Sunday, March 25, 2012

Just A Phone Call Away...

Because of the strange situation in which my brother George finds himself -- lost in his own mind, living in a trailer in Oregon, forgetting where he's left his driver's license, among other things -- my brother Glenn and I have been on the phone more than usual, for us.  (Usual being once every two years or so.  Warm and cuddly as a family, we are not) 

And because of this increased frequency of conversation, and because the three of us share different portions of the same shattered childhood, Glenn and I will go back over various events, various dislocations, or various cruelties, to put things into at least a coherent chronological order.  During one of these recent talks, Glenn said something truly amazing, to the extent that I felt my life shift a bit on its seemingly immovable foundation. 

Glenn told me that, while talking with George about the events we somehow survived, they both agreed that, instead of having been punished, by being sent back to the orphanage after only a year of living with my father and step-mother, they had actually been delivered from a terrible life.  And that, from their adult perspective, it was I who had gotten the worst of the bargain. 

Let me explain why this is such a profoundly important thing for me to hear.  The story has four parts.

In 1955, just before my parents divorced, my mother was in a hospital in St. Louis MO, across the river from our home in Belleville IL.  (She had phlebitis, I think.  And wanted a rest from raising five children)  My father had loaded all of us kids in the Buick, and was driving us across the Eames St. Bridge, on the way to visit, when Glenn, sitting in the back seat of the car, managed to twist the car door handle open.  Because the rear doors on that Buick opened to the front, the air pulled the door out all the way, and Glenn was flung out onto the roadbed.  My father felt the sudden breeze, looked back, and then backed up, to get Glenn before he was run over.  We never did find his shoes.  Then my father made the maddest possible dash for the hospital, to see how badly hurt Glenn might be.

He had a compound fractured skull.  His head needed to be bandaged up.  And he spent several days in the hospital.  The same hospital as my mother.  And I hated him for it.

The next year, my brothers and I were put in an orphanage.  I forgot about Glenn's fractured skull, at least on a conscious level.  I had other things to think about.

In 1958, my father had divorced and remarried, to a woman ten years his junior.  My brothers and I, after having spent varying amounts of time in that orphanage, were living in my father's new home.  Nine months after giving birth to her first child, my stepmother was pregnant again.  Her orphaned cousin was living with the family.  And my father had lost his job months before.

The house had become a place of madness.  My brothers were being chained in bed at night, to keep them from prowling around, looking for something to eat.  I was given charge of the keys.  Often, my brothers were chained together in the basement, sitting on a picnic bench, for hours at a time.  I was given charge of the keys.  Whatever illusion of a dream-like family life my father and step-mother had created for themselves was definitely not going to materialize with this particular cast of characters.  For reasons known only to themselves, my parents began to lay down strange, variable and ultimately impossible standards of behavior for me brothers and me.   And then, one day, we were threatened --  if we didn't behave, we were being sent back to the orphanage.

I could not go back.  I could not go back.  I could not go back.

One day in school, either George or Glenn soiled his underpants, and tried to hide the fact, by taking the dirty garment off, and flushing it down the boy's room toilet.  It lodged in the plumbing within minutes, and flooded the hallways of the one-story building.  My parents were informed, and were not please.  My brothers were losing weight, and had to be fed a special, foul-smelling dark-brown goop.  We lived mostly on powdered milk and government surplus peanut butter and cheese, in spite of the fact that my step-mother's mother ran a restaurant not five miles from where my brothers were chained in bed at night, because they were hungry.  And we were told, if we couldn't behave, we were being sent back to the orphanage.

I could not go back.

I hatched a shameful plan. 

I started with my step-mother's jewelry.  One Saturday, while I was cleaning the house, and was in my parent's bedroom, I sneaked into her jewelry box, and took out a rhinestone necklace.  I put it into my pocket, and continued cleaning.  Later, I broke the necklace apart.  Most of it, I hid in a metal band-aid box, which I buried in the loose soil at the edge of our yard, near a thin growth of trees.  And one piece, I had to hide, where it was sure to be found.

George couldn't be blamed, because he was my favorite brother.  Lee was too young to do such a thing.  It had to be Glenn.  I put the final piece of broken necklace into a pocket of Glenn's pants, and waited.

Sure enough, soon enough, my step-mother went looking in her jewelry box, and noticed something missing.  She screamed, as she always did.  There was turmoil -- demands to know where the necklace was, demands that it be produced immediately, and then, because my brothers and I didn't know anything about a missing necklace, my father began searching through our drawers, our clothes...

And Glenn got a beating.  Screaming and crying all the while that he hadn't done it.

Next, it was a bracelet.  Then a ring.  Some of the things I broke, and repeated the stashing of the evidence.  Other things I simply added to my secret stash.  From time to time, I would go out to the hidden band-aid box and dig it up.  I had my plastic German shepherd with me -- a sort of idealized model dog -- and I would settle it into the dirt, and then array it with the broken bits of rhinestone and other treasures I'd stolen.  After a while, I would take all the precariously-balanced brilliance off the plastic dog, and put it all back in the box.

Glenn continued to get beaten.  One beating was particularly spectacular, as my father, in his rage, had grabbed a piece of two-by-four from the basement, and thrashed my brother mercilessly.  Only years later did I learn that, even being in the same house with such abuse is, in fact, abuse.

I blamed Glenn for other things.  I broke a model squirrel I'd built, and with the sharp edge of one of the pieces, I scraped 'I hate Buzz' (my nickname, which no one knows), deep into the top of the cheap maple veneer dresser.  I tried to disguise the writing.  Glenn got beaten.  I somehow managed to scratch my own back, perhaps with my own fingernails, and then breathlessly showed the mark to my step-mother, saying that Glenn had somehow gotten loose from his chains, had sneaked into the kitchen to find a butcher knife, and had tried to kill me, by stabbing me in the back.

Glenn got beaten.

While all this was unfolding -- while I was blackmailing my brothers, to avoid being sent back to the orphanage -- my parents were meeting with social workers.  The grade school principal came to make a house call.  My brothers were going to Pittsburgh once a week, to see with a psychiatrist.  And those impossible rules continued to be laid down and recalled (we ate with a kitchen timer on the table, to make sure we didn't take to long over our sandwiches), to be replaced by some equally impossible demand.  Some beatings weren't my fault.  More than enough of them were.

And then, one day, after almost a year of this madness, my brothers were packed up, and sent back to the orphanage.  But I didn't go.

Can you rejoice over such a thing?  I felt -- and continue to feel -- a filthy horror, at having done such things, even though it seemed to me that returning to the orphanage meant I would die.

Then one day, not long after my brothers had left, my father called to me from his basement work bench.  He needed to talk to me.  I came partway down the steps, to hear what he had to say.  "We knew it was you, who did all those things," he said.  And right then, the most bizarre things happened to me.  The world literally turned upside-down.  I was still standing on my feet, but it was as though there was a camera in my head, and it was being rotated, 180 degrees, in a clock-wise direction, until my father, sitting at the workbench where he never did any work, was at the top of my field of vision, and the ceiling was at my feet.  I don't remember how long he was talking, or what else he said.  I just remember that unearthly sense of complete internal dislocation.

In 1966, I had been in the Air Force for two years already.   At high school graduation, I had been told either to find a job and move out, or enlist in the military, because I couldn't live in my father's house any more.  Finding a job, as the Vietnam War was cranking up, with and the military Draft was still in effect, wouldn't have been much more difficult if I'd actually borne a tattoo reading 'Cannon Fodder' on my forehead.  So my father had signed the Air Force enlistment papers, and I was gone.  Now back on a brief leave, I was in the car with my father, driving the five miles from his new house, to the house where all the terrible beatings and chainings had taken place.  The cinderblock walls in the basement needed some paint.  We rode in near silence, as usual.

It was while we were painting that my father casually mentioned a couple of things I'd never been told before.  I had been taken out of the orphanage first, he said, because the institution insisted that my father find another place for me to live.  The management was apparently concerned, he said, because I was so unhappy there.  My father had lied to them, he said, telling them I would go to Florida, to live with my paternal grandparents.  But in any case, my father remarked as he painted, the orphanage would never have taken me back -- that, he said, had always been out of the question.           

This is what I live with.  This is at the core of who I have become.  I am the man, who was the boy, who sacrificed his own brothers, to avoid a fate, that he couldn't have known would never have come to pass.  It is impossible to express the extent or density of my shame.  It is impossible to describe the strength, the sheer durability of my guilt.  Even though, recently, Glenn gave me copies of official court documents, showing incontrovertibly that my parents decided they didn't want my brothers long before I broke that first tawdry piece of costume jewelry, I can't sidestep the fact that, within the framework of what I knew, I had made this series of loathsome choices.

So.  Glenn (the beaten one) and George agree -- they got off easy.  Compared to what my life was like with my father and step-mother and my vengeful step-grandmother, their lives, in the various institutions to which they were shunted until they, too, were old enough to join the military, were pieces of cake.  This is what they know, now, to be true.  But this late-breaking consolation is only the thinnest of salves, for a self-inflicted wound so old and so deep.

I recently did a Tarot reading for myself, and one of the cards, which has a generally positive meaning, also indicated that a particular challenge for me might be... forgiving myself.  I read that, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. 

How?  Oh please, how?

©    2012         Walter Zimmerman

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