She Once Believed in Happy Endings
Once a stone has been dropped
into the depths of a green and living pond,
it cannot be recalled, the action cannot be undone;
it has become a part of that green continuum.
Reality has been changed,
I met him in the eighth grade.
He took LSD on the weekends and was already
a guitar virtuoso.
He loved the early Yardbirds, jazz and blues.
He taught me how to jam.
He once fired me from a junior high band
but he was always kind.
Years later a storm blew in.
Voices roared in his head.
He wanted to banish them to the darkness.
But how could he win
against such a big wind?
Where could he begin?
Wishes changed nothing.
So he taped his ID
to his wrist and put a gun
to his head
and squeezed the trigger until he was dead.
Each night his mother longs to dream of her only son,
before the voices and the gun.
She once believed in happy endings
but no more,
not without her son,
not in a world undone.
*Note: While the poem above was written some years after learning of the death of my childhood friend in 2004, the one below was written shortly after hearing the tragic news. My old friend struggled with both addiction and a mood disorder. I played rhythm guitar for him in eighth and ninth grade and in exchange he taught me how to play lead guitar and bass; he played with breathtaking virtuosity. He went on to become one of the finest jazz bass players in the Twin Cities. Sadly I lost touch with him after I left Minnesota in the mid seventies and was never able to carry "the message" of recovery to him; that regret echoes in the lines below. What a loss...
From Black to Blue
In my mind, I hear your voice
telling me that you had no choice.
That there was nothing left to do.
That your world had gone from black to blue.
Do you have nothing left to hide,
there on the other side?
No more secrets, no more lies,
no more need for alibis?
Was there nothing I could say
to make you want to stay?
Did you really have to go?
That's what I want to know.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Andy Warhol made movies of folks doing nothing. George Costanza, in the comedy “Seinfeld”, tried to persuade NBC to make a TV show about nothing. As much as I like “Seinfeld” and Andy Warhol, this journal won’t be about nothing. I won’t try to make something out of nothing. I will try to focus on the turning points, the moments of heartbreak and high drama (at least as they seemed to me). Not that I won’t engage in some navel gazing but I will attempt to cut away the rind, and get to the juice. Many things will be left out. In no way will this journal be an all inclusive representation of the events in my life. It will be more of a series of vignettes, incidents, stories. Memory is a funny thing. It is not an event in itself but the fragmentary replication of an event, made of fleeting impressions, feelings and images. It cannot be weighed or measured. It is dependent on us, on our brains, on human consciousness. In the end, memory is a kind of fiction, an illusion, a magician’s trick, where the past is revived and pulled out of a hat.
On French TV, I once saw an interview with an American actor who used the expression “12 step program” instead of AA to protect his anonymity. In subtitles this was translated as Alcoholics Anonymous. The American actor did not break his anonymity, the translator did. While I will refrain from using last names (including my own), those referenced may recognize themselves. They may be wrong, or not. So be it. Of course, as the details of my life emerge in these pages the possibility of who I really am will become narrower. Then again, I may be making all of this story up or at least parts of it. Half remembered conversations certainly will become fictionalized. One cannot experience an event like God and see and remember all things. What happened decades ago flashes back to us in an instant, but it is not reality. Reality is long gone. Maybe the past is out there somewhere in an alternative universe, but access to it is uncertain. It seems to be locked away in a house with very few windows (where we can peer in and glimpse its inner secrets). It is in the realm of ghosts, the realm of dreams; it is in a far off country that one only hears rumors about (and no one really knows if any of those stories are true); it is in another world.
Folks whose names I have forgotten will be given new names; in more than a few cases, I will intentionally change even the first names of those who were once close to me.
We miss much of what goes on around us. In writing this, things may become clearer to me. I may discover things that have been buried, repressed, forgotten. So we will take this journey together. We will see what we can see.
1971 was the best year of my life. My dad got sober. I turned fourteen. I had my first wet dream. I found love. It was also the year, I discovered drugs. We moved into a new house: a big two story with a fireplace and a rec room with shag carpet in the basement (where I could play my electric guitar and listen to records). It became my studio apartment and later band rehearsal space. I was in heaven. Even so, I had a lot of strong feelings for the old house. In the winter, I could ski from my backyard to a park that had a tow rope and ski hill, or I could walk up the block to a skating rink and play hockey. In summer, I played endless innings of baseball in the neighborhood. I played football in the fall. While I had many great experiences in the old house and neighborhood, the new house promised something new, something different, and it delivered. While the new house was on the fringes of the Minneapolis suburb of New Hope; New Hope was, both figuratively and literally, just on the other side of the road.
I would change schools. (Later I would attend high school with the same kids from my old junior high and grade school.)The new house was just a mile away from the old house down Medicine Lake Road (where my father once crashed and rolled a car while drunk). But that was while living in the old house, that other life, before my dad found permanent sobriety (over forty years).
The years before that grand event were both magical and traumatic. If not my for my dad’s drinking, my life would have been perfect, idyllic. Even so I had a lot of fun. In the fall, my father would take me deer and pheasant hunting. Since my dad’s drinking was periodic, when sober I could not have hoped for a more tender and loving father. During vacations, I would go fishing with my grandfather (my mother’s step-father) in southern Minnesota. A one time big band leader, my grandfather played saxophone and owned an organ and electric guitar. He loved Ray Charles, Hank Williams. He always reminded me of an old bluesman; he had black kinky hair (he was Black Irish). He championed my interest in learning how to play guitar.
The move to the new house meant that I would have to give up my morning paper route. In winter, I would have to get up before five (on my bike in summer the route took less than thirty minutes; when there was snow and ice, it took over an hour). In many ways, I enjoyed my morning paper route. In the late night hours the world is mysterious, full of long shadows, most everyone is asleep (except for paper boys and insomniacs and those up to no good). One morning, I saw the shadow of a man digging a hole in his front yard. I imagined the worst. The move took place in January, so there would be no more delivering papers in the cold, subzero dark. It was soon replaced with an evening paper route in the new neighborhood.
On my route, I often would listen to music from my transistor radio with an ear piece, privately, so as not to wake anyone up. Late one night, while in bed at home, I heard the news through that tiny ear piece that RFK had been assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (that too was a traumatic memory from the old house).
* * * *
After the move to the new house, I had to make some adjustments. Learning my schedule at the new school was first on the agenda (and since I started in the middle of the year, the locker assigned to me was in no man’s land on the far end of the school). While both junior highs were in the same school district, my new school used an experimental and innovative scheduling system. The old junior high used the traditional system of six classroom periods repeated daily. The new school used what was called modular scheduling (a mod consisted of a twenty minute period). Each day of the week was different. On Thursdays, I had only one class scheduled of only forty minutes. I loved Thursdays. Of course, students were expected to study during their free periods but the system was terribly abused. I would continue with this system of modular scheduling into high school. While this system of scheduling may not have worked for everyone, I blossomed under it. In high school, I spent hours of my free time in the library. Since I loved monster movies and detective stories, in particular Sherlock Holmes, I began reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. After discovering Poe, my life changed forever. I did not just read his stories, I read his poems and essays. From the essays, I turned to the texts he referred to: John Keats, Byron and Coleridge. After that, I read everything (in my own haphazard way) from Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Steinbeck and Hermann Hesse to Hemingway, and on and on.
Back at the new house, I faced a dilemma. I had to choose between playing hockey or jamming on guitar with my new school friends. I was torn. The team I played on had struggled to even exist. But the coach, a handsome young man, recruited some players and a team was put together. One day, in the warming house, the coach took off his hockey gloves. One of his hands was inordinately small and withered. Strange. I had never noticed. He always wore hockey gloves. My mother offered to drive me to practice in the old neighborhood, but I chose to jam with my new friends. Later I learned that my old team won the division championship game in Crystal, Minnesota. I was so proud of them (and the coach). It was the last organized sports team I ever played on.
Of all sports, hockey is my favorite. Paradoxically, it combines both violence and grace. While skating is like flying, hockey is brutal and one often crashes to the ground in mid flight. I once had my eyebrow cut with the blade of a skate as I lay flat on my back on the ice (I finished the game with the aid of a butterfly bandage). One year, I was captain of my own team. My dad, would often come to my games. He would pull his car right up to the edge of the rink. In a drunken voice, he would call out from his opened car window: “Knock that puck into the net. Kill them Billy.” In my embarrassment, I would play even harder and take out my shame on my opponents.
* * * * *
The sole reason I chose to join in jam sessions with my friends over playing hockey was because of the musical brilliance of my jamming partner, Roger. Playing “Spin the Bottle” with the girls during breaks in our jam sessions would not have been enough for me to give up hockey. While Roger was not an athlete, he was a virtuoso. Roger was tall, thin and gawky with red hair, a little goofy, disarming and wicked smart. And funny. We laughed a lot (sometimes with the help of marijuana, sometimes not). Roger played a Fender Telecaster through a small Vox tube amp. I had a Japanese made hollow body guitar that my parents surprised me with a few years before. Like Roger, I had a small tube amp (made by Gibson in Kalamazoo, Michigan) that had incredible tone. Of course, we were embarrassed by our small amps. They weren’t cool. If you wanted to be a guitar god, it was necessary to have a Marshal stack. Little did we know (the now well worn fact) that one of the greatest rock jams of all time, “Layla”, was recorded using a small Fender Champ amp. Before meeting Roger, the best I could do was bang out “Proud Mary”, “House of the Rising Sun” and other similar songs. While I could play rhythm guitar pretty well, without a lead player the rock and blues progressions I played got boring pretty fast. But with Roger I sounded like a pro, his skills at improvisation were uncanny. One time, Roger’s father took Roger to the local music store and inquired about Roger taking some lessons. Roger jammed with the instructor. The instructor shook his head in amazement and said there was nothing that he could teach Roger. Roger was a student of the blues. He idolized Jimi Hendrix. (Roger was also influenced by the psychedelic movement, maybe too much, he had already begun taking LSD). While I would drink alcohol, now and again, I was innocent when it came to drugs. That would soon change.
I would jam with Roger over the next few years, often staying over at his house on weekends. He would teach me how to play bass and lead guitar. He taught me the musical scales used in jamming and how to change from one key to another (he showed me where every note could be found on the fret board and how it could be applied to the scale one was playing). Roger was a true wizard.
* * * *
My favorite class in the new school was “Speech”. For my presentation, in front of a small group of six or seven, I chose a fable by Hans Christian Andersen: The Emperor’s New Clothes.
I chose this fable because I identified with the child in the story (who knows something is wrong). I was deeply disillusioned. My beautiful storybook parents had become unraveled by a monster, by alcoholism. My dad would drink and mother would fly into a rage. Often at night throughout my early childhood, I would be awakened not by a nightmare but by my parents, by their cries and curses, by the war between them. My beautiful parents were unrecognizable from the ones I knew in the daytime. The United States had also become unraveled by war, by the war in Vietnam. I knew this, too. The teacher was impressed with my presentation and asked that I repeat the speech, the story, in front of a large group of close to a hundred students. I panicked. I froze. I was too shy. I declined her invitation. I kept silent. A year and half before, something similar happened. I went to school wearing a black armband in protest of the war in Vietnam. My young social studies teacher (a recent University of Minnesota graduate) had been accused of influencing me. Her job was on the line. Later in class, she asked me why I wore the black armband. I knew why. I had an answer. I was thinking of all the young men, who were just a few years older than me, who were needlessly dying overseas. I was also aware of the Vietnamese children (just my age) who were being incinerated by American weapons of war. But before I could answer her, she spoke up and accused me of wearing the armband as a fashion statement (this answer, of course, would get her off the hook; she couldn’t be responsible for a student’s way of dress; the sixties were a wild time). I was humiliated and shamed by her answer and never voiced my own true sentiments. Included in the back of this book are some of the anti-war poems that I have written since that time (think of it as my way of making amends for that silence all those years ago).
* * * *
In the cool dark, we traveled north in a caravan of cars and boats to the Canadian border. I had obsessed about the trip for weeks. I thought this would even be better than the vacation in Brainerd we took a few years before. Instead of a cabin we would camp in tents out in the Canadian woods along the shore of a lake. My dad was behind the wheel of our family car, a chiffon Cadillac. (It may have been a gold Buick. Somewhere around that time my dad traded in the Buick for the Cadillac.) My dad’s sponsor sat up front—since he resembled Warren Beatty, I’ll call him Warren. I sat in back with Warren’s two boys, both under ten.
Warren was hip and highly intelligent, and an astute businessman. Warren Junior was a good looking kid with curly blonde hair and a gentle disposition. Both boys were easy to get along with and a lot of fun (neither of the two boys had any memories of a drunken father, Warren had over five years sobriety).
The guys in my dad’s recovery group had put the trip together. While my parents had encouraged me to join a group made up of teens with an alcoholic parent, I wasn’t comfortable sharing my feelings with other kids I did not know. This would be different. It was a fishing trip made up of recovering alcoholics and their boys. We would share things with one another only if we wished.
We made several pit stops on the way. I would get out of the car and step out into the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights from the filling station and wander among the cars and boats. Everyone was excited about the trip, making jokes. There was one boy off by himself who seemed to be my age. I introduced myself.
He turned towards me and put out his hand to shake mine. “I’m Tommy, Phil’s son. That’s your dad over there.” He pointed towards my dad.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Do you know Warren?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, he’s nice guy.”
We got back in our respective cars and headed off into the darkness. It was still dark when we made it to the border But the sun soon came up. This was my first time in a foreign country. I’d gone international.
After several more stops, we made our way into the deep woods and set up camp beside the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. The water was crystal clear, luminous. The world had brightened all around us, blue and green and enchanting.
Tommy and I became fast friends and we took a hike around the area.
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“I’ve been up here several times with my dad and the group.”
“How long has your dad been sober?”
“Eight years. It is good we’re walking, getting some exercise. I’ve got to stay in shape. I can get a little belly.”
I laughed. Boys, not just girls, worry about their body image.
Back at the camp, the guys started calling me Duke, after John Wayne—since I wore a cowboy hat.
Soon we were out on the water catching fish: Walleye, Northern Pike, and Bass. Warren’s boys had a ball hauling in all those fish. This was different than the shore fishing I had done with my grandpa using worms and catching bullheads—in Canada we used lures. This was different too than the fishing I did In Brainerd. There I would take out a small boat out by myself and catch sunfish. But I had never caught really big fish until Canada.
Mornings we would wade out into the lake and bathe and then have breakfast (we did not stay in the water long; it was cold even in July).
One day my dad and I got lost out on the lake in our boat. We made our way to the shore. We waited for help. We hoped someone from our party would spot our boat and show us the way back to camp. My dad and I talked and made jokes. We weren’t too worried. Then my dad said something that startled me, wounded me: “Some of the guys are concerned that calling you Duke isn’t good for you. That it is giving you a big head. ” I was deflated.
My dad could tell I was hurt by the statement (he probably wished he hadn’t brought it up). “No, it’s not going to my head.” I said defensively. Actually, in my jean jacket and cowboy hat, I fancied myself a junior Billy Jack. John Wayne was not that big of a hero for my generation.
My dad smiled. “Don’t take it hard, it’s no big deal.”
In the rooms and literature of the program, an alcoholic is often described as an egomaniac with an inferiority complex, and false pride, a big head, as much or more than denial, is what blocks the alcoholic from seeking help. The truth is, the guys in the group were on to something, their instincts about me were right; I was one of them (even if I had only been drunk a few times), and a big head is very dangerous for the alcoholic. Statistically, the odds of the child of an alcoholic becoming an alcoholic are very high.
In that pristine wilderness, with those men, those miracles of God’s grace, I was blessed, transformed.
The trip back from Canada was different than the ride up. Warren’s boys fell asleep. I stayed awake and heard every story and joke.
Even now, I can still hear Warren’s voice: “Now I’m not saying I’ve ever been close to a slip, but all that wine. One bottle after another was tasted. If I was to take a drink, that would have been the time. And let me tell you about the Sistine Chapel. It was like a dream, the figures floating above us. It was beautiful. Michelangelo was a genius.”
Then he went on about going to see the play, “Hair,” on Broadway. He told how the audience gasped when a naked woman appeared on the stage. Warren was cool and a true salesman. Early in my dad’s sobriety, my dad and Warren would go into bars and visit with the patrons (those in particular who were having problems with their drinking). Warren would describe (over a ginger ale) this wonderful Country Club, a kind of resort, where one could rest and enjoy life. But it wasn’t a Country Club or a resort that Warren was describing; it was a rehab facility in Hazelden, Minnesota.
A few years after that trip, Warren Junior was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He would die of the disease. Not fair. Not fair at all. Then I think of something else: the gift Warren gave to his oldest son: a sober and loving dad.
* * * *
On my first day of the ninth grade, I arrived at the bus stop early. Johnny O soon joined me at the bus stop. We did not know each other well but over the next few years we would become close friends. Johnny was a year younger than me and had recently formed a band with my old pal Roger on bass. Johnny was the front man, the guitarist and singer. He was small, good looking—he had that whole David Cassidy, Mick Jagger thing going for him. With my long wavy, blonde hair, I looked pretty good myself (earlier that summer I had gotten chubby but I dieted on Fresca and yogurt and with the help of a major growth spurt; I was once again a contender for the girls’ hearts). I was dressed in my new schools clothes, a lavender shirt, corduroy bell bottoms and boots. (Soon there would be no division between school clothes and play clothes; I would wear blue jeans and whatever shirts my mother had laundered that week.)
The ninth grade would be wild. While I wouldn’t become a total stoner (that would come later), I would dabble with drugs whenever I had the chance. I would find the girl of my dreams and then lose her. I would then be asked to join Johnny and Roger’s band (the best junior high band in the Twin Cities) and then be asked to leave. The thing about good fortune, about good luck, is that there always the chance of a reversal of that good fortune, of that glittering prize being stolen or lost. But a loss (and in particular a loss in love) can bear its own kind of fruit, its own kind of wisdom, bittersweet and dark. This dark night of the soul can change us, transform us, if we let it. After all, it brought us the cantos of Dante after the death of Beatrice, and a whole world, no a whole universe, constellations, of poetry and song.
* * * * *
There was a pond behind my house, and beyond that another pond and a large field and creek. In winter, the ponds would freeze and everything would turn white. In a few months (that coming spring) Roger and Johnny O would name the field Peachland (after the cover art from the album “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers). As long as I can remember I loved Christmas vacations and this one was turning out to be the best yet. Dressed in my father’s old Air Force overcoat, I trudged through the snow. I pulled out a corn cob pipe and filled the bowl from a dime bag of marijuana (mind you, this was nineteen seventy one; I’m sure prices have changed).
I lit the bowl and took a puff. My eyes turned upward and I began to ascend into the clouds (in that Air Force overcoat, I was a pilot alright). This is what I had been looking for, I thought, total bliss. But I could not just stay up there in the clouds, I had a mission. I had bought a gold locket for my girlfriend, Laura, as a Christmas gift. Inside the locket, I placed a picture of myself from my Canadian fishing trip, one that I had cut out from a group photo—all that remained was a kind of head shot, and really all that could be seen was my hair shining in the sun.
Laura had an identical twin, Lisa. In the beginning, I could not tell them apart. But that soon changed. To me, they were just sisters—as different as sisters can be. Not that they weren’t close, there was a bond between them. But their personalities were their own. They shared the same interests and history but there was a difference in vision and attitude and there certainly was a difference in how I felt about them (I had no romantic feelings for Lisa and she had none for me).
The twins would often accompany me on my paper route. My customers did not consider that I was a long haired stoner, opening their doors and invading their space. They thought I was a girl (my sister, Anne, often collected for me). I would correct them when they would call out to a spouse: “the paper girl is here.” During this time, I grew as tall as my mother (five foot four) and then to my father’s height (five foot seven). Soon I would tower over both of them and I would no longer be mistaken for a girl no matter how long my hair was.
I first noticed Laura the spring before when I saw her and Lisa out smoking cigarettes in Peachland. They waved at me, I shouted back but nothing came of it. Later we hooked up and made out at a party at Boone’s farm. (I call it that after the two bottles of cheap wine I drank before I arrived. Still it really was a farm.) Johnny and Roger’s band played that night. Roger asked if I wanted to play Johnny’s cherry Gibson ES335. I tried to play but I was too drunk. (Roger insisted that I was a good player). But Johnny was not impressed.
Laura and Lisa lived close by, just across the field and up the block, ten minutes by foot. (Later, after the break up, it was if Laura lived on another planet, she seemed so far away. That distance, that feeling of emptiness, lingered in my soul for a long time.)
After I arrived at Laura’s house, I pulled the gift box from my pocket and gave it to Laura as Lisa and her mother looked on, smiling, touched.
“But I haven’t got you anything.” Laura said.
“That’s alright,” I said.
“I will get you something.”
She did get me something, a watch, but the gift I wanted, I already had, Laura. Such an intelligent and tender girl, a true paradox, wild yet innocent, and like Roger sadly prolific in her use of drugs, including LSD.
Many years later, while looking through an old high school yearbook, I saw a photo of Laura wearing the locket over her sweater (I had never noticed the locket before; actually it was my sister’s yearbook, so I may not have seen the photo before). The photo was taken a few years after I gave Laura the locket. Laura was smiling (the same beautiful brunette that I’d known). In my mind, I considered her wearing the locket as a sign, as a kind of message, a message that she still thought well of me, that I would see the photo years later and know she stilled cared (probably wishful thinking on my part). But I wonder, was my photo from the Canadian fishing trip still in the locket? Or had she thrown it away? I don’t know, I’ll probably never know.
* * * * *
On the last day of my Christmas break, late in the evening, the doorbell rang. Upstairs in my bedroom, I could hear a man’s voice. “Do you have a sixteen year old son with long blonde hair?”
I was fourteen, but I fit the description.
“Billy come down here,” my mother called out to me.
I stood at the top of the stairs, just out of sight, my heart beating rapidly, dreading making those final steps down into the foyer. I took a breath (as if I was going underwater) and descended.
“You son has been dealing drugs in the neighborhood. He sold some marijuana to my daughter.”
The man who stood in the foyer was Kurt W’s dad. I had been over at Kurt’s house earlier smoking dope with him and his nineteen year old sister. She offered to roll some joints. She obviously had kept some for herself. I hadn’t sold her anything. Actually, I had gotten the grass from an older friend of Kurt’s. And this is what I should have said. I should have just gone with the truth. But I panicked. I did not want to admit to any part of it. I did not want my parents to know I was smoking grass.
By this time, my dad had joined in the conversation and it was decided that my dad and I would go over to Kurt’s house and talk it all out.
When we arrived, Kurt was sitting in a chair in the living room with a look of stern disdain on his face. His sister was in her bedroom, crying.
Mrs. W joined in the conversation. “She was walking around the house, smoking that stuff like it was a cigarette. She was in the hospital just two months ago for treatment.”
The questioning went on. I continued to deny any involvement. I realized that the drug dealer that Mr. W was looking for was Kurt’s friend (Kurt knew this too). Kurt said nothing (he wasn’t going to rat out his friend and he hoped I wouldn’t either). I suppose if I had told the truth about where the marijuana came from, it might have been bad for me. Through all of this, my dad stood by me (he was ten months sober and was now used to hearing and openly discussing situations involving alcohol and drug abuse at his recovery meetings).
Finally, my dad said “maybe we should get the police involved.”
“No, we shouldn’t do that.” Mrs. W shot back.
My dad’s statement about the police deescalated the situation. Soon after, we went home.
Back at home, my mother had made some discoveries of her own. “I found bits of marijuana in the pocket of your coat. All of your coats are full of the stuff. Your brother said he saw you smoking pot with your friends when you were babysitting.”
My brother was four, almost five, and while I did smoke dope with the twins at the house (when no one was around), I never did it in plain sight. Apparently baby brother had been spying on me.
“He said he came down the stairs when you thought he was asleep and saw you.”
“No, not true.”
“Don’t deny it. How would he know about that?”
“Maybe he saw it on TV.”
My mother’s anger (which I had seen for so many years when my dad was drinking) would soon turn into worry and then sorrow. The marijuana ride I had been on that Christmas had come to end. That bubble had popped. It was back to earth for me.
* * * * *
For years, I had been my mother’s support group, her confidant, the one she turned to when my dad was out drinking. When my mother was seven months pregnant with my baby brother, my dad (on a drunken bender with his boss) flew to Las Vegas. My mother was inconsolable, but I tried to comfort her. I was nine. Now I was the one causing all the worry. I was the one wearing the black hat. As magical as my foray, my escape, into that marijuana haze was, I wanted to keep it secret. I did not want to cause my mother any more pain then she had already experienced in her life. At twelve, her family moved from southern Minnesota to California (staying in shanty camps similar to those depicted by John Steinbeck or in the songs of Woody Guthrie). Often, my mother’s father would be off chasing a job (or drinking) and leave the family behind. Finally he gave up in his futile attempts to support the family and never came back. My uncle, mother and grandmother moved back to Minnesota. My mother never saw her father again.
I much preferred being my mother’s confidante than the one causing all the trouble. Back in the old days, I was glad she confided in me rather than keeping her feelings secret and pretending there was nothing wrong. We faced the problem together, that gave me some comfort. As my dad’s drinking grew increasingly worse, my mother and I became obsessed with finding a solution. I suggested we film my dad’s insane behavior, his utter change in personality (so that he could see what we saw). But nothing worked. Our mission failed.
On January 24, 1971, Bill Wilson (co-founder of AA) died. On February 14, 1971, AA groups around the world celebrated his life and mourned his death. Three days later, on February 17, 1971 my dad found permanent sobriety. I believe Bill was there. Thank you, Saint Bill for your intercession.
* * * * *
After the breakup with Laura, I would often see a rusted out old Dodge sedan waiting for her in the junior high parking lot. I caught a glimpse of the driver a few times (and had heard rumors that he was in his thirties but no one said too much to me about it). I no longer spoke with Laura so I did not what was going on with her (we had shared a locker—since the one assigned to me was on the far end of the school—but after the breakup I began using my old locker once again). Only years later did I realize who the guy was in the Dodge sedan. He had been a chaperone at one of the school dances (where rock bands would play). Laura and I had found a dark corner in the school gym to make out (actually we were dry fucking). The chaperone approached us and asked her, “Why are you with this guy?” At the time, I simply took it as a warning that we were going too far in our very public make out session. I realize now the guy had much more sinister motives. He had targeted Laura (a young girl with seemingly no sexual inhibitions) and wanted her for himself.
A month later, on a Friday night (with Laura’s parents out of town), I went to Laura’s house. There were kids everywhere—there was a party going on—but no Laura. I waited for over an hour, still no Laura. Despondent, I went home. Finally, I called her. I sheepishly asked if she wanted to break up. She was crying. Between her sobs, she said “Yes.”
* * * * *
“One two three four five six seven all good children go to Heaven” (Lennon/McCartney)
As I wandered about between the stacks of record albums, clouds of incense hung heavy from one end of the shop to the other (as it did in all head shops from San Francisco to New York at that time). The owner of this new shop on Medicine Lake Road, a guy in his late twenties, glanced at me—with shoulder length brown hair and a kind face, he looked like Jesus, or at least as Jesus has been so often depicted in portraits. So I’ll call him Jesus. Later I learned that Jesus was a body builder (he had once held the title of Mister Minnesota and went on to place in the Mister Universe finals). In a sweater and jeans, Jesus hid his sculpted physique. He was somewhat small with a thin waist but his shoulders were broad. “Who do you like? What bands do you like?” he asked.
“Leslie West, Mountain, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix,” I replied.
“We have some of that.” Jesus came over and pulled out an album from the stacks. “Here’s one by West, Bruce and Laing.”
“Yeah, I have that one. I love it.” I looked over at the Hammond organ across the room and asked, “Is there a band that plays here?”
“I’m putting together a band. I play keyboards,” Jesus answered.
“I play bass.”
“We need a bass player. What are you doing tonight? Do you think you could bring your equipment up here and try out some songs with us?
“Sure. What time?”
I was quite excited about the invitation. I had become obsessed with playing bass guitar after Roger and Johnny O had asked me to join their band and replace Roger on bass. Up until then, they had one guitarist, Johnny O. The old band played a lot of Grand Funk. The new band would be different. The Allman Brothers were then in vogue. Johnny O would play slide guitar and Roger would play rhythm and lead guitar. It was a challenge for me, not only to learn how to play bass, but to play Berry Oakley’s bass parts. I was overwhelmed. I did not even own a bass, I used Roger’s bass. Roger convinced me to sell my beloved Silvertone twin twelve amp (an amp that would later be made famous by Jack White) and use the money to buy a bass and amp. But it was too late. Roger went back to playing bass and I was out. I did have a lot of fun and found several new girlfriends while playing with those guys. After that, I played in several more bands and began to get a feel for playing bass. Sometimes all that a bass offers is support for the other musicians, but not always. Sometimes a bass player can become a kind of conductor and guide the band through the various musical changes. Paul McCartney is a master of this type of playing. After I learned how to play bass, I never listened to music in the same way again, playing bass gave me a depth of understanding to what was going on in any given song.
I had a Vox teardrop bass and a Vox Royal Guardsman amp and a speaker cabinet with two fifteen inch bass speakers and soon set up my gear at the head shop. The guitar player and his girlfriend were from Lake Minnetonka (a cute couple of kids about my age).
Jesus was obsessed with one song in particular, “You Never Give Me Your Money” by the Beatles. More exactly he was obsessed with the final refrain of the song,“One two three four five six seven all good children go to Heaven.” He said he wanted to plaster the words all over his shop.
We rehearsed for several nights and then something happened that shook me up. Jesus said he had to run some errands and asked if we would we like to come along. We all piled in his car. We smoked some dope and then Jesus started in about the people in the other cars. “Do you see that guy over there in that car?” Jesus pointed over at the driver in the other lane. “I could take him out with my forty-five. One two three four five six seven all good children go to Heaven.”
Is he just stoned or a psycho? I asked myself. I wasn’t sure, but after I got a glimpse of the pistol that he carried, I wasn’t going to wait to find out. After we got back to the shop, I gathered up my equipment and called my dad and never returned. Later, I heard the feds raided the place and found a large stash of gold in the back room (at the time it was illegal to possess gold). While I would continue to play in bands in high school, I would never again take playing music seriously. I had found a new muse, a different calling, and the road I would soon take would both change and save my life.
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Snow drifted out of the darkness, illumined by street lights and nothing else; the border of reality lost, defaced in that white suburban wilderness. Blizzards did not faze me, I loved them. At the center of all that snow, there was a kind of peace, a stillness, even a kind of warmth. Actually clear nights are often much colder in Minnesota than snowy ones. Out of the darkness, an apparition appeared: Debbie H. She ran toward me. I called out to her.
“Laurel said she saw you from her window, so I came,” Debbie said breathlessly
The park was closed because of the snowstorm. That did not stop me. I came most every night to see Debbie. Debbie would skate and I would watch (my skates no longer fit). Mostly we talked. We would sit off to the side of the skating rink on a bench beneath a tree. We would hold hands, it was so innocent, so tender. (There were no drugs involved with Debbie, no endless make out sessions.) I met Debbie at a house party in the fall (where I played bass with a band). Debbie had long blonde hair and was adorable, the All American girl. Debbie was a year younger than me and was still at the junior high (in the ninth grade). I was in high school, so we did not see each other during the day. Debbie listened to everything I had to say, my dreams, my fantasies, no matter how absurd or strange. I told her about the horror novel I was working on. It was derivative of Poe. The protagonist had a black cat (of course) and shared his plans of mayhem with his pet.
I had become obsessed with late night movies, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre. In one of my favorites, Lorre plays an innocent immigrant who is horribly disfigured after a bomb explodes beneath a car (his wife is killed). Lorre transforms from a kind, loving soul to a vengeful monster. That movie was so good, so moving. Basil Rathbone, in the Sherlock Holmes features, was another favorite. I wanted to make sure I saw every one. After that, I read the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who shares a birthday with me, May 22).
Later that spring, Debbie and I broke up. It wasn’t her choice. it was mine. Why? She was perfect. I have seen pictures of her recently on facebook and she is as beautiful as ever (in her fifties she still looks like a young girl). I am so grateful to Debbie—that she listened, that she heard me that she was there beside me, when I decided to become a writer. Thank you, Debbie.
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