My Life story
| For years people have encouraged me to write my life story. I poked at it with a stick a few times but always felt a little funny. In my opinion, life stories are written when one has achieved some pinnacle of success or completed some newsworthy act. From the perspective of having played with the idea of being a professional author the idea of writing without an inspirational message or a dramatic climax where heroism is revealed seemed less than worthy.This ongoing work came to be as I wrote two essays about events that took place in my childhood. Once they were completed I began to try to piece in some of what happened in between. Prior to my ninth birthday the chronology is dicey at best. Situations that seemed to have taken years to unfold would have had to have taken place in weeks, or else I would have to be about 90 years old! Looking back in time is difficult. I never attended school regularly until 4rd grade so time markers prior to that are difficult to find. Even placing the events in order has proven to be difficult. Again, how could anyone live this many events in such a short period of time. I often wonder if all the nasty stuff happened in just one very busy year and the rest of the years are lost in time.
I am the last living witness of these events. My mother is gone. My grandparents are both passed away as well. My aunts and uncles who are still living are separated both emotionally and geographically and unavailable to bring clarity to my timeline. Most of them are prone to exaggeration and self serving, rendering any testimony they could offer unreliable anyway.
I recorded these events for my sons, Kevin, Cavan, and Talon. I also am recording them for anyone who would want to read them. My story isn’t pretty, but there are a great many people who have lived through worse. My story did not right away make me into a better person. That has taken years to happen. What I would hope that someone would take away, should they decide to read these pages, is that it is never too late. We cannot change the past but we can choose to do, and the past can instruct us in what.
I wish that I could believe that somehow some of the people in my past who showed me kindness and love would somehow miraculously find this through the miracle of the internet. I would hope that they would read and see the oasis of love they created for me in the midst of the desert of selfishness. If you happen upon this read and you perhaps recognize a name or a location, would you pass it on? Some of the ones that I most want to know how thankful I am are;
The Rancher and his wife
The shoeshine boy
There are others, but these most of all.
Kevin Michal Bell
|Life can be simple, but people seldom are. There are twists and turns both internal and external the make each and every person a labyrinth of complexity. Here is my life story. I have written it for my boys as well as for anyone who can gain value, find kinship, or just enjoy the misadventures of complex people simply living.|
Wild Wild West
Grand Junction lays in the western half of Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and at the very border of Utah and its Great Desert. Back in the not too distant past Grand Junction was pretty typical of a western town. In fact many a western movie was set and filmed in the surrounding area. It is a town surrounded by alkali flats, desert dunes, towering cliffs and plunging mountains. It rests solidly in wide open valley once roamed by a robust population of prehistoric creatures who posthumously added to the Valley’s future fame by leaving behind their bones, solidly preserved in rock and stone, throughout the area.
Grand Junction got it’s name from the junction of the Grand River and the Gunnison River. In the 1920′s the name of the Grand was changed to the Upper Colorado River, but Upper Colorado River Junction was much too long to put on a map, so the name stayed Grand Junction. It could have been named for other important junctions as well. Three railroad lines find their way to the massive D&RG hump yard and three main highways intersect within the area, making it a transportation hub.
Coming into the area from the east one motors along the winding and tumbling Colorado River. Curving upward at the entrance to the valley is Mount Garfield, a naturally buttressed corner spire with book cliff walls extending hundreds of miles and defining the northern border of the valley with it’s precarious footholds and impenetrable height. Along the side of the Mount a sharp eye can pick out the rock bed of the old stage coach road as it clings to the sides in stubborn defiance time, perched up out of reach of the floodwater of the Colorado.
The greater area around Grand Junction was called The Grand Valley. In the midst of the Grand Valley is an elongated fertile patch of green following the path of the Colorado river, in sharp contrast with the lunar expanse of brown and gray; the high desert. The two rivers worked together to create an oasis in the midst of an arid high desert, further enhanced by the introduction of modern irrigation. The farther one would wander north or south away from the path of the river the more barren, sparse and hostile the countryside becomes.
Before transportation became rapid and common, the valley divided itself into several small communities of commerce that exist to this day. There was Palisade to the far east, butted up against the very base of the the largest flat topped mountain the United States. In prehistoric times the Mesa was a massive volcano that blew it’s top off in what must have been a colossal explosion that rocked the surrounding area for hundreds of square miles. Now it sits as a sentry to the east aside it’s smaller brother, Mount Garfield. The Mesa is a beautiful and striking guardian covered over with lakes and forests. The fertile volcanic soil at the base, the warmth of the high desert, and the shade cast by the altitude of the nearby mountain makes Palisade the perfect environment to grow world class peaches, apples and apricots. In later years it has also became an important grape growing region.
In between Palisade and Grand Junction were the rural townships of Clifton and Fruitvale, both so small that you could miss them by blinking even if you were traveling by horseback.
To the Northwest lay the agricultural town of Fruita. It is surrounded on all sites by flat acres of farmland, made possible in the midst of the desert by the miracle of irrigation and farmer’s inherent perseverance. Corn, hay and sugar beets grow abundantly in mile after mile of a watered wasteland made productive by the ingenuity and tenacity of the early settlers.
The Gunnison River meandered westward from the south east part of the valley through the community of Orchard Mesa with it’s apple orchards, interspersed amongst alkali scrubs. Directly west of town the view is dominated by the western sentinel, a huge red rock covering hundreds of square miles and towering hundreds of feet into the air called the Colorado National Monument. The locals simply refer to it as The Monument. Time and erosion worked together miraculously to weave and carve the landscape into a layered tapestry of deep valleys and ravines surrounded by spires and cliffs of red, yellow and orange colored rock. It is inhabited by deer, elk, rabbits, chipmunks and even scorpions The resulting product is a work of art rivaling even the Grand Canyon in stark beauty and biological diversity. Indeed many who have visited both have expressed a preference for the monument.
In 1959 the area of the Grand Valley was in a bust economic cycle. The energy boom of uranium had come to a grinding halt and oil had yet to take off. Coal barely held on with only one mine remaining. Many who had earned a good living in the industry had to enter the work force at other points, forcing labor rates to spiral downward and making the economy less than robust. Even so, the agricultural mainstay of the Valley remained stable as fruits and vegetables were warmed by the sun, nourished in the volcanic soil, and watered by the abundance brought by two rivers. The Valley continued to march forward through time.
Itching for Love
Jessie was a sophomore at Central High School, one of three High Schools in Mesa County of which Grand Junction was the county seat. The city consisted of about 10,000 full time residents in the city itself, and about another 15,000 in the surrounding area. During the mid summer months the population would rise as migrant workers would find their way into the area to work the Palisade peach harvests, followed by apple harvests and then a few other agricultural labors ending up in October.
Jessie was born on the edge of the mountains in the very small mountain town of Hotchkiss. It was on the backside of the Grand Mesa on a road that no one much traveled unless you were going there. One traveled the road to get to the small communities of Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia, known for its annual Cherry Day Festival. She came screaming into this world just a couple of months prior to the end of World War II, the first daughter of John Clark and his bride, Ruby Wiley.
Both John and Ruby were Scotch Irish descendants well immersed in Irish tradition, or at least Irish superstition. The isolated nature of small town life protected the connection with the past from the infusion of national ambiguity and they maintained a strong identity with their ancestry. Jessie was the first born of her mother and father. Her mother had an older daughter with an earlier husband when she was just 13 who lived and grew up with her older sister, Ruth. Jessie, along with two brothers and a baby sister grew up in a little two story house on the edge of town surrounded in the summer by a marshy yard filled with green grass and yellow buttercups. The railroad ran close by and Jessie and her brothers, David and Leslie, and younger sister, Bernice, would oft times hitch a ride on the “pop” cars on their ways to school, albeit under the threat of severe beatings if caught. The “pop” car was the small rail car used to transport workers to and from areas of track needing maintenance. It got the name “pop” car from the popping sound the engine made. Somehow the girls managed to get the driver to stop even though picking up passengers meant certain unemployment. It was the mountains and not many witnesses.
When Jessie was still a young teenager John and Ruby divorced and Ruby moved to Grand Junction with four kids in tow. She found a job for herself at a local truck-stop called Gay Johnson’s. Gay Johnson’s was strategically located to take advantage of the intersection of the three main highways, US-6, US-50, which became US-6&50. Ruby worked hard to support her four kids but found time to fall in love with a handsome young truck driver named Omar Mercer. He was a former army cook and wore a chauffeurs hat perched at a rakish angle atop his head. It wasn’t long before the two married and added another daughter to the family tree.
All of the Ruby’s children seemed to grow up young. Leslie, the oldest boy, went off to war with the army but returned before his enlistment ran out, his discharge shrouded in secrecy. He tended to stay out of communication with the rest of the family. David, the next after Jessie, committed several small thefts and burglaries and ended up spending some time in reform school. The girls blossomed into young women quickly and enjoyed attention from the young men who gathered around them.
Life in 1959, and especially in the western agricultural areas, was different than it is today. Child labor was only slightly regulated and usually was not regulated once a person entered their teens. The middle class was beginning to grow, but money was still scarce. Teenagers were expected to work, at least part time, in order to procure their school supplies and any small luxuries. The workforce consisted of kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds. It was expected of most and an absolute necessity to many.
Jessie, like most high school aged kids in 1959, worked in the harvest during the summer months and often into the early fall. Jessie worked in the peach packing sheds. In 1959 there were still strong defining lines between what was socially considered gender appropriate work. Mostly women worked in the sheds, sorting and filling wooden boxes full of ripe goodness for which the area became famous. The air was dusty with peach fuzz that landed everywhere and penetrated any type of clothing. As if to add to the overall misery, the 100 degree summertime temperatures opened skin pores in order to keep the body cool, creating the perfect recipe for itching. The all over peach fuzz itch is something that cannot be described, it must be experienced to be understood. A careless barber who allows hair to get down into your collar cannot produce an itch that compares ever so slightly to the all over peach fuzz itch produced in the packing sheds.
The men who worked the harvest worked out in the fields, picking, pruning, and carrying heavy loads of juicy ripe fruit from the tree to the truck and further on to the sheds. At the end of the day they would gather near the sheds at the payroll office where cash was given out on a piece rate. The harder you worked, the more you picked, the more you made. There were no unions, little in the way of government regulation, only the value of labor as part of the total equation. No one got rich, the grower included, but many saw their basic needs met at the pay shack. That is where Jessie first saw Jack.
Jack had dark wavy hair, a handsome cleft chin and an Irish nose. He was an outgoing fellow, quick to become the center of attention in any gathering. He was cracking jokes in the middle of a group of tanned, sweaty and itchy pickers in their ribbed tank top tee shirts, when she saw him looking back at her. Something kindled inside of her sixteen year old heart that she couldn’t describe. Even if she didn’t have a name for it, she was determined to find out what it was and explore it. That meant that she had to meet that man.
It didn’t take much to catch Jack’s attention. He was warm and treated everyone like they were his long time friend. She sidled up close and caught his eye. He made some comment about her hair and her eyes, and then they made some small talk up to the point where he asked her out to the movie. She hardly paid attention to what was on the screen and before intermission Jessie discovered the funny feeling in her heart had a name and that name was love. She was head over heels in love from the first moment.
Jack was nearly a decade older than Jessie. No one really questioned him, not her mother, Ruby, or Ruby’s new husband, Omar. Jessie’s siblings liked Jack, he had a way of making everyone feel like they were his closest friend. Bernice, the youngest, had a crush on Jack as well, but pretty much kept it to herself. Jack’s last name was French and he was often called Frenchy or Frenchman by his friends. Omar liked him and called him Frenchman. Truth was that Jack was living a double life. While he was on the Western side of the state picking fruit, he also had a wife and two children back on the Eastern Slope who had no idea of what was going on other than the weekly Western Union checks that kept the family afloat.
By late fall the harvest was coming to an end. There were fewer hours in the work day and school had resumed. Jack would pick Jessie up after school in his 1948 Plymouth. She would bounce out, her hair blowing in the wind, her pleated skirt swishing back and forth beneath her red Central High letter man’s sweater. The golden sunshine of late fall could hardly compete with the warm radiance of love from her eyes. As the days grew shorter and the nights colder, the afternoons heated up and she gave herself to him one afternoon down by the black bridge that stretched over the meandering green Gunnison River. She loved her Frenchman with all her heart and spoke of the future and the fun they would have. Of course he would have to get a divorce, but that was just a formality. He would always get quiet as she would go on about the great things they would do and the way they would head out to the west coast and make their fortune as Mr. and Mrs. Jack French; too quiet.
Their love consummated in the fall and by winter, sixteen year old Jessie missed her period. Christmas of 59 came and went and by February of 1960 she could keep it a secret no more. She told Jack that she was pregnant. Somehow they ended up in a verbal battle of epic proportions that ended in Jack climbing into his old Plymouth and disappearing into the frosty winter night along with all of Jessie’s dreams.
Jessie never saw him or heard from Jack again. No one in the family ever laid eyes on him again. In May of 1960 Jessie gave birth three months early. She was angry that Jack wasn’t there. She was angry at herself for having, in her words, driven him away. They cut the umbilical and took the wrinkled little red skinned boy and placed him in an incubator, his undeveloped little lungs needing help to get enough oxygen to sustain his life. Jessie wept bitterly. Her hopes and dreams of being with Jack were gone. Any hope she could have had apart from him were dashed to pieces by the little baby that cried inside the glass case. Two men, two dreams, two disappointments. In anger she refused to give Jack’s name for the birth certificate, opting rather for a name that struck her fancy, James A. McGee.
My story began that day in May as I struggled to live against the odds. I have no memory of any of these events, but I heard about them often enough that I was able to believe them with some sense of certainty. My mother was prone to exaggeration, literary license, and outright lying. It took repetition to lend veracity to what I would eventually accept as truth. Both her and my grandmother confirmed that I struggled with pneumonia several times in those first few months and was in the hospital for nearly a month before I was allowed to come home. It was a month that my mother was able to bring herself to believe, if only for just a moment, she did not have to become the source for a little dependent life.
Ruby stepped in and instead of coming home to my mother, I was bundled up and brought home to my grandmother. Jessie, my mom, had left for the west coast to pursue her dreams, whatever they happened to be. Though I cannot remember the events I heard about them from my grandmother and my grandfather. I asked mom about it once and she cried out her confession. She related the events in such a way to make it seem as though she had no choice. She sobbed out how society had branded her as less,based on her status as an unwed mother. Her depression, suicidal thoughts and the desperate longing to be loved and in love made me hurt deep down for her as the victim of an evil plot. It caused me to wonder if perhaps I had somehow ruined her life by the unconscious and unintended act of having been born.
This was the first time my mother ever left me, but our life together had just begun and there would be other times.
It is a great act of mercy that most of us don’t remember the first year of our lives. I wouldn’t want my oldest son to remember what a clutz I was at fatherhood. I shudder at my impatience when he was colicky, or my confusion at getting a diaper to stay on.
As parents, we don’t always come from the factory with the parenting chip installed. Some people flourish in the garden of new parenthood, while others seem to be onions planted in a field of flowers. After having a wonderful time living in California, my mother returned. My grandmother and grandfather had grown accustomed to having me in their lives and raising me alongside their five year old daughter, Ruthy. They had decided that Mom was not ready to be a mother and had taken legal action to try to gain custody. I’m not sure that she really wanted me, but there was something about taking something away, even though it might be unwanted, that brought out my mom’s fiercest instincts. While in the house on the pretense of a visit, my mom took advantage of a moment of inattention on the part of my grandparents. Checking to make sure the coast was clear she scooped me up and headed out the door. She loaded me in the back of the car and we headed east toward the Continental Divide. The great Divide is that point where water flows generally east or west depending on which side the point of origin is. It was big, rugged, and provided at least a psychological border behind which mom felt she could hide in safety. Denver was our ultimate destination.
Along the way my mother met, fell in love with, and divorced her first husband. There is no one left that recalls his name and I don’t have any memory of it. The short lived nature of their relationship set the pattern for my mother’s future relationships. All in all she was married seven times and divorced six. After her divorce from He who has faded away into namelessness, she continued eastward toward Georgia. Here in the deep south, near the metropolis of Atlanta, is where I have my first recollections.
Mom remarried quickly, though I cannot recall the event. She called her husband Casey, I called him Dad. He was the very first man I remember. I don’t recall a last name. Those details aren’t important to the very young. I also don’t know for sure if Casey were a last name used as an endearing handle of sorts or was his given name. Though my memories are cloudy and often times the chronology is iffy, there are moments of clarity from those few short years that come back like film trailers that play out in my mental cinima. I can remember sitting in an old pickup truck on my mother’s lap, trying hard to capture the windshield wiper as it swished back and forth. I remember Casey’s laughter at my confusion as it eluded my attempts over and over again. I remember the trailer house in which we lived, the Christmastime tinsel hanging from the light fixture over the living room and the big battle wagon toy I received that Christmas. It became my treasure, a toy of such proportion that as a small toddler I could barely handle, but was my constant companion. I loved the noise it made when we first got it. It took a great many D cell batteries to power the beast and they didn’t last long so it was seldom powered. It didn’t take batteries to shoot the big cannons on the deck, and I would do so with much delight. simply press the missile into the barrel of the big guns on the front deck then press the red button on top, bammo, instant barrage!. The only difficulty there was keeping track of the projectiles once they were launched into the wild seas of the living room. I also clearly remember Casey trying to get me to walk in dry wall stilts and giving me rides on his shoulders.
It was during this time that I had my first experiences with things that i still don’t quite understand; things that are seemingly impossible. The first one that comes to mind happened while I was with my mom and dad and we were swimming at Altuna Lake, near Marietta where we lived. I was walking along knee deep in water. I saw another kid who was floating in an inner tube. He told me something about a hole and the next thing I knew I was underwater. It was at that moment that I had vision or at least memory of it, looking at myself from outside of my own body. I saw the shadowy figure of my young body struggling to try to reach the surface through the yellowish silt of the lake. It only lasted a moment before Casey’s big strong hands reached me and brought me coughing and sputtering into the bright Georgia sun.
As I alluded earlier, we lived in a mobile home. It was located in a mobile home park, in the midst of a long line of mobile homes filled with children my age and older. The road between the rows of trailers had an uphill incline, which crested at the edge of a picket fenced yard marking off the well manicured grass surrounding an old two story house. Inside the house lived three elderly sisters. They would wave at the kids as we played around in the streets and would tell us it was getting too late when we would chase fireflys well into the night in the fields surrounding their house. Our mobile home park was also on the flight path to an Air Force base and at times the jet engine sounds would be so loud as to drown out all other sounds and rattle the very blocks which leveled the trailers on their foundations.
II didn’t really have a bedroom in the trailer in which we lived. There was a bed alongside the wall, in between the kitchen and the bathroom. At the very back of the traller was the master bedroom and in the very front was the living room. I was a small child, perhaps even a bit weaker than I should have been as a result of continued hospitalizations due to lung conditions and asthma. Being smaller it made it nearly impossible for me to scramble up into the bed where I slept. Most of the time it would take assistance from my mom or from Casey in order for me to climb into my nightly perch. I remember looking forward to being in my bed, looking out the window at the yard and the street beyond. What I remember the most is the feeling that I would often have while drifting off to sleep. I would sense myself rising into the air. It didn’t matter whether it was cold or hot, when I went here the air was always perfect. Though I don’t remember ever seeing anyone there, I remember the reoccurring vision of standing in a green field with flowers and talking. I don’t even remember it as using my voice, but rather talking with my heart. I knew that I was talking to angels, though I never saw them. I knew what angels were. Later on, upon learning the story of Jesus, I began to identify the figure in my memory as being Him, but in my experience there was no name, no face, no figure, just the feeling that I was in the presence of pure love. I would feel the beginning sensations of when I was leaving and it was always against my will. I fought back each and every time to try to stay in that place, but my time there always ended far sooner than I wanted it to. I would wake up, wanting to go back.
Through the foggy veil of years gone by it seems like visits to the beyond were common. I don’t really know how many times it occurred. It may have only been once or it may have happened a hundred times. The memory of the time spent was so profound that to this day I can still recall how I felt in that place and in that presence. I can also remember my frustration at trying to make it happen again and again and never being able to cause it to happen. When it happened it just did and that was that. I don’t remember seeing or being in the presence of that kind of love again until one time later on when I needed it the most.
While the memories I have of this time were mostly pleasant, there are a few in my memorial inventory that I don’t recall with such fondness. One was the time when I was gathered with a bunch of kids playing. One kid produced a rope and asked who wanted to play “horsey”. I said I wanted to be the horse and so the loop at the end of the rope was placed around my neck. I was told to gallop off and stop when he said, “Whoa!” I ran full tilt to the end of the rope and as I heard the stop command echo in my ears my head jerked backward and my feet flew out from under me. I fell backward and landed on my arm. The kids came running up and the one kid yelled, “Hey, you were supposed to stop.” I got up from the ground and looked at my left arm. Between the elbow and the wrist it seemed as if I had developed another elbow and my arm was bent a about a 90 degree angle, my fingers almost tucked into my underarms. I believe my mom fainted when i showed her.
I don’t remember the bone being set, but I do remember the cast and all the cool names on it. I also remember the total terror when I was told that they took a saw to cut off the cast. I was sure that it was going to hurt and cut my arm off too. I tried to hide when the time to go to the doctor arrived. I remember holding on to the seat, the door and even grabbing the car antenna as my mom drug me kicking and screaming into the doctors office. Her efforts paid off and to this day my arm is castless.
My other in my collection of not so great recollections came from a small aircraft. A lot of us kids were out playing in the field next to the old two story house at the top of the hill. Planes were not uncommon, but they were mostly jets. A small, single engine plane was circling the field. It was so low that we could see the pilot waving at us. We waved back. It wasn’t until I was older that my memory revealed he was trying to wave us out of the field rather than to thrill us with human greetings from altitude. The plane crashed into the house with a thunderous boom, the black smoke billowing skyward and the heat from the explosion feeling as though it was going to burn off our cloths as the voices of children at play turned to screams of terror. I don’t know how it happened, but my mother had my arm in a painful grip and was dragging me as my little legs tried to keep up. We ran past the house where I saw Casey with a shirt on his arm held in front of his face as he tried over and over again to enter the house. I saw one of the old ladies that lived there, a shadow through the flames, rocking in her chair calling for help. My mother suffered from nightmares of recollection for years afterward.
The following winter was our last with Casey. I am not sure what happened. My mother told me that he didn’t love me and was with another woman who had kids he liked better. My battle wagon went missing and she told me he had given it to the other kids. My last memory of Casey was sitting in his lap watching the old black and white TV as John F. Kennedy was carried to his final resting place behind a horse drawn carriage. I asked him why they covered him with a flag. Casey made a joke and hugged me. I never saw him again.
The Rancher and His Lady
I kind of remember living in Georgia for a while without Casey. It must not have been long because my next memories were from a small town in Eastern Colorado called Lousiville. My memories of that time did not include my mother, other than the fact that she “visited” once while I was there. I remember the old ranch house through small child’s eyes, the old wooden cook-stove and the wood box that I filled before meals. I remember the couple that took care of me, the Rancher and his Lady. My memory of her was as more of a grandmotherly type of figure, rugged and tough, with a no nonsense way of running the house and especially her kitchen. The Rancher was taller than his Lady, with a gentle voice and a wide brimmed cowboy hat. I remember her fussing around while cooking meals, lighting a fire in the old stove while I handed her wood from the box. I remember the meals taken family style around a long table with sons and hired hands all sitting in place and hungrily gobbling up the bounty of goodness that she prepared. I remember the evenings when the Rancher would come into the house, loudly kicking the mud off of his boots and then going into a room where I wasn’t allowed to play. There he would stretch his length into an overstuffed chair and prop his feet up on an ottoman. I can still recall his long figure as he would read a newspaper by the yellowish light of a single lamp on a stand that stood by, overlooking his chair.
I only have a few memories of this place and the few that remain are tucked securely back into the dark folds of time. I remember it was a ranch with several hands working at various tasks that I cannot recall. I remember the chilly cold night time when we went out into the feedlot and the rancher’s sons climbed into the rafters of a feed shed in order to collect squab. They would grab the young birds out of the nest and twist off their heads. The bodies would be dropped down and I would run and pick them up and put them in the bag. I also remember having slipped the confines of the house all alone one sunny Colorado day. I frolicked in the melting snow and eventually ended up at the fence petting a bull on his head. I remember running my hand over his horn and finding the very tip round. In the cartoons I had seen where bulls were featured the horn was always needle sharp. It didn’t feel sharp to me. As I was pondering the difference, one of the hired hands swooped in and snatched me up by the back of my overalls and took me, none to gently. He burst loudly into the house where he announced that he had caught me “rootin’ around with the bulls!” It was sort of a big deal and I was scolded. I cried and said was sorry and all was forgiven. I even had a piece of cake before bed. Nice!
If there is one memory that is clearer than the rest it would have to be a shopping trip that I made with the Rancher’s Lady. I was excited because I had seen a TV commercial for a chocolate flavoring for milk that came in a robot shaped container called Klinky. I can still remember the jingle as they sang, Klinky, Klinky, he makes your milk…. chocolaty! While in one of the aisles looking for canned goods the rancher’s wife slipped and fell, bringing down an avalanche of canned food. Though it seemed like a small tumble, she actually fractured her leg severely enough to be hospitalized. I remember coming to visit her in the hospital where she laid, her leg suspended with ropes and pulleys above the bed. I remember the drive into town where the city lights stretched out just over a hill, looking much like a diamond necklace, sparkling in a black felt box.
The strangest memory I have of living on the ranch was of my mother. She came once as a visitor. I remember being so excite to see her and wanting her to play. She was sitting in that room that we seldom went into. It had overstuffed chairs and a few high pieces of wooden furniture covered with old black and white pictures. I remember seeing her sitting there in a wing back chair and looking rather proper as she sipped from a cup of coffee. I tried to get her to play with me but the best I could get was a short stint on her lap before I was hustled out of the room. She left without me seeing her go or saying goodbye and it seemed like she was gone forever.
I don’t remember how, but at some point I transitioned from the ranch and back into my mother’s care. I asked her about it once when I was some older. She said that she had snuck in at night and stole me back when she realized that the Rancher and His Lady were trying to take me away. I didn’t question further.
My mind often goes back and tries to unravel the supernatural that I experienced while we lived in Georgia. The two distinct out of my body experiences don’t necessarily gibe with my Biblical view of supernatural events. I may be able to explain or rationalize a natural phenomena that would adequately trim off the roughness and make it fit neatly into my little box of doctrine, but I don’t really like squared off explanations. It seems the more elaborate the explanation the further it has drifted away from the real. I often ponder if these are in fact common gifts of grace, granted to innocence and delivered by the Angels who stand before the Throne of God. Perhaps children who may not be able to clearly articulate any sort of theological thought may be privy to some of the most meaningful contacts beyond our physical universe. Perhaps they don’t talk about it simply because it is normal for them to see angels and talk to Jesus. The Bible says that children have angels and that they stand in the presence of God. Perhaps over time our memory fades and the memory of the glory of those heavenly beings who are there just for us goes away. Maybe when we are in heaven our memories of times spent in their presence will return. I don’t know the answers but I know the questions and one day I will ask them when I see again, face to face.
In moments of reminiscence, those times when I allow my mind to go back, often times my eyes will mist with tears of gratitude toward Casey. Sometimes I wish that there were some way I could see Casey and thank him for saving me from drowning, putting me on stilts, and being there, for a while. I wish I could thank him for being such a kind figure in my life, even if for such a short time.
I also think about the ranch, the rancher and the rancher’s wife. I don’t have much memory of them, but I wonder if they ever thought about me after I left their lives. They were kind and took me in. I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I had remained on the ranch. Would I have become a rugged cowboy, or would I have been like I am? I also wish that I knew more, could remember more, and have somehow had the opportunity to say “thank you” from my heart for the kindness shown a young child tumbling through life like a solitary washcloth in a clothes dryer.
From Colorado to Nebraska
From Lousville we ended up in Carney Nebraska where my mother met and married Jim Parker. It was another short lived marriage for her and some more time shrouded snippets of recollection for me. I recall the miles and miles of cornfields while driving to visit friends who lived in a mobile home underneath a giant mid-western windmill. They had pet geese and the geese would chase me and nip at my bare legs beneath my shorts. When we went there my mom and Jim would play cards and I would play outside with the kids of my mom’s friends. I was always afraid to go near the geese and if they gave chase I would dash quickly inside to hide beneath the table, surrounded by the legs of the grownups who laughed at me for being afraid.
I also remember a giant pink teddy bear that my mother won by playing shuffle board and how I would tug and pull to take it up and down the stairs each and every time I traveled from my bedroom to other parts of the house we lived in. It seemed happy enough and I don’t have any bad recollections from our time with Jim, though I really don’t remember much about him.
That marriage ended somehow. I don’t know what happened or why, but the last I saw of Jim was when I was sent into a bar by my mom, who waited outside in the car, after being instructed to try and cry and ask Jim to take us back.
Somehow in the transition between Nebraska and our next stop we ended up taking several rides on buses. I remember the old silver Greyhound Super-Scenic Cruiser bus and how much fun it was to sit in the front of the upper level, looking at what was coming rather than being confined by the glimpse of what was going past from a side window. We also traveled around in a few big trucks. The truck drivers were nice to my mom and she would return the favor in exchange for meals and transportation.
At some point we even traveled by car to Fort Lauderdale Florida. I rode in the back behind the two front seats in a two seater car. We ended up at my mom’s new boyfriends mother’s house. It was a delightfully fun place with coconut trees in the back yard and warm sun. I don’t know why, but most of my memories of childhood are of being cold, but here I remember feeling and loving the warmth of the Florida sunshine.
When we left Florida my mom was driving a white convertible. It was the first time I rode in a car with the top down. She made me ride belted in the middle of the backseat. It is the first time I ever remember having to wear a seat belt. We had the top down for the first day, but after a while it got cold and the top went up. My mom hooked up with another guy somewhere in the deep south. Since we didn’t have anyone to watch over me I would sit in the car for hours while my mom worked with her new boyfriend at the restaurant at some Holiday in in some town somewhere along our way. I remember mom coming out and bringing me a bag of something to eat, rolling down the windows (I think they were electric) and going back inside, leaving me to entertain myself with the few toys I had in my possession until nightfall when she would stagger laughing out of the lounge with her boy de jour following dog-like behind her.
I think we went back to Grand Junction again, leaving the south behind. Before long we were on the road again, my mom looking for something that she never seemed to find.
The Crest Hotel
My mother liked to travel. I don’t know if it was that she liked it or if she was just on a hunt for something that could not be found in our hometown of Grand Junction. Whatever the case, we traveled a lot and ended up setting up temporary housekeeping in a lot of different cities around the country. In many of those places I would be sent to school, or several schools as we would move in and out of districts in the areas where we lived. Other times she never bothered to send me to school, perhaps not sure if we were going to be there long enough for it to be worth it.
There was an emotional barrier that accompanied the barrier of mountains and distance between Grand Junction and Denver. While not quite, one might as well have moved all the way to New York or even overseas as to have moved to Denver. The Eastern slope was a bed of liberal and progressive thought while the Western slope was more conservative. The Eastern Slope had the population and so politically the western slope was subservient to the mega city of Denver. While there was much agriculture on the eastern side the main drivers were industry, business and finance. The western slope economy, what there was of it, was based on agriculture, agriculture, and agriculture. There was also the fickle economy of a boom and bust energy industry. From uranium to coal and from oil to natural gas. All were equally exploited by the monied folk on the other side, where the water flowed eastward. Most of the energy was mined or drilled and then shipped to the eastern side of the state where it was converted through modern day alchemy into money. Most of it stayed on that side of the continental divide, with only a small amount trickling back. The two sides of the state didn’t mix well.
Denver was far enough away from Grand Junction as to actually have some promise in my mothers’ way of thinking as the possible location of the intangible “it” that she had been looking for. I think she eventually found it there, but there was still a bit of time left to go.
Usually when we ended up in a city our life settled around my mother’s need to provide food and shelter for her and myself. Although the country was in a process of change it was still quite a stigma being a single young woman with a child. Mom usually had to take whatever she could get. Often times she would simply use her gender and find someone who appreciated what her gender had to offer who would be willing to provide food and shelter in exchange for her favor. Other times that providence came in the form of her labor. The second is how we came to live in the Crest Hotel in downtown Denver.
The Crest was a throwback from the thirties. It was a wonderfully delightful, pie shaped block building about 6 stories tall. As a preschooler I was struck by its grandeur from the very moment I entered the red carpeted lobby. Likely time and the filters of childhood enlarge the image in my head. The simple fact that the hotel was nearly half filled with full time residents would indicate that it was far from a glorious destination, and its location in one of the more crime ridden parts of town likely meant that it wasn’t a glorious structure filled with world travelers. Still, all I can remember of it was grand and big and wonderful. That we got to live there amazed me and the memory is as grand and big and wonderful as any I have.
As one entered through the revolving glass door in front they came into a large lobby. (I admit that since I was small the word “large” is relative and I use it a lot, but that is what I remember) There were art deco black leather and chrome chairs that stretched from a pillar in the center of the room outward and two old wooden phone booths on the wall facing the chairs. On the opposite side was the reception counter where a man in a suit and tie always stood diligent watch in front of a wall full of cubicles about six inches square. Beneath each cube was a brass plate with a room number engraved on it. Inside the cube was a corresponding key and any telegraphs or mail that happened to be left for the guest of that particular room.
At the end of the reception counter was a small room with a half glass door. It was called the Operators Room. The door was usually open and inside the room a woman sat with a massive headphone over one ear, a microphone hung from a leather strap around her neck and a large board with holes in it as well as corresponding numbers towered in front of her. She had the circular dial of a phone in a box on the small shelf in between herself and the wall of holes and next to that were a number of plugs, like headphone plugs for a stereo, sticking up out of the shelf. When the phone rang she would punch a button on the wall in front of her and say, “Crest Hotel, which room would you like to speak to?” The person on the other end of the line would tell her and she would respond by pulling the headphone plug out of the shelf, revealing a long attached stretch of electrical cord that had been hidden inside this magical apparatus. She would then insert the plug into the hole with the correct room number and then would ring that room with the magic dialer. She would listen just long enough to see that the phone was answered and then would change something so that she could no longer hear. Then she would take a tremendous drag off of her cigarette, leaving a bright red lipstick stain around the end of it, and wait for the next call to come in.
On the opposite side of the operators room was my favorite part of the whole hotel, the elevator. The elevator was opened, closed and made to go up and down at the command of a short, elderly black gentleman with white woolly hair wearing a white shirt, red tie and blazer. He wore a round red hat with gold trim around it and across the brim. While most of my memories of the Crest were big, he clearly was not as I remember him as being much shorter than most everyone else. He was an amazingly friendly and kind soul. Even across an ocean of nearly a half a century of memory his smile still warms me inside by the depths of its caring. He would wait for us to enter the elevator and then, as if he didn’t already know, ask which floor we wanted. He would then close the outer door that opened to the elevator shaft then closed it from the inside so that someone could not enter without the elevator car there and plummet downward to the depth of the shaft. He would then slide the safety gate closed as well. It was a metal accordion like contraption that expanded across the front of the elevator car. The car itself was richly paneled in dark wood with brass hand holds. The floor was done up in white octagonal tile with the word Crest in darker tiles in the center. In the corner near where the elevator man stood was a brass pedestal. He would then grab the handle on a brass pedestal that looked like a steamship engine room telegraph, and then push it to cause the elevator to go up or down. He would watch the floors come up and down through the expanded metal of the safety gate, stopping at just the right point to line up the floor of the elevator exactly even with the floor that you were arriving at. He would then open the safety gate, open the outer door and then take off his hat and give a little bow as we exited the elevator.
The rooms at the Crest were 30’s plain and depression era austere. The bed had the large corded cotton bedspread found in cheap hotels nationwide in the 60s and beyond. The bed was tall and soft with an iron headboard and a night stand on either side. There was a sink and a window that looked out over the busy street below. Beneath the window was a steam register that often times hissed. Mom said to never touch it or it would burn me. I never did, but once I put a crayon on it and watched it melt. I got in a bit of trouble when mom found out, but it was fun watching my crayon go from solid to liquid. Over the door was a small window that opened by a rod that extended down the side of the door. I never operated it, but mom would keep it open to let the cigarette smoke out and then close it when people outside the room would sometimes get loud late into the night.
The bathroom was down the hall as was the shower. It was shared with other guests on the same wing. I still have visions of my mother, barefoot, wearing a robe and carrying a towel, padding down the hallway to the shower. I was supposed to keep the door closed, but I was always afraid that she wouldn’t come back, so I would keep it open just a crack and watch until she came out and started back toward our room, her towel now wrapped in a turban around her head. Late at night mom would move a wooden chair next to the sink in the bedroom so I could pee and she wouldn’t have to accompany me down the hall.
As a child my social life revolved around the workers and the residents of the Crest. There was the wonderful old lady I called grandma who lived on the fourth floor. She would make me pants and share banana bread cookies from a tin that she kept next to her bed. The lady in the operator room eventually would let me sit next to her in her tiny little space where I “worked”. My work consisted of plugging into my mom’s room number and ringing her with an update on how my work was going. It didn’t take long before mom got tired of being rung up and said it was time for me to come home from work. The man behind the front desk was nice to me but was obviously more interested in how my mom looked in her mini skirt. Finally, the elevator man became my favorite. He let me ride with him up and down. I had to keep quiet when there was a guest in the elevator and if there were too many passengers or bags I had to wait for what felt like a child’s eternity beside the elevator, not moving an inch until he came back and opened up the door for me. He even allowed me to try to operate the elevator car. He held me tightly around the waist while I pushed the black handle on the brass pedestal to go up and pulled it to go down.
Mom was a waitress and eventually became a cook in the little diner that bordered one of the busy streets that ran past the hotel. It was conveniently located just past the lobby. The entire front of the diner looked out into the busy traffic of the street and the sidewalk. While mom worked I would look after myself downstairs from the restaurant in the storage room. There was a wooden stairway down into a room lined with shelves filled with cans and old dishes. There was one bare bulb that hung in the middle of the ceiling. Beneath the bulb mom had erected an old World War II era Army cot next to an old metal and wooden traveling trunk. I had a couple of toy cars and would keep myself occupied for hours at a time while mom worked above. My mom would check on me when she brought me lunch, but otherwise I was left alone down there for the whole day.
One of my hero’s during that time was a young black boy whose name I wish I could remember. He shined shoes for a living. I’m not sure if he was old enough to be working. He seemed only a few years older than myself and likely should have been in school playing kickball rather than hustling shoe shines for quarters. He became a friend and would come and break into my solitary confinement, bringing play and bring boyish cheer. I used to delight when I would hear the upstairs door open up and it wasn’t lunch time. He would come down with his shoe shine box and stay with me, though it never seemed long enough. I can’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember feeling the warmth of friendship. I also remember dreaming little boy daydreams of one day having my own shoe shine box and going to work up on the brightly lit and bustling street street. In my dream I didn’t have to stay down in the lonely quarters below the diner for hours at a time. I would then have shiny new quarters to give to mom and she and I could spend time together rather than her having to work above while I played alone below. I never got that shoeshine box until a couple of years ago. I opened up the old antique box, or at least it was a newer box made to look antique, and breathed in deeply of the shoe polish, brushes and wood. The smell brought me back a zillion years and landed me in the exact spot where the kindness of one hard working boy who belonged in school, brought light into an otherwise dark and lonely existence.
My memories of the Crest Hotel are a mixture of the majesty and awe at my surroundings mixed in with the child like attempts of a small boy trying to figure out life. I remember well that my mom had a steady stream of men who came in and out of our lives during that time. Some of them would take the time to play with me. One even showed me magic with a quarter. I remember wondering if any of them were my dad. I had never known my dad and didn’t really understand why at that time. There were nights when I had a small bed made up in the closet of our small room where I was ushered off to sleep while my mom was “visiting” with one of her man friends. Even when she wasn’t working in the diner any more the man in the suit from behind the reception counter would come up to visit and I would be put down for a nap in the closet.
Often times my mom would go out in the evening. I enjoyed when she went out because I had several different baby sitters and they were all fun in one way or another, though my enjoyment was always overshadowed by fear that she would not come back at the end of the evening. Fears aside, she always did come back.
While my mother did often drink alcohol, it seemed that her biggest vices were cigarettes and coffee. She smoked Pall Mall cigarettes in the big red pack for as far back as I could remember. They didn’t have filters on them back then and she smoked without filters until the day she died. There was always a big ashtray full of lipstick stained butts right next to the huge 32 cup coffee urn that was plugged in and sat next to the bed on the night stand.
One particular night my mother was going out. I always knew she was going out when I would see her roll her stockings up her legs and attach them to the garter belt just under the hem of her pleated skirt. She would then put on her high zippered boots and would plant a big red lipped kiss on my cheek. There was a knock at the door and mom opened up to my babysitter for the evening. It was a girl who had sat with me before. She had a boy with her. I imagine they were in their late teens.
After mom left we played on the bed. We wrestled and tickled and had a glorious time. The sitter’s boyfriend was wonderful fun and would bounce me up and down on his knee so high I thought I would actually be able to touch the ceiling. One time he bounced me so high that I came down crooked. I bounced off the side of his knee and toward the stand, grabbing the nearly full coffee pot and pulling it over on top of me before going down on the floor. The sitter screamed and they began to frantically pull off my clothes. She was screaming and crying all at once when he went to the phone and called for help.
I don’t recall feeling any pain, but I was cold, really cold and I shook like I’ve never shook before or since. The next thing I noticed was that the door to the room was open and there seemed to be a dozen people standing in the hallway looking at me. Someone said to put butter on the burns. Someone else called them an idiot and they began fighting with each other. The elevator came and a man came out of the elevator with a tray of butter pads and sat it on the bed. In another moment three men in white with an ambulance gurney showed up at the door. One of the men in white told one of the men in the room that if they put that butter on me it would kill me. That ended the fight that was still going on between the other two. The ambulance men lifted me off the floor and placed me on the gurney and covered me with a crisp green sheet. I reached down and rubbed myself from below my belly button to the side of my leg. The skin came off in my hands. The ambulance man looked very concerned and scolded me for touching. They then tied my hands to the sides of the gurney. I was wheeled down the hall and then wedged at an angle into the elevator. My friend, Elevator Man, had tears in his eyes. I wasn’t sure why everyone was so upset, but it was starting to upset me as well. For the first time I was scared.
As I was loaded into the ambulance. It was on old station wagon type of ambulance with a raised top. It looked a lot like the one in the movie, Ghost Busters. Before they could close the doors my mom showed up and got into the ambulance with me. She was crying too. I never liked to go fast in cars. It scared me to go fast so I asked the ambulance driver to drive slowly, and we went off, siren wailing, into the night.
I don’t remember everything that took place that night, but many parts of it are to this day quite clear. We arrived at the emergency entrance of Denver General Hospital and I was immediately covered in ice cubes from chest to foot. I was already feeling cold and this was even worse. I remember watching the people working around me with their long white robes and their faces covered with white face masks and head cloths. Nurses I think, would look into my face with wet concerned eyes. I was sure they were nurses because they had those girl type eyes. The men that looked at me didn’t really look deeply at me. I would see them, their eyes wrinkled around the edges, all business.
I don’t know exactly what they were doing but everyone was awfully busy working around me. I remember my vision going dark at one point, like going off to a pleasant sleep. I then seem to remember being outside of myself looking back. The memory and the vision are still crystal clear in my mind. The room was mint green tile with green or white curtains all around. There were stainless steel and white porcelain trays and basins all around. I could see the doctors and the nurses working on me, a glass IV bottle suspended over my bed. I could see me there, naked and covered all over in ice. My mom told me later that I had passed but they had brought me back. I woke up for a moment or two and saw my mom by the bed. I told her not to worry, that I was going to be with Jesus now. I don’t know that I really knew who Jesus was. I can’t remember having been told about Jesus, but I knew the name and that love and kindness came along with that name. I really didn’t know what kind of dire situation I was in, but I knew that somehow Jesus was around and was taking care of me. I thought I was going to leave and go somewhere with him. I didn’t see him at any time. I just knew he was there.
The final analysis was that I had second degree burns over sixty percent of my body and third degree burns over another fifteen percent. The only things not burned were my head and my back. My chest, lower legs and buttocks were only second degree, but my thighs and pubic area were third degree burns and life threatening. During the debriding of the wounds, where the damaged skin was removed by pulling it off and cutting it away where it came into contact with the unburned skin. This was done without any kind of anesthesia. It was the only time in those first hours in the emergency room that I remember feeling pain. It was pain and it was intense. I looked down at my legs, a solid mass of wet red exposed meat. The pain was intense. I remember being held down by several nurses and screaming, begging them to stop. I felt again I was watching from outside. Jesus felt close. I didn’t want to go back this time, but I did.
I woke up the next day in an isolation unit. Because of the amount of third degree burning, infection was the biggest worry so I was kept in a sterile environment and away from everyone except specially garbed care givers who came and went. My little body was so sore, my legs huge piles of gauze, and I was feeling so very alone. I looked around. I could see people outside my room through a great big window. I tried to lift my arms to wave. They were restrained. I tried to lift my head to get a better look. I couldn’t hold it up. I asked Jesus if he was there. I didn’t hear him but I felt like he was. I cried again, this time from a different type of pain, but it hurt all the same.
My recovery was long. There were days upon days, what seemed to me to be years upon years, where I laid in the hospital bed. Several times during the day a nurse or two would come in and remove the gauze from my legs and the area right above the penis. Each time they would remove the gauze it would take with it some of the underlying skin that was stuck to it. It hurt terribly. They would then use a giant glass eyedropper sort of thing to suction liquid out of a large glass bottle. They would squirt that on my skin to cleanse it. It burned and stung every time.
My days were brightened by an older lady who said all the kids in the hospital called her granny. She would come in once a day and read to me or just visit. Sometimes she would be there when they changed my bandages and would comfort me while I sobbed. Sometimes I would simply start to cry when I saw them come in anticipation. At those times Granny would stroke my head through her rubber gloved hand and kiss my forehead through the surgical mask she wore. She would tell of the future when, if I was good and let the nurses do their work, I would be better and would be able to move into the children’s ward where I could see other kids. It was a hope that I kept close to my heart and burned brightly. Even when she wasn’t there I would dream about what it would be like to be in the children’s ward with all the other children to play with.
After a time my muscles atrophied and when the time came for me to again walk I was unable. I was very excited the day they told me that I was going to get to get out of bed and get to go outside my little glassed in room. I was instructed to lay still and wait until it was time, but I couldn’t stand to say there in the bed. With a great deal of struggle I managed to swing my legs over the side of the bed and sit up. I was exhilarated and felt like a skier at the top of the run, ready to shush down the mountain. I waited for what seemed an eternity before I decided to do it on my own. I slid slowly off the edge of the bed. I felt the cold tile hit the bottoms of my bare feet and I was shot through with a feeling of freedom and victory. That happy feeling lasted about a half a second before I crumpled to the floor, my legs unable to hold me.
I struggled against the urge to cry out. I didn’t want to be caught out of bed and get in trouble, perhaps even being denied the coming move to the children’s ward. I lay there and struggle, trying to get up. The motion caused the healing burns to begin to open up and the scabbing skin to crack. I stopped struggling. It was too painful. I laid there on the floor, shivering. When they found there they hustled me back into bed. One of the doctors came in and seemed to be very angry at me. Granny was there too and she just said I was very brave. I was chilled to the bone and my burns ached again. I had failed.
The next morning I had a sniffle and a cough, but the nurse came in with granny and changed my bandages. My legs were very sore, both from the burns and from the effort of the day before. They brought with them an old, oaken wheel chair. After my bandages were changed they helped me out of bed. This time my feet were clad with slippers and their strong arms were around me as I slid to the floor. I felt my weak legs begin to give way, but they held me up. I was instructed to grab hold of the back of the wheel chair. I did and they supported me as I took a couple of tentative steps. When my strength left me altogether they helped me to sit in the chair. They took me out into the hallway, out of the isolation ward, and they parked me near the nurses desk where I could see down the hall. I could see people coming and going. From time to time I even saw other kids. I was in heaven. I was no longer alone. Two days later they moved me into the children’s ward, my solitary confinement complete, I was once again among unmasked people. I cannot describe the joy.
Nevada and Utah
Grandma came from across the Great Divide and was there the day I was released from Denver General Hospital. We walked for what seemed like hours through a massive tunnel system below the hospital to the exit. Once out into the chill city air we got into grandma’s car and drove back to the crest. She stayed with us a couple of days then left. We were there a while longer and we too, left. The burns on my legs still would hurt from time to time but I was already getting back to normal.
My next memories were of living in Elko Nevada with a recently discharged Army veteran. I don’t know for sure if they met in Grand Junction and we left for Nevada or whether we went there and they met. All I am sure of is there was another man in her life that she wanted me to call dad. His name was Norman Ficus and he loved to assemble plastic models and listen to music. One time he even bought me a model of my own and tried to show me how to make them look real. I remember the smell of model airplane glue and paint. Simon and Garfunkel played in the background of my mind, along with other sounds of the sixties. This is where I first recall hearing music and listening to the stories in the songs. I was saddened at the storyline in the song, Richard Corey. I asked why he would do such a thing (in the song he commits suicide) and I was told it was because he didn’t have any friends. I wanted to be his friend. It was then that I think I decided that I wanted to be everyone’s friend.
That relationship ended just like so many others. I guess I hadn’t been a good enough friend to Norman. I was six years old and only know that because of the music I remember hearing. Although Norman never harmed me, he had an explosive rage and would scream and throw things. That may have had something to do with our departure.
We moved from Elko to Salt Lake City. Mom said that it was because the Mormons treated poor people better. We lived in a little apartment in the community of Murray. Mom tried her hand at selling insurance for Mutual of Omaha. I remember her showing me a slide show accompanied by the soundtrack from a record player in her sales kit as she would practice her sales presentation before a live audience; me . I was fascinated by the beep that would encourage her to advance the slide. My mom would be gone during the day and many nights I would be left alone while my mother would go out with men. If I complained about her being gone she would always tell me that she had to do it so that someday I could have a daddy. Sometimes I would be left with babysitters. They were usually teenagers, or at least that’s the way I remember it.
The late sixties were a strange time. I know that because I have read about the world of that time. It is enlightening at times, and sometimes not in such a good way, to look at the world through the wide focus lenses of history and geography. Television had drastically shrunken the world and for the first time a war fought overseas came into the living rooms of the average American. Every evening on every evening news show there were the dark numbers of dead and wounded in Viet Nam.
There must have been something about that period of time between 1965 and 1968 that brought out the sexual side of humans as well. Rather than it being a private thing, kept between a couple, it was openly flaunted. As a young child I remember being “educated” by these babysitters and their boyfriends in what grown ups do together. They would do what they did after my mother left and usually right in my presence. If I ever told my mother about it I would never see that particular babysitter again, so I usually kept their nocturnal shenanigans to myself and would obediently look or touch when told to do so. Other than that I kept to myself and would play with my toys or daydream.
One daydream that became my favorite subject of the time was of my real father, Jack French. Mom said that he didn’t even know she was pregnant when he left. She later on changed the story and other family members confirmed that he had left in response to rather than oblivious of. I wondered if he would like me. I thought about him and my mom together and her staying with me. I would be his friend, of that I was certain. I dreamed of him taking me to school and taking me to the park. I always wondered how he could not know I was alive since I had never met him but loved him so. I wondered if he somehow felt that I was there wishing I could know him.
I would also dream about Florida. One of the most common and consistent memories I have of childhood would be that while I know there were summers for every winter all I can remember is being cold. All through my childhood the warmth of summer was always appreciated alongside the dread of the coming winter. My clothing was always cast off clothing or thrift store purchased and warmth was not something that was considered when purchasing. Sneakers got wet walking through snow and sweaters only went so far to warm when the winter temperature plummeted.
Another memory I have is that I was frequently hungry, sometimes for days. I was often hungry because my mother would forget to prepare food for me. Other times I am sure it was because we didn’t have any. At other times I imagine she would eat at work and be so tired or in such a hurry when she got home she would simply not remember. Once I learned that the refrigerator was the source I would go there often to find it empty. My mother often struggled with her weight and would keep food out of the house so she wouldn’t be tempted to eat.
While living in Salt Lake I was never hungry. Mom would get commodity food and she disliked most of it. I would open the large tins of peanut butter and would feast on peanut butter with corn syrup sandwiches. Sometimes mom would cook for us, boiling noodles and adding canned beef that came out of the commodity box. When the box started getting empty she would dice a few potatoes and onions and boil them with water and condensed milk. She called it potato soup. I have eaten potato soup since becoming an adult and I now know that calling it such was an exercise of literary license and exaggeration at best, and outright lie at worst.
The Artist With The Chevy
Of all the times and of all the men who came and went I am sure that the only time I ever really saw my mother in love was with Doug Zimmerman. He drove an old 1957 Chevy pickup that he eventually sold to my grandfather. When I was 14 my mother bought the old truck and it eventually became the property of her last husband and now sits in his daughter’s yard, rusting and reminding of days gone by.
Doug was an artist who specialized in painting western scenes. Having some of his early art in my possession later in life I can see that while he had promise it was obvious he could not quite his day job. He got along greatly with my mother. They went together and would separate for whatever reason, then he would come back into her life, always driving that old truck.
It was during their last time together that I saw the ugly side of Doug. Mom said that when he had been working in the woods he had suffered a brain injury that sometimes caused him to black out and do unthinkable things. Why she would leave me in his care while she was away and working is a mystery to me, but she did so anyway. It was then that I saw the darkest side of what grown ups can do to children. It happened on a day when I was home alone with Doug. As I was playing I felt the urge to go to the bathroom. I ran down the hall and entered the open door and turned around to close it. It was then I saw Doug standing in the doorway, nude. He slugged me savagely with a closed fist in my face. I fell to the floor and scrambled to get back up. He towered over me and began to beat me, his face red and his eyes bulging. I begged him to stop but he kept on hitting me in the face, then it was across my bottom. The rest of what he did are things that I cannot bear to even think about and I cannot even bring myself to write about them. Mercifully, I do remember loosing consciousness while looking into the water in the toilet bowl, watching my blood drop from my lips and nose into the water below before blessed darkness took me away from that horrible place.
I never saw Doug again even though my mother did. I woke up in her arms as she was cleaning me with a wet cloth. We stayed in the house for days. It was one of the few times I can remember my mother staying with me. No one came over to visit. I wasn’t allowed to see any of my friends. One evening, long after the sun had gone down, mom packed some things and we went out into the cold night air and got in the car. We moved back to Grand Junction.
From time to time I would see the old truck parked out front. Even though I never saw the driver, the sight of the old truck brought terror to my heart. I would peek around the corners in the house and ask where mom was, afraid that even the mention of Doug’s name would somehow conjure up an apparition of him that would again torture me. Grandma would say that mom was with a friend, and I would hide. One day when I saw the truck I hid down by the river. I guess I hid too long and too well because it was long after sundown when I was found by a kindly police officer who said that they had been looking all over for me. He took me home where I found out that Doug was gone. His truck was still there. I don’t think he ever came back after that. My mother often told me that she loved Doug and it was my fault she couldn’t be with him.
Healing is important, and writing of many of these things can bring healing. Putting this out in a systematic way would seem cathartic in some ways. As I process it, though, I am experiencing emotions and pain that I have never associated with before. I lived my life and grew up knowing that I was far more fortunate than many other people in the world. I have always been grateful for what I have had. I never held a grudge or hated anyone for any of the events of my young childhood. Still, while writing these things I am for perhaps the very first time feeling anger, hurt, resentment and rage over the events. Perhaps they are more empathetic than first hand. I know that when I read in the news of the horrors that adults foist upon children that I rage and I weep, wishing that I could gather all the young ones to myself and protect them and love them. I think that was what many of those in my past tried to do for me. I wish I could thank them all.
After Doug was gone for good, in about 1968, my mother moved us again.
We moved to Denver again and I began to attend school regularly in the third grade. I was in the Fort Logan School District and though we moved around it was within the district so, though I changed schools there were teachers that each school had in common. There was also the district nurse. Mom didn’t like her much because she would often visit my home and talk to her about my appearance, social skills and Huygens. Mom would get angry with me whenever she would stop by to chat.
I was in fourth grade when my mom met Harold. I wasn’t aware of his existence until the day we moved into his house. He had four kids. At first I was excited about having brothers and sisters, but it didn’t take long before I began to struggle. The two boys and two girls were wild and energetic. While I had become used to being quiet and staying to myself, they were always running and yelling, jumping and laughing. My few obsessions soon became public access and usually ended up broken.
Harold was also a bit heavy handed in his discipline. He would get angry at infractions and would remove his belt. After Doug I was terrified of getting hit and managed to avoid Harold’s wrath most of the time. The first time he ever lit into me was something I will never forget. Rather than obediently standing in front of him while being whipped with the belt, the way his children did, I tried to escape. It was a wrestling match mixed with strikes from the belt, the buckle, and occasionally the fist. I tried to escape the front door several times, screaming for help that didn’t come.
(it is at this point that I am going to step away from this project for a while. Harold turned out to be a good guy and at 18 I allowed him to adopt me, taking on his name. There is so much more I want to share but there has been an emotional price extracted for what I have already shared. The rest of my story isn’t as much about what was done to me as about the choices I have made and the results. Stay tuned in the future for more, but as right now I am putting this to rest. I sure wouldn’t mind some comments, if you read and are so inclined. Thank you for reading.