Childhood Lost 13
I crumpled that particular lesson up, crammed it into my coat pocket and slipped outside for a smoke. In deference to the firstborn who, like all spoiled brats, wanted to be first at everything, I torched his Correspondence Course before ceremonially lighting my cigarette from its burning pages.
Under all but the most trying of conditions, nicotine seemed to
sooth and calm the tidal effects of depression and elation which had begun to strike with increasing frequency. Virtually the only time I felt good anymore was after several deep drags of fragrant smoke, but that day it barely took the edge off.
I stopped by our root cellar where I almost always kept a spare pack of cigarettes hid. The root cellar was about twenty feet long, six feet wide and eight feet high. It was fashioned of concrete, with a vented shake roof and built into the side of a sharply sloping hill. A dirt bunk, three feet deep and two wide lay along one wall where carrots and potatoes got buried in the fall for use during the winter. Rows of shelving occupied all other spaces between the floor and ceiling. All told, there was room for over one thousand quarts of produce. There was also room for twenty gallons of wine. This wine had languished there for several years. If it had been aging there since the crusades it is unlikely anyone would have noticed, however, since one sip was all that those, except the more extremely suicidal, could ever be enticed into taking.
The wine was courtesy of Brother Lamm. Its vintage predated by several years that famous batch which bore my trademark. Although vaguely positive it was cherry wine, I would have been unable to swear to it under oath. The old green half gallon jug I was chugging it from effectively camouflaged its true color, and I had not then, nor have I to this day, smelled or tasted any earthly substance to which it might have been related.
The taste was abominable, there was no two ways about that. I solved the problem by holding my nose when I swallowed. By the time the dusty jug was half empty, however, the taste had improved substantially. Apparently only the top third tasted horrible.
I discovered that wine performed many useful functions that afternoon. For one thing, cigarettes tasted better. I found I could smoke more of them than ever before with no ill effects and, best of all, my depression disappeared. There was, I just knew, a beautiful, warm, sunny day awaiting me the moment I stepped out of that cellar.
I finally staggered outside late in the afternoon, the wine jug nearly empty. The earth was all I'd hoped for. The sky was that brilliant shade of blue one sees only in technicolor dreams, full of huge white billowy clouds which floated lazily overhead. The soft warm grass was a striking green, but of a shade I'd never seen before. "YES!" I thought. "This is where I want to live!"
I was later informed by my younger brother, Kevin, that what ever problems I took in there with me had apparently been left far behind for I was singing at the top of my lungs.
My hymn, for the day, "Bless 'Em All", was of World War Two vintage. It had been a favorite of my father's and, from what I was able to reconstruct, it must obviously have become one of mine as well...except for certain liberties I allegedly took with the lyrics. The song, as I was reported to have rendered it, went like this:
F__k 'em all, f__k 'em all,
The long and the short and the tall.
F__k the whole world just for being alive
F__k all the preachers and all of their wives.
F__k the presidents, bishops and chiefs.
They're nothing but bastards and thieves.
Put flags on their faces, hell, f__k this whole nation.
Just give 'em the dick; f__k 'em all.
Mother came running out of the house to see what all the commotion was about. I was sitting on the ground by this time as the earth had turned to rubber beneath my feet. All the grass, trees, and sky and creation itself now merged into oozing blobs of disassociated color occasionally punctuated by a parental face peering owlishly into mine. "What's the matter with you?" the distorted face demanded wrathfully.
"Nothing," I reportedly replied. "Not one f__kin' thing."
I don't remember getting slapped in the face; I never saw it coming and, given the state I was in, I certainly never felt it, but I lurched back, fixed my mother with as sorrowful a stare as I was capable of and sadly opined, "You know you and Armstrong have got it all wrong about this world. It's not coming to an end in 1975. It's going to f__k itself to death by the year 2003!" I then roared off into a gale of laughter at this elegant jest while my younger brothers snickered appreciatively. Mother, however, declined to join in the mirth.
In the state I was in, correction was judged to be ineffective. If children can't feel the pain of a beating, there was just no sense in administering one; that was the Church's view on the subject. Mom and Bruce (who was always so willing to lend a hand) dragged me into the house, locked me in my room and called the ministry to see what they should do with me.
After several hours, my room got tired of spinning and gradually slowed to a halt. The instant I tried to sit up, however, it resumed its madcap antics. I was horribly thirsty, my head ached, and when I tried to open my mouth it felt like the inside of a glue bottle. I finally managed to crawl over to the door, bang on it, and request a glass of water. "You can't have any water for twenty-four hours," I was curtly informed. " The minister said that water was the worst thing to give someone who's been drinking because water forces more alcohol out of their body and into their brain and they just get drunk all over again." "Please Mom?" I pleaded. "You should have thought of this before you got drunk, but don't worry," she added. "By this time tomorrow you can have all the water you want." "And bread, too!" Bruce chimed in from behind the door. "Now shut up and don't bother us again!" Mom snapped, and I didn't.
Fortunately, evening had fallen, Mom, Bruce and the boys were eating an apparently long delayed supper to which I was neither invited nor permitted. With some sense of equilibrium at long last restored, I cautiously opened the window, slid through and jumped to the ground. The impact nearly drove my eyeballs out the top of my head where they seemed to remain painfully suspended for an inordinate period of time.
My heart was hammering, the world was spinning off its axis once more, and the glue in my mouth had coalesced into a gummy, vile tasting substance previously unheard of in the universe. I headed for the nearest outside water faucet up in the pasture, pried my mouth open, and ingested several gallons.
Contrary to the ministry's medical prognosis, I did not experience an alcoholic flash back, the introduction of water into my system did not force alcohol molecules in hiding into my brain; all I really felt was better. Surprisingly though, I found out that, temporarily at least, I had absolutely no desire for a cigarette.
The social atmosphere within the house was profoundly altered the next morning. Mom would not even look at me, and Bruce, when he did, just smiled smugly. Amazed at not being beaten, I left for school slightly hung over, but otherwise fine.
The first half of the day went normally enough. By lunch time, I felt almost fully recovered from the previous day's drunk. At one thirty a tall man in a business suit walked into the classroom and whispered something to the teacher. She called me to her desk.
"Dale, this is the school district's psychiatrist. He'd like to talk to you," she said. I accompanied him through the halls and out the front doors.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"To my office downtown," he replied.
He ushered me into a brand new Chrysler, got in on the other side, and we drove off heading towards Tacoma.
I noticed the police radio under his dash and the butt of a Smith & Wesson protruding from his suit coat in the first couple of miles.
"You're a cop, aren't you." It was a statement not a question.
He studied me thoughtfully for a moment before replying, "Yeah, my name's Bud Meyers. I'm a detective with the Pierce County Sheriff's Office."
"I haven't done anything," I protested. "What do you want with me?"
"Your mother," Deputy Meyers replied, "says you're an incorrigible delinquent and a troublemaker. Whether that's true or not,I don't know but it's my job to take you to Remann Hall, the county's juvenile detention facility for evaluation and incarceration. From the rumors I've heard, I expected you to be a scruffy looking six foot tall bully, not a twelve year old kid who looks, maybe nine."
I sat back in the seat, stunned and too badly frightened to make a reply. I attempted to assess the situation rationally. I couldn't jump out of the car; we were traveling at better than fifty miles an hour. He was too big to try to overpower, and as an adult, a male, and a cop, he undoubtedly was not amenable to reason. Nevertheless, I tried.
"I had no idea drinking wine in the family cellar was against the law," I asserted somewhat stiffly. "Do you lock everybody up for that?"
Deputy Meyers smiled compassionately at me for a moment and shook his head. "No, Dale," he said. "We don't." Situations like this arise when parents wants to get rid of a kid. Does your Dad know about this?" he asked.
"I don't know," I whispered, fighting back tears, which were so inevitable when I thought of my father that I usually refused to even think about him.
"I'm sorry, Dale. If it was up to me, I'd let you go."
"What's going to happen to me there?" I asked.
"Once you're admitted, they take you upstairs where you shower and surrender your street clothes. You are then issued a pair of jeans, shorts, and a tee shirt, then they lock you in one of the five detention cells. The cells contain two metal bunks, a sink and a toilet. There is literally nothing to do there but sit. You will have no access to reading material, paper or pencils. Meals are served through a metal grate in the door three times a day. Except for showers, which you will take every other morning, you will remain in your cell until a juvenile probation officer decides what to do with you. That's what's facing you now. The best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and do as you're told. If you do that, I'm betting you'll be out within a week."
"I'll tell them," he went on, "as the arresting officer, that you were cooperative and gave me no trouble. Believe it or not that sometimes makes a difference. I'll also stop by in a couple of days just to see how you're doing." He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. "You can make it, kid," he said.
He pulled out a pack of Winstons, tapped out a couple and handed me one. "We're almost there," he said. "They don't let you smoke inside so you better enjoy this one."
Remann Hall was everything Bud Meyers had said it was. There were five cells numbered 301 to 305 down a long, dim, third story hallway. All were unoccupied. For reasons known only to them they put me in the middle cell, 303. The interior decorator apparently had a fetish about lime green must have been obsessed with it, because everything in sight was either that color or some bastardized version of it. The only exceptions were a porcelain sink bolted heavily into the southwest wall and a lidless, seatless toilet fastened securely to the floor.
The green door was solid metal about three inches thick. A half inch thick metal plate, six inches wide and twelve inches long, was inset into the door at a height of about five feet. The plate was full of evenly spaced half inch holes and, I assume, its function was that of a window. Since there was nothing to look out at except the narrow lime green hallway it served no practical purpose. The walls were reinforced concrete, a foot and a half thick. In the southwest corner, two feet above the toilet, a steel grate was built into the southern wall. It was just big enough to slide a metal meal tray through.
Two metal racks protruded from the western wall. Fashioned from heavy three quarter inch angle iron and three eighths inch sheet steel, these bunks were obviously designed by people who hated kids and I wondered how many of the called and chosen had voluntarily labored there when the place was built in the early nineteen hundreds. An inch thick mattress, a surplus army blanket and no pillow completed the appointments.
The only bright spot was the north wall. It sported a window which was four feet long and four feet high. It was covered with a heavy wire mesh, but this was sufficiently spaced so that one could see most of north Tacoma and the suburb of Ruston. I spent the first few hours gazing out of that window at regional landmarks. Ruston's three hundred foot tall copper smelter smoke stack, the twin white spires of a Lutheran Church, and the huge white screen of the Auto View Drive-in, about a mile distant, were among the most prominent features. "If only I was there" I thought "I would be free."
Dinner was served at five. Since I was apparently the only incorrigible in the city of Tacoma and the County of Pierce that evening, I dined alone. "Am I the only one in this place?" I asked the matron who brought my tray. "I'm not supposed to talk to you," she replied somewhat curtly and quickly walked away.
My appetite was for all practical purposes non existent and, if my tray had not contained several illicit offerings, it is doubtful I would have even bothered with it. I naturally noticed dessert first, chocolate cake with fudge frosting. Undoubtedly, made with real chocolate! My beverage for the evening appeared to be grape KoolAid. I gave it a perfunctory sip. It was indeed the genuine article and made with real, one hundred percent, tooth decaying, gut rotting white sugar to boot! Three slices of lightly buttered, diagonally cut, totally white bread (neatly stacked) inhabited the lower right hand pocket of the tray. And suddenly my appetite returned; I was famished. I hadn't tasted anything that good since the last bag of Christmas candy I stole so many childhood years ago. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy completed the repast.
With my spirits temporarily lifted by the deliberate ingestion of forbidden fruit, I sat on the bunk and rested for awhile. The matron came by and asked for my tray. I slid it to her through the steel grate above the toilet. "Who are you?" I asked as she took it. She looked at me for a full ten seconds, then walked away in studied silence down the long green hall. "Whatever I am, they must think it's contagious," I thought.
As evening fell, a scattering of lights flickered softly on, wavering in the purpled distance. Out there, families would be gathering in modest homes, clustering around the TV, children would be laughing and playing; they had parents who would tuck them in bed, kiss them goodnight and never teach them the truth; that the world was coming to an end, that all but that chosen few who caught the Lord's fancy would be destroyed. "They are the lucky ones," I thought. "They've never heard of the Radio Church of God or of Herbert F__king Armstrong; they don't know they're doomed."
They never turned the lights off in that place; it was always daylight there. The only sound at night, or almost any other time for that matter, was the constant background hum of the ventilation system. With nothing to do and no reason to sleep, that first night was a long one.
Breakfast arrived about seven a.m. The toast and jam, cereal, sugar and milk didn't seem like much but, at least, the bread and sugar were white. Between meals, there was nothing to do except think. "Yesterday at this time, I was free," I mused. "Only a handful of hours ago." And I dreaded the coming of afternoon for it wouldn't be true anymore.
That night I stood at the window for hours, staring out at those far flickering lights where normal people led ordinary lives. The end of the world could come at any time, and no matter when, it will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night that's what I'd been told, and what if it happened now, this night? I became terrified, locked in a cage as I was with no way out. "God," I thought, "if things can just hold together and you'll see to it I get out of here tonight, that's all I'll ever ask." God apparently wanted to leave me free to make other requests, however, for that night ended before the world did.
I endured several more days of solitary confinement, and one more night of icy terror before a paradoxical rationalization brought some measure of comfort. I was standing at the window, looking out at a freedom which was only inches away, watching another long day slowly dissolve; "When I was a baby," I thought, "I wonder what my parents would have done if they could see where I've ended up. Would they have held me closer, or hit me less often? Would they have talked to me instead of yelling? Would they have answered my questions instead of demanding blind obedience? And would it have made any difference anyway? And where was I before all that? What was I before I existed?" I was nothing, a concept which hadn't occurred to me before. "Non existence incarnate. At some point in the near future, I'll be nothing again. Life is transitory; existence is the illusion; only nothing is real. They can only hurt you here."
On the fourth day, just before noon, the Juvenile Officer assigned to my case managed to tear himself away from whatever momentous affairs of state had required his attention. He unlocked my cell door and said, "Come with me," then stalked off down that long, pukey, lime green hall. He led the way into what looked like a dormitory, a large sunny room about forty feet long, by sixty wide, and filled with dozens of neatly made beds.
His name, he said, was Herbert Lawrence, and he asked me why I thought I was there. When adults asked rhetorical questions like that, no matter how one responded, one's answer was invariably wrong. It was as if they had some predatory primal need to force their prey into defensive postures or to verbally flee before they felt fully justified to pursue and attack.
Knowing there was no right answer to his question, I remained silent and just stared at him. He too remained mute. Several progressively more uncomfortable minutes passed in this fashion before he asked, "Did you understand what I said?" I continued to stare in his general direction, but at nothing in particular. I understood what he said but it was meaningless to me. He was meaningless to me.
"Do you know what day of the week it is?" he finally asked.
"No," I abruptly replied.
Startled by my sudden response he pressed his attack, "Why not?" What difference does it make?" I flatly rejoined.
"Are we feeling a little sorry for ourselves?" he inquired somewhat mockingly.
"There's no "we" to it, as I doubt you're wired for feelings," I replied somewhat caustically.
He stared at me stoically for several moments, then repeated his initial question. "Do you know why you're here?"
"I drank half a gallon of homemade wine in a root cellar."
"Why?" he asked sternly.
"Why not?" I replied deadpan.
"Have you done anything else you'd like to tell me about which you feel might have contributed to your present predicament?" he queried.
"No," I unhesitatingly replied.
"Your mother," he stated ominously, "tells us you beat one of your brothers so badly that he had to have several of his front teeth repaired. Is that true?"
"Yeah, it's true," I admitted.
"Well?" he persisted impatiently.
"Well, what?" I shot back.
"I've noticed no mention was made of the fact that this was my older brother. That he's six feet tall and out weighs me by at least twenty pounds, or that the reason we got in that fight in the first place was because he was going to beat my younger brother with a board," I hotly retorted.
"And you expect me to believe that you were protecting your younger brother, and that's the real reason you're here?" he inquired derisively.
Stung by his contempt and disbelief, I answered with all the diplomacy and tact characteristic of the eternally condemned, "I don't really give a flying f__k what you believe."
He slapped me across the face so hard it almost knocked me off the bed we were sitting on.
"Listen you little punk," he hissed, "I don't care what your brother did or how much older than you he is, we don't solve our problems in this life by hitting each other."
"Is that a fact" I rejoined. It was neither a statement nor a question; it was an observation.
We sat in silence for an uncomfortable span of minutes. For my part, I had nothing legible to say to him and, apparently, he had nothing further to say to me. Suddenly he glanced at his watch and with that horror of haste which only civil servants who've just discovered they're thirty seconds late for lunch are capable of. He informed me, "I'll be back in an hour." He headed swiftly towards the door, then paused and turned slowly towards me as if weighing something, in what passed for his mind. "If you'll give me your word you'll remain in this room, you can stay here until I get back. Do we have a deal?" he asked.
"Ok," I tonelessly agreed. "I'll be here when you get back."
He gave me a long hard look then, seemingly satisfied with my sincerity, he left the room without even locking the door behind him.
I wandered over to the large bank of metal framed windows where brilliant shafts of sunlight streamed in unobscured, and reveled in the warmth and light. Due to the geographical position of the cells, whose heavily screened windows faced only north, I hadn't seen the sun for days.
The windows opened inward and were wide enough for a person to fit through. I judged it to be about a thirty foot drop to grass and shrubs. An ornamental cherry tree, directly below, easily cut that distance in half. There was no question I could do it. But, then what? This was Tacoma's northwest side. To both the north and west lay Puget Sound, effectively cutting off any avenue of escape in that direction. A large slice of the east was blocked by Commencement Bay. South, South/ East were the only practical headings, diagonally, across the longest, most heavily populated, and therefore most dangerous, section of town.
I sat down on the nearest bed, the desire to escape still tugging irrationally at me. "Not today," I thought. "Not on their terms."
"For a moment, I thought you'd jump, kid." I swivelled around and Bud Meyers was standing in the doorway grinning at me.
"I was thinking about it, Bud," I admitted.
"I don't blame you, kid. I would be too," he chuckled. He ambled over, sat down on the bed opposite me shook out a couple of Winstons, and offered me one.
"What happens if they catch us smoking up here, anyway?" I asked the lean Detective.
"What the f__k are they going to do, throw us in jail?" he laughed.
We puffed our weeds in silence. The effects of nicotine on my tobacco starved system were nothing short of spectacular. For several minutes afterwards the room, the sunlight and the scented breeze wafting in through the open window took on unworldly hues and casts, as if visions of heaven had descended upon hell. "If I could feel like this all the time," I mused, "none of this would matter."
Bud finished his smoke and flipped it out the window. I did likewise.
"I gotta be going, Dale," he said. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but they're going to send you home tomorrow." He paused for a moment, then reached into his shirt pocket and fished out a small white card. He scribbled something on the back, then handed it to me. "This is my card, Dale. It's got my name, office address, and office phone number on it. On the back, you'll find my home phone. If you need some one to talk to, call me. Anytime," he emphasized.
"Ok, I will, Bud," I replied, and stuffed the card in my pocket. "Thanks."
"No sweat, kid," he grinned, and was out the door.
Herbert Lawrence reappeared about fifteen minutes later. He took a seat opposite me. Silence reigned anew between us and I thought, "I'll be damned if I'm going break it."
He finally did. "I ran into Deputy Meyers on the way up here. He said he stopped by to see how you were doing. Isn't he the officer that arrested you?"
"You got it," I affirmed.
"So how do you feel about that?" he queried.
"Just fine," I retorted.
"I'm curious, how do you feel about him?" he persisted.
"I like him."
"Except for my grandfather who died when I was five, and my father, who was okay before he became a f__king Christian, the only man to treat me with any kindness at all is that Deputy," I said.
"I think I don't approve of the adjective you used to describe Christians," he said, disapprovingly.
"I'm sorry," I spuriously apologized. "It's just that I couldn't think of anything worse to call the bastards on the spur of the moment."
"I'm a Christian," he stated evenly.
"I knew that when you hit me," I quietly responded.
The merest hint of a smile flitted across his blunt features. "Are you really as tough as you think you are?" he inquired softly.
"No," I answered immediately. "I'm only as tough as I have to be."
"How would you like to get out of here?" he asked, watching me closely.
I suspected some kind of trick. Previous experience with the called and chosen had taught me that when they offered something they thought I wanted, it was only to determine how badly I wanted it, so they could properly gauge the amount of pain they'd inflict by withholding it.
"It depends," I answered carelessly.
"On what?" he inquired.
"The price," I answered.
"Fair enough," he conceded. "You have to promise me that if I let you go you will obey your mother, attend church regularly and take notes on each sermon. That you will not use profanity, that you will show respect for all adults, that you will not use tobacco or alcohol. Your school grades are far lower than I'd expect from someone with your vocabulary," he stated. "Where'd you learn to talk like you do anyway?"
"Even the things I do well, you people use as a means of condemnation." I retorted evasively.
"Which "you people" are you referring to?" he asked solicitously.
"Every shit heeled adult I've ever known," I replied.
"Perhaps you'd care to define exactly what kind of adult we're talking about here," he suggested.
"A shit heel is a person so gutless that the only way they can get by in life is by kissing someone else's ass. To make themselves feel better," I continued, "they insist that those they consider subordinate to themselves do likewise."
"You seem to have an extremely low opinion of adults in general," he declared. "I'm used to seeing such attitudes in teenagers, but not twelve year Olds."
"They've earned it," I retorted.
"Well," he stated matter-of-factly, "this is getting us nowhere, and you still haven't answered my question. If I release you will you behave yourself?"
"I'll do my best" I stated quietly.
"How good is your best?" he pressed.
"No matter how hard I've tried in the past it's never been good enough for anyone; not God, parents, school or the church," I replied cuttingly. "So I'm sure I'll screw up somewhere and justify your expectations of me as well."
"That's a profound philosophy for one so young," he interjected. "Did you hear that somewhere or make it up yourself?" he inquired.
"Most adults think I'm a smart ass due to my command of the English language," I said, and then added deliberately. "Rather than castigate me for excellence, why don't all of you rectify your ignorance?"
"Castigate? Rectify?" He repeated the words slowly as if savoring their implications. "Where did you learn words like that?" he probed.
"Demons," I proposed.
"Yes, well; your mother is coming to pick you up in about an hour. Do we have a deal?" he inquired.
"I'll do my best" I shrugged.
"Okay," he said firmly. "We've got a deal. Oh, by the way," he announced in an offhand manner, "You're on probation now. Your mother will be bringing you back up here once a month to tell me how you're behaving and if you mess up even once I'll put you right back in your cell."
He strode off without another word.
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