Spilled Whiskey in a New House

I was three years old. My parents sat quietly, hunched at the kitchen table in the late hours of the warm summer day. They partly blocked the arched entry to the unfinished living room where I was playing. My child‘s mind didn’t register whatever they had been discussing, but I knew something wasn’t right. Mother seemed different, her eyes red and droopy. She was drinking an amber liquid from a tall iced glass that she refilled from a bottle. Dad didn’t have a glass. He sat facing Mom, his voice soft and cajoling, but Mom clumsily waved him off.

Wham! Dad’s fist slammed the table, rattling the house and shocking me out of my reverie. He shouted harsh words as I watched his face turn deep red, transforming him into a monster before my eyes. I hadn’t experienced such anger before, nor been so afraid. This was scarier than the shrieking locomotives that rumbled through crossings and sent me into uncontrollable screams of my own. This was the safe and familiar becoming as terrifying as the strange.

When Mom didn’t respond he snatched the bottle and began pouring it out on the floor. Mom shrieked and tried to wrestle it back. The violent scene frightened me. I had to get away, but I was afraid to squeeze passed him. Screwing up my courage, I ran for it.

Whoa! I was in flight. My feet skidded on the lake of whiskey. Mom reacted with surprising speed, letting go of the bottle she reached for me. She caught me by the roof of my open mouth. Her fingers tasted like the whisky smelled, acrid and sickening, as she swung me by my head up onto her lap. Technically, I was safe, cocooned in her arms, but nauseous from the aftertaste. As each blamed the other for my near accident, I tried to hide from the rowdy chaos by jamming my face into Mother’s bosom.

That’s my earliest memory of Mom drinking and Dad’s yelling tirades. I don’t know when she started, but it couldn’t have been too long before that episode. Although I never saw her quite so drunk again, a stiff iced tea was never far from Mom’s hand. Only a few months before, they had moved my younger sister and me into that house that smelled of sawdust and fresh paint. It was outside of Chicago, where we had been living. Our new house was in the semi-rural village of Wood Dale.

Move-in day was March 15, 1955. As she brought in a box, Mom suddenly went into labor. Dad had to drive us all to the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. We waited for her outside the delivery room. Susan became my second sister.

Darlene was nineteen months younger than me. Sisters Joy and Debby followed in close order. Amy came much later, in 1964, giving Mom a welcome break from the maternity ward. Our growing family kept Mom busy. Dad commuted to work. When he got back he slaved to finish our home. It took years before a stairwell replaced the roughhewn ladder to the upstairs bedrooms. That was for the girls. As the only boy, I had a bedroom all to myself downstairs.

At first the new house unsettled me. It was a messy place, tools and piles of lumber everywhere, quite a transition from where we’d came from.  Grandpa and Grandma’s two-story Chicago apartment building had offered snug comfort. They owned the building. Grandma’s sister lived on the lower floor. She had two daughters a few years older than me that I liked to play with. I looked forward to visiting them in the city.

If squalling sisters in an unkempt house was hard on me, it was harder on Mom. In a time before disposable diapers, she washed out shitty cloth diapers in the toilet before dumping them in the antique washer. It had a hand crank wringer. On sunny days, she hung the laundry out on the clothesline. Keeping an immaculate home was beyond her and she made no such pretention. It galled her, however, to see the showcase, well kept homes of other wives, especially that of her sister-in-law, Lorraine.

Lorraine had married Dad’s twin brother two years before her own wedding. She had an equal number of children and vibrated with nervous energy. Mom asked her the obvious question.

“How do you manage to keep up with the kids and do all the dusting and vacuuming?”

“Oh, I don’t get to it very regularly.”

Her pretense at effortless housework irked Mom, because Loraine had a wall full of Hummel figurines that never showed a speck of dust. A competitive rift developed between the two women that prevented our families remaining close. Mom threw a fit whenever Dad suggested visiting and they almost never came to our house. After about age nine I no longer saw my cousins on Dad’s side.

Mom was born in 1930, the start of the Great Depression. As an only child, doted on by her father, she never went hungry or wanted for clothing. Her father scrambled for odd jobs after each lay-off, but they always had a roof over their heads. Her mother insisted that she’d been overprotected, spoiled by my Grandfather.

Straight from high school, she’d gone to nurse’s school. Living in a dormitory with a strict dress code—no lipstick, rouge or late nights. The student nurses had to be checked in early, so she hadn’t dated, or gotten out much before she met Dad. She met him a few months before she graduated.

Dad was fresh out of the Navy and her flirty patient, in for routine tests. Would she like to go out with him? She hesitated, unimpressed. He was an old man in her eyes. The six years age difference seemed too much, but she finally agreed. He had a car. She saw him as a ride, a chance to get out of her narrow confines.

Mom had another suitor, who was technically her boyfriend. He came by her house with roses and sweets, but he never won over her mother. She disapproved of that “dumb Polack.”

My dad, however, impressed her mom. He seemed a nice Protestant boy, beginning a career as a draftsman. Mom married him immediately after graduating as a Registered Nurse. I was born less than a year later.

Mom had gone with the flow and it all happened so fast. One day she woke up to the fact that she’d never had any independence, a life of her own. She went from a sheltered inexperienced girl, to wife and mother, without a chance to “kick up her heels,” as she put it. Some of her friends called and wrote, telling her of adventures and vacations without a passel of kids in tow.

Hidden resentments bottled up, slow cooking deep within her. She couldn’t talk about them. Of course not! There was no good reason for her ill feelings. Mother began nursing her secret rage with whiskey. Its medicinal effect may have cushioned life’s blows until the inevitable volcanic explosion set them loose from time to time.

Dad wasn’t a drinker. He had the occasional beer, but usually fell asleep if he had two. He’d emerged unscathed from the war, although he’d been through fierce sea battles. They were expendable. Off Okinawa his ship faced waves of kamikazes. As a gunner he helped shoot some down before they reached the juicer targets in the main convoy. All in all he enjoyed his time in the Navy, the most exciting time of his life.

One day he brought home our first black and white television. The best father-son bonding times we had were watching “Victory at Sea” and “Navy Log.”Dad didn’t normally watch much TV, but Sunday night, when these programs aired, he left off his busy work and sat on the floor with me in the living room. Mom and my sisters didn’t usually join us. That kind of thing didn’t interest them. They wandered elsewhere in the house, doing ‘girl stuff’ as I supposed.

The stories of desperate combat captivated Dad and me. It was the only times I saw his eyes light up. He explained what he remembered of those Pacific battles: the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Great Marianna Turkey Shoot,” the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which “had been a damn close thing,” as he remembered it.

During commercials he’d wrestle with me on the rug.

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Essaouira, Morocco. Thursday, March 20, 1975

“I’m going,” I told her. “Will you join me, or stay here?”
“Just go then!” She finally screeched. “Maybe I‘ll come later. Just give me a few goddamn days!”
“You mean you‘ll meet me in Marrakesh?” I knew we’d never find each other in the Atlas Mountains.
“Yeah, I could meet you there.” She thought a moment before adding. “How about I meet you in Marrakesh on your birthday? That‘ll give you a few days in your precious mountains. We can celebrate your big twenty-three by smoking a bowl of hash together.”
That was a hopeful signal. She didn’t want to end our relationship.
Nancy and I had been staying in the quiet, Oceanside town deep in Morocco for over a week. She loved it, but I felt we had been too long in this city. The Atlas Mountains beckoned. That was a place I wanted to explore before we moved on across North Africa to Egypt. I
Arguing long into the night, Nancy and I finally agreed that we both needed a break from each other. Since our first, electrically charged meeting at Bob’s house, two months ago, we had been together every day. They were hard charging days of traveling rough across Europe. Our nights full of passionate love, the wildest sex, bonded us into a team. We traveled on a shoestring, camping in caves, in the snow and abandoned barns. It was romantic as hell, our hot bodies enflamed each other despite the winter weather. Where would I ever find such a tigress of a woman? Our mutual desire led us to this Oceanside town in Morocco, but we‘d hit an impasse. Did we need a break, or to break up?
A brief separation would give us the space to see whether we should remain together, or break loose to pursue our individual destinies. Nancy worried me. She seemed to be settling in for an extended stay. She hung out in the cafes and disappeared long hours with strangers who got her high. I was an open-minded guy, torn between wanting an open relationship and my selfish jealousy.
Savvy travelers had told me that the best way to get to the Atlas was via Marrakesh, 176 kilometers away. The previous night I’d insisted on it.
My birthday was on the 26th in seven days. This was the 20th of March. If I left early in the morning, it gave me six full days before our projected rendezvous. Time enough, I hoped, for a peek at the Mountains and the people who lived there. This was my chance to explore on my own, but in the era before cell phones, or any telephone service in the high Atlas, a lot could go wrong.
Our traveling companion, Gerhard, had been to Morocco several times. He gave us the name of a popular Riad or cheap hotel, right off Djemma el Fna, the main square. It was popular with young backpackers and easy to find. A good point of reference. I intended to live on the cheap, camp in the mountains. In town I was assured I could crash with westerners I met.
This jaunt through Morocco was just a side trip on the grand adventure I envisioned. It was to be a journey across Africa and the Middle East to India that I had been planning for years. The later part was to be a pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines and teachers, from which, I imagined, I might never return. But the first part was all adventure. I admired the Nineteenth Century British explorer Richard Burton. With my more limited resources, I wanted travel as he had. He wasn’t a mere tourist, insulated among his own kind, with all the prejudice of the colonial mindset. He dressed, ate and mingled with the people of country, learning their languages and ways. He was the first true anthropologist.
Rising earlier than the sun, gingerly extracting myself from Nancy’s still sleeping side; I dressed hurriedly in the dark room. Without waking her, I put all my mixed, confused and compromised feelings aside, as I grabbed my ready packed rucksack. It was lighter now. I’d be leaving Nancy’s extra stuff, which I’d been carrying, as well as most of mine, behind. As the first hint of light infused the horizon outside our open window, the tinny Muslim call to prayer broke the silence to waft over the city. I quietly descended the stairs. All precious silence dissipated as I ran into our landlady.
“Where you going?” She asked suspiciously eyeing my pack. She had begun her morning chores, ordering her sons about, splashing buckets of water to clean the floors, sidewalks and courtyards around her building. She immediately took me to task. “You skip out on rent?”
“No, no!” I assured her. “I’ll be back in plenty of time and anyway, my companions are still here.”
Out the door and down the street, I finally gave in to my exultation.
“Hooray!” Was as much a sigh of relief as a battle cry for what lay ahead.
I strode purposefully across town, ignoring the smoggy square where the buses rendezvoused with paying passengers. I was checking the feasibility of hitchhiking in this country. With limited funds, I was bound to see as much of the world as I could. In fact, I was convinced that I’d see more of it than the better off tourists, who stayed isolated from regular people in expensive hotel ghettos. They saw only what the tour operators showed them, whereas I rubbed shoulders with the common folk.
I’d first heard of Marrakesh in the song “Marrakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills and Nash back in 1969. It was just a name to me then. I’d had no idea that it was a real place until years later. Fabled Marrakesh was on the adventurous hippie trail. Now I was going there, although hardly by Express. Hitchhiking, I depended on the grace of strangers.
Alone and distaining the bus conductors, who tried to wave me aboard. I walked through the city gate to the eastbound highway. Whenever I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle I stuck out my thumb. I was excited. The real adventure had begun.
Or so I thought, but only an empty road greeted me as I trudged on. An hour passed and then another with nary a ride. I counted only six cars total, none of them even slowing down. It was still early, I thought cheerfully. Kilometer after kilometer went by as the sun rose ever higher. The passing traffic consisted of an occasional Arab riding a donkey piled with an impossibly high load.

This is a TEST: First Blog

Death stares me in the face. Nothing new there, we’re all going to die and sooner than we want. What do we leave? Most of us leave little behind. Our hopes, dreams, and things we wanted to accomplish, mostly fade with our friend’s poor memories. If unrecorded, that is. It is a challenge to leave something for the next generations. Whether it helps them, it may at least entertain.
Be True to Dr. Memoir-y. This blog is a first stab at that.

My face is the me of 1975, in Afghanistan. I had just hitchhiked across North Africa from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to Egypt. Then I worked in the copper mines of the Negev Desert for a little scratch, before making my way through the Middle East on a pilgrimage to Nepal.