It took four hours to drive down to southern New Mexico in our teal station wagon. The trip was every bit as arduous to me as traversing the Oregon Trail in a Conestoga wagon. So Mom gave me a few bucks to buy reading material for the trip, which I thought was generous. Why should they give me any money at all? I understood it was every dog for himself. But when I settled into the back seat and opened my new Conan comic book, I felt something boring into my forehead. I looked up to see that Mom had twisted around in the front seat, and she was giving me pig eyes. Despite the lack of instruction, I was expected to know intuitively the right thing to do and have an adequate moral compass. Apparently, that was my instruction. I could be plotting out the Great American Novel in my head, but if Mom gave me pig eyes, I could convince myself that she’d caught me masturbating. It seemed that “reading material” meant books without pictures, not comic books, and so I was polluting my mind again. I shoved Conan beneath the seat and ruminated. Why was everything I liked unacceptable? I wondered. Sneaking back across the street to the sheet tent and then asking the twins for a Pop Tart had been rude. Now reading Conan was wrong?
We didn’t talk about aliens from outer space who crash-landed in Roswell, Dad’s hometown, as we drove to Artesia, Mom’s hometown. Neither did we discuss our feelings. We didn’t take the opportunity, as we were crammed together in the car, to discuss the man who pulled over to the curb in his gray sedan one summer day while the twins and I played knights. Those tent-stake golf clubs had become swords, trash-can lids were shields, and bathrobes were capes. The man guaranteed us a quarter the next day and a nickel for every one of his flyers we handed out. I only passed out a few dozen flyers before losing interest and sliding the remainder beneath my bed. For weeks, I endured Mom’s pig eyes for not living up to my commitment. I felt horrible, and for a couple of years, I kept an eye out for the man in the gray sedan, fearful that he’d be furious and attack me. Eventually, I realized that he’d duped us and never intended to pay us a cent. And then it dawned on me that Mom had taken his side! To her, it was a comment on my integrity; to me, it was a comment on our relationship. But that’s another thing we never talked about in the station wagon as we drove down to Artesia.
Instead, Sonny and Cher sang “I Got You Babe” on the radio as the tan-and-brown New Mexican high desert slipped past and solitary tin-roofed adobe houses begged, “Why would anyone live in the middle of nowhere, and what exactly do they do all day?”
Mom opened her used copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and read aloud. It was homework for her, as she was an art education major at the university. When she got to the parts that used the F word she said, “Fuh-uh-uh-um,” under her breath and let it trail away. She fooled no one except my little sister. I snickered because I’d used that word before and gotten my mouth washed out with soap. Do parents still shove a bar of soap into a child’s mouth and call it a lesson? Fuck. See? It didn’t work. There are more effective ways to train young human beings than miniassaults. But in my parents’ defense, they both operated from an impoverished, 1940s, southern New Mexico paradigm, in which washing a child’s mouth out with soap was far preferable to taking a belt to his butt, and I should be grateful. Anyway, my sister, Kat, asked, “What?” when I giggled over the F word, and Mom said, “Nothing.” She flashed me pig eyes and read silently.
The protagonist of Cuckoo’s Nest was Randall Patrick McMurphy. He had thick, swinging arms, rolling shoulders, cock-sure confidence, and he oozed overt rebellion. He was not averse to violence, if the situation demanded it. McMurphy had everything I wanted except for his red hair.
In the meantime, my real-world male role model was still my dad. With his right hand flopped over the steering wheel, he drove with his wrist. His left elbow rested on the open window, as car air conditioning was a luxury that only rich people could afford in those days. Soldiers’ kids drank warm powered milk, watched gray TV with rabbit ears that had to be fiddled with when they switched stations, and turned a crank to lower the station wagon windows to allow the hot outside air to displace the humid inside air.
I saw Dad as McMurphyesque. He was a tall, emotionally guarded man and, at the time, a full-time Army National Guard captain. There was no question that he could kick ass like Conan. When my muscly brother sassed him, Dad jacked him up against the wall, one hand on his throat and a knee in his crotch, which clarified the family hierarchy. It terrified me to see such brute force, because I knew the direction shit went down a hill, and I stood at the bottom. You should understand that the two females in my family were immune from receiving violence, but males were fair game. Being the smallest male, I knew to hunker down and avoid eye contact. I was excellent at learning by observation, so I never went against Dad. Even now, when he’s in his eighties and I’m in my fifties, I’m hesitant to tell my truth. As a boy, I just tried to be more like him. I even requested a flattop haircut like his, but he wouldn’t allow it. Maybe he wanted to save me the embarrassment, or maybe it was to save him the money, but I got a crew cut free, which we called a “fuzzy bug.” I was stripped down to my skivvies on the back patio, and Mom ran the electric clippers over my scalp. I was bummed. I’d wanted to morph into someone less vulnerable and without problems, which was all I knew of my father—and all he would show. He modeled stoicism to me, and there are times when putting up such a wall can be valuable. I’m not arguing against survival, but when we are safe, the wall can come down, and then we thrive better emotionally and relationally.
Dad always found something that needed doing around the house to keep him busy. That puzzled me because I always found something better to do than to be that kind of busy. With a never-ending list of projects, Dad kept the house, yard, and cars in tip-top shape. I don’t remember the neighbors ever complaining about the appearance of our house.
Dad was a good neighbor and a little bit heroic to me. He rose to the defense of Mr. Abbin, who lived across the street (not the twins’ father). When drunken teenagers harassed Mr. Abbin late one night, Dad hid behind an elm in our front yard with a flashlight and .22-caliber handgun as Mr. Abbin hid across the street. When the teens entered the kill zone, Mr. Abbin fired a shotgun blast into their car. He wounded one teen in the elbow and leg and blinded another in one eye. See? It was a mistake to fuh-uh-uh-um with Dad or Mr. Abbin—or pretty much any adult male in the state of New Mexico—was how I saw it. Which, of course, meant that I had to toughen up some more. At the time, as a kid, I figured that the teenagers got what they had coming to them. Today, it’s hard to believe that it happened. Mr. Abbin went to jail, and Dad dodged a bullet.
For a year after that, I occasionally found a linen napkin in the fork of one of those elm trees in our front yard. When I unrolled the napkins, large dead rats tumbled out. Was it cowardly revenge? Perhaps it was my To Kill a Mockingbird moment, except that neither a Boo Radley nor a Mr. Ewell ever revealed himself.
These memories hide behind bedroom doors in my mind and seem to emerge only when I spend time searching for them. They are enigmas for which I look for explanations—and fail. I question the principal characters today, but they shake their heads. I’m alone in my remembrance, and I share them here to be less alone. It seems that I must accept mystery.
The dashboard of every car Dad ever owned glistened with Armor All. He always drove small, two-seater sports cars, so it was difficult to carry more than one kid at a time. If my brother was there, I had to sit on the hump in the middle. I became very attuned to the higher whine of the engine that signaled that I’d soon have to move my leg or have the gearshift crammed into my knee. And if you’re imagining seat belts of any kind, please keep in mind that’s all it is—imagining. You see, Dad’s compromise with Mom was that she got kids and a station wagon, and he got a sports car and a black Cushman scooter. In summertime, he tied a rope to a wagon behind his Cushman and pulled us around the neighborhood; in winter, he pulled us on a sled. Imagine my pride and jealousy when neighbor kids rang our doorbell and asked if Dad could come out to play. Eventually, the cops put an end to the fun, but in the meantime, sports cars and scooters kept Dad in the mood to whistle. It was always the same tune, which was actually no recognizable tune at all, but it became one of my favorites. I tried to engage him in my world. Why were there so many sappy love songs on the radio? I asked. He had no idea. So, I tried joining him in his world, and I saluted him from the sandbox as he came whistling past. He carried an enormous, olive-drab toolbox, and he stomped past with an arm out for balance. I couldn’t even deadlift the thing. But he frowned when I saluted because he thought I was making fun of him. I felt bad about that, which is why I’m bringing it up now. My early attempts to bond were a bit dysfunctional. Dad didn’t wish to be saluted by a dang civilian, especially a kid.
So, for me, grown men were stoic and commanding. They were invulnerable and could be pushed to violence—exactly who you’d want to send into combat or out to the front yard when feisty teenagers harassed a neighbor. I feared that I couldn’t live up to that, so I worked on my physical courage and suppressed my “girly” emotions as best I could.
My emotions signaled to me that I was no killer. I felt sad for dead things, even the hamburger, bacon, and drumsticks on my plate. When I was sad or lonely, angry or anxious, it was difficult for me not to show it. And hey, I wanted to talk about it! Still, I strived to be more like Dad, and I fell far short and felt inadequate.
I had to do something with all those emotions coursing through me, all those thoughts looping inside my skull. So from that place, I reacted. I wouldn’t talk it out. I wouldn’t break windows or set a cat on fire. Instead, my anxiety took the form of compulsively stretching my mouth wide or holding my breath. See, a touch of childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder—OCD—had developed. I blinked wildly as I hunched over the dining room table, writing again. As Christian Scientists, we did not discuss my compulsions, other than Mom rhetorically asking if I wanted to look crazy. Is it any wonder that I became a psychologist and today specialize in treating OCD and other anxiety disorders as well as impression management? My compulsions never fully went away, but I learned to hide them better, to channel them into athletics, academics, and writing.
In the meantime, back in the station wagon driving down to Artesia, I begged Mom to continue reading aloud. McMurphy went up against the Big Nurse. Later, he told the psychiatrist that his problem was “too much fuh-uh-uh-um and fightin’.”