Setting a course

A week passed by. It was a relaxed week with my friend Doug and I falling into our old habits of friendship. We listened to music and smoked cigarettes, and spent time in Doug’s tree house. His father built the tree house ten years earlier in a huge oak tree. Over time, the tree house had been added to and improved, even so far as having an electric cable strung out to it. The fort was hidden in the hardwood forest that surrounded Doug’s house giving it a sense of existing in its own primitive world. There were a pair of folding army cots, a camp stove, some milk crate tables and a television out there. Squirrels had nests nearby and had become used to humans and were almost tame. If you stayed still and held out a piece of popcorn, a nut or some other enticing tidbit, the squirrels would dash up and take the item and then dash back a few feet and eat it.

We spent time working on Doug’s Fiat. A tiny little thing with two doors and a motor the size of a bowling ball bag. But over time Doug had plowed Abarth racing parts into the roller skate sized vehicle and it was remarkably spry. He’d found it in a wrecking yard when he was 14 and convinced his dad to buy it for him. He, and sometimes I, worked on it, taking it completely apart and reassembled it. It’s rust had been sanded away, dents pounded out and repaired lovingly, and the whole was given a sky blue metallic paint job. The work was finished, so to speak, by the time Doug turned 16 and could drive it legally. That’s not to say that it didn’t make a number of clandestine runs before he reached driving age. But the car was never really finished either. Doug was always finding some way to improve it. A number of people from racing clubs had offered Doug serious money for his car, all offers politely refused. This was Doug’s baby. I was the only other person besides him allowed to drive the car, and I felt privileged.

At a Saturday barbecue, just as I was taking a big bite of hamburger and getting large blots of ketchup on both cheeks, Doug’s dad told me that he’d spoken with my father. Apparently it started badly, but improved as the conversation wore on. Mr. Pearsall told my dad that I would not be returning to the sanitarium and told my father that he was prepared to file an injunction against him if he didn’t call off the cops. I could imagine my dad’s head exploding at that news. Doug’s dad said that my father actually became more business-like and they discussed “my situation” pretty extensively. He told my dad that his job raising me was pretty much over and that he couldn’t expect his son, a budding adult, to have the subordination of a child. I guess my father allowed as how that was true and things improved from there. They agreed to talk again in a few days and my dad said he would take care of the police. Mr. Pearsall told my dad that I was staying with his family and I was safe. My dad replied “well, at least he’s not out on the streets breaking into houses.” Thanks, dad.

The Pearsall’s didn’t pressure me about anything. They said that I was welcome to stay as long as I liked. I think partially because Doug didn’t have friends, other than me anyway. He spent the time he wasn’t in school in his room, working on his car, or just hanging out in the tree fort. Doug had confessed to me that he’d never had a date and was uncomfortable at the dances or events his parents roped him into attending. He would find somewhere out of the way and just wait for it to be over so he could go back home. I was amazed and didn’t understand this at all. Doug was a really cool guy. He was talented at lots of things, including playing a trombone he would occasionally use to wake me up with by making this horrendous BLAT! noise in my ear. But he really could play, and had a thing for jazz, playing along with Louis Armstrong records and other musicians.

By the time that three weeks had passed I had decided what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go to college, although Doug was strongly encouraging me to go in order to avoid the draft. The Vietnam war was escalating and the draft boards were roping people right and left. When I told Doug that I had decided to join the service, he let out a wail not unlike a cat yowling at the moon. Thing is, I guess my father and his family had a strong influence on me. They had all been career Navy. My dad started out that way, but at the end of World War Two he retired his commission as a captain to marry my mom. I adored my grandfather and my dad’s brother. Both of them had distinguished careers, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral, both had been Superintendents of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. They were both submariners that were highly decorated in combat, with my grandfather retiring as the commandant of the massive Norfolk Navy Yard and my uncle as Chief of Personnel of the Navy. I guess it was an assumption that I shared that I would join the service and continue the family tradition, even though I was adopted and, as my father tended to remind me of rather consistently, I didn’t have the family blood running through my veins.

I guess some background conversations were happening because Mr. Pearsall told me that if I wanted to go back home it would be okay. I had been happy the last few weeks, even relaxed. It was fun being with Doug and his family. But a part of me wanted to go back to our home on the coast of Long Island Sound. I knew though, that it wouldn’t be for long, given my general direction and plans.  It was summertime and I desperately wanted my boat, my beloved Boston Whaler. I broached the idea of Doug coming to stay with me for a while, but his parents thought that would be a bad idea. “Things are tense in your family right now,” said Doug’s mom. “I think it would be best for you to spend some time with your family without the distraction of a non-family member. There’s no reason though, that Doug can’t drive over to spend time with you during the day.” That was true, Doug had his Fiat and it only took a half hour or so to drive from Wilton to Darien. Doug drove me home to Butler’s Island the next day.

My mom was thrilled to see me and hugged me warmly. She chattered away trying to update me on everything she and her friends were doing, as if it was important for me to know. But she was just trying to get communications going. I told her about what Doug and I had been doing and she asked me about the sanitarium. I talked a little about what it was like and how being drugged all the time was distasteful. It was like I was marking time, taking a break from life that let me see what was happening around me yet messed me up so that I couldn’t think to participate. She started to cry when she told me that she had disagreed with dad’s decision to put me there and how she felt like she had let me down. I told her it was okay, that it all worked out and told her not to worry about it. I didn’t want to talk about it anyway, and also didn’t want to slip and let her catch on to how Mrs. Hill had helped me duck out.

Dinnertime came and I approached it like I was going to death row. My father was home from work and I had managed to duck him, wanting to prevent any opportunity for discussion. I took my place at the table and our maid, a German immigrant named Gretchen, served us. My mom usually cooked, and she’d done so tonight. We were having lamb chops. My dad looked around the table and said “So, how did everyone’s day go?” My sister chimed in and talked about going into Manhattan with her friend Kay Crosby to shop at Saks and Bloomingdales. She talked about what she bought but I wasn’t paying much attention. My mother commented that she’d spent the afternoon in our little greenhouse, working with her plants. The table then went silent for a few moments. Finally my dad looked at me and said “son?”


“How was your day?” he asked.


“What did you do?”

Well, let’s see. I spent most of the day dreading when you’d get home and then avoiding you when you did. “Not much. I kinda hung out.”

“Hung out. What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means he didn’t do much, just stayed at home and passed the time.” offered my sister.

“I was asking your brother.” he said in clipped tones.

“I didn’t do much.” I said. “I just stayed at home and passed the time.”

“Doing what?”

“I dunno. Stuff. Read some comics, watched TV, checked out the Sound.”

“Why is it like pulling teeth with you? I just asked a simple question and instead of a simple answer, I get attitude.”

“Kirk,” said mom, “he didn’t do much and so he hasn’t got a lot to say. He’s getting used to being here again.”

“Only because he ran away like an escaped convict.” said my dad.

“No, more like because I was away at boarding school for a few months and then got sacked and stuffed into a nut house by my own father who felt the need to show me how much power he had over my life.” I said, growing angry.

“I won’t be spoken to that way. Not in my own house, not anywhere.” he said.

“Fine.” I said, rising. “I’ll just get out of the way so you don’t need to listen to me.”

“Sit back down. You haven’t been excused.”

“So what? You’ve never excused anything I’ve done.” I said. I left the room. As I walked back to my room I heard my mother saying that he’d been confrontational. I thought to myself, when had it been any other way?

To be continued…