A Past Full of Rage

Chapter 3, Part 2

When I was seven, my mother remarried, and we moved away from the safe and comforting home of my grandfather. He was replaced by my stepfather, a handsome but troubled ex-Marine with a past full of rage. The foundation for his whole worldview was set in the quicksand of suspicion. He was a muscular, red-faced, terrifying, violent man, who spent his life agonizing over who was about to cross him next.

Still of the shower scene in the movie Psycho

For sound effects, conjure up the shower scene in Psycho

The eeriest aspect of my stepfather’s appearance was a telltale twitch in his left eye, which my family tracked with its keen survival instinct. This frightful muscle tic always surfaced when paranoia was about to take over and make him go postal.

Many, many episodes with my stepfather would have shocked any innocent bystander. One that often stands out in my mind happened when I was 10-years-old, after I went outside quite early one morning to mow the lawn, which was one of my chores. Our family had been on vacation for some time, and in our absence the grass in our yard on the outskirts of Dallas had sprouted lush and tall, a foot or more high. That morning, it looked like a tiny South African veldt. This being 1955, we had only a manual push mower to do the job. As a skinny kid, I was having a hell of a time wrestling our mower in fits and spurts through the nodding, dewy grass.

Fortunately or not, my neighbor, Bobby Mayfield, happened along, noticed my struggles, and lent a hand. We were both lightweights, however, so we were busily straining and thrashing and groaning with all our might to get nowhere fast.

Little did we realize that my stepfather had been spying on us through a bank of small windows beside our front door. It was common knowledge in our family that, wherever we were, whatever we might be doing, my stepfather was liable to be hiding around the corner, keeping us under surveillance with his twitching eye. He was a one-man Stasi.

What he made of this scene, as Bobby and I groped and grunted slowly across the front lawn grappling with the mower, I’ll never know. But it wasn’t good. I can only guess that in his tortured way my stepfather interpreted our tussle with the lawn mower as some kind of delinquent gesture either mocking him, rebelling against his authority, embarrassing him in front of the neighbors, or thumbing our noses at the world. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of paranoia? Truth is, I had nothing more delinquent in mind than getting my chores out of the way.

Suddenly my stepfather threw open the front door, hinges shrieking. For sound effects, conjure up the shower scene in Psycho. I glanced up from my task to see him charging toward us with a ballistic expression, left eye twitching homicidally. The sight would have put Attila the Hun into panic mode.

It did Bobby, too. He had seen my stepfather in action before and bailed out instantly. I can still picture him squirming right through our thick front hedge with the body language of a freaked-out groundhog.

As for me, there was no place to hide.

My power of recall shuts down at precisely that instant. I don’t remember the next few minutes of pain and terror. Nor do I recollect the aftermath from many other similar incidents during the frightful years with my stepfather. He was the embodiment of the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Selective amnesia must still serve as my escape valve to protect me from the interesting times that cursed my family.

Kenya landscape

Kenya: one of my great escapes

With that incident as an example, I can neatly sum up childhood this way: My stepfather was the kind of guy it takes the rest of your life to get over. And it did.

My reaction to the 11 years I spent under the thumb of this deeply disturbed man was to run like hell. I became a star sprinter in high school, an obsession that allowed me both mentally and physically to run away from the boot camp that passed as our home life. Then a ruptured hamstring muscle, ripped out of its moorings at the hip bone, ended my athletic dreams when I was only 17. But that didn’t stop me from running! Thereafter, as a young adult, I pursued the fast and loose lifestyle of a poet and journalist. I also served variously as a VISTA, Peace Corps, and United Nations Volunteer, motivated by reasons ranging from high ideals to escapism.

And it wasn’t just my stepfather I was running from, for I often asked myself a very disturbing question. Where was my beloved mother during the decade when I was at the mercy of this madman? The sad reply is that she always seemed to be asleep in her bedroom. My life, therefore, became a 100-meter dash away from a mother who wasn’t really there and from a stepfather who was. And all too often. It was also a headlong getaway from anyone who ever triggered the prickly emotion of love.

I sought my meaning elsewhere, mainly in pursuit of a rich fantasy life. While chasing impossible dreams, I rambled all over, landing momentarily in such far-flung realities as New Jersey, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Oregon, California, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Washington State, Kenya, and many other short-lived phenomena. In the process, I skipped from mate to mate and job to job in a failed attempt to flee my past, which survived mainly as a dull ache in my belly and a memory full of atomic shadows.

Little did I know, but I was headed for a big comeuppance that would almost kill me and would certainly alter my life forever. For this part of my story, see the next section.