My Father’s Imprisonment

Our achievements and our problems don’t begin with us.  There’s a continuum from our parents through us to our children and beyond.  Even in cases where you don’t know them, there’s a genetic legacy which has more influence than many want to admit.  If your parents are smart, tall or short, fat or thin, have any kind of chronic condition related to health, have emotional or psychological “eccentricities”, or thinning hair, the chances are greater that you will share these characteristics. MUCH greater.  Over 75% likelihood, for most of that list.  The “Nature vs. Nurture” question is a basis for debate the world over.  It’s primarily a debate between the ignorant and the informed.  I used to be ignorant.  I used to believe that no matter what our genes held in store, we could overcome it by sheer force of will.  I needed to believe it.  Looking back, I was frightened of turning out like my father.

My father was a poor kid in a little river town on the banks of the Mississippi.  His mother and father were poor.  They met in a local saloon where his mother, let’s just put it this way – made extra money on the side.  There is some question if they were actually married in a legal sense.  My father’s father was a drunk.  He had a big gut, so his nickname was “Sag”.  My father was called “Little Sag”.

When Sag got drunk he got mean.  He carried a loaded gun.  Sometimes he threatened his son with it.  There were frequent beatings directed toward both his “wife” and his child.  I don’t know many more specifics.  My father didn’t want to talk about it, not even to counselors.  Sometimes ignorant people have kids and don’t know anything about raising them with love, so they hit them because that’s what was done to them as children.  My father’s parents had no education beyond grade school except for the streets.  That’s a hard school to graduate from.  There’s a high drop-out rate.

Because Sag was a drunk with no education, the Great Depression was a hard time in which to find gainful employment.  So he did odd jobs, whether or not he was qualified to do them.  Booze costs money.  Little Sag would follow him around to jobs.  The boy didn’t like school anyway, and truant officers avoid the bad parts of town.  One day Sag accepted a job painting a sign from atop a high ladder.  He was drunk every day if possible.  This particular day it was possible.  He fell off the ladder and died in front of his nine year-old son.

My father suffered an unforgettable trauma, but his life was also strangely and immediately transformed.  There was an insurance policy of several thousand dollars value, and it was paid.  He and his mother had never had this kind of money before.  He was given anything he asked for, including a pony.  Of course the money ran out soon, and the things were taken back.  To my father, who was viewing this with the understanding of a nine year-old, this meant money will come and go quickly, so you had better enjoy it if it’s around.  He was like that to the end of his life.  Never saved a nickel.

My father lied about his age to get into World War II.  It wasn’t a patriotic gesture.  He just wanted out of that crummy little river town, and some of his buddies were going.  He loaded shells all day long into the guns on ships, and his arms got huge, like Popeye.  He drove a bulldozer up the beach at Okinawa and got shot.  Then he came back and fell for my mother, who was still in high school.  Her parents didn’t like him and said so too bluntly, thus guaranteeing their marriage.  Be careful, you parents.

To try and fit in he began drinking hard liquor with my mother’s parents because they did.  I think you can see where this is going.  By the time I was born he was a drunk, like his father before him.  But unlike his father, he was often a “happy drunk”.  People enjoyed getting him drunk because he was entertaining.  He could play the drums, or spoons, or ebony rhythm sticks called “bones”.  He was a superior dancer.  He had such a sense of rhythm.  It was a gift.  He wore rings on both hands and would drum along intricately on the steering wheel to whatever played on the car radio.  He told jokes and made funny faces and was fun to play with because he himself was just a large child.  My father had enormous personal charisma.  He probably would have had it sober, but I’m not sure I ever saw him sober.

He got good jobs at first because of his charisma.  My parents bought a brand-new house, but they lost it.  You know why.  It was another pony, and the money ran out.  As things got worse, he began to beat me.  Not every day, but sometimes hard.  Thus began my early education in INVISIBILITY.  I learned to hide.  Small cabinets.  Empty drawers.  Hell, you can hide in plain sight if you can sit in a shadow and remain perfectly still and silent.  I’m very good at it.  Sometimes I forget to make enough noise and come up to the doctors and nurses so silently it startles them.  It’s not intentional.  I just graduated from a hard school.

My parents are smart, so I’m smart.  I don’t think I have to make the argument that people with less education can still be highly intelligent.  Being a smart child, I objected to my father about being hit.  He didn’t understand the objection.  To him, he had made a great progressive stride over his father, because he didn’t strike me with objects or use a gun.  When I was quite young I told him that if he kept hitting me, we would never be friends again, and that when I grew up he would be shut out of my life.  His reaction was to laugh.  In his world-view, fathers hit their sons until such time as the son grew big enough to beat up the father, whereupon the violence would end.  Them’s the rules.

He never really stopped.  I just got better at hiding and to an alarming degree to being able to turn off all physical sensitivity so that it didn’t hurt.  My mother was hit sometimes too, but it’s easier to do it to a kid.  They aren’t usually in a position to do things like withhold sex from you.  The drinking got worse, and his weight ballooned, and he got too slow to catch me most of the time.  But I didn’t really get away.  I was infected with the capability for violence.  By the time my parents divorced and I left home, I had put holes in some walls and broken doors and furniture.  Worse, far worse, I had on occasions when I was consumed with rage – hit people.


Coming Up Next – Post #100 – How the Demon was Subdued


Filed under Emotions, Ethics and Morality, forgiveness, Self-Esteem, symbolism

11 responses to “My Father’s Imprisonment

    I was scrolling and reading, and along came that squiggly line and suddenly, I just knew…I thought to myself, “oh, no, I’m gonna have to wait for part 2”. And sure enough….
    You’re dramatic suspense is killing me, Mikey.
    Aside from that, I’ll keep quiet with my comments on the subject until I have a chance to hear the whole story. But know that I’m eager. I’m eager to know you, I’m eager to understand you, and I’m eager to see the moment of change, that I just know is coming in post #100. Lance up, Valiant One.

    • I’m sorry my dear. I really am a big fan of Dickens – and Hitchcock. I couldn’t resist trying a “cliff-hanger”.

      You won’t have to wait too long. I’m working on it now…

  2. Sarah Baram

    This is an amazing post, really, it is. It is so full of emotion and just you. It’s hard to even say much about it. But, what a struggle! Clearly, you made it through as a success. Can’t wait for the second piece!

  3. I didn’t have the courage to just leave it without the hint. That’s kind of Victorian of me, but my writing is kind of “old school” in general.

  4. I’m so proud of you! Don’t stop writing your story EVER! Your courage inspires ME! You write beautifully. I have much to learn from you.

    • As I do from you. That is the beauty of a shared understanding through words.

      Thank you, Tracy.

      (Tracy’s own work has been re-assuring me that it’s important to open up and be vulnerable.)

  5. Deborah

    Hi Mikey – your writing in this piece and in ‘My Dilemma’ is very strong, powerful and moving. Not only because it is so honest, but also because of the skill you bring to translating these profound experiences into words. Sometimes I read a sentence and know that I won’t forget it because it says so much, not only about the writer but about human experience generally. This is such a sentence:

    “I was infected with the capability for violence.”

    I just subscribed to your blog and very much look forward to reading more.x

  6. Wow! Two “A”s, from two teachers in a row. Thanks, Deb.

    (Deborah’s superbly helpful blog is about the proper use of words, and I’m glad she’s reminded me to subscribe to her too. I’m not as hip on the computery aspects of blog-world.)

  7. Pie

    I’m running to read part two. That’s all I can say for now…

  8. lianamerlo

    I hope this new writing (so much more personal than the posts I had been reading two months ago) has proven to be therapeutic for you. I imagine it has been very helpful milling things over and being able to share your experiences. I haven’t yet gotten to that level of comfort and self-discovery, but maybe one day… You’ve definitely been bringing up old memories.

    • I’m a keen student, and I learn from the works of others. I underwent a kind of “aha”-moment when reading the more confessional posts of some of my favorite bloggers including Jennie Ketcham, Cat Cameron and Tracy Todd. I saw how compelling the posts were even in cases where the style was less expert. If you put it ALL out there with courage, people respond. I took a BIG GULP and tried it. BADA-BING – new subscribers, higher readership and great new comments.

      It’s the old principle that the more you are able to write in a deeply personal voice, the more people hear in that their OWN voices. What is most intimate is also most universal.
      I appreciate the fact that it reached you, too.

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