around the kids. Sean was ecstatic. He hoped to sit next to Plask at the movie, hold her hand, maybe put his arm around her, but she shooed all the kids in behind her so they had all four kids sandwiched between them. After the movie, they drove the kids back to their home. She and Sean drove away together. Sean asked if she wanted to go get something to eat, or maybe some ice cream.

“I can’t, Sean. I really have to get home now. I’ve got studying to do. And my boyfriend is going to be calling, so I need to be home when he calls.”

Sean was crushed. He had hoped and hoped beyond reason. He looked at her, and sadness spilled out across his face.

“Look, Sean, I told you we can’t see each other anymore. I agreed to help you see your brothers and sisters, but that’s all. ”

“But, but you said family was real important to you. Family is real important to me too. I wanted to show you.”

“Sean, Sean, Sean. Is that what this was all about?”

“Well, I really wanted to see you. And, I do love my brother and sisters.”

“Sean, I don’t want to talk about it anymore, OK.”

She dropped him off at his apartment. No kiss. He never saw her again. Except. Except, one night, many years later, long after Star Trek had been resurrected as Star Trek: The Next Generation, he happened to catch the closing credits on an old repeat, and one of the Klingon women was played by a Susie Plakson. He looked up the actor on the internet, but couldn’t find any information about her except for her appearance on that Star Trek episode. They did, however, have a picture of the Klingon character she had played. It just might be, he thought but the alien makeup was thick and dark.  Damn, but she looks good, if that’s her. I’ll never know. Plask, Plask, Plask. If only, if only.

UPDATE: Found out who played the Klingon woman, and there’s no way it could have been my Susan Plaskowitz. Internet searches come up empty for her , so I’ll never know what happened to her, or what she did with her life.

Posted in 1970s, family, Life, love, My Life, relationships, sex, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Trippin’ Through The ’70s Chapter Two

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on July 5, 2008

Sean lived in the left-hand side of a garishly green and yellow stuccoed duplex in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. The house looked as if the people on one side had wanted green, and the people on the other had wanted yellow, and they had compromised by rolling both colors, one right over the other, onto the jagged surface. The low smooth areas were yellow and the high rough spots were green. A windowed gable projected from each half of the steeply pitched roof that covered both attics. In the right half of the duplex lived an old bachelor and his mother. Nine people lived on the left.

Sean was the oldest of the children, an altar boy, and a boy scout. He was a “good” boy. He loved his parents, his three brothers and three sisters. He did his chores, not necessarily cheerfully, but dutifully hand scrubbing and waxing the kitchen floor on Saturday mornings, scrubbing the cellar’s bathroom, mopping the concrete cellar floor when asked, and he alternated washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, and weeding the small strip of land in the back of the house with his brother Paul. He played games with his younger brothers and sisters and read them stories whenever his parents were out. He went to confession on Saturday afternoons and never missed Mass on Sundays. Sometimes he just sat on an attic window ledge, wondering what it would feel like to hit the gravel in the driveway below, and what the most painless way to fall would be. Sean wanted out.
“Sean! Get in here!” Sean’s mom bellowed while he sat watching the old black and white one night.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, jumping up and running into the kitchen. Only twenty years older than him, Sean’s mother looked tired. She had gone upstairs to “lay down” before Sean’s dad had left for his second nighttime job with a janitorial crew. She was wearing a faded pink house dress, one or two sizes too small, and what looked like hundred-year-old pink cloth slippers.
“Look at the mess Brian made,” she said. A bowl of leftover peas was upside down under one of the table’s long benches. Brian was the six-year-old. “This is your fault. How come you haven’t done the dishes yet?” she demanded.
“I was watching Star Trek. I never get to see it, and I was going to clean up when it was over.”
“And this is what happened.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“Of course it’s your fault, you were supposed to have the dishes done.”
“What does it matter when I do ’em? Brian spilled the peas. Why aren’t you mad at him? Why don’t you make him clean it up?”

“Listen you. You don’t talk back to me. I’m your mother,” she screamed. At that point Sean knew he was in trouble, knew he should shut up and ignore it, but he was tired of seeing the four youngest get away with murder, and he was tired of being blamed for things he hadn’t done.
“Why are you yelling at me? He’s the one,” pointing at Brian, “that made the mess,” Sean yelled back.
“How dare you raise your voice to me?” she screeched, and she picked up a glass and threw it at him. The glass broke on the wall and a flying piece of it cut Sean’s leg. He stormed around her, dripping spots of blood, out of the kitchen, along the hall, and out of the front door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she screamed. Sean looked back as he closed the door, but he didn’t say anything. He closed the glass storm door slowly, suppressing an urge to slam it into pieces. It had been shattered at one time or another by all four brothers.
“Your father will take care of you when he gets home,” came through the door.
I’m sure of that, Sean thought, That’s what you always do, sic him on us.
He trotted up the street, past all the quiet houses, and slowed to a walk up the hill that had been paved into street. The old tree house was gone, of course, but a few of the trees that used to cover the whole hillside still stood along the edges of the new sidewalks. He climbed an old maple and sat on a thick branch that forked into two near the trunk. It was a sturdy seat. He noticed squashed peas on one shoe, which he scraped off with a rare leaf. There were just a few tenuous leaves hanging on, fluttering in the autumn breezes.

“Damn it! I want to get away from here,” he shouted at the stars, and he laughed, bitterly, crazily, almost crying, when he realized that he’d spoken out loud. He often gazed longingly at the stars, hoping to see a UFO, hoping that aliens would land and invite him to come with them. That’s such a stupid idea, he thought, I don’t know why I think of it so much. But he wanted a new life, somewhere, anywhere, and he knew it was all up to him: I’ve got to finish high school. What will I do if I don’t graduate? Wash dishes? I sure can shine and polish. Scrub floors? Yeah, a floor’s not done unless the corners are clean. And I can wax without leaving streaks. What else do people do? Drive trucks? Hell, I don’t even have a driver’s license.
“I’m sure as hell not going to make the same stupid mistake they did and get married so young. Seven kids later, all they have are bills, bill collectors on the phone, bill collectors at the door, and fights over money
.
“Tell him I’m not home,” he had to tell the ones who came to the door actually expecting money, even while his mom hid behind the door. Often the aggressive ones wouldn’t believe he was old enough to be home alone, and they challenged him, insisting on seeing his parents. On the phone he was told to say: “The check’s in the mail.” Sean shifted uncomfortably on his perch. Why do they fight so much? It doesn’t help. Why did they have to have so many kids? The memory of last night’s fight echoed in his mind, as it had echoed through the house to where he had lain in bed in the attic.

“More money? What did you do with the money I gave you? You sure didn’t spend it all on food.”
“You want to bet? There’s hardly enough as it is. I still have to send Sean or Paul down to the store every week. We run out of things. Maybe we’d have more money if you didn’t stop at bars on the way home.”
“I’ve got to cash my check somewhere.” His voice got louder, angrier. “Why can’t I have a few lousy beers, damn it? You’re spending too much, that’s all.”
“Beers? That’s all you spend it on? I spend too much? The kids need shoes, for Christ’s sake. And clothes.”
“Clothes? They just got clothes last Easter. And what do you mean ‘That’s all’? Tell me. Tell me.”

“They grow out of them. They’re growing, remember? And you know what I mean. You know damn well what I mean.”

The wind was getting stronger, and colder. Sean tucked his hands under his arms. Last night he had tucked his head under his pillow, trying to shut out the noise, but it hadn’t helped. I’m not going down there, he told himself, I’m tired. He and John had gotten in between their parents before, and stopped a fight by staring at them, or laughing at their inanities.
There were crashes mixed in with the shouting. That’s mom, throwing things, and he could see her arm winding back for the pitch. There were bangs and thuds, too, as his dad smashed his fists against walls and tables. He tried to ignore it, to go to sleep, but some words drilled through the pillow into his ears.

“Divorce? You know we can’t get divorced, the Church doesn’t allow it.”
“We can’t go on like this. Something’s got to give. We’ll have to separate, or something.”
“We don’t have any choice. What about the kids? You know we can’t separate with seven kids.”

Sean shivered, and wished he had brought a coat. No way I’m going back for one. I’m staying right here. I don’t care. This is never gonna to happen to me. I’ll be damned if I’ll have kids before I have the money to bring ’em up right. I’ve got to go to college. Shit, I’m gonna have to study my ass off to get accepted anywhere after failing last year. Wouldn’t it be something if I could go to California?
He dreamed about living on his own, buying food just for himself, buying his own clothes, and having things that were his, just his, for his own use. He wanted to be a chemist, mixing solutions, investigating the unknown and creating new things. He wanted respect. People will know who I am, he mused, I’ll be somebody.

But, it was getting pretty cold just sitting in that tree. He had cooled down by then, so it was time to get himself home, even though he knew he was going to get his butt kicked. Funny how cold the night is, I hadn’t noticed it when I left, he was thinking as he jumped out of the tree and double-timed it home. The street was dark except for his house; someone had turned the porch light on. Well, that’s something. At least I’m expected. The old Ford ‘wagon was in the driveway, so Sean’s dad was home. Sean crept up the porch steps and stood outside the door. Now or never, he decided. He walked in through the hallway to the kitchen and started cleaning up the mess. He heard his father come down the stairs, but he pretended not to notice. Sean’s dad came up behind him. Sean found himself amazingly calm.
“Why were you yelling at your mother?”
Sean started to turn around, but before he could speak, he heard the familiar command: “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” and his dad grabbed Sean’s chin in his hand.
Sean worked his jaw muscles against that hand, “She was yelling at me.”

“Why was she yelling at you?” his dad bellowed, and let go of his chin.

“Because I hadn’t washed the dishes yet, and Brian knocked the peas off the table, and I don’t think it was my fault.”

“You don’t think? And why weren’t the dishes done?”

“I wanted to watch a show that comes on after supper. I thought I’d watch it and then do the dishes.”

“Who told you to think? Come on, tell me, who told you to think? How dare you talk back to your mother? Listen you, you speak when you’re spoken to, and don’t ever, ever raise your voice to either one of us.”

While his father was working himself up, Sean had maneuvered himself around to the other side of the table by continuing to clean up. He knew he was going to get hit – as usual – but somehow he didn’t want it, this time. Parents, he was taught in Catholic school, are second only to God. You obey everything they say, unless it violates God’s laws. Sean’s father made sure of that. Sean swore he never tried to piss his father off, but he managed to find fault with most everything Sean did anyway.
“Come over here, I’m talking to you,” Sean’s dad said. They started playing cat and mouse around the table. Sean didn’t like the look on his father’s face.
“No,” he said. The older man’s snarled face told Sean that he’d kill him if he could.

“You don’t talk to me like that. If I have to come over this table to get to you, your lazy ass is going to be sorry.” He don’t know exactly why, but Sean suddenly took a swing at his dad. He tried to pull his arm back, even though he was too far away to connect anyway, but it was too late, his father had already seen it: “What? I’ll kill you!” And he probably would have too. Sean’s mom usually interceded before her husband did any real damage, and she had to drag him off of Sean this time too.   His father had jumped right over the table and backhanded Sean through the wall before Sean could move. Sean crawled under the table but he was trapped in the corner. His father alternated between screaming in his ears and whacking him on the head until Sean suddenly realized it was over. His mother had his father’s arms pinned behind his back.   By the time Sean left home that hole in the drywall still hadn’t been repaired.  He loved his dad. Most of the time he figured he deserved whatever punishment his father came up with. There were times, like this, when Sean doubted his father’s sanity, as his father doubted his. Once, when Sean was much younger, his dad had found a little bit of laundry detergent on the cellar floor and two empty boxes,  and he had threatened Sean and John with the strap if they denied doing it. He had made them stand there and sweat. “Someone poured all the soap out of those boxes,” he said.

“I don’t want to hear one word, unless it’s: ‘I did it.’  Well?  Speak up.”

“But, we didn’t…” Whack.

“I said not a word.”

The next time he challenged Sean like that, Sean kept his mouth shut.

“Why don’t you talk? What’s wrong with you?” Whack.
“But, you said not to talk unless it was to confess.”
“You literal-minded idiot.” Whack.

Sean lived in fear for most of his childhood. His dad had told him, more than once, how much he could really hurt him if he tried, and how much he had to hold back. Sean believed him. He tried not to ever step out of line, not at home, not at school, and not in church.

It was years later before he understood that his dad was probably keeping inside all the shit he took at work, and the problems he had stretching money to cover the bills, and was dumping it all on any convenient scapegoat once he had a couple beers in him. At the time Sean was not really sympathetic. Damn, but I want out, was his constant thought.

As it was, he stayed late at school as often as he could. There was sometimes dinner in a pot on the stove when he got home. Coming home from a Drama Club rehearsal one night, he looked in the pot, and tasted it; it was still warm, so he sat down to eat. His mother came down the stairs and into the kitchen. She was wearing a red dress with red high heels, and she had painted her lips deep red
“Wow. You look different,” he told her. 
“Yeah, we’ve got a contest tonight. And we need you to watch the kids.” Sean shoveled some more food in his mouth. That was nothing new, they were always at the roller rink, practicing, practicing, practicing. Sometimes, he thought, I wish I’d kept taking lessons. At least I wouldn’t be the one they use to watch the kids.
“I was hoping you’d get home before now, we have to leave soon,” his mother emphasized. Sean swallowed quickly, so he could ask, “What about John? or Pat? I have a lot of homework to do.”
“You should have come home sooner. John’s already at the rink. And Pat’s not here. He went to Pennsylvania.”
“Again?” Sean asked. His brother Pat had disappeared three times already, the last time was when he and their father had broken the dining room table during a fight. Pat was a feisty one. He always ended up with Aunt Millie, but he usually came back.
“Well, yes, but this time he’s going to stay there.”
I should have come home earlier, Sean thought.
“What about school? What will he do about that?”

“Your Aunt Millie will put him in high school there.”
“Oh, he’ll like that,” Sean said, cynically. Aunt Millie was a teacher herself.
“He’ll have to, there was nothing else to do. You know how he and your father get along.”
Yeah, Sean mused, I wish I’d thought of that.
Just then his father came down the stairs yelling, “We’re gonna be late.”
“Yeah, I’m ready, I was just waiting for you,” she yelled back, but to Sean she said, “You can let them stay up to watch TV, but make sure they’re in bed by eight-thirty.”
“OK,” Sean agreed.
After they left, he tried to study, but the kids were fighting over which show they were going to watch, so he went in to arbitrate. “Look,” he asked Karen, if you’ll watch what Brian wants to watch, I’ll let you pick the next show.”
“But mom said we have to go to bed after this.”
“I’ll let you all stay up for another show.”
“Yeaaaah,” they all yelled, and Karen came over and climbed on his lap, so he sat and watched TV with them.
Of course, when the next show was over, they all saw the announcement for another one, so they pleaded for one more.
“Alright, one more. But, this is it, understand? You can watch this show, but then you have to go to bed, OK?”
“OK,” they all said, in unison. Sean was pleased. It wasn’t often that he’d ever been able to stay up late, so he was glad to give his sisters and little brother some freedom. And, they did get up when the show finished, and Sean turned off the TV. Karen, Betsy and Kathy were already on the stairs, when Sean heard the TV. Brian had turned it back on and sat down in front of it.
“I said it’s time for bed.”
“No.”
“Hey, I let you stay up an hour later than you were supposed to already. Now, get upstairs.”
“No, I wanna watch TV.”

Sean turned the tube off, Brian turned it back on, and Sean saw red. “I told you to get upstairs,” he yelled, but Brian just sat there. Sean picked him up, and then lifted him up over his head. “When I tell you to do something, you do it,” he yelled, and he carried Brian up the stairs that way, and threw him down on his bed. “And stay there, you little twerp.”
“Ow, ow, ow. My arm. My arm. You broke my arm. Aaaah. Aaaah. Aaaah,” Brian started screaming.
Sean looked at his arm, decided that he was OK, and told him: “Shut up and go to sleep,” and went back to his books. He listened to his brother crying and screaming. When he didn’t stop crying he went back upstairs to check on him.
“Brian.”

“Aaaah. Aaaah.”
“Brian, let me see your arm.”
“Aaaah, aaaah, aaaah. It hurts.”
“OK, OK, it’s not broken. Just go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I was just mad at you, like Mom and Dad get mad at me. They told me to put you to bed, I have to do what they tell me. Understand?”
Brian stopped crying, but he was still whimpering into his pillow. Sean sat on the edge of the bed until Brian fell asleep. Damn, I hope he’s not hurt. They’ll kill me, he thought. Damn, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m becoming just like Dad. I don’t want to hurt these guys, not ever. This is ridiculous. I almost hurt Brian. I’m not going to be like them. I’m not, I’m not.
As it turned out, Brian wasn’t hurt, but the girls told their mother what happened, and she chewed him out.
“Didn’t you realize you could have hurt him?”
“I didn’t think about it. I was mad. I just carried him upstairs. I didn’t throw him on the floor, I made sure he fell in the middle of the bed.”
“And what if he hadn’t? What if he had hit the frame? or the headboard? You can’t lose your temper like that with them, they’re too little.”
“I know that. I’m not the only one with a temper around here.”
They left it at that. Sean just stared at his mother, and she just looked at him. There was a sadness in her face that made her look far older than the 20-year difference in their ages.

It hadn’t always been that way.  Sean liked his father’s laugh, but it wasn’t heard much anymore.  As each new kid had come along, things had gotten tougher: more bills, more arguments, and less of him around.  They had moved four times that Sean could remember.  Mr. Emmett came home from his job every day, and they all sat down promptly to eat at 4:30.  Dinners were quiet affairs, unless Sean’s mom had a complaint about one of the kids and wanted Mr. Emmett to “take care of it.”  Usually all he wanted was to eat and take a nap before he headed out again to his second job.  Sean remembered him helping put the kids to bed, fixing things around the house, and watching TV together. Mr. Emmett had shown Sean how to sweat copper tubing together; how to splice electric wires, how to take a sink trap apart and fix a toilet.  He used to take Sean and John for archery target practice.  Sean could pull his father’s big bow all the way back now, but there wasn’t any fun to it without his dad along.  It just didn’t happen anymore.  Trips to the drive in or to the beach were a lot less fun, usually cut short because one kid or another was sick or crying. It was quite a hassle to get seven kids organized and transported anywhere.  Between the jobs and the roller skating, there wasn’t much going on at home anymore.  The younger kids all saw their dad more than Sean did, as no one else had opted out of the endless skating competitions and practices as Sean had.  However, practice was hard, and Sean’s parents made everyone work at it.  Good for some, not for others.

Mr. Emmett was increasingly irritable, and demanding.   Sean loved his dad; missed the times they’d talked or done things together.  No amount of discipline could make Sean forget he loved his parents.

However, there is sometimes a breaking point, and Sean’s came one evening.  Mr. Emmett had called him down from the attic, stood facing the hallway from the kitchen doorway.  He had then accused Sean of stealing some money from his wallet, something Sean knew better than to even think of doing. “I didn’t do it,” he insisted.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, I didn’t do it. What do you want me to say?”
“I told you to not to ever talk back to me.” Whack, he backhanded Sean across the face.

“Well, speak up, damn you.” Sean didn’t say another word, didn’t want to make the situation worse. Whack again. Again. No tears now.  Sean stared directly into his father’s eyes, rage building up in him.  He couldn’t speak, because he knew his voice would be too loud.  That would be another heresy, raising his voice.  He stood his ground.  His dad slapped him again, and again, on either side of his head until, suddenly, Sean’s rage took hold.  He pushed his dad hard, knocked him right over. He jumped on him, and all he could think of was killing him. Sean’s dad grabbed his arms so Sean brought his foot up and tried to kick his dad’s head in. Fortunately, his dad was strong. He grabbed Sean’s leg when it was inches from his face. Oddly enough, he was smiling. The rest of the kids were sitting at the kitchen table a few feet away, and they were screaming, “Sean and Daddy are fighting,” and they started crying.  Sean and his dad both got up, looked at the kids, looked at each other, and walked away.

Posted in 1970s, family, Life, madness, My Life, Writing | 4 Comments »

 
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