This is another article that I’m beginning in mid-December and, of course, I’ll probably still be tweaking it right up to the moment it’s posted. Here, I want to take another ‘walk down memory lane’ in an effort to both exorcise some demons and gain some insight into how I came to be the person that I am.
I have been told that I was born with my umbilical cord wrapped so tightly around my neck that my head was a deep purple in color, and that I had to be suspended upside down for quite a while. While I don’t know for sure, I assume other measures had to be taken as well. It have also been told that my lazy left eye was likely caused by the forceps used to assist in my delivery. I myself wonder if some of my other issues could also be linked to my distressed birth.
Issues like poor balance, severe motion sickness, and the inability to tolerate anything that would make me dizzy – such as cars, most playground equipment, carnival rides, alcohol, depressant drugs, and even marijuana. And it’s certainly not for lack of trying. It’s difficult to fit in when you’re afraid to try the things other kids do to have fun. It’s downright traumatic to try anyway and then end up puking in front of them.
But as far as the alcohol and drugs are concerned, I must consider that my problems with them could have ‘other’ roots. My mother was a very sweet and caring woman when she was sober, but was in fact a raging alcoholic during all of my childhood memories. While I don’t know if that were the case while she was carrying me, I must consider the possibility that it may be a contributing factor. If nothing else, the constant exposure to the damage caused by alcoholism almost certainly affected my psychological makeup.
And then there was the violence. While I don’t know much about my parents’ background, I do know that they were both capable of extreme acts of violence. On my mother’s side, I have to believe that living in poverty with four kids while being legally blind had something to do with her behavior. On my father’s side, the fact that he was a pimp, a gambler, and a loan shark (amongst other things) who also happened to have severe diabetes and chronic arthritis, probably helped to fuel his anger.
From my perspective my father was a very old (fifty-seven when I was born) and very cold man who seemed to think of little other than business. That’s not to say that he didn’t care about me, as the only signs that he had feelings at all, other than rage, were reflected in the ‘love’ he exhibited towards me. In fact, It seemed as if I spent far more time with him that I did with my mother, even though I lived with her and not with him. The two were never married.
Adding fuel to the fire, and perhaps giving him a reason to keep me with him as much as he could, was the fact that my mother would use me as an excuse to extort money from him after she had blown all of hers on her boyfriend and drinking. Now to be clear, I don’t recall my father ever getting violent with my mother. The violence I witnessed was between my mother and her boyfriend, as well as between them and anyone who attempted to interfere with the way the ran their lives.
But there was always the threat of violence from my father. Not only had I personally witnessed examples of it, he was renowned in the community for his willingness to hurt people when he thought the situation required it. Success in his line of ‘work’ demanded it I guess. I was well aware of this, and the fear of what he could do in the name of protecting his son affected me more and more as I went through those early years. Imagine being afraid of reporting those who abuse you for fear that you might get them killed. This, I believe, is the root from which my sense of living in a global madhouse has grown.
The weird thing is that except for one very surprising (and somewhat deserved) slap to the face from my father, I don’t recall any of their violence ever being directed at me personally. I can’t recall even a single spanking. Of course I don’t recall many hugs and kisses either. But I had three siblings and various nieces and nephews who didn’t have it nearly as as I did. I was the baby of my mother’s bunch, and both my much older sisters left to escape the craziness so early that I barely remember them living with us at all. That left me, my brother and my oldest sister’s kids.
Since he was only five years my senior, my brother couldn’t escape like my sisters did, but he managed to limit the abuse he took by gradually moving into the more ‘pleasant’ environs of the thug life. While I can’t blame him for finding any way out that he could, the sad and violent end that he eventually came to seems almost pre-destined. My niece and nephew were then the ones left to helplessly endure the thrashings while I watched in that deer-in-the-headlights kind of shock. That is until I exploded in my own violent outrage to put an end to it. That got the three of us sent to live with their mother in Los Angeles on my twelfth birthday, two weeks before Christmas in 1967.
But I’ve skipped over the juicy humiliation events that also helped to shape my adolescent mind. It was already bad enough that I looked White with a Black family and people were always whispering about what that meant, but how about starting school a year late only to have them inform me that the name I had gone by for almost seven years wasn’t really my name after all. I became aware of this when my teacher corrected me after I had proudly demonstrated how I could already write my own name – Bobby Hart.
Thus ensued my very first verbal rampage. I was so convinced that they were trying to pull a fast one that I attempted to storm out of the school. That, of course, got me forcibly held in the office until my mother could arrive to both shock the school officials by being Black and to reveal the awful truth with a copy of my birth certificate – the truth that my actual name is more like the title of a ’70’s Janis Joplin song. It was an innocent mistake I guess. With my father being who he was, everyone had just added his last name to my nickname and no one had ever bothered corrected the error. It would have been nice if someone had informed me however.
Oddly enough, I didn’t lose my love of writing. In fact, by the fourth grade I had become a very prolific, if somewhat secretive, journalist. I carried around my latest hand-made journal everywhere I went, using every spare moment to jot down my thoughts on everything from my dreams of space travel to my deepest feelings about those around me. Please note that I have always had a very vivid imagination. Which is why, in hindsight, I now realize that it was a bad idea to be carrying such a personal and private document around with me on the school playground.
But how was a ten year old to anticipate what happened when I unknowingly lost it during recess. Finding who it belonged to was easy of course, since my name was proudly emblazoned across the front. Even with all that given, not even the most cynical could have expected that my teacher would force me to stand in front of the class while she read aloud some of my most private thoughts and yearnings. I could handle the laughter at my spacehead ideas well enough, but the revelation of my feelings towards others in the school – and even in the classroom at the time – amounts to one of the most humiliating events of my life.
Finally, since it’s December 21st as I wrap this up, it seems appropriate to mention something about my early experiences with Christmas. What little I can remember of them can be boiled down into three words: anticipation, disappointment, and envy. While my mother was a vocal proponent of religion, her father being a Baptist minister and all, her lifestyle didn’t exactly leave much room for handing out gifts. My father, on the other hand, was more of the Bah! Humbug! type. And while I’m sure he would have used any excuse to dress me in the Stetson’s, Stacy Adam’s and suits he loved so much (other than when he was in pajamas, I literally can’t remember him dressed in any other way), that wasn’t exactly high on my wish list.
Pretty much the only memory I have from my very early childhood is of toy blocks (the ones with letters and numbers) and of this beautiful miniature car with opening doors and hoods and a steering wheel that actually worked. Other than that, the only ‘toy’ I remember having been given was a Mattel Power Shop that I got after my failed attempt to build a rocket was discovered. I can clearly remember my fierce campaigning, to my father’s girlfriend, on how the balsa wood and lathe would be a much better way to go (along with the model rocket engines I planned to campaign for later) than metal pipes and gun powder. To be clear, my plans were known only to my father’s girlfriend. From my father’s perspective, the Power Shop was strictly ‘education’ and ‘work’ related.
To be honest, I don’t remember if the Power Shop or the blocks or the car had anything to do with Christmas. And to the best of my memory, every other play toy I had resulted from my own efforts to either bargain for them or to build them myself. I made my own superhero costumes and pretend weapons from scraps of cloth donated by my father’s ‘girl friends’ and other stuff I found. I built my own pretend spaceships from cardboard boxes, scraps of plastic and tubing, crayons and paint. I was never able to finish my soapbox derby racer because this required materials and expertise beyond my (or my benefactors) means.
Yes, I was very envious of the gifts bestowed upon others. Envious of the remote-controlled tractor-trailer sent by my oldest sister to her son, and of the tricycle my other sister’s son had when they still lived with us. I don’t remember how I got the only bicycle I had during those times – I must have bargained for it somehow. I know it didn’t come from my family because of their complaints about having that nasty, rusty old thing around. I do remember the humiliation of having to get rid of it, as well as the humiliation of having to feign indifference to explain, to other kids, my poverty of playthings despite having a ‘wealthy’ father.
I’d love to be able to say that I’ve now described all, or even most, of the violence and humiliation from my childhood. But the truth is that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There was so much more that I’m too tired and much to embarrassed to go into. But at least what I have written here now exists outside my head as well as within, and maybe the memories will lose some of their power to cause me pain. Maybe next time I’ll talk a little about things that happened after I turned twelve.
I want ice water.
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