The Rationales: Part One
There once was a brave soul that felt this certain woman, a lady who’d dropped out of college, who had two jobs to house and feed two children, that she could make his life more worth living. The woman in this circumstance, or predicament, is sometimes called a ready-made family. He decided this lady a full 364 days his junior that could fill out his existence somehow beyond what future paths he’d previously considered. He spot something about that woman with flour up to her elbows emerging from that dungeon hearth of a kitchen to receive deliveries, something that told him this woman was a lady he could make plans with, craft and draft a curriculum that lead them from near squalor in a tiny Tennessee town to the academic prowess of professors by profession at a state school in the mid-west, right smack dab in the storybook stormy heart of Tornado Alley.
The man married the woman in the front room of the house across the street from the doorway they’d met in, the house with the stack of men’s magazines buried beneath the cement path outside, the house with the former slave quarters still intact in the basement, rusty bars of the man cage held open with a cinder block, bare bulb dangling in the room with the wood frame of a cot the cloth rot out of long ago and a couple metal rings mounted into the wall that looked borrowed from some vaudeville dungeon prisoner sketch. A voluntary promise of hope, trust, and consensual accountability made one floor above a storage room with a history of distrust and involuntary servitude.
Long before this man met my Mom and took quite the shining to her, took her and her rug rats to meet his Mom, he’d been in the military, the Navy specifically. He’d joined and served until someone in charge noticed he limped when he got tired, sent him to the clinic, and they discovered he’d survived polio as a child. He received a medical discharge, and got relegated to the kitchens for the interim weeks while the heaving behemoth that is military bureaucracy processed his paperwork and sent him home on a Greyhound.
Dad’s father had been a bitter sweet and mostly sour living example of that Steve Martin joke, “I like to help unwed mothers get their start...” (Wait a beat for audience to get it, then continue with bit on gas prices.) The Korean War Air Force pilot had pile-driven his way through a few wives, leaving kids behind in his wake as he left one family to run off and form another. Something akin to the wealthy patriarch Al Bundy character in TV’s Monday Night Magic (tm) Modern Family, if that character had been played by Marlon Brando circa Apocalypse Now when he showed up with his trophy wife with benefits and pair of offspring, my Step Uncle and Step Aunt, who were told to stay out of sight up in the attic bedroom my brother and I shared in that worker’s accommodations farmhouse in Telford, Tennessee. We hid out and listened for raised voices while Virgil W. Vogel’s 50’s schlock epic The Mole People played through rolling static on the vintage wood cabinet television my biological father had soldered into operational condition and dropped off a week prior to the epic visit. The TV died shortly after the visit during an episode of Gunsmoke I’ve never since seen fully resolved, and I still believe that sweet vintage cabinet would’ve made a great aquarium, sort of like the goldfish boobs on the wall of the bar area of the Delta Tau Chi House in Animal House, though for it’s couple week run provided immense entertainment for my brother and I, turning the volume up to barely audible and leaving it on until it over heated, then on again after it had cooled down. Vacuum tubes add a certain resonance to the atmosphere I quite enjoyed then.
Growing up with a single mother, two siblings, and a military presence early on before pseudo-Brando hauled anchor, grabbed his Goose and sailed for greener grass and bluer skies in the Danger Zone; no wonder my Dad joined the Navy, and no wonder he had little apparent reservations about marrying a woman with a pair of boys already pulling at her apron strings.
Dad had a footlocker full of old military gear, a jet helmet, web belt, canteen, green 50’s plastic flashlight, the kind angled like elbow macaroni, some other odds and ends. When we lived across the highway from Milligan College my pal Tim and I would run around the woods wearing that gear like Hogarth, like wannabe extras from the Cantina Scene of Star Wars. Tim making up plot lines to films he lied about seeing while I tried to envision solution to all the plot holes he perpetually introduced. His version of Raiders of the Lost Arc included a shark, which Indy fought and somehow blew up, after the scene in all the trailers on TV when he’s been punched out the front windshield of a moving army truck and catches the emblem ornament on the hood, looks smugly relieved, until the ornament breaks off in his gloved grip and we see him drop out of sight. Tim had him drop under the truck and into the ocean to apparently take out a Nazi super shark, one obviously with frikkin laser beams on its head.
I’ve always attributed that footlocker as something left behind by pseudo-Brando, thought lack any official confirmation of that line of ownership. I believe the footlocker still exists somewhere in my parents garage, tucked away for some day when Otis and I visit.
There are other toys of my Dad’s I played with and adored as a kid, most of all the Marx Toys Civil War figures my Dad had kept in his Mother’s attic in a Lincoln Logs cardboard cylinder container (hello, apt). As a kid, he’d hand painted many of them to help better infuse the figures with authenticity, their uniforms and bedrolls, added the stripe down their legs when appropriate, given ranks in the sleeves of the officers, dotted insignia on their lapels. He’d stopped short of adding blood spatter and gore to the injured soldiers intended for the stretchers between the two corps men medics, though he’d dot the stump of the amputee with some scarlet so at least I appreciated the gravity of the historical throw down as I played with the toys in the mud pit where Grandmother, aka “Mikesmom” (said as one word), had removed a selection of flowers. Those figures now live in our crawlspace, waiting for when Otis is older, my Dad handed them too me last time we visited with all the straight faced significance of handing a crown do an heir, or a kidney to a surgeon. Careful with that, meant a lot to me, rather priceless.
I suspect Dad joined the Navy because pseudo-Brando had been in the Air Force. I’ve theorized as well that since Dad had been born on a military base in Japan, perhaps he thought someday a ship my sail him past the land of his birth. I had an array of recruiters come to call, because once you talk to one the whole network springs to life, I assure you. Out of all the flibbertigibbet I heard and endured, I selected the Navy. Some part of me must have had reason, a way to better bond with my Dad, the father figure I’d finally connected with only a year earlier, while we sat at opposite ends of the same table working on separate projects after everyone else had retired to bed. He got up and wordlessly walked into the kitchen. I was home for the holiday, though this time the first time with decent grades from college. My second year of college’s grades were astoundingly better than my first (I’d nearly failed out first semester!), almost 4.0 stacked against a 2.95 my first year average. He returned from the kitchen, set something down next to my right hand, the one holding the page down I was drawing on, and went back to his end of the table. He sat down to resume grading grad student papers and I looked up to see he’d poured me a glass of Southern Comfort on the rocks, one exactly like his. We didn’t leap up and hug, we didn’t hop up and down confessing our mutual love at long last. I picked up the glass and held it, looking into the color of the liquid, the swirl, the bite of the alcohol into the skin of the ice, and then I looked up to see him looking back at me. He tipped and lifted his glass infinitesimally, a tick of a smile at the corner of his mouth. We stared at one another and sipped a meaningful sip, felt like a thousand tiny snakes biting my tongue, and after a second or so of soaking on my palette, I swallowed, scrunched my eyes shut. My eyes watered like Niagara before newlyweds. Inside I wanted to have a Marti Gras to celebrate this monumental moment. Instead, as I head the shuffling of papers when he resumed grading and reviewing, I drew tiny circles in an area meant to be filled with black and let the moment settle into my mind like the Southern Comfort had permeate the ruddy skin of my tongue.
My friend Reggie had been in the National Guard when I was in high school, and his weekend warrior service had helped pay his way through college. He and I were fans of films like Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Born on the 4th of July. We responded differently to them, though. I knew I didn’t want to ever be a part of a ground war. He hoped he’d never have to get out of his tank. I’ve probably mentioned before that my last night as a civilian I spent at Reggie’s place, having none of my own to go to, and he bought us beer, anything I wanted, a sort of dead man walking last meal sort of thing, and I picked the biggest can on the shelf, a Sapporo pony keg Frankenstein of a can, big enough for a couple of those Fosters motor oil cans.
Like Dad, Reggie has been a role model for me as long as I’ve known him. Whether he wanted such responsibility or not. I wanted to be a projectionist because of him, wanted to join a black fraternity because of him, a story for a different post. Stands to reason joining the military to help pay for school might have been a plan hatched from his influence. Unfortunately, like with the black fraternity, I never discussed the notion with Reggie before signing anything, and thus didn’t recognize the proverbial Tar Baby I was about to sloppily hug, not the Navy so much as the program I enlisted into. The SAM program? Utter rubbish and harder to extract one’s self from than cartoon taffy.
More on that later.