Tag Archives: storytelling

Camping

Originally posted September 3rd, 2014

When I was nine years old my father and I set out on the most epic camping trip of all time. It was equal parts pilgrimage, catharsis, and adventure with two or three parts of either dogged determination or sheer stupidity. It was the 70s, it was harder to tell the difference between the two back then.

Cumberland Island, Georgia: excellent camping, history, and pretend gun-fights

My father was leaving my mother, for good this time, and driving from northern California to Miami, Florida. My mother had fled Florida for California a year earlier, forcing my father to quit his job and follow her in an attempt to keep our family together. Now, he was returning home, and the timing was perfect, because along the way he was going to go camping in Georgia with the school where he used to teach (and I used to attend). I got to go along for the ride, as long as I promised to come back.

My dad had a 1970s VW pickup truck. Basically, a VW bus that had been chopped to turn it into a truck. VWs were the antonym of reliable back in the 70s, and this truck was as unreliable as they came. My father kept it running with willpower alone, and this is the vehicle we were going to drive across the United States. We had no chance.

The first time we broke down was in Arizona. Not even one state from our starting point. Although to be fair, California is so long that we had already traveled a few east coast states.

Somewhere in Texas we picked up a hitchhiker to keep my dad company and help with the driving. It was the 70s, things were different back then.

We only made it halfway through Texas before the truck broke down again, and this time my dad opted to rent a car and tow his truck to his parent’s house in Miami, our final destination. The camping trip started the next day, and we were going to be there.

The only catch was, we had no car, he had little cash, and my grandparents weren’t about to spring for much of either. So we took a train from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. And then we hitchhiked to Cumberland Island – a mere 50 miles. But what I remember is standing on an onramp with my dad, backpacks at our feet and thumbs out for every car that passed.

I only remember one car picking us up: it was from two off-duty police officers, who thought it was far out that my dad and I had some so far to make this camping trip and they took us across state lines to make sure we made it. Along the way they shared a few laughs with my dad, and a couple of joints as well. It was the 70s…

By the time we got to Georgia I had a minor case of pinkeye and we were too late to catch the last ferry to the island. We slept under the sign for the ferry that night, camping in the wide open. It was here, in the dark Georgia night, under the sign for the ferry that we met Yogi, a travelling German doctor who just happened to have some ointment to cure pinkeye in his huge backpack. He told me that my eyes would be sensitive, so he also gave me his conductor’s cap to keep the sun out of them.

When we got to the island the next day, it was epic! Everyone was fired up to see us. They had huge tents set up, and I was excited to see friends I had been torn away from more than a year ago. No sooner had we set foot in the campground then it started raining buckets, confining us to the tents. We had a ball, playing like I hadn’t played with other kids in months.

That night, while we slept, raccoons snuck into our food tent and ate everything. I mean everything. Over 30 kids and 6 adults with not a bite to eat and no place to buy it on the island.

I was starving, and riding the ferry back to the mainland I managed to guilt a couple into giving me and my friends all of their camping leftovers – with nothing but my puppy dog eyes.

The trip home was far more anticlimactic. The Loblolly crew gave us a ride to Jacksonville, and from there we took the train to Miami.

It was the last big adventure I had with my dad before he got married and started family 2.0. It marked a major turning point in our entire family’s lives, and the last time I’d get to spend so much time with him, just he and I. It may sound hellish, but it was heaven to me.

Funny thing, I always thought that this was what life was like in the 70s: hitchhiking, sleeping in parking lots, living on the road. I thought that it was simply a different time. But the older I get the more I realize that it wasn’t just that 70s that were different, my family was pretty freaky, too.

Regrets

Originally posted December 11th, 2013

When my parents got divorced, my mother hooked up with my father’s sister’s ex-husband, whom I’d always known as “Uncle Steve.” If you spent 15 minutes in the same room as my mother, you’d see why I accepted this as completely normal behavior.

Uncle Steve was a pot-growing Viet Nam veteran who had lost his voice in ‘Nam when a hand grenade ripped open his throat, implanted enough shrapnel in his knee to set off every metal detector he ever met, and left him dead in the MASH unit for over 3 minutes. Everyone else called him “Whispering Steve”, and I quickly made the switch myself

I’d always seen Steve as a fantastic father to his two sons, and in the father figure vacuum left by my parents’ divorce, I didn’t see it so much as losing an uncle as gaining a dad.

Steve’s brush with death in ‘Nam had given him a joie de vivre that bubbled over into every part of his life. He always wanted there to be some magic in the world for the kids around him, and made being a parent look fun, if not effortless.

He didn’t just read bedtime stories at night, he made up stories featuring me and my brother-cousins as the heroes: flying around on jet packs, battling orcs with light sabers.

He made discovery fun, and made everyone a winner. I will never forget the first time I saw the Golden Gate bridge, thanks to Steve. We were driving South on 101, and he announced that he’d give a Hershey’s bar to the first kid who could spot the bridge. We were all bouncing around the back seat of the car, craning our necks and scanning the horizon for that first glimpse, trying to be the first. And as soon as we came through the Rainbow tunnel, bam! All 3 of us saw it at the same time.

“Heh, heh: Candy bars for all 3 of you, I guess!”

Steve’s 2 sons spent most of their time with their mom, my aunt. And when they were out of town, I got the majority of his attention. We’d stay up late on Friday nights, watching Creature Features on KTVU. And when he got tired of me hiding under the covers when the zombies attacked in Night of the Living dead, he hauled me 20 miles to the nearest movie theater for opening night of some movie I’d never heard of. He bought me anything I wanted from the snack bar, and as the movie was about to start he said, “If you get up and leave the theater it will be the last movie I ever bring you to. Just remember: none of this is real, all of the actors are still alive. It’s all make believe.”

The movie was Alien, and I was 11 years old. After that, I was the horror-film king of 4th grade.

After he and my mom broke up, he remained a good uncle to me. In college, when I needed refuge from the hubbub of life in the big city, he’d let me come party at his house for the weekend. In 2000, when I decided to attend Burning Man for the first time – even though all of my friends insisted it was “so over” and “totally dead” by then – I went to Steve for help building the interactive art piece I took to the desert and placed in front of our camp. He stood at one end of the band saw, cigarette dangling from his mouth as always.

Less than half a year later, Steve was dying of lung cancer. I’d seen him at the VA hospital in SF when he got the prognosis. It wasn’t good. I made a pilgrimage up to his house, 3 hours North of SF, to spend the weekend and see him one last time. Before I went, I wrote him a letter, thanking him for all of the ways he had helped make me a better person over the years.

When I saw him, I gave him the letter, but I couldn’t stand the sight of him. He was so shrunken, so small. The cancer had eaten away at him, reduced his body to a shell of its former self. He was still bright and vibrant, but when I looked at him all I saw was his impending death.
I hung out at his house for the afternoon, then went back to a friend’s house for dinner. My mom pointed out that Steve felt like I’d already written him off, that he was already gone. I wanted to explain to him that I was just shocked by it all, so I walked the mile over to Steve’s house – remember, pot farm country: pitch black , dirt road, no street lights. It took me straight back to when I was 11, walking that same road without a flashlight, worried that a bear would get me.

Steve was asleep when I got to his house, exhausted from the day. As I walked back to where I was staying, I announced to the universe that I was ready to get on with my life – I was ready to meet her, if she was out there. The next night, back in SF, I met the love of my life, Michele, at a fundraising party for a Burning Man camp.

13 years later, we have an 8-year old son, who believes there is lots of magic in the world. He’s been told bedtime stories about flying around California strapped to a jet-pack, battling orcs with light sabers, and he still hides his head under the covers when he gets scared.

I think of Steve often, and it would be easy to regret things that were beyond my control – like him not getting to meet Michele, or seeing our long-haired son. But the truth is, I have only one regret: that I let my own fear of death stop me from looking him in the eyes and telling him how much I loved him, while it still counted.

Lost

Originally posted on October 15th, 2013

I was born in Miami, Florida, which is so far South that it’s not The South – it’s more like the Caribbean. But I spent a few extremely formative years in the mid-70’s living in Gainesville, Florida, a city that is far enough North in Florida to be part of the American South, and carry with it all of the burdens and prejudices that entails.

As a child I was blissfully ignorant of the racial divide. My best friend in kindergarten, Rodney, was black – something I later learned was shocking at the time. And I had no historical comprehension of what it meant when we rented a big house on a plantation, and became the first white folks who lived there to ever talk to the black family of caretakers who lived in what used to be the slave quarters on the property.

All of that is backstory for the main story, which takes place when I was 7: at a party with my parents. The adults were all inside, and we kids, 6 or 7 of us, ages 5 to 10, all white, were playing out in the street, looking for adventure.

In Gainesville in the 70’s there used to be a decommissioned fighter jet-turned play-structure out front of the military base. It was AWESOME. I knew right where it was, and thanks to the great sense of direction I’ve had all of my life: I was sure I knew exactly how to get there.

It didn’t take much work on my part to get the other kids on board with my plan, and soon we were off: a gaggle of kids happily making our way through the neighborhood streets of Gainesville towards a happy destination.

We made our way easily enough, me happy to be leading and blissfully ignorant as the neighborhood started to turn. I didn’t have an eye for the subtle change as we quickly became the minority. As we started to stand out, as we became the only white faces for blocks in any direction.

The other kids started to get nervous, and a couple of them even turned around and headed back to the party. I assured the rest of them that there was nothing to be worried about: I knew right where I was going, and we were close, we were almost there. A few more blocks, and then we had to be close.

When the neighborhood kids started to follow us, the rest of my group wanted to turn around, even though I still didn’t see a reason to, but by then it was too late.

“What are you doing here, whitey?” they yelled.

“Why you in our neighborhood? You stupid? Don’t you know this is our ‘hood? Looking to get beat up?” They shouted as they quickly surrounded us, and started moving in.

Nobody had been hit yet, but it didn’t look good. I started to understand that I had made a huge mistake, but I still didn’t know how.

I refused to get scared, I couldn’t believe anything bad was really going to happen to us: these were kids, just like us, after all. And all we had done was try to walk through their neighborhood – it made no sense.

My remaining friends were scared, though, and one even started to cry. I was trying to talk rationally and reasonably to the gathered group, which wasn’t helping. And then a woman’s voice rang out above the crowd, “What you bunch of little punks doing, ganging up on these kids?!?” as a grandmotherly black woman grabbed me and my friends and pulled us into her living room.

“What on earth are you doing here,” the stern but kindly old woman asked, “are you lost or just trying to get yourselffs killed?” I tried to explain, calmly and rationally that we were just trying to walk to the jet, but she wasn’t having it. “You have no idea what you have walked in to, do you boy? They will tear you apart out there, they will beat you to death you ever come back in here like this. Where are your parents, do you have a phone number?”

I didn’t.  I hadn’t even told my parents where I was going or what my plan was. And neither of my blubbering friends did either.

“We got to get you out of here,” the old lady said, “before things get worse. Can you find your way back to where your parents are?” I could. “Then when I tell you three to run, you run all the way back to yo mommas and yo pappas, and don’t you ever come back here agin.”

And with that, she yelled at the mingling group in the street that she had called the po-lice, and they best be gettin’ back to their homes if they knew what was good for them. And when the coast was clear, she set us to running as quickly as we could back to our safe, white side of the world. It was only a few blocks until we were clear of the ‘hood, and a few more before we found our parents, frantically coming to find us. The few who had turned back had told them where we were headed.

Our parent’s relief at finding us trumped their anger at us for leaving unannounced, and we were all unharmed. On the outside, anyway.

Although I was never able to see the world the same again. I had never doubted where I was in Gainesville that afternoon, but I learned that what I was was different. Different in a way that had nothing to do with who I was or how I treated people, different in a way that could inspire hatred and violence from children who had never met me before. And learning that lesson caused me to lose a part of my innocence I could never get back.

Secrets

Originally posted September 10th, 2013

My parents were late blooming hippies. They met in the summer of ’68, still in plenty of time to latch on to the whole hippie vibe. I was born in ’69, and around that time my father joined the army.

Why he joined the army depends on who you ask. If you ask him, he’ll tell you it was because he wanted to give something back to this country that had done so much for him. My father had been forced to leave his homeland, Cuba, when he was 11 years old. He’d had everything taken from him, and in the United States he’d found a land of amazing opportunity. To this day, he swears that joining the army was his way of giving back.

My mother will tell you it was because he was looking to piss off my grandmother as much as possible, and the only thing more aggravating than marrying a gringa was to join the army and possibly get sent overseas to fight in Viet Nam.

He didn’t get sent to Viet Nam, and instead I spent the first 4 years of my life growing up on army bases around the south. Four years later, when my father’s term was up, the whole hippie thing had started to fade, and my parents had some serious catching up to do.

They bought a VW bus, which they immediately installed flowered curtains over every window in. They took off the VW symbol on the front of the bus, and replaced it with a hand-painted yellow sun. And they started smoking pot. I can still remember running into my parents’ bedroom, jumping on the bed, and nestling in with them, the bottle of Blue Nun wine (more of a jug, really), and the ashtray with the roach clip on a leather thong with wooden beads.

These moments were the pleasant balance to the times they fought, when I would have to stand between them and hold up 1 finger towards each of their mouths. My 5-year old sign that it was time to stop yelling at each other and calm down.

Early on, I thought our family was just like every other family. That we were the norm. I thought that every TV only got PBS (my parents hid the knob to change the channels, and told me that was the only channel we got) I thought every TV only got PBS until I attended a friend’s birthday party and spent the entire time glued to the screen, watching King Kong with slack-jawed awe.

I thought everybody’s dad talked to lots of other pretty women on campus whenever they went for bike rides through the local University without mom.

And I thought that everyone smoked pot. There was one time, in the Sears Roebucks, when we were looking for a specific tool my father needed. He was always working on that VW bus, it was the only way it would stay on the road. At my first show and tell in kindergarten I proudly announced that I’d spent the weekend helping my father drop the engine on our bus. He would call out the tool he needed from under the bus, and I’d dig through the tool box and hand it to him.

So there we were, in the Sears Roebucks: I was scouring the aisles, looking for the tool my father wanted when I came across a treasure trove of an entirely different kind. I’d found a bin, full of something I immediately recognized: “Hey, dad, check it out: Roach clips!” I shouted at full volume across the tools section.

He ran over and quieted me down, quickly acknowledging what I’d found, and informing me that I was never to call them that in public. “In public,” he said, “we call them alligator clips.”

“But why?”

And that was when I found out that our family was different. Our family had secrets.  And I was tasked with keeping them.

When my mother threw the 5-gallon gas can at my father in the midst of their last fight, calling him all sorts of names and unaware that I was watching from in hiding behind our car – I knew that stayed with me.

When my mother started dating my father’s sister’s ex-husband after my father left us, I knew I couldn’t call him uncle Steve anymore. At least, not in public.

By the time uncle Steve moved us to a 120-acre plot of land in Mendocino County to start his own pot farm, I was an old hand. I knew the drill. (He’s dead now, and all of the ex-partners from that venture have moved on, so I can talk about it without fear of being hunted down)

And in my teenage years, when my mother would call me into her room to drunkenly lament how our father, or uncle Steve, or Cincinnati Jim, or whoever had let her down: I would hope that this was only my secret, and that my brother wouldn’t have to shoulder this burden once I went to college.

When I met my wife, we both agreed that we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of our divorced parents. We committed to do all of the things right that they had so gloriously done wrong. We have an 8-year old son, and he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.

I view that as a sign of stellar parenting.