… when you grew up?
That’s a question for the ages, isn’t it? I know very few people who when we talk about our past, our careers and lives as parents or grandparents have said what happened were just what they envisioned as a child, teenager or young adult.
It sure as hell didn’t happen that way for me. Although my childhood was so strange that I can’t remember ever even dreaming along those lines and I’m sure many other people can say the same thing.
First off we probably have to qualify what ‘grown up’ is. Is it when you start really living on your own with no or little outside support? Is it when you meet someone you want to spend your future with and perhaps raise a family? Is it when you hold a career for most of your adult life?
Maybe it is part and parcel of what my grown son said a few years back when he was pissed at me and snarled “Why don’t you just act your age for once? (I was 63 at the time). My reply shut him up when I said “Maybe because my parents drank themselves to death when I was a teenager and I never had any goddamn role models to learn from!”
That screeched the brakes on the conversation, but more importantly made me feel like an ass for dumping all that on him. He had nothing to do with that.
However that fact is why I never chanced to dream of what I might or could be. Back then there were no purely positive things I could point to and think was that what I’d like to make happen in my life.
Negative role models were a different story though. My parent’s deaths from cirrhosis didn’t really scare me all that much when it happened mainly because when my Mom died I was 19 years old and well on my way to being an alcoholic already. My dad died when I was 13 and I was already getting high by then. So I fell right into that pattern.
The fact that they were drunk all the time didn’t stop them for being model citizens; my father was the Dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and my mother was, earlier on, the Assistant Dean of Women there and later a member of many organizations, social clubs, and the like. She wouldn’t shut up about being a Daughter of the American Revolution (see my last post about being so White it blinds you). Nobody but her cared one whit about that.
On the outside we were a solid, respectable family in good shape financially with a nice big house etc. But behind closed doors and all that…
It didn’t help that before I turned 15 both my older brothers, four & five years older, took off and moved out as soon as they could so they wouldn’t be stuck living with a crazy drunken mother. And I do mean crazy – certifiable – but formally addressing that illness “wasn’t done” in those days. Much better to say it was her ‘rather strange’ conduct and leave it at that.
That might sound harsh but it’s 100% true. I’m convinced my Dad checked out earlier on because he just couldn’t take her any longer. That crap-laden end of the stick got handed to me early on and I was left to almost literally babysit her until she died four years later.
Well, my middle brother leaving I could understand – he was gay and Pittsburgh in the 1970s was not a welcoming town for a gay man. It was more like a shot and a beer and a punch in the face if you were sitting in the wrong bar town. When he moved to Manhattan it was for a good reason but I needed his help and it just wasn’t there.
But something else started to happen with me after my Mom’s death. I became surrounded by a great group of close friends, guys and girls, and some of their parents who helped me to understand that what happened earlier in my life need not be part of my future. No one had taken an interest in me like that before.
So while I bounced around in and out of college and working as a bartender at The Encore jazz club and The Shadyside Tavern and the years went by I began doing some soul searching and just couldn’t get any sort of grasp on what I had to do next.
I was 22 in September of 1978 and I clearly remember sitting by myself on a park bench drinking Rolling Rock beer and trying to decide whether I should go back to PITT (if they would even let me back in) or go try something else that I would most probably fail at yet again. It didn’t help that while I was hitchhiking up and down the East Coast that summer I sort of, kind of, forgot to pay the rent on my apartment for three months…so suddenly I had nowhere to live and basically no possessions. After that I knew had to take a long and hard look at myself.
What I came up with, and it hit like a lightning bolt, was the truth that I was going downhill fast and I knew, honestly knew, that I had to get some sort of outside authority in my life to force me do things I would never do on my own or I’d be dead soon. There was no doubt in my mind about that at all and it would happen sooner rather than later.
So on a Friday afternoon I went downtown and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. No hesitation, no second thoughts, just sat down with the recruiter and said ”Get me out of town as soon as possible and make me a different person”. I probably didn’t actually say that last part but I was sure thinking it.
When I dropped the news of my enlistment on my friends they literally didn’t believe it. Of any person you could think of who was absolutely not military material it was me. They believed I was joking… right up until I boarded a bus to Cape May, New Jersey and went straight into boot camp.
I had no idea what to expect, no idea what would happen and no idea if I could even make it through boot camp. I had delirium tremens the first 48 hours I was there but had an understanding Company Commander who turned a blind eye. But I did sober up, turned to the tasks at hand and graduated on time… and therein lay more blog posts.
Did I know at that time I’d spend 33 years, both as an enlisted man and as an Officer, get married, live all over the world and raise a family? Hell no! But with that one clear and non-revocable decision I finally gave myself a fighting chance in life. Than God I did or I know in my heart I would not be writing this.
Thanks – Reed