I wasn’t very old before realizing that my father had a problem with alcohol. Drunkenness can seem very different from a child’s perspective. I thought my Dad was kind of funny at times. One night we (Mom, Dad, brother Tommy and me) were out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone in the back dropped a bunch of dishes, which made a loud, shattering noise; Dad put both hands in the air as if the place was being raided.
“Let’s go for a ride, Bettye,” he kept saying to my mom one evening when he came home drunk. “Yes, let’s go for a ride,” I chimed in excitedly, thinking how fun a nighttime drive with the family would be. Maybe we were going to Swenson’s or Dairy Queen for ice cream. I was about seven and Tommy about fourteen. We were living on Minaker Drive, in a very middle-class neighborhood.
My mom and Tommy looked uncomfortable. “No, Roy, I don’t want to go for a ride,” Mom kept insisting. Dad became physical, trying to push her out the front door. “Let’s go for a ride!”
This was not Funny Drunk Dad. This was becoming scary for me. My mother and I went into my parents’ bedroom and my mom started to grab the phone. My father came charging in, cursing, and that was the fist time I ever heard him say the F-word. I ran out, and my mom tried to, but he grabbed her. The next thing I knew, they were in the entry hall again, where he proceeded to try and get her to “go for a ride,” by pushing her toward the front door.
As they struggled, I cowered in the living room just around the corner. All of a sudden I heard the tearing of sweatshirt material. I came around the corner to see him ripping my mother’s sweatshirt and bra off. I saw Tommy quickly disappear down the hallway to their bedroom. I later found out he was going to call the police from the phone in my parents’ room; something he couldn’t do from the kitchen where our dad would have tried to stop him.
My father chased my topless mother out into the front yard. He had grabbed a towel and was winding it up and snapping her with it. The cracking noise sounded like lightning in the quiet night air. He was saying derogatory, hurtful things to her. She was so concerned with covering her upper body with her arms and hands that she couldn’t fight back. I screamed and cried for him to stop. I think I even said, “Goddammit, Daddy, stop! Please! You’re hurting Mommy!”
My mother and I ran across the street to the Purcell’s house. Bea and Frank Purcell were an older couple with no kids at home. We pounded on the door, and fortunately one of them immediately let us in. My father, who had chased us across the street stood about fifteen feet from their front door and taunted my mother, saying something like, “That’s right, Bettye, go run to the neighbors, you stupid bitch,” and some other horrible things that escape my memory. He looked so menacing in the moonlight, and it all just seemed so surreal.
My mother began to panic that Tommy was still back at the house. She was afraid my father would attack him once he realized Tommy was calling the police. Fortunately the police rolled up within 5 minutes and were able to get my dad under control and go in and retrieve Tommy. While I stayed at the Purcells’ my mom went back to the house to give the police an account what had happened. I later heard her describe to the Purcells that “he stood there looking like a peanut” as the police handcuffed him in preparation for a ride down to the police station.
We stayed at the Purcells’ that night, sharing a bed in their guest room. Tommy slept on their couch. As my mother and I were getting ready for bed I saw her gazing at herself in the mirror above the dresser, and we both noticed the bloody gash she had above one of her breasts. She looked so crestfallen. As I desperately tried to erase the evening’s horrific events from my head, and tried to fall asleep, I heard my mother softly crying beside me. She had her back to me, and I touched her right shoulder, which was shaking along with the rest of her body. Her crying came in waves throughout the night, and each time, I would cry with her.
We wound up staying the next few nights with my mom’s sister Berniece and her family. While playing cards one day there, Tommy said to me with disgust, “You’re so stupid, wanting to go for a ride that night! ‘Yeah, let’s go for a ride!,’” he mocked me, while chastising me. “Don’t you know what would have happened if Mom had gone for a ride? He would have killed her, you idiot!” “I didn’t know,” I hung my head. The idea that I could have been an accessory in the death of our mother brought tears to my eyes. I felt such shame and insecurity.
Later that evening I saw my Uncle Dan say something to Aunt Berniece in a very low tone. She replied with, “Not much longer.” In the throes of my low self-esteem, I remember thinking that he was probably asking her how much longer we would be staying there. I felt like no one wanted us. In all reality, he was probably simply asking his wife when dinner would be ready.
At age seven a lot of what transpired after that was kept from me, but I do know we all went back to our lives in the same house on Minaker Drive. Dad still drank, but — at least to my knowledge — never in excess to where he did any physical harm. We had friends who would come over for cocktails, and most times things were quite jovial.
I do remember Mom tucking me into bed early one night, and she stated before kissing me goodnight that “Daddy was out and might come home D-R-U-N-K.” I thought it was interesting that she felt the need to spell it out.
On a side-note, I was a bed-wetter up until age eight. Although I didn’t wet the bed every night — my parents stopped giving me liquids after 6:00 p.m. to try and remedy the problem — my father, disgusted when I did have “accidents,” would call me “Piss Pot.” Although my father hardly ever hit me — in spite of physically abusing my mother and brother — his words and disgust with me were very upsetting. One evening as my mother tucked me in she said to me in a loving, comforting voice, “I want you to do me a favor. When you close your eyes, I want you to erase all worries and concerns from your mind. No worries, okay? Just go to sleep knowing that everything is going to be okay. I followed her advice and never wet the bed again.
As I mentioned, that horrible night when I was seven was the worst it got, at least from my perspective. But there was still plenty of dysfunction, frustration and genuine unhappiness in that house; and to this day, the sound of thick material being torn causes me discomfort; and how certain songs bring back profound memories, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman never fails to cause me to well up, perhaps because it was so popular on the radio around that time.
The absurd thing is — and much to my joy at the time — in October of 1970, a new baby joined our family.