Thursday, February 05, 2009

"You'll be a man my son!"

By Brian Saltern

One day when I was five years old, Dad and I were in the back yard on Hay Street sprucing up for spring. Suddenly he issued his command: "Brad, go under the house and turn the water off to the hose."

The hard-to-reach spigot lay beneath the back of the house inside a small trap door. Proud of being entrusted with this important chore, I dropped to my knees and crawled through the opening. Immediately the mangy, dirt floor space sprang to life. Daddy long-legs darted for darkness, wasps and hornets buzzed from nests, spiders scurried up webs affixed to crumbling plaster walls, slithering snails slinked away as I struggled to turn the rusted metal faucet.

As the spigot slowly budged, the sound of rushing water grew louder. Confused, I turned in the opposite direction. Again, the garden hose sounded like it was gushing harder. Back the other way.

"What are you doing?" Dad yelled. "What the hell's taking you so long?"

Perspiration stung my eyes making them tear as I tried moving the spigot in the opposite direction. The roar of water sounded like Niagara Falls. Anxious and panicking, I struggled to reverse direction.

Dad had a very short fuse. "TURN THAT DAMN SPIGOT OFF!"

As cobwebs tickled my ears and bees circled menacingly I grew more flustered, more confused. Finally, dad stooped down, pushed me aside and reached through the opening turning the spigot off. He grumbled loudly to himself, "the damn kid can't even turn a spigot off! I cringed in embarrassment.

Dad never let me forget that day. In Little League baseball, whenever I made an error, loud and relentless razzing roared up from his seat in the bleachers.

“Hey major leaguer, you can’t even turn a spigot off.”

It happened so often that LLB officials eventually barred him from attending my games. But during midget football games torrential bursts of his criticism from the sidelines would make me cry in the huddle.

A "B" in math, a glass accidentally breaking, tripping down the stairs, no matter what mistake I made, dad summed my abilities with that same caustic refrain: “He can’t even turn a damn spigot off.”

In high school even though I had become a star, it still continued. In the midst of co-captaining our championship basketball season one day after school, Dad confronted my basketball coach, Dick Eckert, and in a fit of rage demanded he take my uniform away. The coach not only refused but also chastised him for even suggesting it. Still, anytime Dad determined that I'd played poorly, the next day a terse note would appear on the kitchen table: "all privileges revoked... no allowance... no use of the car." A

And all too many mornings, with my bedroom over the kitchen, I’d hear him curse to my mother, "the damn kid can't even turn a spigot off!"


A week before my high school graduation I was rummaging through old term papers when I came across a crumpled, smudged index card. I had written down a list of goals the summer before seventh grade -- a skinny, 80-pound, 12-year-old boy's fondest hopes and dreams for the years ahead.

Amazingly they'd all come true: I was MVP of one of the best football teams in Wilson High School's history, nominated for All State honors. Member of the Honor Society. Popular as part of the school's ruling clique. And since that first day in seventh grade, Suzie Clarke, the cute co-captain of the cheering squad had been my girlfriend.

The next morning, Friday, June 7, 1963, I bounded down the carpeted stairs of our modest half-double home only to find Mom standing at the gas stove, red-eyed and visibly upset. Before I could ask, she angrily blurted out, "Your father hasn't come home!"

I inhaled a large portion of fried eggs and crisp bacon. "What do you mean? Where is he?"

"I have no idea. The bastard went out last night and hasn't returned," she swore through clenched teeth.

I stopped eating. "What? You don't know anything?"

"No, not a damn thing. I hope to hell he stays away for good."

In spite of my protests, my mom sent me off to school and commencement rehearsal. As classmates laughed and traipsed around the school auditorium, I remained in a stupor, stunned and confused. Had Dad finally done it? Just split and fuck the consequences. When rehearsal ended, I hurried home.

As I turned onto Hay Street, Mom drove up in our '57 Chevy and parked in front of our house.

Dad exited the passenger seat looking drawn, ashen-faced and sheepishly hurried inside padding upstairs to his bedroom. "What happened?"

"The rotten bastard spent the night in jail," Mom replied.

"What? Why?"

"He was arrested last night on a morals charge downtown in the circle. Let the bastard himself tell you what happened." She refused to say anything more.

Hearing about his night in jail, my sister Janie screamed, "What... how could he… oh my god … our lives are ruined … everyone knows us… how can I ever face my friends?"

Mom, cursing under her breath, stormed up to her bedroom (she and dad hadn't shared a bed in years). I plunked down on the front porch and wondered. Was my sister right? Were our lives totally ruined?

All afternoon dad remained secluded in his bedroom. Though desperate to learn what he'd done, I avoided upstairs like the plague. When I was 13, he’d caught me leafing in wide-eyed wonder at pictures of scantily-clad women in one of his "men's" magazines. I was sternly forbidden to do so again. But I had noticed the way my Dad’s eyes would sometimes follow a well-endowed female walking down the street and it embarrassed me to no end.

Later that afternoon the local daily, The Easton Express, landed with a thud on the front porch. I quickly paged through it, hoping there'd be no mention of his arrest. It didn't take long to find the article. My heart sank. On page 8, the bold type announced: "Wilson Man Arrested on Morals Charge" - a headline anyone merely glancing through the paper would jump to read. It didn't mention what he'd done.

That night I had a date for a prom. Lou Ann, a leggy, pretty, blonde cheerleader from Easton High School had asked me and every day since would pick me up after school in her new, baby blue, Triumph convertible and drive me home (Dad stated that he couldn't for the life of him understand what she saw in me).

Because of this scandal, I certainly did not want to go to the prom and told my Mom I was going to cancel my date.

Mom sternly replied, “ I won’t hear of such talk. You are going and we are living our lives as if this never happened."

Yeah right. She wasn't the one who had to face everyone.

I tiptoed to the top of the stairs and turned to enter my room to get dressed when Dad’s faint voice called out, "Brad, come here. I want to talk to you."

"I can't. I have to get ready for the prom."

"Well, get dressed in here."

I reluctantly gathered up my rented tuxedo and entered his room. Dad lay curled up in a fetal position like a helpless child on his bed. He asked me to sit down and grabbed my hand.

"I'm so sorry. You know I'd never willfully do anything to hurt you. You're all I have left. Your mother and sister will never forgive me. I want to explain so you won't be scarred by this for life."

At the mention of being scarred, my body trembled. But when Dad sobbingly told how he'd contemplated suicide all night in the jail cell but couldn't get up the nerve, my eyes misted. He needed to explain, hoping his actions could be forgiven, or at least understood.

As I started to get all dressed up in my tuxedo, Dad began his story…

Well, so, later, I remember picking up my date, handing Lou Ann a wrist corsage of yellow carnations (Mom refused to buy anything more expensive) and heading to the prom. But the rest of the night will forever remain a blank in my mind. I traveled to some far-off place while someone else on autopilot went through the motions.

Coming home later that night I discovered my high school yearbook (the signing party had taken place earlier) that my buddy Tilly had wedged between the front doors to my house. Drained and depressed, I collapsed on the front room sofa.

On the dark blue cover of our yearbook, "Les Memoires," large gold, embossed letters triumphed - "If you can meet with triumph and disaster..."

I opened the first page to the yearbook's theme: "The keys to understanding." Through a cut-out "key" stood the poem,"If," by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a man my son!

As I slowly read the poem, all the pent-up emotions and hurt came pouring out in waves. I read it over and over, tears streaming down my face. Eventually I cried myself to sleep. Innocence was gone. Becoming a man lay a long ways off.

Writer Brian Saltern is a former All-State Athlete, Haight Asbury Hippie and ‘60s Political Activitst, NYC Nightclub Promoter, Fundraiser, Recovering Addict and Spiritual Seeker. He grew up in Easton, PA, and today splits his time between New York City and Millerton, NY. He recently completed a coming-of-age memoir. This story is an excerpt from his book.


Anonymous said...

Dear Brian,

I have always enjoyed reading and listening to your stories. Keep them coming.


Carol G.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian,
I am so sorry your life was like that. I had no idea.

Country ChitChat said...

Brian, it was wonderful to meet you during the Millerton Spring for Art. I have read this excerpt from your life and can identify with some of your feelings about your father. All to often parents do not realize the impact they have on their children. With a small adjustment your story could have come from "We Were the Mulvaneys" or my own searching for Dad's approval in my younger days. You are a talented writer as well as a promising painter. Hope to see you again soon. Marti Steed

Viviane Moos said...

I too am sorry that your young life was scarred by your father's ugly disappointment in himself. I am sorry that he let it out on you instead of lifting you up and giving you the support and approval that everyone needs in order to be strong. Well written and poignant. Thanks. Viviane