River of Dreams
“In the middle of the night I go walking in my sleep, through the valley of fear to a river so deep,
I've been searching for something, taken out of my soul, something I would never lose,
Something somebody stole, in the middle of the night…” –Billy Joel, River of Dreams
Do you have dreams? Dreams that you chase? Not plans you’re going to executing. Plans are something different. I’m talking about dreams. They don’t have to be reality based. Childish dreams like playing in the NFL or NBA or MLB. I guess some kids even dream of being in the NHL. Or maybe it’s of becoming a doctor/lawyer/president – fill in the blank. It’s the fostered and nurtured dreaming of children that make them hope for greater and reach out for more. It’s a coping mechanism when times are hard. It’s a guiding vision of something that drives people to achieve more than they thought possible. It gives some the ability to attain and accomplish what is beyond possible.
My people, like most other people’s “people” who live in Deep East Texas, landed there because they were running from the law somewhere else. My great grandfather, my father’s maternal grandfather, the man whose name I was given--because he was the most positive influence on my father’s young life—beat a man down in Houston and removed his head with a pocketknife because he didn’t like the way he was dancing with his wife. I guess you could say Anger Management Issues run in the family…but these are my people.
My father’s father was killed in WW2 in France in the August after D-Day, leaving him with an alcoholic mother who would, in finality, marry four different times. She never suffered from any maternal instincts toward him as she did his older brother and eventual younger brother and sister. She actually suffered a miscarriage at the post office on the day she received my grandfather’s death notice from the Army. He had been gone for three years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When my grandfather’s remains returned from Europe, my father was less than seven years old. At the burial, during the 21 gun salute, my grandmother fainted and my father believed that she had been shot by the rifle detail. He ran screaming, “Mama! Mama!”, through the headstones away from the grave site. His uncle was able to chase him down halfway across the cemetery and convince him that his mother was alright. I had a great aunt who used to tell this story. She always laughed so hard when describing how he had wet his suit pants from fright. Really funny stuff. The last time I heard her tell it, her top denture plate flew out and slid across the kitchen floor, mid-cackle. I never heard her repeat it after that. Yeah, these are my people.
I’m don’t know why my grandmother was so bitter, hateful, self-centered. It would be easy to simply say she was just evil but I haven’t found most people to simply be “born” that way. I don’t know what demons drove her. I never knew why she despised my father so. I do know that my father’s uncle saved him several times from the most severe beatings stemming from the most trivial transgressions. I’ve only seen my father cry twice in my entire life. The last time was when we were meeting with a doctor in a trauma center after my little brother’s car accident. He told us that my brother was brain dead and wanted to know if he could leave us the organ donation forms to look over. Some blows strike hard enough to shatter the hardest stone.
I think my sister may have recently discovered the answer. She has always been too damn nosey for her own good. My grandfather’s(?) army deployment dates just don’t add up with my father’s birth. Only a couple of weeks ago did I learn that my great aunt, the story teller, caught her husband, my grandfather’s brother, in bed with my grandmother. She told him, “I don’t care if you stay here or not but I’m leaving! Make your choice.” He followed her out of that house and left my grandmother there. It seems that my great uncle was most probably my true grandfather. Maybe that’s why my grandmother always sent my dad to his “uncle’s” when he was a boy to “get to know his people.” Funny, she never sent his older brother with him, who had the same last name.
I didn’t understand my father’s deep seated rage, insecurity and issues of self worth when I was a child. By the time I was old enough to understand, I didn’t care about anyone else’s rage but my own. I didn’t cry anymore either. He tried to give us better than he got. I can’t say that was good enough for us at the time.
I suppose it also explains the hatred my grandmother had for the son born to the man that she actually wanted to marry-but instead wound up with his brother.A son born to the man who walked out and left her behind for the woman he was already married to.
I’ve always despised holidays. That’s got to be at least another 5000 words of material. One Christmas when I was about 10 and my little brother was 6 we went to my grandmother’s house to open gifts. She and her last husband had gotten us some plastic Chevy trucks. The midsized toy kind from the 70’s where the axles and tires would pop on and off from underneath. I thought they were awesome. That is until the “favorite” grandson opened his present. She had purchased him some fantastic two-tone leather chaps with silver buckles and tassels and they were even monogrammed with his initials tooled into the leather! I took my brother’s and my own plastic trucks and pushed them into a corner where I made him leave them. Even a 10 year old can recognized a slight that deep.
Did my father have dreams? I don’t really know. None that I ever heard. Once, one of his other uncles, the oldest brother, told my grandmother, “I want you to call Mike and listen to how he answers you.”
“Why?” she asked. “Just do it and I’ll tell you,” he replied.
“Mike!” she yelled out.
He answered back with a distant yell, “Do what?!”
“You see?” his uncle asked. “You never call him unless you want something done. That’s the only time you speak to him. You’ve ruined that boy.” Man, was that an understatement.
She had stolen and eventually destroyed his ability to dream and as a consequence, he took mine.
I can remember the first and really only time that my father had a “talk” with me at the dinner table. He was going over the floor plans of an ex-business partner’s home that he had drawn up.
“Take a look at this,” he said. “You see here, this is the master bedroom and this is the asshole that’s got to die and these are his kids bedrooms. They don’t have it comin’ but we can’t afford to leave any witnesses. Now, what gun do you think I’ll need to use?”
I honestly wasn’t sure. I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “I could go with the 30-30 or the shotgun. It will be easy to get him and his wife cause I’m starting in their room. BUT, the noise would be HUGE and these other two kids might get away. Plus with those I’d be leaving hulls (spent cartridges) everywhere!” “No,” he was calmer now, “I’ve got to use the .22 revolver. That way, the noise will be low and the hulls stay inside the gun.” It sounded good to me I guess…
“Last thing, look here,” this must be important, “see this room?” I nodded with understanding. “This is the nursery with the baby,” he was getting excited again-which made me nervous, “I won’t have to shoot the baby at all! When I set the house on fire, she’ll burn up in her crib! You see what I mean?” I suppose I did. I don’t know if this was just a mental exercise for him. He never actually did it. But if you sow the wind, you’ll reap the whirlwind. My default mode for when people “screw you over”? Kill them, kill their family and then burn down their house to hide the evidence….I’ve come a long way with conflict resolution since then.
We used to stop by my grandmother’s house after Sunday morning church services for dinner (country folk speak for lunch) with the family. The grown-ups would play 42 (domino game) and drink coffee. Mostly I would try to avoid my sadistic older “favorite” cousin and some hair brained scheme he wanted to get me into. I have no idea what started the “round” between my grandmother and father that day but in one of her fits of rage, she told him, “I hate you! Leave here and don’t ever come back!” If there was one thing my Dad was good at, it was following my grandmother’s instructions. We gathered everything, left there, he built a wall inside and we never went back. I don’t believe he ever called her on the phone again. And no, she didn’t call him either.
In fact, the last time I set foot in her house while she was alive, my car had run out of gas just down the road. I walked up the sandy lane I had run barefooted on as a child. I knocked on the screen door and she answered from the couch. She recognized me of course. I asked her if I could come in and use her phone. It must have been six or seven years since I’d been in there even though we lived less than 10 miles away. It smelled just like I remembered. Faint cigarette smoke, strong coffee and cold window unit refrigerated air. After entering the house like any stranger would, I passed through the living room to the kitchen, used the phone, and thanked her. There was no greeting or hugs for a grandchild, no small talk, no asking about her son and how his family was doing. She was like someone I’d never met. I went back to my car and waited there. I never saw her alive again. If I had known she’d be dead less than two years later, would it have mattered? No, probably not. I was a master at wall building myself by that time. Yes, these are my people.
When I found out that she had passed in the summer before I turned 18, my father asked if I was going to the funeral. I said “No, I don’t really see a reason.” The family actually sent his little brother to our house to make sure Dad was going to come. Not hard to see why they might be concerned. He did what he was expected to do--as usual. It was probably the right thing.
I learned at a very early age when my Dad was watching TV not to “break his line of vision” and so interrupt his viewing experience. When he finally got home in the evening and was interested in a program on the one station that we got, I would stop, get down on all fours, crawl under the line of sight from his recliner and then stand back up and go sit on the couch--if I wanted to be in the living room with at all.
One night, probably I wasn’t more than 8 years old; I wanted to speak with my Mom about something. I can’t remember what it was about. I’ve tried many times to recall but I simply can’t. I went downstairs and knocked on their bedroom door. “Mom, can I talk to you?”
“Get away from that door!” came my father’s voice. I knew I had entered some dangerous territory and was on shaky ground. “Mom, I need to talk to you!” I used the best pleading voice I had.
“I said get away from that door!!” OK, now this was over the line. I knew anything more would be seen as direct defiance.
“I need to talk to talk to Mom,” I said. It grew deadly quite behind the door. Like a little volcanologist, I felt the needle skittering across the graph paper. Was it possible that an eruption was imminent?
The door was snatched open in a blur. As instinct, my eyes went from the vanishing door knob up, to see my father’s face to try and gage just how angry I had made him. My eyes never got that high as he pushed me with such force that I went pin wheeling back into the clothes dryer in the hall. I slammed off the drying and flew back toward his door just in time to be caught by a kick to the left side of my rib cage. I was propelled back into the dryer. I can still hear the hollow “boom” of the impact. What goes through an 8 year old’s mind in a time like this? Terror was the only thing I can remember. I pivoted to my left to make an escape but was caught with another kick to my right hip which sent me sprawling to the floor. I was now in the position of not being able to breathe or walk.
“Didn’t I tell you to get away from that door!?” I didn’t need to see his face now to know that we were in “full rage” mode.
I was on my elbows and had pulled my knees up in an attempt to “inch worm” away.
That’s when the final kick came. He was behind me now and kicked me hard, square in the ass. Instantly, I forgot the pain in my ribs and my hip. Agony like a fireworks display went off in my head so much so that I thought I would both scream and vomit at the same time.
“I told you to get away from that door! Now get out of my sight before I kill you!!”
I’m not sure which was greater, the pain of the blows or the shame that I felt. I had seen the dogs treated this badly but never had I been kicked down like this. All the slaps, punches, beatings and verbal tirades that I would never be or have anything had never hurt me as badly as this night.
On my knees and elbows, pain in my body screaming with every effort, I crawled away from him back into the dining room to get away and hopefully calm his anger. I wouldn’t know for more than two decades later that my mother had witnessed this whole event but was too afraid to intervene.
She told me recently, “You were such a happy child. I prayed every night for so many years that child would come back to me, but he never did.” Duh! Ya think! Of course, I didn’t say this to her but I also couldn’t cry with her or for her either. Something must be jettisoned when survival is at stake. Like the mariners of old when a ship was taking on water in a storm, cargo must be thrown over if life is to be preserved. For the child trying to survive, that expendable cargo is the ability to dream, to hope, to reach beyond what is, to what is possible.
Now I understand his rage. I understand the hurt he was unable to contain. I understand the beatings I received and the emotional abuse that came with it. When a child has to make a choice between dreams and survival, it is usually the survival that wins. What is more dangerous than a child who doesn’t dream? The man he may eventually become. The weight took almost 30 years to break my father under its load. In the face of such parental disgust and hatred, a child has to sacrifice for survival. I have come to believe that many give up the ability to dream, the hope for something greater and the reaching for something more. They cast off the belief of maybe even something that’s just “good” in the attempt to make it from day to day.
Sometimes, these you people seem completely normal at first glance. Like a newly built house, they can be hard to recognize. It is only when you notice that most of the windows have been broken out that you have the uneasy feeling that something isn’t right. There is no light inside. It’s the eyes that give them away. Instead of hope, there is only an anger, a rage that has no reason. The only light they have inside is the light they are able to borrow from others.
The very coping mechanisms that a child is supposed to have; parental love, hope, faith and the reaching for more, are sabotaged for many. The very things that make a better life possible for the next generation are destroyed. Are some able to overcome this darkness? I am convinced there are. I was not able to become one of those successful few myself.
Unfortunately, most of those that make it out simply become what I define as “climbers”. They are eager to please but have no real internal driving force in their lives to pursue that “goal”. They are simply co-pilots, passengers in the flight of their own existence. They lack the propelling nature of a dream to carry them upward. Even when they have the skills and ability, it seems they are always somehow falling short. Never able to reach their full potential. These are my people.
Of course I’m no psychologist; I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn last night. I do, however, realize that I am only a “climber.” Drop me on any treadmill and I can succeed, even thrive. At least until the point when I realize that this isn’t really what I wanted to do. Then I will look for an exit, another mountain. The greatest problem is that I’ve realized that I don’t have anything I want to do, or be. There is no dream deep down inside. Only the potential and will to “climb.”
I have wondered many times, when I see celebrity train wrecks involving beautiful people with such public lives, “Were they really chasing a dream or simply climbing because they don’t know any other way to be? Did they approach the summit only to realize that it was never really what they wanted to do or become?” What do they do now?
I don’t know how to generate the ability to “dream”. I’m not even sure what it means. I am caught with the sense that there is something “great” I’m supposed to accomplish but I don’t know what it is. I don’t have these “dreams.” They blew away like the sparks from a cigarette butt hitting the nighttime roadway in the rearview mirror. They are simply gone, vanished. I cannot even define what it is to have “fun” or even be “happy”.
The only thing I know is the “climb”. What else is there for me and my people?
“I don't know why I go walking at night but now I'm tired and I don't want to walk anymore,
I hope it doesn't take the rest of my life until I find what it is that I've been looking for…”
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