Life, I have found, often doesn’t give us much say. We are born to parents we don’t choose, in a place we don’t know, in a time we don’t comprehend and the first thing someone does is smack us on the ass. Welcome to life, kid. And, if you’re a boy, odds are they’ll snip off the end of your dick. No wonder so many men have anger issues.
Other times, life does present us with options, which then begat decisions. While many of my decisions may be filed under “well, that seemed like a good idea at the time”, in truth many of our decisions are based upon bad options from which are simply trying make the best.
The movie Argo recounted the heretofore largely unknown story of how a group of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy during the Iran hostage crisis were rescued by CIA operatives posing as a Canadian film crew. Among a host of famous lines is one where Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck were attempting to sell their idea to the Director of the CIA. The Director asked them, “Is this the best bad option you have?” “Yes, this is the best bad option.” This seems to sum up my life.
The options we have and the choices we make help direct us, but they don’t define us. We are still the same people and if we make the hard choice it can make us stronger (so goes the cliché). Frankly, I think a lot of that is off the stable floor. If a single choice makes or breaks you, odds are you’re fucked. Good decisions usually need to be strung together for their cumulative weight to make a difference. When they do, they can be powerful and change your life. However, a single bad decision can kill you.
Sometimes the right decisions are the most painful. Just because you made the best call doesn’t mean it doesn’t truly suck. When I was thirteen I was sent to a boarding school in Frederick County Maryland. It was against my will and I did not want to be there. This is the story of one decision, once chance encounter, that changed my life.
I had returned the previous summer from Southern California where I had lived with my aunt and uncle and their two high school children. There I lived for most of the second semester of my eighth grade year. The circumstances which led me to be there I have never shared.
In what was then called junior high I was bullied, somewhat mercilessly. To this day I don’t know why, other than I was an easy target. I was raised by a sometime single mom who was between marriages at the time. I didn’t fight back. I was painfully shy, too tall and rail thin. I did however, have a winning smile, bright eyes, and was a willing student popular with my teachers. (Yeah, like that helped.)
By the middle of eighth grade, I had had enough and I simply refused to go to school. My mom wasn’t sure how to handle me. I wasn’t defiant. I never gave my mom a lick of trouble. I’m not certain whether I told her I was bullied, but I don’t believe I did. I was too embarrassed. This went on for weeks and at different times she brought in my dad, whom I rarely saw in those years, and then my step dad, with whom I had been fairly close when he and my mom were married. Finally, she took me to a child psychiatrist who decided on the first visit that I needed inpatient psychiatric care. The issue, however, was there would not be an opening in the facility for probably a month.
I am not sure who thought of this first, but my mom asked her oldest sister and brother in law whether they could take me for a month. My aunt didn’t work outside the home and I would have a safe place to stay. It was quickly decided that I would fly to Los Angeles – alone – and stay with my aunt, uncle and cousins.
On the appointed day, my father took me to Dulles airport to board a United DC8 for LAX. I had never been on a plane and, in fact, had always been deathly afraid of flying (I was scared of a lot of things, back then, as I think of it). Procedures for unaccompanied minors must have been rather lax because I was neither escorted on or off the plane. I was to fly to LAX, gather my bags then find the bus to the Disneyland hotel where I was supposed to meet my Aunt who lived in Southern LA County. Somehow, I managed to pull this off with no adult supervision whatsoever. Maybe being a latch key kid had increased my level of resourcefulness.
I lived with my aunt, uncle and cousins for a few weeks and it was quickly decided that I seemed stable enough to stay with them and go to school. I was keen on the idea – anything was better than where I was. They enrolled me in a parochial school run by a Baptist Church in Whittier. It was the most welcoming place I had known. I came in the middle of the year into a place where most of the kids had known each other for years and I was treated like a long lost relative. I got back on track academically and finished my eighth-grade year and returned home in June.
By then my mom had met the man who would become husband number three. Chuck was younger than my mom by roughly a decade, had never been married, and had no idea about teens. Frankly, he was a little peculiar. This man whom I had never met was to be my new step dad in a week. Welcome home, son.
As an aside, Chuck and my mom remained married until my mom’s death in 2007. He has since remarried and is happy. We keep in touch.
Fast forward to August. We had moved to Severn, Maryland where Chuck owned a townhouse. I of course had no friends there. I did, however, find some porn magazines Chuck apparently had forgotten were stashed under the mattress in what became my room; so at least I had something to do. Even with that nightly entertainment, I was dreading the upcoming school year and we toured a collection of schools including a small protestant school down in Rockville. That of course was nowhere near Severn, but it was near enough to my grandmother’s that maybe I could live there, I thought.
As the school year started and I was yet to be enrolled anywhere, mom and Chuck decided I would go to a catholic school outside Baltimore. I decided otherwise and it became a standoff. I wanted to go down to the school in Rockville and they wanted me to go to the Catholic school near them. Chuck decided I needed good old fashioned discipline and wanted me to go to a military school.
I’m not sure how we ended up at Highland Academy in western Maryland, but it was an Adventist Boarding School. It was in an idyllic location, I will grant you that, but I didn’t want to be there either. I had one single minded goal, and in the elastic mind of a 13 year old it was achievable: to go to school at Temple Christian School in Rockville, MD. The people seemed friendly, it was small, and it didn’t look like I was going to get beat up.
When I arrived at Highland Academy I was already plotting my escape. The school was only a mile or two off I-70 and just down I-70 was a rest area. I would go to the rest area and hitch a ride with a trucker headed to the DC area. Easy peasy.
My first night at Highland academy I put my plan in motion. I made it down to the main road and a short way down to the highway before the headmaster found me. I should have waited until their guard was down. I’m not sure whether I tried again the next day or waited a day or two, but I tried again, this time in the day when everyone was in class. I made it down to the main road undetected. So far so good. I walked briskly down to the interstate. I carried no belongings. I didn’t even have any water on me.
Here is where the story takes a strange twist of fate. I suppose life is full of improbable moments. Life itself is so improbable as to be laughable. But here we are. There was obviously a giant flaw in my plan. It was during the work week, in the middle of the day, and I was clearly a runaway. There was no other explanation, obvious or otherwise. Yet to me, this plan was foolproof.
I made it to the I-70 interchange and saw the rest area maybe a half mile away. However, between myself and my ride to freedom was a young couple changing a tire; right at the interchange where I was going to enter the shoulder to walk to the rest area. I came up and said hello. I don’t recall whether we spoke much at that point, but I did continue walking toward the rest area. As they were just putting the flat tire in the trunk when I left them, they caught up to me before I had gone far.
“Where are you heading?”
“I’m heading to the DC area. I attend school up here and I want to get home for the weekend and my folks don’t have a way to come get me. I was going to see if I could hitch a ride down here at the rest area.”
“Well we are headed to Virginia. We can take you down there.”
I got in the backseat and breathed the biggest sigh of relief I have breathed then or sense. They asked me a few questions and we made small talk. I could think fast and answered their questions in a manner that suggested that, if I wasn’t telling the truth, I has at least worked really hard on the lie.
We drove to Bethesda, MD just north of DC and since they were headed to Virginia I asked them to drop me off at River Road and 495. Which they did. I thanked them kindly and began walking up River Road toward the Congressional Country Club.
Looking back and with the benefit of google maps, I see my walking route was rather circuitous, but I knew the street names so that’s how I went. My walk, it appears was 7.8 miles. No wonder I was tired when I got to my grandmother’s house. Her next door neighbor, Mrs. Miller, was there visiting and was just preparing to go when I knocked on the door. “Oh, it’s David. Will you go let the dog in?” I did as requested and walked toward the back door of my grandmother’s small cape, as Mrs. Miller said her good byes out the front. I returned to my grandmother in the living room and looked at her and she at me, as it dawned on her. So far as she know, I was sixty miles away.
“Wait. What are you doing here?” I told her the whole story, which was beginning to take on the character of Alice’s Restaurant, complete with full orchestration and four-part harmony. Grandma called my mom who then called the school. Her next call was to the school in Rockville. I was to be enrolled there. I would live with my grandmother. I had won.
Rarely in life does a single good decision bear lifelong fruit; especially one that was inherently a foolish act of an impetuous teenager. But somehow or Someone protected me. The school I attended was nothing special. In fact, it was quite fundamentalist, the science education was non-existent, and it was by today’s standards rather racist. But we were full of the vigor of the newly formed Religious Right who was going to “take back America”. We were insanely – willfully – foolish and if we had bothered to read the Bible we preached we would have seen that.
I cover this topic elsewhere in an essay called “Religion in America- part two” and the nature of the school and the education I received is really irrelevant to this story. What is critical to understand is I found friends. Good friends. I found a girlfriend who even though I was skinny thought I was special. Eventually she became my first lover. I will never forget her or the time. This was a big step for kids who had been taught God would send us to hell without a swamp cooler if we fornicated. Well, we fornicated like rabbits for three or four years and enjoyed every minute of it. Over time the relationship became dysfunctional. I developed anger issues, I presume the bullying and uncertain home life had taken an unknown toll. She developed an enjoyment for drugs, not just marijuana. We broke up, but we both survived.
Garth Brooks sings about unanswered prayers and I am so glad mine in those days were. In retrospect, I had developed depression that I see quite clearly now, but was unknown then. Someday I may write about the intervening years, but what continually amazes me are the circumstances that led me to my high school. And the one aspect I will never forget is the couple changing the tire. To me they are angels, sent by God to protect a 13 year old boy. That may be a fanciful interpretation and those events merely a series of amazing coincidences. The universe was built upon those – and physics. Who drives them is ultimately a matter of faith and I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I only know this. A troubled teen, with an unstable home life, was bullied and scared. He had few friends and was to be sent for inpatient treatment, where this being the mid 70’s who knows what would have happened. As it turned out, he just needed a change of scenery. He also needed acceptance. He found it, or at least enough of it, to be happy. And even thrive. Never mind that the acceptance was based in large measure on conformity. I at least wasn’t threatened and I found two men, Larry Scites and Fred Shope, who were real and genuine and loving mentors. I finally had a vision of the man I could grow up to be. My friends Tim, Tim, Merl, Chris and others shared adventures with me I will never forget. We have for the most part lost touch, but we were there for one another when it mattered. If any of them needed me I would be there in a heartbeat.
As I write this, I am going through a struggle that consumes me almost as much as the one recounted above. Someone asked me yesterday what I was looking for and I articulated it for the first time: acceptance. I see I am back to where I was forty years ago. Looking to be free and be me whether I conform to you or not. Free to love as powerfully and recklessly as I wish, based upon the grace extended to me. I finally understand the purpose of my struggle: acceptance.
A wonderful chronicle of your formative years (remember those, when your body was made strong in 12 ways by WonderBread?). There is a striking similarity to my own high school story, wherein I was ripped out of California at 15 and made to attend public high school in Westchester County, New York. I believe I was depressed as well, but struggled through with only a few scars to show for the battle. My escape plan was in place but never carried out, and I managed to graduate and go on to college in Connecticut. Finally made it back to California after that. It is scary sometimes to realize what effect life events can have on the adolescent mind, and equally amazing that some of us are able to develop into relatively normal adults.
Thank you Carol! It’s amazing sometimes we made it out alive!