“You Won’t Have Francis Alan Strait to Kick Around Anymore.”
So let’s recap…I’m a thief, a cheat and a liar. I have nervous ticks, a wanton disregard for animals, God and the personal property of others. I have a possible genetic tendency towards violence and am on a most probable path towards alcoholism. I’m sure I could come up with more, but why nitpick.
Why would anyone want me? The responsibility, the risk, it’s all right there in the file. Most of it anyway. Truth be known, I don’t know why anyone would want any child. I just don’t see the attraction. The responsibility…the risk. But why…why would someone want to take on the challenge of someone else’s damaged goods? What are the odds it will turn out well?
I’m 11 years old. I have been a ward of NY State for about three years…three long, confusing, formative years. These are the times that dictate who you will become; the friends you choose, the daily choices you make and what you take away from them. I was a partially wedged hunk of clay sitting on a table between a half-crazy, thoroughly confused, master of fate and a well-meaning, average American family named Potter. They both reach for the clay…
“And so, on August 9th, 1974, we set out to meet you at the Fish Hatchery in Bath. We drove in and there you were, smiling away in Mrs. Nemis’ red car. We were delighted!
All the while history was being made, but we were much too excited to take much note…”
…excerpt from scrap book given to me on my 12th birthday. Historically, 8/9/1974 was the day Nixon resigned his Presidency.
I saw the Potters step from their car, a mother, a father and two small girls. I recognized them from the pictures the case worker had presented to me to familiarize myself with my potential new family/home. As we approached each other, the girls began to run down the sidewalk, maybe excited at the prospect of a new brother, maybe because they had been trapped in the back seat of the car for too long. They were about five years old, one blonde, the other with dark hair. They wore identical outfits, save the color. Almost to me, the dark-haired girl trips and falls. As it turns out, it would be just the first of many times I would witness her trip or break or spill; Lissa Grace”less” Potter. Her sister Deena was not far behind and un-phased by her sister’s fall, obviously accustomed to this practice. Their mother and father were close behind. I stood before them, once again reverted back to the quiet, shy, little lost boy.
We walked around the fish hatchery introducing ourselves while observing the various stages of trout development. Soon the fish would be moved to new homes as well, the shy ones probably eaten first.
The visit was short and pleasant. On the way back to the foster home, I was asked by the case worker if I thought I would like to go live with the Potters.
The next day, not much to pack; a few clothes, my bike and my bible (ironic, this one book I owned which held almost no intrinsic value to me, held so much physical meaning to me) , I was waiting to begin the next stage of my life. You would think my sense of adventure would be keen at this point, but I was not prepared. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was nervous and my protective shell had been re-installed.
“The very next day, August 10,1974, you came home with us forever. We were all very happy. The trip home was long, but filled with laughter. We stopped for lunch at Watkin’s Glen and for dinner at Quack’s.”
…excerpt from scrap book. The trip also included a stop at the G.H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport.
We arrived in Delmar late. I was given a quick tour of the house, including my new room and we called it a long day.
Next day, the Potters, plus one, began to acquaint themselves. This was indeed a different environment than I had ever been exposed to before; middle class, white collar clean. Nelson Keith Potter held a management position with New York State Parks and Recreation Dept. in the states capitol. Robyn, at the time, was at home, caring for the girls and managing the family’s day to day. Both were in their early thirties.
My new sisters, Lissa and Deena, were twins in spirit. Different in age by only one month, Lissa had been adopted into the family shortly after Deena’s birth and despite being born with a heart defect and sustaining an open-heart surgery as an infant, Lissa was more active and boisterous than most. Deena was reserved and quiet with a more subtle sense of humor, a contrast to Lissa’s slapstick presence.
The Potter’s house was a ranch-style with attached one car garage. Main floor contained the kitchen, living/dining rooms, a den/TV room, three bedrooms and two full baths. The basement was mostly finished with a large workshop, a playroom for the girls, a family room and laundry area. A sewing room would follow as my bedroom had suited that purpose previously.
I had never lived in squalor. My birth parents, my three foster homes, my Aunt Martha, the Roots…they were all “clean” homes, but this…this was whole different level of hygienic. There was a force at work here. A force dedicated to the pursuit of sterility and absolute organization and her name was Robyn Joyce Potter. This subject will arise again I’m sure, but let’s just leave it at that now. I was about to be introduced to a new world of order by the Master of Clean and it would be a quest with no option of failure.
Outdoors, the ¼ acre lot was perfectly manicured. A large tulip tree in the front, flower beds, shrubs and gardens all impeccably planned and cared for. The neighborhood was close, but houses were mostly unique to each other giving it a degree of character.
All in all, in the first few days, I gathered this was a happy home, a safe home. I was asked again, was I still interested in living there permanently, to become a member of the Potter family? I had never been given an option before. It was certainly a better environment than my previous home, but did I really have a choice? What could I say? It seemed they wanted me to stay. Did I want to disappoint them?
Yes. I will stay.
It was August and school would start soon. I was brought to the Delmar Middle School where I would register for 6th grade. Sitting at a table in the main office filling out paperwork…top of the page…First Name ________
Name? What was my name? This was a huge moment. I knew my last name was going to be Potter, but I had the opportunity to change my first and middle names as well. I had always gone by “Alan”. It was who I was. Alan had to stay.
Second line…Middle Name________
Shit…no idea. I ran through a list of possibilities. Mark, Mike, Brian, Thomas…Thomas. I liked Thomas. My cousin was Tom. Another link, small though it may be, to my past.
Alan Thomas Potter. There it was, in black ink on permanent record. A new name, a new school, a new life. This could really be the beginning of something great.
Again I wonder why anyone would want to task themselves with raising a child that is on the record as being a problem. Call me selfish, but that’s how I feel. Adoption is not for the faint-hearted. Especially adoption of an older child probably carrying a Samsonite the size of a Volkswagen.
I wonder…but thank God (figure of speech) that someone out there was up to the challenge.
Or were they…
Blood; Not Forgotten
Cousins Scott, Tom and me (L-R) in front of
Uncle Chuck and Aunt Marthas house on
Imperial Ave, Painted Post, NY…late 1960’s
My cousin Kim died this past summer. My Aunt Ann’s daughter…Kathi and Brian’s sister…my father’s niece…my grandmother’s granddaughter…
She had children and grandchildren and other relations lost or forgotten or just subject to the brutality of everyday life’s prioritizations.
Shortly after Kim died, I was lying in bed, 3am, my mind buzzing, (as it does when you are lying awake at 3am). Her death was so sudden and unexpected and tragic. The survivors swam through the muddy waters of emotion; rage, guilt, regret, sadness, etc. As I lay there, I began to compose an essay attempting to break down the natural progression of emotion following the death of a loved one. In my head, the words were beautiful, fully realized and eloquent. It would certainly put everyone’s feelings in prospective when they read it.
I jumped from bed, carefully latched the bedroom door closed so as not to wake Barb, fed the howling cat (who did not care that it was the middle of the night, only that someone was up which meant time for breakfast), poured water into the Mr. Coffee and powered up the laptop. Then I sat staring at the blank screen. Nothing…it was all gone. The once eloquent meditation on human suffering was now a jumble in my mind. A big steaming pile of shit, textured with grief and regret and rage and sadness. I closed the computer and left my essay unwritten. Left all of you to figure out for yourselves how you would deal with this tragedy.
As I move forward into the next phase of this memoir, it occurs to me I have either glanced over, or completely omitted, a few important people. Family members who, as revealed in earlier posts, were left behind to pick up the pieces after my father’s death. I just want to take a moment here to mention them, as they are part of me; blood and not forgotten.
My mother’s parents lived in Painted Post, a blue-collar suburb of Corning in the Southern Tier of New York. My grandfather, Harold Crane, was a woodworker. I remember him as a kind man. He loved his poodle (Rene?) and smoked a pipe which he kept stationed at the easy chair in the corner of the living room. Grace, my grandmother, was in no uncertain terms, in charge of the household and the family. Their home, with an above-ground pool in the back yard was a gathering place for the family. My cousins and I loved to sit around Gram’s kitchen table as she pulled the small white paper bag from the cupboard containing large soft sugar cookies from a local bakery. She would smear them with smooth peanut butter and pour us each a small jelly glass full of ice cold apricot nectar.
Their house on Imperial Ave was quintessential Rockwell. To me it was the most perfect setting to be a child. Summers spent playing in the quiet neighborhood streets while grown-ups sat on front porches that were made for just that purpose. My grandparents and aunts and uncles kicking back with pipes and iced teas, feet propped up on railings and old tin milk boxes. An ice cream truck rolls musically, block by block through the tree shaded streets.
Across the street from my grandparents lived Uncle Chuck, Aunt Martha and cousin, Scott. Martha Tober, my mother’s older sister, was like a second mother to me. I spent a lot of my time with her and Chuck, probably in an attempt to get me out of the unhealthy environment that was home. Like my grandmother, Martha was a “tough love” kind of person. I remember Scott and I doing our best to push her buttons and boundaries. And I will never forget that stern, controlled anger in her voice; teeth clenched and warning in her tone. Not believing in the cliché of washing our mouths out with soap, slips of the tongue on our part was rewarded with a hot cherry pepper from a jar in the refrigerator door. Probably 90% of the discipline I received as a child was doled out by Aunt Martha.
Where Martha and Chuck were a guiding force in my youth, my Uncle Pete and Aunt Janice were the “fun” ones. Pete, the youngest of his siblings, was always the first in the pool with us kids or could be found lying next to us on the floor watching Saturday morning cartoons. Aunt Janice was pretty and pleasant and I loved spending time with them and my cousins Tom and Julie in their cozy single wide. Tom and I had a lot in common and Julie, my only younger cousin, was the only one to continue contact with me after I was adopted. The letters I received from her gave me a life-line to my past and I am forever grateful to her for that.
The Cranes/Tobers were a small, but tight group. On the other hand, my father’s side of the family was more extended. At the center was my grandmother, Hazel, whom I have spoken of in previous posts. Going to her house in Presho (a very small town just Southwest of Corning) was a bit of a step back in time. A small house containing only the necessities for a simple life, but it was always inviting and warm. I never knew my paternal grandfather.
Side note…a few weeks ago at my cousin Kathi’s house, she brought out a small ceramic mixing bowl. Kathi had salvaged it from the rubble of what was left of our grandmother’s house after the flood. I could not keep my hands off of it. Not a beautiful bowl, it was built for function. It was also a small piece of my past. Over 40 years ago I had probably eaten bread or pancakes or pudding made with ingredients mixed in that bowl. The oils from my grandmother’s touch imbedded deep into the raw clay surfaces of the rustic pot. Nostalgia is a powerful entity.
I have already spent a little time talking about my Uncle Lynn, Aunt Garnetta and cousin, Mary. Lynn and Garnetta also had a son Stephen who was in the military and not present for most of my early childhood.
Both my father and Uncle Lynn were retired military and a good bit older than their sisters, Ann and Gail. My memories of my Aunts, Ann and Gail, are foggy. I have distinct flashes of them “there”, but nothing specific rises as memorable. More often the memories revolve around their children. Ann had two daughters, Kim and Kathi and Gail had a daughter, Jamie and a son; Shane. Cousins Kim and Kathi and Jamie were just enough older than me, I can imagine I was considered “that bratty little cousin” and dismissed as a nuisance. Shane was my age and I remember him with thoughts of good times. But as mentioned before, with the exception of Lynn and Garnetta, I do not remember spending a good deal of time with the rest of my father’s family.
This includes my three half-brothers. Born to my father’s first wife, Richard, Mitchell and Steven were quite a bit older than me. By the time our father was remarried and I was born, the three brothers were all out in the world and living their lives. I saw them rarely and never had the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of having older brothers.
I will mention here, I have reunited with several of the aforementioned and will delve into how and when at a later date.
My cousin Kim was one I had the opportunity to reunite with, if only through social media. Messaging through Facebook, Kim and I had spoken on several occasions always stressing the need to get together sometime soon. Meet face to face after more than 4 decades. There was a whole extended family there in Kingman, AZ that we had never met; kids and grandkids we did not even know existed. Barb and I actually drove through her town once on the way home from Las Vegas, but for one reason or another plans were never made to stop and reunite. We could always do it “some other time”.
This is where my grief lives…in anger. Anger at myself for not making more of an effort to reunite; for not insisting we get together sooner. Now it’s too late. We had our moment on Facebook and I can hold on to that, but it makes me want to contact and plead with everyone one in this writing that we get together soon…before it’s too late.
Foster Home #3; Zingers Don’t Have Crust
Me on very small horse; foster home #3
This is the point in the story where the kid gets tough. He takes those unfortunate experiences and melds them into a crusty exterior. He fights to survive. Or…this is the point in the story where adversity wins. The child becomes a gutless weenie and is doomed to live a life of spineless mediocrity. Me? Let’s just say the only crust I’ve ever known was at the wide end of a slice of pizza.
Foster home #3…
The Edwards family lived in the hills above Keuka Lake’s wine country. The house was small, but everything else was bigger than I was accustomed to. The rural-ness was bigger, the family was larger and the kids were older. There was a large barn with huge horses and many, many acres of fields and forest to get lost in. And they had a pet skunk, which, though not very big and missing it’s scent sack, had a formidable temper rendering it useless as a pet.
Other than a few cousins in my birth family, I had never been exposed to older kids before. The Edwards family had four older children. Two were grown and out of the house and two more still remained; a sister and a brother, both in high school. Their names escape me…let’s call then Sue and Mike.
Sue and Mike ruled the roost. In all their young-adult glory, they were perfect teenagers; ornery, lazy and bossy. They made it their mission in life to torment, not only their parents, but us younger kids. Along with me, there were two others. The youngest, we’ll call him Craig and Gene (actual name); both foster kids.
Gene Brown, a couple years older than me, was an immediate friend and hero. Sue and Mike’s antics were lost on him. It was a constant battle. Gene was young enough to be vulnerable, but old enough to know how to retaliate. An anonymous phone call to Sue’s boyfriend informing him Sue was just seen downtown with another boy…food and crumbs scattered throughout Mike’s bedroom knowing Foster Mom would be around to inspect. Small victories, but well worth it when drama ensued. It was great satisfaction to know the battle was not one-sided and Gene did it for all of us.
Gene had been with the Edwards for a year before I arrived. He knew the ins and outs. He knew the town and the school and the people. He knew the places to hide from Sue and Mike when they were in a mood to torment. And most importantly, he knew how to pick the lock of the freezer that housed the stockpile of Zingers.
I found my comfort zone quickly there. Under Gene’s tutelage, I soon settled into a routine. We would venture out on day long bike rides. We rode horses, galloping through the fields and down dirt roads, kicking up a wake of pebbles and dust. We hunted woodchucks with homemade bows and arrows. We sat in the barn amid the bales of hay and horses and field mice and told “war stories” of our lives before the Edwards. Gene’s story, not unlike mine, bonded us. He felt, to me, as close to family as I had had since leaving mine. We were brothers.
Fifth grade began. My teacher, Miss Heller, was young, pretty and kind. She had a manner that made me feel like somebody important. It occurred to me later that she probably knew my history and gave me added attention, but at the time it made me feel special. I discovered art. Drawing Peanuts characters, I was able to create something that people recognized as good. Miss Heller saw this and nurtured it allowing me to decorate her classroom bulletin boards throughout the year with pictures of Snoopy and Woodstock and the rest of the gang. I give Miss Heller total credit for instilling in me the confidence to continue drawing and painting and sculpting.
At the end of the school year we took a field trip to the Corning Glass Museum. When we returned to the classroom at the end of the day, Miss Heller presented me with a trophy; a small glass bottle with a shiny penny trapped inside. She announced to the class it was for being the “most popular child in the class”. Everyone clapped and I was on top of the world. The next day, at home, I found the small bottle in pieces on my bedroom floor. Craig had smashed it for the penny.
Times were not always bright and cheery at the Edwards household. As mentioned, Sue and Mike would take full advantage of the situation when the parents were absent. They fed us youngsters a dinner of limp leftovers, from their meal already eaten and smacked us around if we dared to complain. They forced us to smoke cigarettes, laughing when we choked and then sent us to bed early so they could storm the liquor cabinet in peace. We were playthings to amuse their warped teenage minds.
Gene had enough of the games. We were at a horse show with the family. Sue was performing with her horse and Gene and I were wandering around the fairgrounds. He pulled me aside and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes.” I responded.
“I’m leaving today.”
“I’m leaving and not coming back.”
“Where’re you going?”
“I can’t tell you.” He could see I was shaken and confused. “You’ll be alright, but you need to promise you won’t tell anyone.”
He hugged me and disappeared into the crowd of tasseled jackets and cowboy boots.
When it was time to go, I was questioned as to Gene’s whereabouts. I just shrugged my shoulders. Gene had trusted me with his secret, with his life. I could not betray him. I never saw or heard from him again. As far as I know, no one did.
I wasn’t alright. Things got worse. One day, Mike and I were alone in the house. Mike decided he was going to teach me how to masturbate. He led me into my bedroom and sat down next to me on the bed. He unzipped his pants and pulled his privates out. He was already hard. He asked me to show him mine. When I was unresponsive, he took it upon himself to do it for me. He unzipped my jeans and fondled me. I felt sick.
“Like this.” he said. He began rubbing himself. “It feels good.”
He forced my hand into my crotch. “Come on…”
I began to cry. He became angry, but nervous. He screamed at me to shut my mouth. I couldn’t stop bawling. I sat there with my fly open and my penis poking out of my zipper. He stood, covered his erection and warned me as he ran from the room, “You better not tell anyone about this or I’ll beat your ass.” I hated him…but never told anyone. I really wish I had. Who knows how far he got with Craig.
One day the “Lady from the County” stopped by the house. Normally it was not good news for me when she appeared. She asked me, “You know your mother is not in a position to care for you and she has put you on a waiting list for adoption, right?”
I nodded, but she could tell by my bewildered expression, I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained to me a family had expressed interest in meeting and possibly adopting me. That would mean a permanent home. No more moving around. The choice to live with them would be entirely up to me. If we met and I did not feel comfortable with the arrangement, life would go on as is.
The meeting was set. The “Lady from the County” would return with a nice family from the Albany area; the Potters.
Broken: an insert to “My Life in Shorts”
written for Arthouse Co-op Memoir Project 2013
My father was rarely home. His work with the landscaping company, his duties with the New York State Guard and his daily visits to any number of drinking establishments left him little time for home life. My stay at home mother, used this alone time to pickle her liver and stay current with her “stories” on our small black and white . As a result, I was left alone a good amount of time to do as I pleased.
Meadowbrook was a middle of the tracks apartment complex on the North East side of Corning, NY. Blue collar, white collar, no collar; we were a microcosm of Upstate New York society. The Corning Glass Exec, the retired cop, the young, newly married couple…all were represented. Us? The Straits? We were the family that caused people to exclaim, “There goes the neighborhood.”
As my father went about his day (and night) and Mom lay in a vodka-scented puddle on the couch, my friends, Dale Horton, Todd Fuller and I wandered our neighborhoods and called them our Kingdom; Corning, Painted Post, Beaver Dam and anywhere else our bikes would take us. We reigned with tyrannical efficiency. If not tied down, we owned it. If unlocked, we entered. If breakable…well let’s just say we did our part to keep the local glaziers in business.
Dale and Todd and I knew every inch of the city. We knew the best pools to visit, (without owners consent). We knew the best “Mom & Pop” stores to “pick-up” the newest packs of baseball cards (the ones with the stick of gum that had not yet petrified). And money was never an object as my mother’s purse was always open and never monitored. A five or ten missing from her purse was more than likely spent on her bottle (or as a tip for the taxi driver she called to pick up and deliver her bottle). It never occurred to her to question where I got the money to pay for all the model cars and Jackson 5 posters adorning my room. To put it gingerly, we were the “wrong crowd”.
One summer day, a small group of neighborhood ladies sat around the front stoop of a Meadowbrook apartment. One of the women had a large German shepherd on a leash. I honestly have no idea what possessed me, other than completely misguided curiosity, but upon observing the group, I walked the couple houses down to my apartment and scooped up my cat Smoky. A very trusting cat, he never questioned my motives as I approached the ladies and the large dog. Poor Smoky got the idea quickly as I turned him to face the dog and tossed him mere inches from the shocked canine’s front paws. The dog lunged, the cat bolted, the woman lost grip of the leash and the rest of her group screamed at me in disbelief, “What the Hell are you doing!” I ran.
Smoky came home later that day and rubbed against my leg, purring. I loved that cat.
My father died later that summer. I often wonder how I would have turned out if he had not and I had not been moved into foster care and eventually adopted. I did notice, as I moved from foster home to foster home and then my adoptive home, that as I became more comfortable with my surroundings, my behavior would deteriorate. Normally reserved and frightened of my own shadow, I would gravitate toward the more destruction oriented kids. Jesus, did I just say I got mixed up with the wrong crowd?
Looking back, I feel it would be trite to say, I was just a boy, being a boy or I am now ashamed of how I was, but…okay, consider it said. Now, as an adult…as a practically vice-free adult, I can honestly say I have finally found the “right crowd”…or is it just me?
“Cuz I Gotta have Faith a Faith a Faithaaah…”
On April 10, 1972 I accepted Christ as my personal savior…so I’m covered. I mean, if there is a Heaven, I’m guaranteed a spot, right? I have it in writing…in the front of a bible, no less.
Okay, I know, I know, it’s not a one shot deal. Lifetime guarantees are reserved for Craftsman tools and Hostess Twinkies. I understand I probably have to reaffirm my commitment to Jesus or God, every now and then, if I am to be saved.
I was nine years old when the Cranes and their church asked me to recite those words of acceptance. Nine. And I had only been a part of that family and culture for a few months. You would be hard-pressed to get a nine year old to commit to taking out the garbage or feeding the dog, much less dedicate his life to a concept such as faith. Up to that point, the extent of my religious knowledge was from watching Davey and Goliath on very early Sunday morning TV and the bible story films my parents were watching at the Root’s house just before my father died. It was ludicrous to think I, or any nine year old, could understand. The kool-aid was sweet, but I would be thirsty for something else soon enough.
The Cranes were good people and I’m sure they would say, their goodness and morality was based in religion. I believe everything they did in life, they did with God in mind. It was church on Sunday (and sometimes bible study during the week)and prayer before meals. It was Sunday school for me and my foster siblings and bible camp in the summer. (my foster mother, Mary was the Sunday school teacher so not only was attendance mandatory, but acting badly in class held repercussions later at home.) As I mentioned previously, religion and God and “Savior” accepting were abstract concepts I was not ready to understand. If I did absorb anything from this time, it was that Church and religion are two very different things.
Our church, The Church of Christ, just outside of Addison, was the epitome of community. It was loving, and togetherness and family. There was singing and praying and forgiving and God and all that, but it was more. They were happy to be together. They did not know me, but when I walked in the front doors with the Cranes, I was family. That is “church”; community…simple. Religion is something else.
(Important to note here, another one of my “small world” moments. One day at church, walking through the parking lot, I noticed a parked car that looked surprisingly familiar; a tan Malibu station wagon. My father’s tan Malibu wagon! The same dent on the right rear fender, the same decals on the back window indicating the states and attractions we had visited. The same car I was sitting in the last time I saw my father. I couldn’t believe it. Turned out, the minister of the church had bought the car from a used car dealer. What the Hell are the odds? (Small world…or is it?) There were no bad feelings or PTSD reaction of my father’s death. The sight of the car exhilarated me. It was a link to my past. I am still amazed today at how that car found me.)
Over the years, I have known many “religious” people. Those who wear their beliefs on their sleeve in one way or another. There have even been a few who have tried to convince me to, once again, accept Jesus as my personal savior. And I’m sure a number of them have said a prayer or two for my souls sake. I also have a few friends in varying stages of spiritual quest. I’d like to mention three of them here.
One is a scholar. She has traveled the world and devoted a good portion of her life searching for God. There is a deep spirituality in her, but her quest is for the source of that belief. God, good and evil, an everlasting soul, the bible as gospel; it all has a place. She has studied many religions and has allowed herself to experiment with various faiths. I respect her process because she questions her spirituality. And when I say that, I don’t mean to say she questions whether or not she has faith, but rather, why she has faith. It could be argued she contemplates these questions too hard. Isn’t it true, the essence of faith is being able to relinquish your being , without question? Theology is her life’s work.
Another friend has a new found faith. I’m sure there was a base, a spark of belief, maybe a family history of church going, but in the last few years she has become more involved in Eastern based faiths; meditation, the healing power of touch, positive thought, etc. Her personal life has been in a state of flux and these concepts have helped her through. So helpful, in fact, she is enthusiastic to a point of re-birth. This new faith is so strong and has been such a revelation, she finds it hard to believe anyone could have felt this way before. No one else could possibly understand. I am happy for her discovery, but know she judges me for not being open to her experience.
The third friend has had a hard life. Spirituality for her is an attitude. She surrounds herself with statues of Buddha and pastoral images accompanied with inspirational quotes. She smiles constantly and is eternally positive. And, if I might add, she gives one of the most sincere hugs you will ever receive. Her spirituality is to me, the most genuine. It is not a crutch or a quest, but a state of being.
I see these three with varying degrees of spirituality and religion and try to understand where it is they are coming from. And to an extent, I think I do. I can certainly see the comfort it brings and the power it holds for (or over) them. I cannot say where the Crane’s belief system originated, but their faith was real.
A short time ago, we took our Theologian friend to visit a local shrine. The “Our Lady of the Sierras” shrine is a destination that is said to hold strong healing properties. People travel great distances to pray and bask in the power of the shrine.
The path from the parking lot up the hill to the chapel was marked by the Stations of the Cross. We stopped to study each one, discussing the fact that no one could possibly know how many times Jesus stumbled and fell under the weight of his cross. The discussion turned to the bible and how over time and the retelling of stories, they must have become distorted or embellished. Fairly certain the whole story, was just that, a story, I soaked in the beauty of the day, the mountainside location and the workmanship of the statuary.
At the top, we stepped into the small chapel. It was brightly lit, blissfully quiet and newly remodeled due to the fires that swept through the mountains the summer before. A family was sitting in the front pew. Earlier I had noticed the license plates on their van were from Mexico. (the shrine is just a few miles from the Mexican border). A mother, father and grandmother surrounded a small girl with leg braces and crutches; heads down, all with a hand on the girls shoulders. I watched them as they prayed.
Now keep in mind, I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, but as I sat in a pew a few rows behind the family, I could feel the strength of their faith as they prayed for their little girl to recover from her malady. It was palpable. I said before, I think I understand how people can be deeply affected by their beliefs. I really do. It’s potent stuff. I still don’t have any use for it, but I know it’s there. And if truth be known, I am a “never-say-never” kind of guy. If one day I see undisputable proof there is a God, I will pray my ass off, because something that powerful should be feared. But for now, “faith” will have to remain the title of a George Michaels song, because I do not have it.
So I want to thank the Crane family, Bud, Mary, Teresa, Brian and Scott (who died of a brain tumor some years ago). Thanks for showing me your faith and community and love. And thank you for the bible which contains the proof of my commitment to Christ…I may need it someday.
Me and the Crane kids 1973
If I had to put a label on my second foster home, I think I would need to use two words. First word would be “church” and the second would have to be “abandonment”. Both were important aspects of this home, but let’s take the second first.
My second foster home was a million miles from the first. Where the first was base and crude and devoid of potential, the second was alive and bright, with the feeling of positivity. It was still a blue-collar existence, but it exuded puritan-pride. The Cranes. These were good people.
The father, Bud, ran an auto parts business on the property across the street from the house. His wife, Mary, stayed home doing the books for the business and cared for their children; Teresa (my age), Scott (a couple years younger) and Brian (a couple years younger still). The family was rounded out, of course, with a dog and a cat.
The house was rural, surrounded by farms and pastoral beauty. The farm down the road was run by Bud’s parents. There was a pool and a swing set in the yard and as mentioned earlier, across the street was the world’s greatest playground. Acres and acres of used cars, lined up row after row. My foster siblings and I spent countless hours “driving” to parts unknown or taking turns as the victor at the make-believe demolition derby. Our auto sound effects improved over time, vibrating lips mimicked racing engines. High pitched screeches were tires on hairpin turns. There were no bullwhips snapping or macabre chicken dances. There was just good clean fun.
It was late Autumn, into winter, when I moved in with the Cranes. School had been underway and I was slipped in to a third grade class. Personally, I was evolving and in the interest of survival, I became an observer, soaking in my surroundings. My ability to blend-in was honed. I was a chameleon. Low profile; back against the wall. I developed a few friendships. Alan Burton and I, maybe because of our common name, became inseparable. And contrary to anything that I was, I joined the school choir despite my inability to carry a tune or any interest in singing, let alone in front of a crowd. I do however, recall being part of a rousing performance of Hava Nagila during a Christmas pageant, full-house.
Life was good. Happy, healthy, I went to school, played in the yard and developed friendships, but not so terribly deep down, I knew I did not belong. I was a guest still waiting for the “woman from the County” to come pick me up and take me to my mother. It would be just a matter of time before it would dawn on me that I was on my own. From now on I would just be a visitor in someone else’s life.
A few years ago, it occurred to me, that over time, I had developed a degree of abandonment anxiety. I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me earlier. I think the revelation had something to do with my cats. We go away on occasion, for a period of time, requiring us to hire a pet sitter. And despite the fact we have someone to look in on the cats I find myself thinking about them, growing more and more anxious. I know, in my mind, the cats must be terrified, alone, their daily routine destroyed, no idea when, or even if, we will return. How could we do this to them? My stomach is tied in knots. It’s dread, pure dread. Then I realized, I was, and am, projecting. So many times I have been in that same position of uncertainty. It was during this time with the Cranes, this abandonment issue took firm hold.
It was the summer of 1972. I was in Corning with Foster Mom Crane running errands which included a stop at the post office. We were standing in line when I noticed just ahead of us was my Aunt Garnetta, my father’s sister in law. I was instantly nervous, excited…confused. This was my first encounter with someone from my past. Could it be my birth family had not simply vanished from my life?
I tapped my aunt on the back, she turned. I remember the look on her face. She was as shocked as I. Hugs were followed by introductions. My cheeks began to hurt from the exaggerated smile. The visit was short, but Garnetta made arrangements for me to accompany her and my Uncle Lynn and cousin Mary to West Virginia a couple weeks later.
The trip was full of laughter. Mary and I, sequestered to the back seat, played road-trip games and urged passing truckers to sound their air horns, our arms pumping furiously. Garnetta’s family was warm, inviting and met every stereotype of a back-woods West Virginia coal mining family you can imagine, right up to and including the “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear.” Being from an Upstate New York existence, this was all foreign to me, but I was with my family, my blood; home.
But the trip soon came to a end and I was returned to the Cranes. I cried; tears of sadness and tears of rage. I found it impossible to understand how I could have lost my family again. It had been almost a year since my father had died.
At this time also, Corning and the Southern Tier of New York were drying out from a devastating flood. Tropical Storm Agnes had dumped more than half a foot of rain causing the rivers to break through the dikes. Eighteen people died and more than 6,000 people were displaced. In Addison we were high and dry, but we watched the television news and waited for the waters to recede so we could journey down the hill to assist where needed. Bud’s mother’s house had been in the middle of it. The mud caked 6 inches thick on the first floor. The second story was spared, but everything downstairs was destroyed. Most surprising and a ray of hope in the muck, a kitten had somehow found its way into the house and behind the sheetrock in the living room wall. It’s will and subsequent rescue, though a small thing, was just one of the amazing stories that came out of that flood. I found out shortly after, my Aunt Martha’s and Uncle Chuck’s house, as well as my Grandparent’s and Uncle Pete’s home were also all but destroyed.
In another “small world” moment, it turned out Bud, who had an earlier career with a large manufacturing company in Corning, Ingersoll-Rand, had worked with and knew my Uncle Pete.
(Note: Over the years, in my warped, paranoid imagination, it has seemed like there were a couple too many of these “small world” moments. It has always made me wonder if there was more going on backstage in my life…)
Uncle Pete, along with my Aunt Martha, contacted the Crane’s and arranged for a meeting. I am assuming they did this without contacting the County as permission would probably not be given.
Martha, Chuck and my cousin Scott came to Addison for a visit. The adults talked in the living room and Scott and I explored outdoors, including the car lot. Their stay was short and as they left, I melted down. Once again, my heart lay broken and dying on the floor.
Not long after, arrangements were made for me to visit Martha and Chuck’s house in Painted Post. It was just for the weekend, but everyone was there. Martha, Chuck and Scott, My uncle Pete and Aunt Janice and cousins Tom and Julie. My Grandparents were also there as their home was across the street from Martha’s. Home. And the weekend was all about me. I loved these people and they loved me. It was where I belonged. I knew and I had been told it was just for a couple days, but that did little to curb the feelings once again as they dropped me off back in Addison. That was the last gathering. Perhaps they realized it was better not to continue putting me though that torment. It was time to move on.
I did have two brief meetings with my mother during this time. The County had arranged for a supervised visit with her at the county office compound in Bath. I was picked up by my case worker and brought to a small room with two chairs and a round wooden table and asked to have a seat, my mother would be along shortly. I didn’t have to wait long. I hardly recognized her. She looked beaten down; sad. I must have hugged her, but I don’t remember much about the meeting. At one point a male case worker poked his head in and threw me a small bag of vending machine M&M’s. To this day, that small act of kindness, remains one of the most important moments in my life.
The next occasion, my mother was delivered to the Crane’s home for a short visit. I remember very little about this visit as well. I recall being angry, but not knowing how to express it. She was my mother. She had killed my father. She was my mother, but she was now a stranger. I may have, but I don’t remember crying when she left. That was the last time I saw her.
I spent a lot of time in town with Alan Burton where we did all we could to balance ourselves atop that fence between good and bad, more often than not, bad was just a little heavier, throwing the balance that way. We had both joined Cub Scouts together, as we did most things, but quickly grew tired of tying knots and attempting to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Meetings were once a week after school at the Scout leader’s home. Alan and I devised a brilliant plan to skip the meeting and use our weekly scout dues to instead buy sweets at the local penny candy store. We stuffed our faces with Swedish Fish and Coke Bottles and root beer barrels and made our way back to the Scout leader’s house in time to be retrieved by our parents. It was beautiful.
The next week, we could hardly be expected to sit in the meeting and learn how to differentiate raccoon tracks from a squirrels. Could we? Boldly, we repeated our previous weeks sweet adventure. And then the week after that… and the week after that… Our parents continued to unknowingly give us money for candy and pick us up after the meeting, until…one week they didn’t.
Busted. Not sure how, but I can’t imagine it was too hard to put together. Frankly, I think the Scout leader was a little more than remiss in his duties by not contacting our parents that first day, but I wasn’t complaining. Bud was furious. I had seen him angry before, but this transcended “mad”. I don’t recall him actually hitting or spanking me, but his words were force enough. He was a hundred feet tall at that moment. I was a “cheat” and a “liar” and a “thief” and “who did I think I was?”. I was in an uncomfortably familiar situation. I had a feeling I knew what would come next.
It was the summer of 1973. I had been with the Cranes for nearly a year and a half when the “woman from the County” came to pick me up. As I walked out the door to leave, I looked back. Bud was crying.
I sat in the front seat next to the “woman from the County” as she began to tell me about the family I would be staying with next, but I wasn’t listening. It was hard to hear her over the sound of my heart breaking.
“That’s right folks, don’t touch that dial…”
I may be vile and pernicious
But you can’t look away
I make you think I’m delicious
With the stuff that I say
I am the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I am the slime oozin’ out
From your TV set.
Hi. My name is Alan. I am a televis-aholic. (pause for greeting)
I’m addicted to television. Television is my friend and a lot of the characters on a good number of shows on television are also my friends. Why am I announcing this?
The other night after dinner I’m flipping through the channels and having rapidly decided there was nothing else on, land on the Food Network—Nothing else on. I know settling for a less than attractive option is not terribly unusual, I mean why else would someone watch Here comes Honey Boo Boo unless the television executives were smart enough to put it on opposite programs that were somehow worse than it? Anyway…I’m watching an episode of Chopped (a show I don’t even really care for) the other night…again…the same episode…again…did I already tell you I do not like this program…and I’m watching it for a second time!
I’ll say it again. I am addicted to television. I have a serious problem. And I proclaim here and now, I’m going to do something about it.
I have known for years I have a problem, but being the procrastinator that I am, have put off doing anything about it for, well…years. There are aspects of my life that are being neglected because it is easier to pick up the remote control. I love to write, but know my skills are lacking. I will never improve if I don’t write more and more and more…on a daily basis. I have a children’s book in the process of being finished and has been (in the process) for three years.
I don’t read nearly as much as I should, or would like, and if I am to become a better writer, reading is essential (I have tried more than once to read while the television is on, but am way too easily distracted). And there have been many times my ceramics business has taken a back seat to an episode of Law and Order or 30 Rock. I love television. I love hitting the sofa with my dinner plate and my wife and turning on a show, and I don’t move from that seat until it’s time for bed. And then…we flip on the television in the bedroom. What it comes down to is—thinking is good. Television, bad; thinking, good. When I read and write and draw and sculpt I can feel the engine start to turn-over. The Tin Man in my brain receives a healthy shot from the oil can. When I watch TV this rarely happens. So, a choice needs to be made.
Allow me to play critic for a moment. In all my years of viewing I have developed an opinion or two about what people should and should not be watching. I split television programming into four categories. The largest portion, maybe 80%, is unwatchable. (Did I mention Honey Boo Boo?). These are shows with no redeeming quality whatsoever. They are an embarrassment and the people who watch them should be flogged. Of course to punish someone for sitting through an episode of Sister Wives or Swamp People may seem redundant.
The second category, or 10%, is comprised of shows that I cannot explain; Two and a half Men, Mike and Molly, 2 Broke Girls, etc… Frankly the writers and creators of these shows should be ashamed. The stories are thin, the dialog laughable (in a laugh-at, not laugh-with kind of way) and the shows in general are weak and predictable. I actually had someone say to me Big Bang Theory was “over my head” because I did not get the science. Really? Maybe it’s because I want humor to surprise me which requires a little originality and a degree of intelligence. And just because these programs draw a huge audience and are advertising anchors does not indicate quality. Look at Arrested Development. It was one of the smartest, funniest comedies in TV history and they had little more than a cult following and was cancelled far too prematurely.
The next 9% are programs I have enjoyed over the years and will have a little harder time leaving behind; Survivor, Top Chef, American Horror Story, The Office and Burn Notice for example (the list is much, much longer, but in the spirit of “ripping off the band-aid”…). They have a degree of entertainment value, and they have been my friends over the years, but sometimes we must move on and move on we must.
And last, but far from least, are the top 1% (did I just say that?). Quality from beginning to end. The acting, the premise and most importantly, the writing, are exemplary. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey and of course, The Walking Dead… are examples of programs that inspire me and the ones I look forward to watching. These shows stand in stark contrast to the others which frankly the writers should be embarrassed to include on their resume (the aforementioned 80 and 10%). I cannot and will not discontinue watching them. I know, I know, with an addiction you should declare total abstinence. I will be treading along a very slippery slope. My dipping into these select few programs is kind of like telling an alcoholic they should be fine as long as they stick to the high quality liquors on the top shelf.
So there it is. I have announced my dark, dark secret to the world. Thank you for listening and your support. The road will be rough, unfamiliar and life altering, but with you all behind and before me I know my adventures will be fruitful.
…and now back to your regularly scheduled program.
Put Some Bag Balm on it
The woman from NYS Department of Social Welfare pulled the car out of the gravel driveway of Serenity Farms. I sat deep in the passenger seat, numb, scared and completely unaware of what awaited me at the other end of the road. She could undoubtedly sense my state and began telling me about the family I would be joining. They lived on a farm in the country with animals and tractors and barns and other farm-like things and they had a couple of kids around my age… Her distractions did not ease my nervousness. I was still in shock. At this point they could have leashed me to a doghouse and fed me kibble; it would not have seemed unusual.
It was dark when we arrived at the farm. I was introduced to my new foster parents and siblings, Matt, age 7 and Sarah, age 11. We sat around the kitchen table and talked until it was time for bed.
Pajamas on, we all climbed into bed. I was in the top bunk above Matt. Sarah was in the next room. The Master bedroom was further down the hall. My Foster Mother (frankly, I have no idea what to call her other than “Foster Mother” as I don’t believe I ever called her anything, let alone, Mom) came into the room and asked if we were ready. “Okay…close your eyes…Now I lay me down to sleep…” Matt and Sarah joined in…”I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” They continued on. I listened, understanding neither the rhyme, nor the meaning. I recognized it as a prayer, but it seemed foreign to me. ”If I should DIE before I wake…” Excuse me? Maybe I was just a little hyper-aware of death at that time, but I remember feeling immediately uncomfortable about that statement. Who were these people? There’s a chance I might die tonight? Matt and Sarah did not seem to have a problem with the prayer and had obviously been around long enough to memorize it. As it turned out they recited the prayer every night before sleep, I eventually learned the words and joined in requesting that the Lord keep my soul and then take it when the time comes…whatever that means.
The prayer finished, Foster Mom (that’s what I’ll call her from now on) turned out the lights on her way down stairs. Darkness; like no darkness I have ever known. Growing up in the suburbs, even in the darkest night there are house lights and street lights and car lights and the constant glow in the sky from nearby cities, but there in the remote farmlands of Upstate New York the lack of light can be complete. I think it would have been difficult for a full moon to cut through that blackness. I was lost in my bed. Matt moved occasionally letting me know I was not alone, but I found it impossible to fall asleep. It’s hard to tell if your eyes are open or closed when the view is the same on either side.
And then, at that moment, just before falling asleep…a scream. What the Hell was that? A moment later, another scream…I’m thinking, I do not belong here…Lord, take me now…the screams continued. It’s just outside the bedroom window. Matt did not budge. How could he not hear this? Who were these people? The screaming continued for an eternity. And then it stopped. And then it was morning and Matt was shaking me, inviting me down stairs for breakfast. I was told later the screaming was a screech owl and I should get used to it.
Down in the kitchen the world was already in motion. Sarah was spooning cereal into her face while Matt poured himself a bowl. Foster Dad was long gone to work and Foster Mom was at the sink washing his breakfast dishes. Matt made an announcement they were out of milk and that it was Sarah’s turn to go get more. Foster Mom turned to me. I was still standing in the doorway, not sure how to proceed. She reached out a hand and motioned for me to follow her. “Come on. Let’s go get some milk.”
We exited the kitchen through the back door and started down the driveway. We walked past the pick-up truck. The store must be close. Just before the end of the gravel drive we turned sharp left, up the path to the barn. A little confused, I walked with Foster Mom into the barn.
There were cows everywhere. What seemed like hundreds was probably only a couple dozen. I don’t ever remember seeing cows so close before that moment. I was a little afraid, but my senses were in overdrive. The smells were overwhelming; manure coupled with whitewash and just to balance it out, the sickeningly sweet, fermented stench of silage. The cows loomed over me, mooing and pooping with tails flicking flies and hooves crashing onto the hay covered concrete.
We approached the first cow in line. Call me slow, but it was just beginning to dawn on me where we were getting the milk. Foster Mom picked up a short stool and a ceramic pitcher and placed them next to the cow. She looked at me and smiled. I’m sure my look of bewilderment gave all the ladies in the barn a good chuckle.
The cow continues munching on hay as Foster Mom began massaging her teats. She asked if I would like to try. I shook my head, no. Long streams of milk jettisoned into the pitcher filling it in a couple short minutes. A thick froth pillowed above the pitchers lip.
Back inside, the others had finished breakfast and vanished from the kitchen. I sat at the table and filled my bowl with cereal. Foster Mom poured from the pitcher. The milk flowed like syrup coating the flakes with thick cream. I could feel the warmth of the milk before it even hit my tongue. There was an immediate gag reflex. This was not right. Try as I might, I could not get the milk down. I don’t know how babies do it. After several days and many attempts; trying alternative methods, ice cold, watered-down, with chocolate added, a very aggravated Foster Mom broke down and bought a quart of milk from the local IGA; pasteurized, homogenized and packed in cardboard, just like milk is supposed to be.
Life in this home was interesting to say the least. Foster Mom stayed home working the farm; cows, chickens, ducks and I want to say, a horse or two. Foster Dad went to work early each morning as manager at the town dump…that’s right, the town dump. Now…picture yourself as an eight year old boy. Screw the swing set. Forget the slide and monkey bars and sand box. What could be a better playground than a dump? Matt and I would tag along with Foster Dad on weekends and spend the day picking through piles of other peoples refuse, collecting treasures and battling rats. My greatest finds were a ten foot long stuffed snake and a 6” tall, plastic, Mr. Peanut. The snake was ripped in two spots and missing an eye and the Mr. Peanut had only one arm (the one holding the cane looked to be chewed off), but for someone who had no possessions to call his own, it was Christmas.
The days ticked by and routines developed. I don’t remember much about school during this time. It was third grade and I believe school had already begun when I moved there, missing the first part of the year. The bus ride was never ending and at one point in the journey we picked up a large group of black kids from a shanty town.
Most of what I remember was at home. Every day on the farm held new experiences for a city boy like me. There was the day the vet was nearly swallowed by the ass of a cow, his gloved arm buried up to his shoulder. On another day, while collecting eggs from the chicken coop, I was approached, most maliciously I should add, by a large duck. It chased me from the coop to the house causing me to crush an egg in either hand. Foster Mom did not accept my excuse for the broken eggs. “It’s just a duck.” She told me sternly. For me it was a redux of my Walt Disney/Donald Duck nightmare.
Foster Dad, in addition to being the King of the Town Heap, had a very interesting sense of humor. One of his favorite games was to sit in the hallway near the bottom of the stairs with a bull whip and tell us it was time for bed. He would challenge us to make it up the stairs without getting cracked in the ass. When we would object, he would scold us and threaten us with his belt. Even if he had not been an expert with the whip, at such a close range he could hardly miss. I can still hear the crack of that whip followed by the sadistic laughter of Foster Dad.
Another activity, taking place on Sunday and definitely not one I could have ever dreamt of in my urban upbringing, involved chickens and may appear to the casual observer(or vegetarian), to be unsettling and even ghoulish. Matt and I would don our oldest, dirtiest, clothes and watch closely as Foster Dad pinned a chickens head under a hooked nail on a stump. A quick drop of a hatchet and Matt and I had an instant dance partner. Blood and feathers flew, the headless chicken flopped in the dirt and we flung our arms above our heads and gyrated in a macabre ritualistic dance. When the bird finally stopped, we fell to the ground next to it, exhausted and satisfied. The chicken was then gutted, blanched, de-feathered, stuffed and cooked for Sunday supper.
It was about this time, I picked up a couple nervous ticks. I started blinking my eyes uncontrollably. Kids at school called me names and mimicked me. More annoyingly, I began licking my lips to a point they were chapped, cracked and swollen. I would wake in the morning on a blood soaked pillow unable to open my mouth without splitting open the fissures on my lips. Foster Mom’s solution was to coat my lips with a thick application of Bag Balm. I’m sure most of you know what Bag Balm is. For those who don’t, it is a petroleum based ointment for chaffed cow’s udders. It’s not meant to be taken internally and thus is not pleasantly flavored (and according to Wikipedia, Bag Balm used to contain mercury). If my lip-licking was a voluntary action, I could (maybe) go along with the treatment, but being mostly unaware of my action, I inadvertently ingested a fairly large amount of the salve. It did not work and for some time after this, any time I heard a reference to Bag Balm I would begin to lick my lips. Ironically, years later, I moved to the small town of Lyndonville, Vermont…the home of Bag Balm.
As mentioned previously, the darkness at night was complete. Having to use the bathroom, which was downstairs, could be a difficult, if not treacherous task. One particular night attempting the journey was unavoidable. I jumped down from the top bunk and started for the bedroom door. Whether from my groggy state or simple miscalculation, I ran into a wall. I adjusted, felt around with my hands and stepped into another wall or desk or something. For several minutes, I stumbled around in that room bumping and trampling; stubbing my toes and smacking body parts into obstacles. I finally found the bunk beds and climbed back in, bladder full. The next day there was a stern warning from Foster Dad that we were not to be fooling around after lights were out or hides would be tanned. Matt looked confused and denied making any noise, but it only earned him a smack upside the head.
Soon after, if not the next night, I woke in the night with the same predicament. I again hopped from the bunk and started towards what I thought was the door; again, the wall. I felt my way along the wall until I came to a corner. My bladder was about to burst, I was stuck in this corner and I was at risk of waking up Foster Dad. The only logical solution was to let it go right there.
The next morning I found the spot where I had relieved myself. It was not far from the foot of the bed next to a particle board wardrobe. The carpet had already started to dry. No one would ever know.
Over the next days, weeks and months, it became easier to just use the same spot next to the wardrobe. One day, out of nowhere, Foster Mom grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and half-carried, half-dragged me up the stairs and into the bedroom. She pushed me to my knees and forced my head into the corner, rubbing my face hard into the carpet. The fibers were wet. The smell of Lysol filled my nostrils. She was shouting and swearing and “How could you…?” and “Why would you…?” and “What are you…?” She let go of my neck and ran from the room. I sat in the pee-stained corner, sobbing and gagging; afraid of what might come next.
The following day, the woman from the county was at the door and I was on my way to another foster home. It was November. My mother had still not come for me.
Alone; Not Alone
As I’m writing these entries, and in particular the two pertaining to July 25, 1971, I don’t want it to sound like I believe I was alone in this. I might have been unaccompanied a lot of the time, but I am fully aware I was not the only one affected by the events. There were and still are two families that were devastated that day.
Most of what I know now of the time following the death of my father has been relayed to me by family members. I have little memory of the short period between the shooting and when I entered foster care.
I have flashes of being with my Aunt Martha, Uncle Chuck and cousin Scott in Painted Post for a short time. I remember being re-united with my mother at half-way house, Serenity Farms (my father liked to call it Senility Farms). She was there for alcohol rehabilitation and to this day it blows me away that they allowed me to stay there with her. It was a very creepy place, the residents shuffling around mumbling and shaking. Perhaps that was a desensitizing factor in my love for zombie movies? But the time I remember most was the short spell with the Roots. Ralph Root was a co-worker of my father’s at a landscaping company. He and his wife became my caretakers for the remaining part of the summer.
My parents, just before “the happening”, for one reason or another, were delving into the wonderful world of religion. I don’t know if it was a re-education, a re-birth, or a re-quirement for my mother’s re-hab, but we would visit the Root’s home in Horseheads and watch animated movies of bible stories. Other than watching Davey and Goliath on TV, Sunday mornings, this was my first taste of religion. It seemed okay to me…it was all cartoons, how bad could it be?
I was staying with the Roots at the time of my father’s funeral. People gathered in the living room dressed in dark colors. I was told they were all going to say goodbye to my father. In one breath, I was invited to go with them and in the next, urged not to. After all, they said, “He would just look like he’s sleeping.” With no argument, I decided to stay. I’m not sure it had sunk in I would never have the opportunity to see him again and Hell, I had seen him sleeping more times than I could count.
This is a decision I regret to this day. I kick myself for not insisting I go to the wake and curse those, good intentions or not, who persuaded me to stay home. How could they not understand I needed closure as much, if not more, as them?
My father was buried at Ft Sam Houston in San Antonio next to my half-brother who had died shortly after birth many years before I was born. After the military funeral, which I was not invited to, the flag from his casket was brought home to me. Note: I was separated from the flag when I entered foster care. It was being stored by my Aunt Martha and/or Grandmother Crane and returned to me years later. There was also a registration book that accompanied the flag containing the names of people who attended the funeral in Texas. I was told the book had been lost in the flood which ravaged both Martha’s and my Grandparent’s houses, as well as most of the Southern Tier or New York. I certainly understood, but as years past I began to wonder why the flag had not been damaged as well and if, perhaps, the original had been switched with a new one, just to give me something to hold on to. These thoughts have never diminished how I feel about the flag and today it remains as my oldest possession.
The next month is lost to me, and again, most of what I know now has been related to me by both sides of the family tree. It never occurred to me growing up there was any connection between my mother’s family and my father’s. There was no mingling. My Aunt Ann (father’s sister) and Aunt Martha (mother’s sister) were good friends in high school, but other than that, a Venn diagram of the two families would contain no point of intersection other than me. More recently, I’ve gotten the impression this was intentional. The Straits and the Cranes/Tobers, if not from different sides of the tracks, seemed to have different priorities in life.
My mother, at this time, was in and out of court, fighting an involuntary manslaughter charge. She was looking at prison time and the decision of what to do with me was in her hands. I have learned since, both sides of the family wanted to take me in, keep me with the family. Martha and Chuck for one reason or another could not and my mother made clear I would not be handed over to the Straits. They fought her, but she had friends in the court system and won. It was my mother’s judgment that I should enter the New York State foster system.
I was with my mother at Serenity Farms when they came to get me. I remember I was reading a comic book…vampires or something…my mother called to me, sat me down and explained a woman would be coming to take me to live with a nice family. I said I wanted to stay with her, but she clarified it would only be for a while and that we would be together again soon. The woman came, my mother hugged me and we left. I did see my mother once after that day. It was a supervised visit at the Steuben County offices.
I was on my way and the rest of my family was left to deal with the events of that summer as they would or could. Some handled it better than others. My father’s mother…my grand-mother, Hazel Kennedy would never be the same after the shooting. Something snapped in her. The family took turns caring for her, but she died not long after. My Aunt Ann says my mother took two lives with that one bullet. Two lives gone, many others changed forever.
It has been over 40 years now since the death of my father and my eventual departure. I have re-connected with nearly everyone on both sides of my birth family. Everyone has their own memories and deep-seeded emotions attached. Some still have an ire you can feel surfacing when the topic arises while others want to forget it ever happened. It’s best not to talk about it. As for me, it took a long time to compartmentalize this period of my life. I know it is part of who I am, but I do my damnedest not to let it define me. That might be a lot harder to accomplish if I was alone in this…but I’m not.
July 25, 1971 part 2
My father pulled the old Malibu wagon off the road and into a small opening in the otherwise dense New York forest. We exited the car and unloaded our firearms. Squirrels and chipmunks ran for their shelters screaming, There goes the neighborhood.
I had my pellet pistol strapped to my side, of course, and had brought my BB rifle as well. My father promised there was a .22 in my future if I proved myself responsible with these “less harmful” weapons. I pointed the gun skyward scanning the trees for a robin or blue jay I could prove my responsibility on.
My parents would be shooting at a moving target. Dad scoped out a tree to hang a can. My mother pointed across the dirt road, directing me to a spot away from them I should set up. I argued, wanting to shoot with them, but with no success. Pouting, I shouldered my BB gun and headed across the road. My mother was standing at the front of the car, rifle on the hood next to her while my father threaded a piece of string through a hole he had punched in an empty beer can.
There was no need to look both ways as I crossed the road. We were very alone. At the far side I stooped to retrieve an old Coke bottle someone had thoughtfully tossed out of a car window for me. It was cracked, but still held its shape.
I continued into the woods about 30 feet, set the bottle on a fallen tree and headed back towards the road. I could see my mother, still at the car, the rifle now cradled in her arms. My father was walking across the clearing, the can dangled from his right hand.
Returning to my target, I pulled a small tube of BBs from my pocket and filled the reservoir in the rifle. I pumped the fore-stock a half dozen times, building air pressure behind the tiny projectiles. Lifting the weapon to my eye, I fired. The bottle stood tall. I pumped it again and quickly fired.. The bottle remained intact, mocking me. Maybe I’m not ready for that .22 after all. Okay…take your time…remember what Dad taught you…breathe…focus…find your happy place and blast the Hell out of that bottle. I brought the gun up again and then I heard the first shot from the .22 across the road. The echoes from the blast were interrupted by a very real and very heart stopping scream.
I dropped my BB gun and ran blindly across the road, lucky I did not need to look both ways. There was no one at the car. The rifle was laying in the grass. Down field, my father was also in the grass, my mother crouched over him crying uncontrollably. The can was still swinging from the tree branch. I ran to them.
My father was on his back, eyes open, breathing slowly through clenched teeth. My mother stood quickly and ran for the car calling for me to follow. I knelt in her place, crying, “Dad? Dad?” I put my hands on his chest. He looked at me. “Go.” I pleaded to stay with him, but he insisted I go for help with my mother—he would be alright.
Wailing, I turned and ran to the car. My concern took an odd turn then as I became aware my mother would be driving the car despite the fact she had no drivers license. It did not occur to me a person may have the ability to operate a vehicle without the possession of a license. As we backed out onto the road, I looked into the field. My father, partially obscured by the tall grass, lay motionless. It was the last time I saw him.
The sound of tires spinning on loose gravel brought my attention back to my mother and her lack of driving experience. I screamed for her to slow down, be careful. She was crying, telling me everything would be alright. A mile or so down the road she pulled into the driveway of a small house, ordered me to stay in the car and jumped out, ran to the door and began pounding, screaming for help. The door opened, they exchanged words and my mother disappeared into the house. I sat in the car, sobbing. It was then I noticed the blood on my hands. Not a lot. Just on my fingertips. I stared at them, not remembering seeing any blood on my father.
My trance was broken a short time later by the sound of sirens. An ambulance flew by the house towards the field and my father. I wondered if they would be able to find him. A police cruiser followed close behind. Seconds later, two more cruisers pulled into the driveway; silent, but lights flashing. Two officers hurried to the house and one came to the car, opened the door and asked me to step out and come sit in his car.
The officer placed me in the back seat of his cruiser and closed the door. He walked into the house, leaving me alone again. A few moments later, the house door opened and my mother stepped out slowly, followed by the three police officers. She had stopped crying, but wore a vacant stare. Two cops led her to the empty cruiser. The third sat in the front seat of the car I was in. He turned and asked me if I was alright. I nodded. We pulled out of the driveway and turned left, back towards the scene of the accident. I noticed the other car turn right towards town. Our Malibu remained behind at the small house. It was not the last time I would see that car.
As we approached the crossroads, the ambulance sped past us in the opposite direction, lights and siren doing their jobs. The officer pulled the car onto the adjacent corner from the accident. He exited the vehicle and said he would be right back. I looked out my window to the right. The forest was thick and dark except for a small patch of light shining on a small patch of open ground. A number of grave markers dotted the area. The grass was overgrown and the stones were tilted this way and that. I was oddly attracted to the site. If there had been handles on the doors of the cruiser I would have gotten out to investigate. I did not get the irony of the graveyard until later.
I remember the events of that day, leading up to that moment, like it was this morning, but the old, beaten cemetery is the last solid memory I can put together surrounding this day.
That single gunshot had sent my life on a whole new trajectory. My father…gone. My mother…gone. My home, friends, cat, BB gun, Dick Dastardly bobble-head…gone.
When asked the question, “If you had to be stranded on a deserted island with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?”, the answer is always, my father. I would love to get to know him. As an eight year old you never think to ask your parents the questions that may tell you who they really are. What do they think about when they lay awake at night? Who were their heroes? What were their dreams? What were their hopes for me? And I’d really like to tell my father… I loved him…and…that I think I’m ready for that .22 now.