As far back as my mother can trace, her ancestry is exclusively from the high-desert farmlands of New Mexico. She is of unmistakable Hispanic heritage. Dad is a typical European mutt. He once made it a mission to trace his ancestry as far back in time as he possibly could – a story that I will come to again later. He found that he was of English, Scottish, Danish and Dutch stock – essentially the northwestern rim of Europe. Dad’s European heritage was certainly a mix of Lutheran and Anglican, but I will never know of what extent that heritage was, or why my dad’s family became impassive towards it. His parents and grandparents never made their religious beliefs known to me, and grandmom only spoke in the vaguest of spiritual generalities. As far as I know, they were thoroughly apathetic towards religious beliefs of any kind. In all my life, I have never seen anybody in dad’s family in a church. That is, until dad converted. But I am again getting ahead of myself.
Grandpa died before I was born, but grandmom is still alive and living in Los Angeles. She remarried a very kind man who I considered my grandfather, just because I never knew my real one, and camping and fishing with my grandparents are some of my most treasured childhood memories. Grandmom was born in 1920, the third child of a Dutch/Scottish couple who drove to Los Angeles from Iowa sometime around 1915. ‘Drove’ seems like such a pedestrian term in our world of interstate highways, but before my great-grandmother died in 1993, she used to tell me stories of being ambushed by wild Indians in Oklahoma during their cross-country trek. I am certain these stories were embellished, but on their arrival to the growing city of Los Angeles, they made a small fortune selling real estate around the growing metropolis. One prized photo in the family album shows my great-grandfather’s company trucks lining an empty road and loaded down with lumber, ready to build. They caught the housing boom in Los Angeles just in time to retire early. They spent the rest of their lives traveling and indulging in one hunting and fishing safari after another.
Somehow, with missing details that I never asked my parents for, the tall, handsome, muscular European man met the tiny, Hispanic woman. The mismatched couple wed and eventually had three children, of which I was the oldest. Dad had a troubled childhood. As big as my dad was, he had an older brother who was even bigger, and apparently had a nasty mean streak. When dad was young, his dad and older brother regularly beat him. I don’t really know what caused the beatings. Dad told me some stories about his dad’s temper exploding after he got in some kind of school trouble, but I suspect these were only lame excuses to justify more beatings. My dad’s father, who died years before I was born, was always somewhat sickly. My grandmom once said that he was born just for the purpose to die. But my uncle, my dad’s older brother, has always struck me as a mean and bitter man. I don’t think he would have needed much of a reason to bully a favorite victim. The beatings must have left severe emotional wounds on my dad’s soul – since the last time I saw him three years ago, he was still telling stories of decades-old abuse. I have always known about the trouble he had with his father and older brother, but he shocked me recently by telling me of his mother, who once punished him by repeatedly shoving his head under water. It is so hard for me to imagine my sweet grandmother, who lives in the fondest memories of my childhood, engaged in such abuse. I don’t know how much in these stories are true, and how much is my dad’s unintended embellishment. Dad has only bothered to tell me a single side of every pitiable story in his difficult life.
As strained as his immediate family relations were, he idolized his adventurous grandparents. My grandmom’s parents spent their real estate earnings on numerous hunting and fishing expeditions. Grandmom’s house was crammed with wildlife trophies, stuffed and mounted deer heads, giant fish and bear rugs. Dad and his cousins sometimes traveled with them on weekend outings, and spent as much time as they could away from the city and exploring the deserts of southern California, hunting game and training carrier pigeons. Dad grew to love the outdoor lifestyle that his grandparents instilled in him, and he became less and less comfortable with the crowded and complicated city environment. Los Angeles was becoming unbearable for him.
Dad worked as a gardener, tending the grounds of Los Angeles’ wealthy. Mom was employed as a telephone operator. Mom was never taught to drive - or taught much anything else for that matter. If she did not make the bus, dad had to drive her to work. I remember once sitting in the car while dad tried to give mom driving lessons. He got angry and frustrated, punched the car interior, and drove home hurling curses and insults the whole way. Knowing my mom as I do now, it is amazing for me to look back at what I remember of her in the late 1960’s. For a woman who rebelled against the religious traditions of her parents, she was unbelievably prone to influence and outside pressures. I remember her once hiding me under the bedroom window while she peeked out at a salesman ringing the doorbell. “Be quiet! That is a robber outside trying to get in!” I did not know at the time that she just too timid to deny a sales pitch.
Dad treated me the way he was treated growing up. He treated me the only way he knew how. I hesitate to write of the physical abuse that dad inflicted on mom or myself, because it does not fit the central theme of these blog articles. But those actions undoubtedly shaped me into the person that I am today. He did it. It happened. I might sprinkle an incident here or there in forthcoming blog entries, but it is not something that I want to spend much time writing about. Strangely, the treatment I got from dad does not seem particularly abnormal to me, but I suppose that is because my childhood is the only childhood I ever knew, and making comparisons with a supposed ideal childhood is arbitrary and impossible. I do not have scars, not physical ones anyway, I did not endure torture, and my dad’s outbursts were usually swift and alcohol induced. I don’t even like the term abuse, since it trivializes those poor children who have endured much worse than me. But in talking to friends over the years, they have expressed the concern that dad would certainly be doing some jail time had he acted the way he did in our 21st century, childcentric, bully-free zone. At the risk of validating Christian apologists who suggest that atheism is the result of a dysfunctional relationship with a father, I will say that I never really knew my father. I still don’t know him. Unlike the relationship I still have with mom, and despite years of trying, I have never been close to dad. He has certainly changed over the years, as we all have, and he will feature prominently in my story in future entries, but I can honestly say that he still remains a mystery to me. His abuse was more psychological than physical. A punch in my face only hurts just so long as I am choking down blood from my nose, but the emotional pain lasts for years. Even decades later, after I had grown and he had matured, even after we both tried our best to learn to love each other, he still intimidated the hell out of me.
In 1969, I was attending Kindergarten in Gardena, California. The school was two blocks from the house and in those days mom let me walk, alone, to school. One of the first memories I have of school is my teacher, Mrs. Michener, telling us youngsters to be quiet so she could listen to the news on the radio. Apparently something important was happening with astronauts who were travelling to the Moon, and Mrs. Michener later told us all about daring astronauts and the marvels of space travel. My introduction to science had thus begun.
For many years, I suspected dad was a Vietnam War draft dodger. Recently, mom assured me that this was not the case. I have always wondered why, in late 1969, my parents sold all their belongings, including the house, packed me, my toddler younger brother, and baby little sister, into a 1963 Volkswagon Microbus, and left Los Angeles. The transition was so sudden it was enough to induce whiplash. One day, we were living comfortably in a nice brick home just outside of Los Angeles, the next, we were on the road, with no income, no destination, no plan, no idea of what would happen next. Mom assures me that dad was not a draft dodger. He just found the city increasingly stifling, and he needed the freedom of the hills that he had learned from the grandparents he so loved. Reckless? Irresponsible? Who can say, but I must say that it was also the climate and changing culture of the time. Dad was letting his hair and beard grow. Mom shed her dress and started wearing pants. Rebellious and experimental music blared from everywhere and expressed the feelings of all young people - Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, and dad’s personal favorite, Bob Dylan. I still remember ‘Somebody to Love’ by Jefferson Airplane, probably the first song chorus I ever learned to sing, playing from the bus radio as we drove north and left our grandparents and all remaining family traditions and ties forever behind.
Little could I have suspected, but at that very moment, just 30 miles to the south of our house in Gardena, down south of Long Beach in neighboring Coast Mesa, a middle-aged Pentacostal preacher named Chuck Smith was shocking the evangelical world by inviting drug addicted hippies into his small church and converting them to Christianity. The Protestant Church, recently home to stiff 1950’s post-war formalism, was suddenly flooded with long-haired Jesus Freaks baptizing in the Pacific Ocean, performing signs and wonders, and creating a hybrid musical form called Christian Rock. This had no immediate effect on me, since at this time in my life, my religiously indifferent family had never introduced me to the concepts of God, Jesus or other Christian paraphernalia. However, these simple but shocking acts, performed in a church not far south of our Gardena home, produced ripples that were to affect our lives for many years to come.
I will continue this story after the Holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everybody!
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