“When the most important things in our life happen we quite often do not know, at the moment, what is going on. A man does not always say to himself, “hullo! I’m growing up.” It is only when he looks back that he realizes what has happened and recognizes it as what people call “growing up.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Council Bluffs Iowa, summer of 1976, it was a hot rocking, whirlwind of a time for me. Figuratively speaking, I was a corralled stallion dreaming of life on the other side of the fence, but literally, a very dazed and confused nineteen-year-old high school graduate standing at the intersection of, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Highway to Hell.’
I didn’t have a lot of choices before me at the time as the oldest of eight children in a dysfunctional family. I was the stand-in man of the house because of my alcoholic father’s frequent absences, a maternal figure as well, when mother had one of her nervous breakdowns, which were frequent. College was out of the question as I was a marginal student, and besides, my family’s financial situation was weak like a soup sandwich. I had trouble holding a job too, so yeah, there weren’t many options. My spirit was screaming, “It’s time to go!” The pain of remaining the same had finally become greater than the pain of change.
I enlisted in the army under the delayed entry program one day after my mother’s nineteenth nervous breakdown, and of course, dad was nowhere around. It was a muggy June day and I walked all the way, down town, to an Army recruiting office. Dripping wet with sweat, I signed my life away, hoping for a new one.
I had a few months before I was to leave, but my father and uncle decided to get me drunk the very next night; their idea of a right of passage I suppose. I accepted, mostly because I wanted to connect with my father on a deeper level. I knew he was proud, but deep inside, I was screaming out loud, “Now you care, now you want to be a father?”
I remember just about every detail of that night. Voices, tastes, smells, laughter, tears, the slowing of time, all of which were parts of the equation I suppose. The only thing I don’t remember is, the name of the tavern, but I do recall that it was at one end of a long, ashen gray viaduct that ran down the center of town. It was your typical beer-joint that smelled of dirty ashtrays and stale beer. There was a jukebox that didn’t play anything harder than ‘Jerry Lee Lewis’ I’m sure. It was the kind of place that drew a particular crowd, mostly rednecks, hard labor types, truck drivers and elderly couples reminiscing about the good old days. Old military veterans hunched at the bar sprinkling salt in their beer. Unfiltered Pall Malls hanging from their thin lips contributed to the thick haze of cigarette smoke that permanently occupied the air space from the ceiling, down to just a few inches above my head. Hell, I even recall those pale pickled eggs in a big jar on the bar. I can still see the patrons gawking at me as I walked in with dad and uncle Glen.
Uncle Glen, towering over me with his slicked back, bright red hair, grabbed me with his big hands by the head, and gave me a quick, affectionate knuckle rub and said, “You little shit, we’re gonna get you drunk tonight! Huh Mick?” looking at my dad, who stood proud, at only five feet eight inches at the most, with his slicked back, jet-black hair. ‘Mick’ was dad’s nickname, short for ‘Mike’ of course; it’s an Irish thing. Dad just looked at me smiling, with tears in his eyes. The bar crowd grimaced at my mane of shoulder-length dark brown hair, pimpled face, paisley shirt and bellbottom blue jeans.
I imagined they were thinking, “What’s this long haired hippy freak doing here?” until dad whispered to the bartender, that I was joining the army soon. So the word got around to the patrons, who sporadically cheered something like, “Hell, get the boy anything he wants!” I don’t think dad and uncle spent a dime on drinks that night, at least while I was still there. I’m pretty sure it was their plan to begin with. They were quite clever like that.
The conversation was focused on me, and my choice of ‘Army Infantry.’ Uncle Glen had enlisted in the Marine Corps some ten years earlier, bragged about it, but didn’t make it out of boot camp, for medical reasons he said, but he never elaborated. But he and dad supplied the drinks, and firm shoulder pats the rest of the night. Dad didn’t say much; he just sat there, teary-eyed, with his best proud father smile. It was beer after beer cheer after cheer as the room slowly began to spin. I sat there glassy-eyed, staring at a blinking Budweiser sign in the dirty window. I vividly recall the moment hot bile started moving up my throat.
I stood up, staggered back, and projectile vomited Hamm’s beer mixed with chunks of undigested, quick baked, cheap bar pizza all over the table, and then collapsed back into the chair, passing out. I remember floating out the door of that bar, as if I was in a dream as dad and uncle carried me to the car, a 49’ Chevy with a dusty back seat. I woke up a few hours later to the sound of loud motorcycles and cars racing up the street. I really had to piss, it was dark, and so I did, after stumbling out the door wavering between parked cars, under the stars.
I felt a need to go home, like I was being called by something. I don’t know how I got my bearings, I didn’t care that dad and uncle would miss me; I just walked. It was like I was on a slow turning merry-go-round as I started. I felt beads of sweat pouring down my back, and as a matter of fact, I never looked up much, only down at my feet. Step after step, block after block, through town past large windows, where I would occasionally catch my reflection in the periphery. Past other bars with pounding, muffled music within. The sounds of car horns and ridiculing jeers reverberated in my head, as I walked like the living dead, instinctively, without concern, more than three miles home. Along oak tree lined streets, through neighborhoods almost quiet except for the sporadic bark of a dog and the whine of Cicadas in the trees. The last few hundred feet, up that cobblestone street to our house was introspective.
Memories of my mother flashed in my mind, profoundly somber moments as she cried bitter tears at the kitchen table, late on payday nights, waiting for my drunk father to return and hopefully surrender what was left of his meager earnings. I also envisioned happier times like, Saturday nights at the drive-in movies with my younger siblings and cousins.
Moths fluttered around the front porch light as I crept up those worn stone steps, weary and gaunt, like a ghost who no longer wanted to haunt. The glow of the TV in our living room was a welcome sight, as if I had been gone for years…it just felt right. Mom was sitting on the couch watching, ’The Tonight show with Johnny Carson,’ laughing and sharing popcorn with my youngest sister, as I stood serenaded by crickets that warm Iowa night
peering in at the happy, peaceful scene…silently shedding tears.
Copyright Michael J. Donnelly. 2016