From turning a door on four roller skates into a Heelykididdlywatt and fending off sleazy guys in an all-night coffee shop, through first love, the scars left on a generation by the Vietnam war, and an eye-witness view of Belfast at the peak of The Troubles, these memoirs chart the triumphs and tragedies of an ordinary life full of extraordinary people.

Memoirs of a Madwoman

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog. Published once a week from 13 June to 23 September, 2007, it was written as a memoir composed of a series of 28 non-fiction short stories about the first twenty-one years of my life. My generation was the result of all the joyous lovemaking that went on when the boys came back from World War II, thankful they were still in one piece; the Baby Boom Generation. We were born into the optimism that was engendered by the belief that the war that had been fought by our parents had been the “War to End All Wars”. In the 1960’s, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, that belief was behind us, and we entered a time of deep social ferment. The nation had to grips with black Americans demanding the rights they were guaranteed by the Constitution. Teenagers were being forced to choose between the army or a flight to Canada if they did not have a college or other deferment (or a rich and powerful father who could arrange a bit of sporadic service in the National Guard). A burgeoning hippie culture, dedicated to peace and love, came and went, their ideals disappearing in a cloud of marijuana smoke, or in the multi-coloured haze of an LSD trip. College campuses were hotbeds of protest and radical thought. Abroad, a strike nearly toppled the government in Paris, thousands turned out to defy Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia, and the peaceful voice of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland began to be drowned out by sectarian violence. Impoverished California farm workers formed the United Farm Workers union, and demanded justice with a series of strikes and one of the largest and longest consumer boycott ever seen. These were the events that shaped me; the events I often saw first-hand. And this is my life as I lived it.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Beginning at the Beginning

13 June 2007

I was born in Chicago at the ragged end of the baby boom in 1953. My mother's family were dirt poor and her father lost almost all of his farm in the Depression, except for the bit he kept as a market garden growing vegetables for his family and sweet corn which he sold at a stall on the roadside. My mother was a bright child, and a schoolteacher came to see my grandmother to tell her she should be allowed to continue her education and go to college. My grandfather was totally opposed to this, but my grandmother, who had had to leave school at fifteen to support her mother and disabled sister, defied him on the issue as she did on every other issue. And somehow, with the help of a scholarship, my mother went oft to study at the University of Illinois.

For my mother, this was the door to opportunity, but also to her downfall. For it was there she met a handsome artist from a wealthy Chicago family, who was studying architecture and could dance like a dream. He was the family renegade and I think there was an element of rebellion in bringing my mother, a poor Irish Catholic, home to meet his family.

His mother and father had emigrated from Sweden and had built a small business empire on Scandanavian furniture and property rentals. They had a number of nice houses in Skokie which they rented out to nice middle-class families, and were also, unashamedly, slumlords. The family prided themselves on their sophistication; his mother was a sculptress, and after family dinners, my mother said, they would play string quartets in the living room. My mother, who was studying accountancy and who valued artistic talent more than anything, was rapt.

The Second World War intervened, however, and the man who could dance like a dream joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific on the USS Pensacola, an unlucky ship that was hit repeatedly during the war (and, to complete its bad fortune, was sent to Bikini Atoll to guard the area of the first nuclear tests afterwards). Following a serious hit, the ship was returned to port for repairs at Mare Island near San Francisco. My mother got on a train to meet him there and, in a hastily arranged ceremony at the base chapel and wearing a borrowed wedding dress, she married him. My father shipped out four days later.

As the war was ending, the ship was hit again and again by kamikaze pilots. In one raid, his best friend, who he had been standing next to at the time, was incinerated. My father did not return from the war the same man who had left. Maybe none of them do.

They settled in Chicago and had four children in six years. My father was drinking heavily and couldn't hang onto money. "If he had five dollars in his pocket," my mother would say, "he would spend ten." He could still dance like a dream, but now he was dancing with women who were not my mother - and doing a lot else with them besides. He and my mother would split up every couple of years. But they were crazy about each other and my father would always come back. And make her pregnant again. And then feel compelled to stray. When he was not drinking, my father was warm, funny and charming. He would be unable to stop working or to sleep because he was on top of the world. Other times his moods were dark. He would drink and change, Dr.Jekyll like, into someone my mother didn't know. What she didn't realise until my brother was diagnosed many years later, was that my father was suffering a bipolar illness; manic depression as it was then called. But it was never spoken of. These things didn't happen to respectable people.

His mood swings went untreated and, as my aunt confessed to me after my mother's death, he became abusive to her. And violent. One day my four year old brother told my mother that, when he was grown up he would be able to hit a mommy as well. Still desperately in love with the man my father was when he was sober, she nertheless knew that this could not go on.

A few months before I was born, my father moved out of the family home, which was owned by the Swedish property empire that was his mother and father. He had a girlfriend, a woman who owned a bar and who didn't give him a hard time about his drinking, mainly because she was an alcoholic herself. Although my father apparently saw their liaison as a casual affair, as he was still in love with my mother, things got rather complicated when the girlfriend got pregnant. His mother was horrified of scandal and insisted that my father divorce my mother so that he could marry the girlfriend before she gave birth. When he refused she threatened to cut him off, and that seems to have persuaded him. It is painful to say it, but my father was a weak man. Unlike his mother who had never suffered from sentimentality.

When my father was about nine, his mother found his wild behaviour intolerable, and sent him to a childless couple in Iowa to be adopted. They loved my father and he loved them and he settled well there. But three years later, before the adoption was final, his mother changed her mind and took him back. As far as I know he never saw them again. His sister once described her mother to me as "A very good mother. She just had no maternal instinct."

Since my mother was Catholic and bound by her religion not to get a divorce, the problem now was how my father could achieve one in time to marry his girlfriend as his mother had ordered.

It was the dead of winter, snowing and ten below zero when my mother came to the door of our Skokie house to find a heating engineer, employed by her landlords (the in-laws!), come to service the boiler. After bangng around for a bit, he pronounced the boiler in need of repair. He turned it off and promised to return shortly with the needed parts. He left and didn't return. My mother, smelling a rat, gathered up her four small children and moved into her mother's place, proclaiming that she would not come back until it was sorted. My father then sued for divorce on the grounds of my mother's desertion from the marital home.

It was a messy divorce by all accounts. My mother, contesting it, sat with her Church appointed lawyer; and on the other side were four lawyers who worked for my father's family business. All my father's assets were moved to other members of the family and my mother got no alimony and only a pittance in child support. Within a couple of years, that would dry up too.

My father married his girlfriend and they had a daughter. Another daughter followed a couple years later. They split up some years later and my father's mother, thinking the bar-owning daughter-in-law was unfit to raise children and my father unsuitable, got custody of his two daughters. Finding them troublesome, as she had found my father before him, she put them in a children's home eighteen months later where they languished until my father's death, at the age of 44, in 1967.

Despite the ideal of the stay-at-home mother of the 1950s, my mother had to go back to work when I was six weeks old. We lived with her mother, my sainted grandmother who took over the mother role, and my disabled great auntie who talked constantly to herself in whispers which, cruelly, my brothers and sister and I found exceptionally funny. But my grandmother's house was small and, when I was two and a half, we all moved to California so that my mother could be near her sister and brother. My grandmother sold her house so that my mother could buy one big enough for all of us.

But, despite her heroic efforts to keep the seven of us in clothes and food and under a roof, she was broken. She slid into a catastrophic depression from which she never fully recovered and used to walk up and down the railway tracks behind our house trying to get up the courage to throw herself in front of a train. And even though I could not have been consciously aware of it at the time, I can't hear a train whistle at night now without a shudder.

Her dark and desperate moods coloured my childhood. She had no interest in cuddling me as a baby. And as I grew to bond with my grandmother, running to her and not my mother when I was hurt, my mother became more and more resentful. She took little interest in whether I brushed my teeth or was clean when I went to school. I remember streaks of dirt down my arm and my classmates laughing at me because I had "cooties". The worst thing the boys could do to another boy they wanted to victimise was to overpower him, drag him to me and force him to touch me.

Isolated and desperate and seeking some sort of escape, I swallowed a bottle of children's aspirin at the age of eight. Of course I only made myself sick (inexplicably to my family who I hadn't told!) and decided maybe I wouldn't try that again. There had to be another way to escape.

And there was. A magical one.

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Friday, 30 May 2008

The Convent House

14 June 2007

We came to live in a blue collar suburb of Los Angeles in one of those endless tracts of stucco houses that sprung up after the Second World War to house all those servicemen from all those cold states who shipped out through California and promised themselves that, if they survived, that's where they would make their homes.

I remember being stuffed, seven of us, into the battered green Plymouth that Mom called "Brutus" because it was always betraying her by not starting, and heading off to find a house. I was the youngest and had to sit on Grandma's lap which I thought was unfair and I grumpily wondered if I would still be expected to do this when I was a teenager! Fortunately, by the time I was teenager, a car carrying seven people who were not wearing seat belts would soon find itself pursued by red flashing lights.

My mother was a devout Catholic so the first place she enquired was the local church and it turned out the priest knew a house directly across the street from the church and the school that was for sale. My mother thought it sounded perfect and didn't even bother to look at another house before she bought it.

When I walked into the empty house for the first time, I knew that this was no ordinary suburban home. For a start there was an altar in the living room! The house had been a convent for the nuns from the school across the street, and before we could move in it had to be "deconsecrated".

And so I grew up in an ex-convent. Which did have its advantages. Exploring the new house, I discovered abandoned on a high shelf in the garage reams and reams and reams of school drawing and writing paper and stacks of exercise books. They were slightly yellowed with age and the nuns didn't want them back as they had no use for them. But I certainly did.

I wrote stories and more stories and more stories gripping my pencil so furiously that huge callouses appeared on my middle finger. When I was nine years old I wrote on that yellowing paper my first novel. It was a ridiculous childish story about two girls who find themselves alone in the South Pacific during the Second World War who are rescued by the crew of a US Naval battleship. Thinking back I wonder if I was trying to picture the father I never knew as a hero who would even now come back and rescue me. It ran to over a hundred hand-written pages of descriptions of a world that existed only in my head, that was entirely my own and in which nothing happened or failed to happen unless I ordained it. Suddenly it didn't matter that I was the kid with cooties, the last one to get chosen for teams of dodgeball or volleyball (I was entirely uncoordinated and useless at any kind of sports), the girl who picked her nose and probably smelled if you got too close, which no one did! I was God of my own Imaginary Universe!

My grandmother had a book called "Connie Bell MD" about one of the first woman doctors, which she tried to get me to read. She was always trying to get me to read one sort of book or another. Classics like "Little Women" were big favourites, but they were all about stuff that happened a whole long time ago and anyway I was more interested in shlocky romances and pulpy Man from UNCLE spinoff novels (using the term as loosely as it is possible to use it). Nothing she or any of my family could say or do could impress me. My family was dull and uninteresting, the house I lived in (despite having been a convent) was identical to every other house in the tract, the place I lived was flat and gray, even in the California sunshine, and anything exciting on the planet must exist beyond those borders.

I don't know what made me finally open "Connie Bell MD" and, though I can't remember much at all about the story, I will never forget how it felt to find the handwritten inscription on the flyleaf: "To Loretta, a wonderful human being, beloved of her family and friends, and a credit to her Church! With love and best wishes, her friend the author, Helen Tann Aschmann". 'Loretta' was my grandmother! My grandmother knew an actual published writer! And what a eulogy! To somebody who wasn't even dead yet!

And then I thought that if in this flat, gray place, in this dull tract house my unexceptional grandma could know an actual published writer, then surely it could be possible to become one too!

My grandma warned me that Helen Aschmann had had countless rejection slips before her work was published.

"I don't care," I said. "I'll string the rejection slips together and make a necklace!". The arrogance of extreme youth. But rejection was going to be a central theme in my life. And it was going to be, and remains today, a lot tougher than I thought.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Heelykididdlywatt

15 June 2007

Mr and Mrs Anderson lived next door to us. They were childless, which made them pretty exotic. Particularly being Catholic, I simply didn't know any grown ups without kids who weren't nuns, priests (little did I know!) or my great Aunt Irene who rarely talked to us but talked to herself constantly. (I was always told it was because she'd had polio as a child, but suspected she was just rather mad; a thread, I would discover, that was woven into the fabric of both my mother's and my father's families. What hope did I have? I used to think. As it turned out, none whatsovever.)

Mr and Mrs Anderson did not find children endearing. They didn't smile when we blurted out something undiplomatic, or broke something in our overexcitement, or screamed just to see how loud we could do it. The only thing that Mr Anderson loved, as far as I could tell, was his dichondra lawn.

A dichondra lawn was, as everyone knew, almost impossible to achieve. But Mr Anderson was no average gardener. He had created in his front yard domain a rich carpet of velvety green made up of tiny clover-like blades of something that was surely not grass. You couldn't call it grass any more than you would call a sharp-finned shiny Cadillac a car. To keep it in perfect condition, he never even walked on it unless he was weeding, mulching, feeding or watering it; and even then only in his bare feet.

He scowled at our parched patchy front lawn and quietly cursed the weeds in it whose seeds blew onto his precious dichondra. Mr Anderson was constantly weeding his dichondra and keeping a jaundiced eye on the comings and goings of the band of renegades who were the children of his next door neighbour, a woman who wasn't even respectable enough to have a husband. Although he complained to my mother and grandmother on a number of occasions about our cutting across his front yard, he failed in his attempts to get us to act like anything but the kids we were. And so he erected a fence made of a few short sticks with string run between them, to make it plain that trampling his dichondra was not to be tolerated.

We didn't take nearly as much notice of Mr Anderson as he took of us. I was five and my sister seven at the time; and we reasoned that Mr Anderson simply refused to appreciate that my brothers were not beholden to the kind of rules mere mortals must adhere to. Because they were geniuses.

My brother Steve was some kind of Einstein and I was in awe of him. He was an inventor of rare talent in my view. Having watched a fairground ride astutely, he attempted to create a ride at home that I could sit on and be carried round and round as long as I wanted without paying for a ticket. Unfortunately, the only motor he had to power it was from the Erector set he got for Christmas. But any genius, surely, has to experiment with prototypes first! When he was given a small tape recorder, it was his pride and joy and he couldn't wait to find out how it worked. I was profoundly impressed by the deftness with which he took it apart and removed it innards to examine them; and just because he then couldn't put it back together again, it didn't make his experiment any less impressive. He had an intellectutal curiousity that I thought was breathtaking. Once he wanted to know how it felt to be locked in the trunk of a car, so he went inside the trunk of our battered old Plymouth, Brutus, and had us close it and then open it again to let him out. He said it was thrilling and each of us four had to try it then. Wow. Pitch darkness like I'd never known! We continued to do this over and over until Steve suggested we all get in at once and see what it was like. So we enthusiastically climbed in and slammed the trunk closed. One minor hitch was that there was now no one outside to let us out again. I started to yell for help but my sister Nancy, always practical and having seen a lot of movies on this theme, told us we must save our oxygen. I tried to hold my breath. But my brothers found that the parcel shelf behind the back seat was accessible from the trunk and pushed through it to save the day! I was so proud of them, but they had great humility, I thought, because they told me that on no account should I tell Mom.

And Steve did have another very useful and unique talent. It involved going to the annual church fair and standing at a stall where there was an uprght homemade wheel with numbers on it. People were encouraged to place bets on what number it might land on when it was spun, so it was a lot like the poor man's roulette. (And at a church fair? Was gambling not on of the Seven Deadly Sins? Maybe not.) The prizes were bags of groceries, donated, as were all the prizes, by parishioners. Now my brother knew than no homemade wheel could be perfectly balanced. So if he observed it long enough, he figured he could make a fairly accurate prediction of the most likely numbers to come up. After watching for a very long time, arousing the unease of the volunteers manning the stall, my brother took out a roll of dimes and started to bet. He invariably came home with bag after bag of groceries until the Church stepped in and made him stop betting. My mother was embarrassed by his cunning, but very pleased to have the groceries.

There was a woodpile in the backyard that I think was there from before we moved in. I never went near it because I was convinced there were black widow spiders in it, which there probably was. My brothers thought some good use must be made of it.

Roller-skating was very popular then. But it wasn't like roller blading. The skates were metal, with four wheels, one in each corner, and designed to attach to your shoes. You used a roller skate key to open them, put them on, and the tighten them to fit your foot. We all had roller skates, but there are only so many times you can fall down on the hard concrete sidewalk or run into a lamppost before the thrill is gone. My brothers Steve and Keith had a brilliant idea about what to do with the unwanted skates. They would build a car for us to ride around in from the old wood and the wheels from the roller skates.

This, I thought, was the most creative and ingenious plan they had come up with yet! Imagine cruising around the sidewalks in our homemade car!

They set about making it, fearless of the black widows that I knew were in that woodpile, using hammers and nails and looking incredibly impressive as their design took shape. In the end it was huge! The four of us could sit in it, two in the front and two in the back! There was only the wheels to put on now and we'd be cruising. There was a minor hitch though. The car was so spectacularly heavy and the roller skate wheels so pitifully small that our beautiful car would not move an inch. My brothers were undeterred by this small setback. The wheels were taken off the car and it was left in the backyard and now called a "clubhouse".

They now had an alternate plan. If the car was too heavy they would need to make something lighter. There was an old wooden door on the woodpile and genius took its course. They attached the roller skate wheels to the door and a small rope which they would use to steer it. I looked at it sceptically.

"That's not a car!" I said.

"Of course not," Keith said, "It's something much better. It's a heelykididdlywatt."

Now I had never heardof a heelykididdlywatt before, and I suspect my brother made this up on the spot, but it did look promising. Much lighter than the car.

The street we lived on was on a hill, so we dragged our heelykididdlywatt up to the top and prepared to take it for its maiden run. The door was big enough to accommodate all four of us and my brother Keith sat in the "driver's seat" in front and held the steering rope, and Steve, Nancy and I sccoted up behind him. I looked around to see who might be watching us because I was sure they would be very jealous when they saw our beautiful heelykididdlywatt careening down the sidewalk.

We set off from the top of the hill and I was delighted to discover that, this time, the vehicle they'd created was not too heavy and we gathered speed at a terrific rate as Keith steered us down the hill! The thrill was unbelievable and I screamed at the top of my voice with excitement. What an invention! Surely we could market this and become rich!

Now unfortunately, despite the steering rope, the heelykididdlywatt had no axle. So the concept of actually steering it, as in making it go the way you wanted it to, was really not a part of its design. So when the thing started to veer to the right, there was really no way to steer it back. And, also unfortunately, the heelykididdlywatt had no brakes. My brothers had been thinking more about how to get it going than how to stop it.

As Keith struggled for control, it became obvious that the only thing to do was to bail out! But we were going so fast! And what if we ended up in the street and got run over by a car? The door on wheels finally veered off the sidewalk and hit something soft and then tipped us all out violently on the ground, but at least in one piece.

As I lay there on the ground, the first thing I saw was dichondra.

When we got up, shaken, we saw the deep ruts the roller skate wheels had driven into the ground, churning up carefully mulched soil and pulling those little clover like blades of Cadillac grass up by the roots; and the squashed dichondra where we had all been pitched out. Mr Anderson had run out of his front door but, by instinct, still didn't tread on his dichondra, choosing to shout angrily and with tears forming in his eyes.

"What have you done?" he shouted, "What is that?"

Steve brushed the soil and bits of dichondra from his patched jeans.

"It's our heelykididdlywatt!" he said proudly, "What do you think?"

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Yellow Dog Democrat

16 June 2007

My mother was a Roosevelt Democrat in the 1930s and a Roosevelt Democrat the day she died. They used to be known as Yellow Dog Democrats because, so it was thought, that they would vote for a yellow dog if it was running on a Democratic ticket. Her mother before her was a yellow dog Democrat, married to a small farmer who was as stauchly Republican as it was possible to be. Even when the policies of Herbert Hoover ("You don't work, you don't eat") drove him to lose his farm and eventually forced him to work in a GM factory, he remained as Republican, hating the United Auto Workers union with a vicious passion and fervently believing that what was good for General Motors was good for the country. God knows how they stayed married.

Fortunately, my grandmother was a lot smarter than her husband, and managed to perpetuate a matriarchal dynasty in the family that started with my great-grandmother who was widowed at the age of thirty, and continuing through to my mother who, as a single mom, called the shots in our family. It never occurred to me that there were things women couldn't do simply because they were women, with the exception standing up to pee. (I still wish I could do that though. It would save a lot of time in public restrooms! And what about the ease with which men can pee at the side of a country road without drawing attention to themselves while a woman has to simply hold on or suffer the indignity of a highly noticeable squat? God is indeed a man.)

I grew up in a world where the fear of communism was all pervasive. Athough the infamous McCarthy hearings took place before I was born, there was a terrible sense that, at any time, soldiers might storm the Nubel movie theatre in downtown Bellflower and make us all learn Russian. The nuns told us horror stories of how, in communist countries, there were no crucifixes hung in classrooms! (Of course, there were no crucifixes hung in American pubic schools either, but let's not let facts get in the way of a good story!) We we were told that in Russia children are abducted from their parents and brainwashed and forced to spy on their parents. (I never got that one. How did they spy on their parents when they had been abducted and never saw them again?) Every time I heard an airplane flying overhead I was reminded of the countless war movies I'd seen; and I was sure we were about to be bombed. Once a month, on a Friday, the Civil Defence siren would go off and we had to rehearse for a nuclear attack at school by dropping under our desks and curling into a ball with our hands on our heads. (I'm still not sure how this was going to protect us from a nuclear strike.) Because most of all, we were terrified of World War Three. Nuclear War.

When I was eight years old we were told that the "drop drills" that we had rehearsed all those monthly Fridays, might at last be due for a live performance. It was high noon. A showdown with the Russians ninety miles from the US coastline was in progress, and Nikita Krushchev and President Kennedy were standing in a sun-baked street, staring into each others' eyes, hands ready to draw and shoot, resulting in the annihilation of the human race.

Now I thought this was unlikely, probably because my brain could not take in something as catastrophic as a nuclear war, but plenty of other people thought it very likely indeed. Our parish church was full of people who I'd never seen at Mass before. On weekdays even! People were belatedly building shelters in their backyards. The shelves of the grocery stores were being stripped of canned goods (and I thought how funny it would be if they, in their hysteria, forgot to pack a can opener) and enormous supplies of peanut butter. Now, much as I loved peanut butter, I did think being down in a hole in the backyard eating copious amounts of it might be worse than just being annihilated. But the Russians turned their ships around, the churches became pretty empty again and hundreds of thousands of people wondered what they were going to do with all that peanut butter.

That climate of fear permeated everything when I was a kid, and dissent, which I had learned in school was the Constitutional right of every American, was at every turn associated with the communists. Opponents to a war that was going on far away in a place called Vietnam were communists. The Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement's voter registration campaign were communists. Gay Liberationists were communists trying to bring down the family. Martin Luther King was a communist. Women agitating for equal pay were communists. I did think that, with all those communists everywhere, they must be pretty inept to not have ensured we were all speaking Russian by now.

My mother never set out to be a campaigner against injustice. I think in an ideal world she would have stayed home, baked cookies and looked after her kids while worrying about what washing powder would get her whites really white. But when she had to go out to work to support a household of seven, injustice kind of found her. She got a job as an accountant in a big company, with access to all the company's books. She had been an innocent in the real world, and when she discovered that the starting wage for men doing the same job as she was doing was the top wage for women, she assumed (in her innocence) that this was a mistake. So she brought it to the attention of her boss who told her that this was the way of the world.

"Why..?" my mother asked.
"Because women don't have families to support," he replied.
"But I have four children and two dependent adults to support!"
"Yes, but generally women don't."
"But I'm not 'generally'" she insisted, "I really do have six people to support!"

My mother got nowhere, of course, and went on earning less than a man and burning with injustice.

She was an odd "campaigner". She was fairly quiet usually. Not at all strident. But had a natural aversion to privilege which made all rich people suspect until proven innocent. Her passion about injustice became part of our lives as a family. I came to never argue politics with my mother because she always won. She simply knew more about any subject you want to name than I did. As a teenager, it infuriated me! Who wants their Mom to win an argument?

She was a pacifist (who nevertheless supported the aims of the Second World War) and one of the bitter ironies of her life was that she unknowingly worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge Tennessee during the war, assiting the top secret develpment of the atomic bomb. When she worked for North American Aviation, she asked to be transferred from working on the Hound Dog Missile project and joined the team working on the space program which she was convinced had only peaceful purposes.

She opposed the war in Vietnam and turned a blind eye when my brother's draft dodger and deserter friends slept on our couch on their way to Canada. She agitated for equal pay as the Women's Representative at North American. Both she and my grandmother were ardent supporters of the civil rights movement. And as the gay liberation movement sarted to gather pace and I told my her that I thought that homosexuals were sick, she drawled thoughtfully, "You know, I think the only really sick people are those who can't love anyone."

The kids in my family were raised, without our really knowing it at the time - the way kids always think their own experience is typical - to be passionate about injustice, and that is how we still are. My husband says we are the only family he's ever seen who can shout while agreeing with each other.

She was shrewd and wise and knowledgeable and articulate and never cared if anyone thought she was a communist or a communist dupe or a communist sympathiser. She was a Roosevelt Democrat in the 1930s and a Roosevelt Democrat the day she died. And I miss her.

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Monday, 26 May 2008

Wild Child

17 June 2007

When my mother brought me home from the hospital, a tiny, squalling bald blob, and laid me out on the yellow chenille bedspread for everyone to see, my brother Steve said, "What do we want her for?" Relations between my brother and I went downhill from there.

He teased me mercilessly throughout my childhood and nothing pleased him more than the impotent rage he could inspire in me without having to work at it very hard. My mother and grandmother, when they furnished our house, bought a coffee and end table set with the latest "no mar" finish so that, under the onslaught of four small children, the tables might still remain pristine. This lasted until I chased Steve with a scissors in my hand and, because he could outrun me, ended up throwing it at him with all my pathetic might. It missed him and bounced onto the "no mar" coffee table, taking a small gouge out of it. My mother was furious and I said I was sorry, but mostly I was sorry the gouge hadn't come out of my brother instead.

My mother never changed her furniture throughout her life and that gouge remained, forever reminding me of the troubled relations between my brother and me.

Nevertheless, I looked up to my brothers and desperately wanted them to accept me and include me in all the terribly interesting and exciting things they used to do. They only included me, however, when I was of some marginal use to them. I knew this, but didn't mind. Better that kind of attention than none!

So when they played "pickle" they let me be the runner. They each stood on a homemade "base" (usually a bare patch of lawn) in the backyard and threw a baseball to each other. I was supposed to run between the two bases at random intervals and they had to try and catch me out. After a while this became pretty dull and I whined and pleaded for them to let me throw the ball for a bit, while one of them tried to steal bases instead. Fearing I would strut off in a huff and they would lose their runner, they decided to let me do it for five minutes. On my very first throw I hit my brother Keith with the baseball and he came crashing to the ground, writhing and groaning in pain. I couldn't believe he was being such a baby over a little thing like a ball hitting him between the legs! They never let me throw the ball again.

The only time I can remember my brother Steve treating me with real concern and affection was once when I was about nine and he was practising his archery. I watched admiringly for ages as he shot bulls eye after bulls eye, until Steve finally decided to let me join in.

"Here," he said, taking the target off the washing pole where it had been hanging and handing it to me, "You hold that up and I'll shoot at it."

I was so delighted. My big brother was letting me do archery with him. I stood about fifteen feet in front of him and held up the target. It was just like William Tell without the apple. As he prepared his shot and brought back the bow, his hand slipped (or so he said) and the arrow flew wildly off the string. The next thing I saw was something dangling from my head; the arrow had hit my head at the hairline and gone under my scalp. When I realised what it was I started to cry. My brother rushed to me, pulled the arrow out, looked at me with great brotherly tenderness and said, "Don't tell Mom!" He took me to the sink and cleaned the cut on my scalp and told me that this would be our secret. After nine years my brother Steve and I had bonded.

Steve was asthmatic and dyslexic and struggled at school, where the nuns branded him stupid. He was badly bullied by the other boys, arriving home more than once with blood down the front of his white shirt. Of course back then nobody thought bullying was a problem; in fact they tended to think it was character forming. If that was true, Steve must have had the best formed character in Bellflower.

But when he hit his teens, he became a Wild Child.

The first inkling that my brother was going to be a "problem" was when I came home at dinnertime and there was no dinner on the table. My mother was in a terrible state and had to go out, she said. Steve, at the age of fourteen, two years before he had a driver's licence, had secretly taken the Galaxy station wagon Mom had bought to replace the now deceased Plymouth, and gone joy-riding with his friends until he was stopped by the police. He wasn't charged with anything, but Steve's teenage rebellion was only just beginning.

My mother had placed both my brothers in a boys Catholic school run by Salesian priests and brothers, in the hope that the male culture of the school would be good for her fatherless sons. My brother Keith was a quiet and studious boy, a bit of a geek really, and caused no trouble. Steve, who hated the school and everything about it, was determined to find a way out.

My brother was an atheist at an early age and he saw the opportunity to get his wish during a routine religion class - a usefless subject, he thought, of no value in the school curriculum - run by a priest who had little tolerance for bad behaviour. Steve had put his head down on his desk for a little nap during the lesson, which he must have known would be an act of extreme provocation.

"Hey!" the priest demanded, "What are you doing?"
"I'm sleeping," my brother answered.
"Why are you sleeping in my class?" he asked, rising to my brother's insolence.
"Cause I don't consider this a class," Steve replied defiantly.
"Well, maybe we don't consider you a student!"

My brother shrugged and the priest ordered him to leave the class. Steve picked up his books and loped to the door, unconcerned. The priest finally lost it, wheeled my brother round and slapped him hard.

It was an instinctive reaction to slap him back (or was it?) and the priest exploded, punching Steve in the face – whereupon Steve punched him back. The boys in the class were out of their seats in an instant, the desks were pushed back, and there at the front of the class the priest and my brother fought it out until a couple of teachers arrived on the scene to pull the two apart.

My mother was, naturally, called to the school and Steve was now sure that, in the wake of this incident, he had a ticket out. The principal, however, decided that Steve was disturbed rather than "bad", and the best thing for him would be to remain at the school where he would benefit from the discipline and pastoral care that would be on offer.

The discipline and pastoral care didn't take, though, and my brother seemed more and more like a runaway train headed at great speed to the edge of a cliff. His friends included hippies and bikers and petty criminals; and there was a lot of drugs in there too. My grandmother had always believed in him, insisting he had a heart of gold (he did) and my mother prayed that somehow he would come out of all this alright. But it didn't look good.

One morning at breakfast my mother was in a foul mood. She banged the dishes on the table, slammed cupboards and kicked the dog out of her way. None of us dare ask what was wrong. It took a long time before she spoke.

"Well, you'll be pleased to hear your brother's in jail!" I didn't know why she thought we'd be pleased. I had yet to discover irony.

My brother had gone out, crashed the car into a bridge and been arrested for being Drunk and Disorderly.

Eventually Steve was diagnosed with borderline schizophrenia and ended up in the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. It was something we were not allowed to talk about outside the family due the stigma and shame it would bring upon our house. “If you tell anyone,” my mother warned, “they’ll think we’re all crazy.” Of course we all were. Absolutely barking in fact.

My brother spent a fairly unproductive summer in the hospital, and was put on a lot of drugs that looked like their ultimate purpose was to turn him into a zombie. He became adept at not taking them and eventually, because he got intensely bored, plotted and carried out a number of daring escapes from the ward. He would then hitch-hike back to our house, have a quiet lunch with my grandmother and then hitch-hike back to the hospital. When he knocked at the front door, it didn’t half piss them off. Like I said, though: My brother was a genius.

It was a long time, and a very hard road, before my brother's genius was finally recognised. He got in at the beginning of the computer hardware boom, got a job drafting the circuitry of silicone chips (which, at that point I had never heard of before), worked for people who weren't as smart as he was but who had gone to college, eventually lied about having a degree, advanced quickly to the top of his profession, designing hardware for cutting edge systems and sharing in the patent of a number of inventions.

Ironically, Steve, despite his eccentricities (of which there are many!), turned out the sanest of all of us. He has been happily married over thirty years.

Many years ago I was sharing a bottle of wine with his wife and, as women do sometimes, we were swapping stories of how and when we'd lost our virginity. She had met this deadbeat when she was a teenager and decided that, as all her friends had lost theirs, it was time she got rid of her virginity. (This was the Sixties, you know.) The next morning, the guy was up, out of bed, pacing and trying to explain the situation to her.

"Last night was good, but you have to understand you can't hold me. I am a free spirit. I am like the wind. Trying to hold me is like trying to catch a moonbeam." (Okay so he probably wasn't anywhere near as poetic as that, but you get the idea.) She thought this guy was really a jerk.

"And do you know who that guy was?" she asked me, "Your brother."

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Ageing Children

18 June 2007

A lot of my brother’s friends had nicknames: Bear, Gypsy, Dirty Dave, Squirrel. This wasn’t surprising since Bear’s real name was Saferino and Gypsy’s was Kevin; and these were hardly suitable monikers for guys who claimed to be bikers. Bear was a former member of the Cossacks motorcycle gang, despite the fact that he didn’t have a motorcycle all the time that I knew him; and his best friend Gypsy rode a Honda 50. Nevertheless, they wore biker “colours”, Levis jackets with the sleeves ripped off over leather motorcycle jackets.

Though my brother (whose nickname was, occasionally, Stephen LeFreak) was adamant that he didn’t want us to on any account have anything to do with his friends (because he knew them better than we did!), my friends Cathie, Carol and I (who collectively called ourselves the Mini-Skirt Mob) were fascinated.

Bear was from the barrio and had grown disenchanted with changes in gang culture.

“In the old days,” said the eighteen year old, “If someone wanted a fight you put up your fists. Nowadays, you put up your fists, they take out a gun and shoot you.”

The hippie thing had taken hold and he found peace and love ultimately more attractive. And safer. Bear loved my brother like, well…like a brother, and was very protective of him. Peace and love aside, I think anyone messing with my brother would have regretted it.

Gypsy, despite his macho posturing, weighed about 110 pounds. Dirty Dave was a nice boy from a Mormon family who was thrown out by his father for his teenage rebellion. Squirrel was a quiet soul with a timid rodent-like face (he was lucky to be nicknamed Squirrel and not Ratface, I suppose). Crosland (no nickname! How did that happen?) had a old van which he turned into a mobile pad for him and his girlfriend Christa and, though he didn’t qualify as a wild boy, was the gang’s Jester. Rick was one of the sweetest guys I ever met. And Larry, who spoke some sort of pig Latin fluently enough so that no one except his closest friends could understand him, worked on his car longer than was healthy, and explained to his girlfriend, when she asked, that he had to fix the Tripod Pernundal and the Reverse Gonad before he could take her to the drive-in movie.

From the time I was a gawky, awkward prepubescent would-be teenybopper, however; when the last thing I was interested in was politics, something slowly and stealthily was happening that would scar my whole generation: Vietnam.

I don’t know when I was first aware that the United States was involved in a “police action” there. But, as more and more troops were sent and the conflict escalated, it took political center stage. By 1964 there was a full-scale war going on there, but the first stirrings of the embryonic anti-war movement, led by Mario Savio at UC Berkeley, were condemned as the sedition of communists and communist dupes, giving comfort to the enemy.

It wasn’t at all like the war in Iraq, of course. In Vietnam, the US got involved because it wanted to spread democracy to Southeast Asia and counter a threat from a bloc of hostile states in order to secure the interests of the United States and freedom for the Vietnamese people which it hoped to achieve quickly but, unfortunately, resulted in a protracted war with local insurgents that was never defeated. So, as you can see, nothing like Iraq.

Eventually the draft was introduced to supply the ever increasing number of soldiers they told us were required to win the war in Vietnam. Suddenly the issue went beyond politics. And began to directly affect our lives.

My brother Keith joined the Air Force, wanting to get his service, which he thought was inevitable, out of the way. Steve got a 4-F deferment because of his asthma. Dirty Dave joined the Marines in a doomed attempt to win back the respect of his Mormon father. Bear, Squirrel and Rick got drafted. Gypsy, at the age eighteen, was charged with having sex with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend (technically statutory rape)and given a choice by the judge to go to jail or into the army. He went into the army.

Inexplicably, and in total defiance of my brother’s insistence that any of his friends should have more than a passing acquaintance with his sisters, I perversely became almost unbearably besotted and infatuated with Gypsy, the statutory rapist. (What was I thinking!?) To me he was James Dean! He was Marlon Brando! He was a skinny guy on a Honda 50 who wrote a poem about how I was his ideal woman. What sixteen year old couldn’t fall for that? I was a virgin and he got absolutely nowhere with me. I must have driven him crazy!

Just before he shipped out to Vietnam, he asked me to marry him. I said yes. Imagine that? I didn’t tell my mom or my brother though.

He wrote to me several times a week; articulate, even eloquent letters about the life he hoped to build with me. He was surprisingly tender for a statutory rapist, demonstrating an unexpected grasp of modern literature and expressing a desire to study to be an English teacher when he got home. And he ardently expressed his love for me on a regular basis. But, over time, his letters also betrayed a sense of a different sort of war than my father fought. There was cynicism. A lot of drugs. And reports of soldiers running amok and killing civilians. And their own officers. He sent me a peace symbol that I wore around my neck, and black and white photos of his time there. I still have them.

The Vietnam war ground on, despite assurances that we were winning and reports that the body counts of the Vietcong vastly exceeded those of our own troops (reports which, had they been true, would have meant we had killed every man, woman and child in Vietnam twice over). It seemed to me that every week our local paper, the Herald American, had a photo on its front page of another of our hometown boys who weren’t going to be coming home. And, at my high school, we were asked to pray for the soul of the brother of one of our classmates whose helicopter was shot down during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

My mother’s opposition to the war grew quietly, imperceptibly. She was busy raising her kids and working all the overtime she could get, often putting in twelve to fourteen hours days five days a week, plus Saturday and, occasionally Sunday. But events in her own house were about to cause her to have to make a stand.

It all started with Dirty Dave. He was a gentle, artistic soul who had been working as an apprentice carpenter and harboured dreams of one day studying to become an architect. His father seemed to think he was useless and effeminate and, in a desperate bid to win his approval, Dave had enlisted in the Marines. It was something he almost immediately regretted and, as the antiwar movement started to gather pace, Dirty Dave became convinced that the war in that far corner of Southeast Asia was immoral. He was in a terrible way when he came to stay with my brother during a short leave before he was due to ship out to Vietnam; and he agonised over what to do. The short leave turned into a very long leave, and then into absence without leave and then into desertion, which, in law, was a felony.

My mother noticed that he hadn’t left on the day he said he was going, or on the day after that or the day after that. After a while she knew what was going on. By allowing Dave to stay with us, she was aiding and abetting a felony but, faced with the choice of assisting his conscientious resistance or sending him back to fight that useless war, my mother, quietly and without any fanfare, chose to let him stay.

After awhile Bear, who had already travelled from gang culture to the peace and love of hippiedom, was convinced that the war in Vietnam was both immoral and racist. He wrote a passionately argued letter to his superiors making the case for his refusal to fight. And suddenly we had two war resisters sleeping on our sofas.

The antiwar movement was, by then, a vast network of activist organisations across the country, and we were able to make contact with the Unitarian Church in Whittier who were giving resisters sanctuary and helping them get to Canada. Commandeering my mother’s car, Dirty Dave and Bear I drove to the church with Dave at the wheel (I didn’t yet have a driver’s licence) to find out what could be done for them. The church agreed to help them both and we drove back, full of hope that the situation was going to be resolved very soon. But at an intersection on the way home a car turned left in front of us, Dave slammed on the brakes and a moment and a squeal later we hit the other car.

Dave got out and made sure no one was hurt. The woman in the car went to a payphone to call the police and Bear disappeared quietly into a crowd of passers-by. I looked up and saw that Dirty Dave was as white as a sheet in a laundry detergent commercial.

“Okay,” he said, “We’re going to wait till she’s in the phone booth and then we’re going to get the hell out of here.”

In a flash we were racing down the road in a dented car and all I could think was that we had left the scene of an accident! Could we really get away with this? It turned out we couldn’t.

The woman had obviously taken down the licence plate number because it didn’t take more than an hour or two before my mother tapped at my bedroom door and said, “There are some policemen here who want to talk to you.”

When I came out to the alley behind my house where the dented car sat side by side with two police cars, I saw Dirty Dave in handcuffs being put into one of them. He spent ten days in the County Jail for leaving the scene and was then handed over to the Marines where he was court-martialed, put on probation and returned to his unit.

My mother was on the FBI radar now. Our phone made strange noises, leading us to believe, rightly, that it had been tapped. Two men in business suits sat outside our house in a construction worker’s truck. (They couldn’t at least disguise them in work clothes?) But, although her car insurance premiums went through the roof after that, she accepted the situation with grace. It had been the right thing to do and she would do it again.

By the time the war in Southeast Asia was over I was finishing college at UCLA. Although I was out there protesting with the rest of them over the invasion of Cambodia and the secret war, I couldn’t help notice that almost no one that I met there knew anyone personally who had served in Vietnam. What I didn’t know was that this was America’s supposedly non-existent class divide. There were those who were reasonably well off, the ones who got their college deferments and never got drafted in the first place. And then there were the rest; guys like my brother’s friends, who hung out in the graffittied alley behind our house, under the lighted sign that said Welcome to Bellflower, the Friendly City – which someone had thrown a rock through years before and that no one had bothered to repair.

Bear managed to evade military justice for nearly a year before he was arrested and sent to Leavenworth. Sweet, lovely Rick came back with a serious heroin addiction. My brother Keith had a breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital at Travis Air Force Base. And Squirrel never came back at all.

Dirty Dave eventually absconded to Canada, married and had three children. he never became an architect. Years later, unbearably homesick, he returned to the United States with his family and turned himself into the local Marine base. They sent him away without bothering to even arrest him. No one wanted to know about the Vietnam war any more.

When Gypsy came back from the war I met him at the airport. During the year he had been in Vietnam he had grown as passionately pro-war as I had become anti-war. The relationship collapsed before we got to the parking lot. I later burned all his love letters, and the poem he’d written for me.

War scarred my generation in a different way than it scarred our parents’ generation. And we lost our innocence along the way. We went in as idealists, armed with certainties, ready to shape the future in our own image while making an extended party of our adolescence. We came out, in the words of Joni Mitchell, as “ageing children.”

The last time I saw Gypsy was the day I graduated from UCLA. My mother asked me to go and get the car washed (she never wanted anything important to happen in a dirty car). As I stood watching my mother’s car go through the revolving brushes of Flan’s Car Wash on Bellflower Boulevard, a familiar profile caught my eye. We greeted each other cordially and he introduced me to his kids and to his wife: the woman he'd been charged for having sex with years before, and who was now absolutely bursting with their next child. He hadn’t gone to college. He hadn’t become an English teacher.

But then again, I don’t suppose that he, or any of the others, was meant to.

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