The typical distance between my parents and me seems so strange now looking back. Why didn’t they love me? The tone of my relationship with my father was fear and loathing on my part and aggression on his. He and I would never have a conversational relationship until after my own children were half grown.
My dad loved to hit me. It didn’t take much of a pretext before the blows would start falling. I had had enough. I was furious!
The Beatles had just had their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and become an instant hit in the United States. Someone had even played, “Saw Her Standing There” over the loudspeaker during lunch at school.
My parents were standing just inside the kitchen door. I walked in from outside. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I remember my state of arousal as I let the door close hard. These two people had been picking on me my entire life and I wasn’t going to take it anymore! I was 15 years old, big and strong, no longer a child who helplessly submitted to the unacceptable!
“How many times have I told you not to slam the door?” His tone was angry. Daddy reached for me like he had so many times before, intending, I thought, to wrestle me to the floor and repeatedly strike my butt. It didn’t work this time. I was a fighter, full if fury, and damned if I was going to submit to another beating! I gave him a vicious twist on his most vulnerable part. Decades later he would die of prostate and testicular cancer, after having had those particular organs removed. I am so sorry, Daddy! I didn’t want to hurt you! I just wanted you to stop hurting me!
I could have been severely injured. No longer a child, my sexual organs were mature. My periods would start a short time later. Slamming me to the floor and repeatedly striking me near my female organs could have ruined me. I might not have been able to have the four wonderful children I would have. He already had four children. Wrestling a nearly grown child to the floor for a “spanking” is not healthy for either party. Fortunately, my parents finally realized that. After this incident, no one was hit again by them. My brothers were 16 and 13, my sister was 5.
I have thought, talked and written about the beating refused many many times over the years, but the realization that my effective defense was in any way justified is brand new, a gift of this writing. The pain and shame of the beatings that were a constant punctuation throughout my childhood, with the added guilt for having assaulted my father the last time he tried to physically attack me (although there were still more verbal attacks), were a burden on my soul. I am slowly healing.
I have wondered why my father thought that yelling at me and hitting me a lot was a good way to raise a child. I have wondered why my mother didn’t intervene, because I think she knew that frequent, harsh, corporal punishments for innocent childish infractions were harmful, but she never stuck up for me, at least not in my hearing. What that told me was that I was horribly bad, flawed, and there was just no hope for me.
My brothers and I were always fed, and we had a fairly healthful diet. I didn’t have all the clothes I wanted, but I had enough. Mama drove us to lessons and school functions. Yet the years of physical and emotional abuse left scars.
After one of my father’s beatings I would resolve never to be friendly with him again. That got to be a habit. I would be cold, distant, and unfriendly. I wouldn’t forgive him for his outrageous assault on my person. And this happened over and over. It got so I was locked into hate and resentment, not only towards my father, but the feeling spilled over into the other relationships I had.
Work was unpleasant for Daddy and he invariably came home in a bad mood. Everyone at work smoked except for him — in the office. He needed a job so he had to suck it up. But I learned early on: Don’t be the first one to cross his path when he comes through the back door!
In high school I had what they called dirty dishwater blond hair. But in 1952, when I was three years old, my hair had been so light that I called it white. It grew in darker when I got a little older. Eventually it would begin to lighten again. At three years old, I had just urinated in a dark, unadorned basement room. I hadn’t thought that a little puddle in a corner of the dirty, bare concrete floor would bother anyone. I had been barefoot wearing a simple dress.
I heard Daddy’s angry voice yelling, “Jeremy!”
I was startled by his tone and started to cry.
Daddy squatted next to me and put his hands on my waist. “Don’t pee on the floor!”
I screeched, “Mama! Ah ah ah ah!”
“I’m going to give you a lesson you won’t forget!” Perhaps he took it as a personal affront since he had poured the floor himself and carefully cured it.
I continued to cry and yell for my mother. I felt Daddy’s hands squeeze my waist as I was becoming airborne and flipping over. A moment later I was descending face first toward the floor. I felt something cold, hard and wet come into contact with my nose.
“I’ll rub your face in it!”
My face was thrust into that dirty puddle, staining the tips of my hair and nose and deeply shaming me. Then I was picked up again, flipped to right side up and set down on my feet. I sat on the floor crying with ragged breaths.
Mama picked me up and held me before the mirror over the laundry tray where Daddy shaved. “Look at yourself, Jeremy!”
My nose had a smudge of dirt on it, my blond hair was dirty on the ends, like paint brushes dipped in brown paint. My blue eyes were red and tearing. I was powerless before these big people who had betrayed and abused me.
When we were small, my brothers and I had seemed to be really needy for each other. Bed-times were difficult because I was separated from them and sent to a room by myself. We would sneak into each others rooms and be paddled. I had to cry and sob by myself. I was threatened with more violence if I didn’t stifle my cries and sobs. I now understand that my vocal ability suffered from the stifling of it that I had been forced to do throughout my childhood when I was frequently beaten and threatened with more violence if I cried out loud. Mama comforted the children crying after we had been abused, until my father asked her not to do that anymore when I had been about six years old.
Mama had shoved a bar of soap in my mouth for saying something. What had I said? I may have told my mother I hated her. I may even have said, “Damn,” or something. If I was still small enough for that tiny woman to shove a bar of soap in my mouth all by herself, I hadn’t known many bad words.
“Just wait until your father comes home….” Mama had often said. Those words had put me in a state of fear and dread. There was a huge lump in my throat. Violence and pain would be my future. I was a child with absolutely no rights and no freedom. There was no one to turn to. I was doomed to suffer. The mood of dread and foreboding would still affect me many years later like a familiar black fog. Reaching back to the helpless child I was, I would find I was no longer helpless and had the ability to shift my mood like the tuner on a radio, if I would remember to do it.
My mother had hit us with a fly swatter handle sometimes. At times she would tie a child to a chair and place a paper bag over his or her head like a robbery victim.
One time Daddy had been beating my butt and had stepped on my back, injuring me enough that I still had back issues days later. I told Mama about it and she had said, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that.”
My younger brother had showed me a reddened imprint of a belt buckle on his butt.
If I had messed with something belonging to my dad or mom, there was a consequence I didn’t like. If my brothers and I had been out exploring the wilderness, it was amazing fun and there was never an unpleasant consequence, except for the time we had been throwing dirt clods in the little pond while our dad was winding around the road on his way home from work. That time the three of us had gotten an unpleasant consequence because we had messed with something our dad had spent money developing. True, the pond was more fun to swim in than the little stream had been. The bulldozer work to clear the pond had cost money. Filling it in with dirt clods was definitely counter-productive. I am quite sure it had not been my idea. But perhaps I joined in, I don’t remember. I think that by this time (I was nearly 10) a lecture would have been enough, but my dad had seemed to think that whippings were always necessary adjuncts to his lectures.
There had been many times that I had sat and sat at the table because I was not allowed to get up and play until my dinner was consumed. I had finally just shoveled cold food that I didn’t want down my throat so I would be allowed to get up.
My need for affection had never been met. Part of that was my own doing for holding grudges after beatings and refusing affection from the person or persons who had battered me.
The Daddy Thing
Life would be wonderful if I just had Mama. She is nice to me and doesn’t yell and hit all the time. But the Daddy thing is only good for yelling and hitting. What an awful thing he is. Why cant he just go away and leave us alone? You think I like being hit and yelled at all the time? Well I don’t! I don’t like it at all! My throat gets sore from sobbing and crying. My throat turns to a rock. All I can do is shake with sobs. The awful thing hits me and hits me, and yells and hits.
After my best friend from grade school, Leslie, had moved away, right before 6th grade, I had hung around with someone else for a little while. The new friend taught me to shoplift! After getting in trouble with that I didn’t want to be chums with her again. Gloria had lived on the same street as I did, but about a mile from town. I lived two miles from town. One day we had walked to town after school instead of getting on the bus. We went to the dime store. Gloria put a necklace in her purse, and I copied her putting one in my purse too. Then, when we tried to leave the store, the manager had accosted us, had ushered us to a back room, and had demanded to inspect our purses. He had called my mother, and she had come to pick me up.
I never had much self-esteem or confidence in myself. I was painfully shy. By the age of 10, Mama may have become aware that the frequent beatings for childish infractions were taking a heavy toll on me emotionally (although I never heard her admit it). But Mama stopped telling Daddy every little thing I did. Perhaps he had never heard about the shoplifting incident. In any case, I never heard from him about it. It must have been obvious to Mama that I was mortified and would never do it again.
Mama must have noticed that something was wrong with her three older children. She must have concluded that it may have been the frequent and severe corporal punishments we were subjected to. She must have interceded for her youngest and got her husband to agree to a nonviolent rearing for that one. Did she say, Look how we have damaged the other three!? Perhaps it was even obvious to Daddy, and he was brooding, Where did we go wrong?
Fortunately, Mama had gotten Daddy to agree to a nonviolent rearing for their fourth child before she was born. My little sister, Kasey, was never subjected to the brutality the three older siblings were. However the violence against us older three didn’t stop. My father was a little slower to realize the danger and ineffectiveness of physical punishment. He regularly struck us with his hand or his belt until we were big and strong enough to present him with an effective defense. The beatings finally stopped when we were well into our teens and so big that whipping one of us became dangerous also for the one seeking to do the whipping. How foolish to continue striking a child until that child is big and strong enough to inflict physical damage in return! There has to be a better way!
One evening after dinner, my two brothers and I had still been sitting around the table. My older brother, who was in his first year of high school then, was entertaining our younger brother and me with stories about high school (while Kerry was in 6th grade and I was in 8th grade). Jeff had been telling us about one of his friends being called a screw. Jeff had repeated the punch line a couple of times to our laughter, when suddenly, Daddy had stormed out of the downstairs bedroom, grabbed Jeff, pulled him out of his chair, dragged him outside. I guessed from the sound of blows and screaming that my brother was being whipped. Later Jeff would state that his mouth had been washed out with soap. There had been no warning, no, “Now Jeff, that is not an appropriate word to use with the family.” Nothing. Just the sudden attack.
Not yet being aware of the secondary sexual meaning of the word, “screw,” I had been puzzled. Why was telling about someone being called a piece of hardware such a serious offense? Sharing a house with my father was unsafe. Your serenity and joy could be shattered by him at any moment. And you didn’t even have to do something wrong. You had to walk on eggs around what he might find offensive.
Another story Jeff had told about school was delivered in hushed tones away from the parent’s ears. One of his acquaintances, upon being injured in a football game during physical education, had reportedly said, “Someone fucked some shit up my ass!” Kerry and I had thought that was hilarious.
I would hear a lot of stories of childhood trauma that was worse than mine. Some people were just abused horribly, neglected, starved, raped, beaten really badly, parents fighting all the time, divorce, abandonment, being orphaned, serious substance abuse issues in a parent or parents. I grew up with two parents who seemed to get along with each other, and were only moderate users of alcohol. Many years later I would still be asking myself, why are you still thinking and talking about this? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get over this?
My Room and the Guitar
During my high school and college years, fear of nuclear war was intense. Warning of an eminent attack might or might not happen. If a nuclear bomb had been dropped on nearby Camp Pendleton, where Daddy worked, or San Diego, 50 miles to the South, or even Los Angeles, 100 miles to the north, the first evidence that would result, for sure, would be an extremely bright light. A very loud boom would follow the light, then a tremendous wind.
Daddy had built a fallout shelter. My younger brother, Kerry, would later remember being told that if he told anyone about the fallout shelter, and one of his friends showed up to take cover with us during a nuclear holocaust, Kerry would be obligated to shoot his friend. None of us told anyone.
During this time of apprehension, called the cold war, I would take refuge in my room with my guitar. Following are the words to a song I wrote at about the age of 15:
Only Once in Eternity
Just one chance will there ever be
Just one chance to fulfill life’s intent
All is gone when that is spent
Only once in eternity
Just one chance will there ever be.
(I sung this with guitar chords in the key of E dorian.) Playing chords on the guitar while vocally lamenting in a minor key was a favorite pastime of mine. I also played classical guitar and had lessons. My idols were Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Jody Mitchell, Buffy St. Marie, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger. There wasn’t much else to do during evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations. The guitar was my life. I discovered the blues and added Leadbelly to my list of favorites. I screeched Dylan’s Masters of War over and over. I crooned Malvina Reynolds’ What Have They Done to the Rain?
Jeff was the rocker of the family. He played lead solos that he learned from records of what would become rock classics, although, as the classical guitarist of the family, I would scoff at the term.
I spent my guitar practice time with Pete Seegers Sing Out magazine reprints, Aaron Shearers, Classic Guitar Technique, Volumes 1 & 2, Renaissance music tablatures, hits of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Buffy Sainte Marie. I also had a few original songs. My chord repertoire would advance to jazz altered chords while playing guitar with the high school swing band in my senior year of high school on a hollow body electric. I also learned the flute in beginning band during my sophomore year. I spent one class period a day in a practice room with the flute that year. Then I would play flute in the concert and marching band the remaining two years of high school.
My mother was concerned that my younger brother did not have a way of feeling a sense of accomplishment because everything he did, his older brother (and sister) could do better, being older. She wanted her younger son to play an instrument that neither of his older siblings were allowed to play. Kerry had several years of violin lessons.
I was very grateful for music. I loved the guitar. My best friend was my nylon stringed guitar. My parents got me several years of guitar lessons with a fantastic teacher, Jack Curtiss. I did my best to squawk out folk songs as I played the chords on the guitar and immensely enjoyed it.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
During the first week of August, 1964, television and radio news reports and newspaper headlines carried the news that the US had bombed North Vietnam. I was about to start my junior year of high school. I would be 16 in November, near election day, when President Johnson was hoping to be elected to his own term as president of the United States.
The Kennedy administration had continued to prop up right wing dictators in Latin America and to oppose democracy any time it appeared to be leaning to the left, as had also been done under Eisenhower and Truman. I had refused to do a term paper on Guatemala, while in 6th grade. I had felt that I did not have access to the truth. This policy of actively supporting fascist dictators while suppressing socialist democracies would be followed even more ferociously by President Johnson, throughout the world, leading to the deaths of many American men in my age group, particularly in Vietnam.
In July of 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater was chosen as the Republican nominee for president. During his acceptance speech Goldwater declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” In this kind of rhetoric, the question, “Freedom for whom?” is rarely defined. One might assume it means personal liberty for the common person. And one might be wrong. Right wing conservatism would eventually be unmasked as having always been about freedom for the corporate class, freedom for the imperialists. Goldwater was an arch conservative and a virulent anti-Communist. Johnson did not want to appear to be soft on Communism, and thus risk losing the presidential election in November.
In Southeast Asia, Vietnam had been divided into two countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, in 1945, by a coalition of Europeans, Chinese and Americans at the end of World War II. Japan had taken over much of Southeast Asia and was required to surrender its territory to the Allies at the close of that war. The division of Vietnam was done in order to divide the task of disarming Vietnam. China disarmed the North and Britain disarmed the South. The French then had been enabled to occupy South Vietnam and sporadically engage with the forces of Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam, as Ho Chi Minh’s intention was to retain the North and also to drive the imperialists from the South, reunifying Vietnam. Nine years later in 1945, after much loss of life, the French withdrew from Vietnam.
The Domino Theory, advanced by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, is that, if Vietnam is allowed to fall to communism, other surrounding countries will fall, like dominos, to communism as well. Those seeking to get out from under capitalist imperialism might define their political philosophy as an ideology that rejects corporate capitalism, in favor of a system of socialism, where workers would have a greater ownership in the fruits of their labor. However the propagandists backing the wars against “communism” define the communist ideology that they are against, as creating a totalitarian regime with no freedom for anyone but a small cabal at the top. Ironically, extreme capitalism produces the same scenario.
Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi, North Vietnam, seemed to have the consent of those governed. However, the Allies installed a puppet governor in Saigon, South Vietnam. Free elections in South Vietnam were not allowed, as it was feared that they would elect to join Ho Chi Minh and the North. Military “advisors” were sent from the United States to South Vietnam.
July 31, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin, in North Vietnam, South Vietnamese commandos in unmarked speed boats raided two North Vietnamese military bases located on islands just off the coast, while the American destroyer, U.S.S. Maddox, was ten miles off the coast of North Vietnam. Two days later, three North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. They fired three torpedoes and machine-guns, but only a single machine-gun round actually struck the Maddox without producing casualties. In retaliation, U.S. Navy fighters from another boat, the carrier Ticonderoga, attacked the patrol boats, sinking one and damaging the other two.
President Johnson, decided against further retaliation. Instead, he sent a diplomatic message to Hanoi warning of “grave consequences” from any further “unprovoked” attacks. The next night there was a thunderstorm and crew members aboard the Maddox thought they may have been attacked again. The Maddox and a second destroyer, the U.S.S. C. Turner Joy fired on numerous apparent targets, but there were no actual sightings of any attacking boats.
Although immediate doubts had arisen concerning the validity of the second attack, the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommended a retaliatory bombing raid against North Vietnam. Press reports in America greatly embellished the second attack with spectacular eyewitness accounts, although no journalists had been on board the destroyers. President Johnson decided to escalate. 64 U.S. Navy fighter bombers attacked oil facilities and naval targets in North Vietnam without warning. (https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/gulf-of-tonkin-resolution-1)
Opinion polls indicated that 85 percent of Americans supported President Johnson’s bombing decision, after numerous media outlets had reported a greatly exaggerated Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Johnson’s aides, including Defense Secretary McNamara, lobbied Congress to pass a White House resolution that would give the President a free hand in Vietnam.
The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces. The Resolution, passed unanimously in the House and 98-2 in the Senate, granted enormous power to President Johnson to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, in Saigon, South Vietnam, students and Buddhist militants participated in a series of escalating protests against General Nguyen Khanh’s military regime in South Vietnam. The streets of Saigon disintegrated into chaos and mob violence amid the government’s gross instability. (www.history.com)
In November of 1964, President Johnson was elected to his own term as President of the United States. Something smelled very wrong to me at the time. My brothers and friends would soon be facing forced conscription for a war against liberty, against self-determination, in Vietnam, bolstered by propaganda from a press in the pocket of the military-industrial complex. This had not been been the first time such a war had come about, nor would it be the last.
“The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal…. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Malcolm X, four months after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, spoke at a rally of the Organization of African-American Unity at Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. He had returned to the US a month earlier, after his pilgrimage to Mecca, at which time he had become a Sunni Muslim, having broken with the Nation of Islam movement.
Sadly, this voice of truth was snuffed out two months after that speech was made. Malcolm X was assassinated, in February of 1965, by Nation of Islam members, gunning him down as he again addressed the Organization of African-American Unity at Audubon Ballroom in New York.
This, the second assination that rocked my young life, took place during my Junior year of high school. I was still grieving over John Kennedy, and now Malcolm X.