My seventeenth birthday came and went. The summer ended and fall became winter. Home was a tense camp whenever my father was around, but other than that, things were okay. All except for the school. At first agreeing to hand over my diploma, the Academy changed its mind saying that the school constitution required commencement attendance. If I wished to graduate, I would have to return the following year and participate in the ceremony. In a wink I had gone from an early high school graduate to a dropout. I spoke to Mr. Pearsall about it and he said that the school was within its rights, that the contract for my admission required that I meet the requisites of the school. This only served to make things at home more tense, my father now referring to me as “the dropout.” I started making plans to join the navy.
I ran into a snag there too. In order to join the navy I had to be eighteen years old. That meant another year of hanging around the house and hastening a blowup between my father and I. As it was, I was sullen and unhappy and my father wasn’t very pleased either. We existed in a state of detante, mostly out of respect for my mom who was constantly hand-wringing about the poor relationship between father and son. Neither my dad or I wanted to upset her any further. My mother had a problem with alcohol, and the more tense things were at home, the more she sought solace from a bottle. Understand that my mother was a very intelligent woman from a very intelligent and well to do family. Her father was a real estate magnate in California who bought up tons of failing orchards outside of Los Angeles. He kept accruing property and the property kept accruing value. He was finally made an offer that was too financially significant to pass up, and sold his holdings to a holding company that represented a group of investors, very interested in the area known as Anaheim. This is where the bulk of the property was. The properties would later be added to others adjacent to become the happiest place on earth. My grandfather passed away before either my sister and I was born, and his wife, my grandmother on mother’s side passed away when I was six. The only heir, my mother became a millionaire, which, for the late 1950s was significant money.
The truth is, my family’s money came from my mother. While working fairly successfully as an executive of a marketing research firm, my father’s salary didn’t come close to covering the costs of living in the style to which my mother chose to live. Wisely, the money was set up as separate property and while mom would give dad pretty much everything he asked for, she did maintain a financial barrier between them. Only her death, with the right will provisions, would give my father control over the wealth which was constantly increasing as a result of the rising economy. The years between 1950 and 1960 were very good for our family, whose sound financial advisors and managers multiplied my mother’s holdings dramatically. A sad family secret was that my father’s salary was considered as his disposable income and he used it for self entertainment of disreputable humiliation for my mother. Her money had secured out acre properly on Long Island sound and the cars dinner parties, vehicles and domestic help our family maintained for social appearances,
March was rolling around again on the calendar, and for the final time I un-racked my Whaler and took to the sound as combination escape and adventure. I’d just returned from a good day on the Sound, if not a bit chilly since it was way early in the season, and headed to my room. I took a shower to warm up and got myself dressed in jeans and a buttoned long sleeve shirt. My sister knocked on my door and stuck her head in. “Family meeting in the living room.” she said. “Right now.”
I sighed and wondered what was up, but had a feeling of dread that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. Walking into the living room my dad was seated in “his chair,” a wide armed overstuffed thing that had followed the family for as long as I could remember. My sister was perched on one arm, my mother on the other. The scene made it clear that they were a group and I was an outsider. A Samsonite suitcase sat at my father’s feet.
“Son, I know you don’t think so, but I have done my best for you. But no matter what I’ve tried, I’ve never managed to meet your expectations.” I was appalled by that statement since, in my view, just the opposite was true. “But I have come to a conclusion. I accept that you wish to reject us as your family, that you will never be happy with all we try to do for you.” He reached down and picked up the suitcase and held it up to me. “I bought this for you. Since you’re so desperate to go, the least I can do is support you one last time, to try again as I have so many times, to support you in your goals.”
My sister sobbed and said “Oh, daddy!” and hugged him tightly. My mother just looked unhappy. I was fit to be tied. My father had, in a genius stroke, turned the situation exactly backwards and as he had so many times before, drew the line that said there was family, and then there was me. I walked over and took the suitcase from his hand, looked at it and set it back down.
“Thanks for this, but I think what I’ll be needing is a duffel bag.” I said.
“Excuse me?” asked my father.
“I’ve decided to join the army. I can’t get into the navy for another year, and besides, looking at the things they have to offer, I see I can get my GED and maybe even take some college courses while I’m in, all at their expense.”
“The ARMY!” Thundered my father. “The goddam Army? This is a naval family, boy. We don’t wear olive drab, we wear blue. You’re not joining the army, buster. Not if I have any say in it.” That was it. Meeting over. My dad got up from his chair and thumped out of the living room and upstairs to the bedroom he shared with my mother. The door slammed hard enough the house shook.
“Way to go, Studly.” said my sister. “Leave it to you to find a way to humiliate the whole family just so you can make dad feel bad.” She slid off the arm of the chair and followed my father up the stairs.
My mother looked across the room to me questioningly. “Is this really what you want to do?” she asked me. I told her I didn’t know what else to do. It was obvious I couldn’t stay in the house. For all its drama, dad presenting me with the suitcase was just him saying it was high time for me to be gone. I said as much to my mom and she nodded. There was no denying such an obvious fact.
“I’ve spent my whole life afraid of him. So many times I’ve been knocked around or punished for nothing more than his bad moods, and he acts like he’s the damn victim. I can’t believe this crap. Yeah, I need to get gone and I can’t wait a year to join the navy.”
“Your uncle could help you, guide you. He thinks the world of you, you know.” said mom.
“I don’t want his help. I want to succeed or fail on my own merits. Maybe the army is a better idea for that alone. I mean, it’s not like I have anything against my uncle.”
“I know you adore him. He knows it to and adores you right back.”
“Thing is, I need to be signed off to join the army at seventeen. Eighteen I could just join. But I need parental permission and you know that dad would drop dead before he gave me permission to join the army.”
“Bring me the papers.” said my mother. “I’ll sign them for you.” she said, sighing.
“Dad will be furious with you.”
“Leave that to me. You just get the papers and bring them to me and I will sign them off.” Mom smiled at it. It was a sad little smile that hurt me to look at.
Doug drove me up to New Haven to the army recruiting office. The word is that you never forget the name of your recruiting sergeant. That may be true. Mine’s name was Staff Sergeant Pia. He told me that I could join, complete basic training and then go to school. I had been talking about completing high school, he was talking about military specialty training. I signed up for airborne because I thought it would be fun jumping out of airplanes –I’d intended on learning to skydive. Sergeant Pia gave me the papers I needed signed for parental permission and Doug and I drove back down to my house.
I had this feeling in my gut. Kind of like the homesick feeling I’d get when going off to boarding schools. I watched Doug disappear around the corner, getting a glimpse of his bright blue paint job through the bushes. I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I would see Doug and his car. Two years later, while I was in Vietnam, Dough would drive his car up a secluded and tree lines county road, rig a hose from his exhaust pipe to the driver’s side window and take his own life. I would discover this when I went to visit him after returning from the war. His parents told me that he’d always fought depression and said that his happiest times were those he spent with me. I wished that I hadn’t joined the army, hadn’t gone to war, but stayed to be his friend. Of course, if wishes were fishes we’d all be wet.
I left the army papers on the kitchen table and went outside. I spent the rest of the day out on the water, stopping near duck to beach the boat and just look at Long Island Sound and think about all the time I’d spent on it and the ocean beyond. As the sun was setting I putted into Five Mile River and tied off at Jenkin’s Boat Yard, the place my family had purchased the boat for me four years earlier. My father had made arrangements for Jenkins to take it back. I shook the old fisherman’s work roughened hand and walked home. Leaving the boat behind left a hole in my gut and my eyes stung as I made my way back to the house.
My mother was home and sitting at the kitchen table when I came in. She was sitting there with the papers in front of her. She’d been crying. She gave me a little crooked smile and pointed at the pages. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“No. But I can’t think of anything else to do.” I said. She nodded and signed the papers. She added a copy of my birth certificate to the little stack and handed it to me and asked when I had to go. “They said tomorrow. I have to be there by nine o’clock in the morning.” She nodded and then burst into tears. I went to her and we hugged.
In the morning, my mother made me breakfast. Waffles, eggs, bacon and toast. I wasn’t feeling hungry but mom had worked hard to give me a good sendoff and so I ate the food anyway. There was no sign of my father or sister.
My mother drove me to the recruiting station in New Haven and got me there fifteen minutes early. We stood next to her Thunderbird and she gripped me in a strong hug. “I love you so very much.” she told me. “You are my son and you are family. Come back to me alive. Please come back to me alive.” Tears ran down her cheek. I kissed her on the cheek and gave her a final squeeze.
I’ll do my best.” I said.
She smiled and I walked into the building with other recruits arriving. Thirty minutes later I was on a bus headed to Fort Dix, New Jersey.