25 April 2016

It's a 10-Minute Ride to the Holiday Inn. . .

Part 3 in the family odyssey out west series in which we go back to the thrilling days of yesteryear before exits with seven different chain motels offering you morning breakfast existed. Before anything resembling Embassy Suites or Comfort Inn.

There WERE, of course, Holiday Inns (and Rodeways, and TraveLodges and Best Westerns) in 1970, but we didn't stay in them. For my dad, who paid for our Yellowstone vacation with a LOAN from Sun Finance, they were way out of our price range.

So we stayed in some of  the shittiest fleabag motels in the American West. . .at that time.

I kid you not - often they would look like this.
In fact, a Motel 6 in Davenport, Iowa on the first night of the trip was probably the best of the bunch. Most of the dives we stayed in were family run joints (the kind you'd see before the Interstates wiped them out and the chains took over) -- and I use 'family' only in the ownership sense. The owner must have had a family -- somewhere.

The all-time nightmare stay was when we rolled the VW van into North Platte, Nebraska. My father went looking for the cheapest hobo dive he could find and not only that, dad believed you negotiated for a room the same way you'd negotiate for a car.

We'd watch him go into the little shack marked 'office' in green neon and wait. And wait, while Slick Eddie would try to, well, as he would say, um, 'ethnic slur' the innkeeper down in price. Years later, innkeepers would actually laugh at him but he remained undeterred.

Some of these motels were so cringe-worthy, even from the outside, that I would pray silently in the car, hoping dad would lose the motel equivalent of 'Let's Make A Deal.'

If successful, dad would walk out raising the keys high as if he just won a bowling trophy and smiling to beat the band. If not, he's walk out shaking his head in a way that said 'can you believe what that guy wanted for a room?'

Unfortunately, he got his room and came out jingling his keys in triumph.

Yeah, these keys (I'm old):

Drop in any mailbox. . .

For some reason, I remember what dad paid for a night in Nebraska's Motel Hell: $9.

In 2014 dollars that would be $54. You do the math of what kind of room you'd get for that today.

The first thing I remember is the smell of propane gas. It was everywhere. The beds looked liked they were purchased second-hand from the local lunatic asylum. Nice quilts, though. To say the wooden furniture was spartan would be putting it mildly. Dad wasn't bothered by any of this because, well, he got a DEAL. And, besides, we had TELEVISION. OK, so it was an ancient 9-inch black and white, but it was still TV and it came with the room.

At the Davenport Motel 6, they had a PAY television. Dad grudgingly shelled out 25 cents so we could watch Lassie. But in cosmopolitan North Platte, we got it with the room.

Well it had been a long day. I don't know what we did for dinner, but after a little TV, we settled down under the big quilts for a decent night sleep. Me with dad and my sister with mom.

The thing I had to do was get to sleep before dad since his snoring could shake the pictures off the wall. I was successful that night and thank God for that.

Because when the lights went of the fun started. My parents wouldn't tell me what happened for days later but they were pretty tired the next morning. I didn't know why.

In the dark, every high plains critter, every cockroach, every locust, every fly, mosquito and doodle-bug came out of the walls and swarmed, I guess that was the word my parents used, over us. Mom and dad spent the night waving their arms over my sister and me so the assorted bugs would not light on us. All. Night. Long.

Thankfully, I knew none of this.

It was the first adventure but by no means the last. We'll get back to Rapid City next installment.

But my dad always drilled into me 'you get what you pay for.' I just wish he'd have taken his own lesson when it came to motels.

19 April 2016

Why Men Die Younger

Since a good deal of this blog will be about mental illness (with a specific focus on men), I look for articles that broach the subject. So we'll interrupt the Family Vacation Saga for an article from a magazine I never read: GQ.

I always kinda cringe at titles like this. In my mind, I see a female Inspector Clouseau examining some poor sap with a magnifying glass. "Ah, look here Kait-Lin, this man cannot express his emotions, therefore, I conclude he MUST be, as they say, déprimé."

Or perhaps Mutual of Manhattan's Marlene Perkins, stalking through the underbrush of some wild American city. "Now we come up to one of the watering holes that men congregate at. If you look carefully, you'll see many of them are slumped over, looking at the bottom of their drinks. These are the 'depressed men,' once thought rare, but becoming more numerous as the conditions of their environment change." 

If you spot a depressed man, be careful in your approach. As the GQ article points out, they can be quite dangerous if spooked:

• "Are consistently disproportionately angry and may be violent sometimes."

Ah, we're off to a great start. 

Seriously, both authors are from the UK where, perhaps, based on the availability (somewhat) of mental health services through the NHS, and copious amounts of warm beer, men are, perhaps, someone more emotional than their American counterparts. Especially when their football team (soccer) has lost.

But for most men of developed nations (i.e. 'The West'),  the following holds true:

"It’s OK for boys to be assertive, strong, rough and tumble. It’s not OK for boys to be vulnerable, show signs of apparent weakness or not being able to cope . . . Often the shame of expressing emotion is so deep seated that many men repress their feelings. This is the reason why suicide is the number one cause of death in men under 50."  

Not surprising. There are many men who would rather be gut-shot than show emotions other than anger, rage or 'feed me.' 

My problem was exactly the opposite. I could never hide my emotions. They would always show on my face and always, seemingly, within 15 feet of my father who could barely contain his rage at a son who could not be happy despite being taken on a family vacation to Wyoming which was provided by a loan from a finance company.

Or, a son who could not be happy at a time in his life, my father reasoned, where he had none of the real world responsibilities and concerns that were killing him.

Although that's not entirely accurate since my father died of lymphoma, his fear of opening up to anyone about any physical problem and his high rate of stress and rage no doubt helped lead to his death at 51.

And he was a stoic tough guy right up to the very end. I only saw the man cry once  - on his deathbed when I told him I was going to get engaged. I couldn't tell who was more embarrassed - me or him.  

So I bleed all over the place which greatly annoyed my second wife who felt I revealed way too much of myself to 'strangers.' She was right, but I could not and can not be anyone other than I am. I mean, look at this blog for instance. I'm bipolar2 with depression and related anxiety. Technically, in every other world other than the real one, I don't exist. Neurosis as part of geekdom plays well on TV but really genuinely depressed or bipolar men are portrayed, if at all, as psychopaths.

Who said that? The voices?
 Even with all my conditions, including liver disease, I'm convinced I've outlived my father (who was a Marine would could do fingertip push-ups) because I've not kept all that angst bottled up inside. I've let it out and made everyone suffer along with me. 

So here are some comments on the 'signs' of depressed men, should you go out and actually stalk them in the wild:

* Find the emotions of sadness, fear or guilt unbearable and may never express them.

I find them all unbearable and express them. But it's still OK to have the hangdog depression when you're team loses the Super Bowl. This is why there are no depressed male football fans in Cleveland. They gave up those fantasies in their youth.

* Are constantly seeking to be only happy, high, powerful or jolly.

What if you are all four? You mean Donald Trump is actually depressed? Who knew?

He's all of them! Lord, help us!
 * Become obsessed and addicted to the source of their “high”, like not giving up a love affair, obsessively working long hours, an overly vigorous fitness regime, drinking too much alcohol. If you asked them to have a night off or change plans for it they would refuse or get angry about it.

This is also a perfect description to apply to someone who is (a) bipolar, (b) OCD, (c) chemically dependent (d) sociopathic, etc. etc. Which is why descriptions like this are generally useless, but, as they say 'get us to open up and discuss this vitally important issue.' Gag.

And here is some advice from GQ's authors:

Be clear you are open to listen, but don’t force the issue. This may lead to feelings of shame and they may cut you off. Be patient and be prepared to drop everything and listen if they decide to talk because you might not get another chance.

"Look, I want you to know I'm here for you. Let me know if it's really important, OK?"

Don’t go into fix it mode and insist they see a counselor. Opening up to you is probably hard enough.

Because, yeah, why should he trust his wife? "You're a beta, Frank. I thing our marriage is over."

Don’t take away all of their tasks and responsibilities because this will make them feel even more useless. Instead offer to do it together so that you can support them rather than take over.

But men are stupid oafs! Don't you watch TV? You HAVE to constantly help them! They'll either kill themselves or buy the wrong toilet paper!
Husband: moron
Wife: macho

Be understanding of their behavior but do hold them to account if the behavior is unacceptable.

"All I did was shoot the car!"

Never shame them for sharing their feelings.

Because their dads have already done that.

If all else fails, take out another life insurance policy.

17 April 2016

Where the Wild Things Are

"A little to the right. . .perfect!"

(part 2 of a series, see part one here: Every Picture Tells a Story)
OK, this photo was taken a little before 1970 but in the same general era. And that’s not my family but I suspect that if my dad got a whiff of an atomic explosion anywhere near where we were driving, that could have been us. 

It was a different world then. One that didn’t understand fallout patterns and, those who did, weren’t keen to tell people downwind that this might crop up as unexplained cancers 20 years down the road. 

The west back then was different. As hard as it is for me to believe it had been only six years before this picture was taken that discrimination against African-Americans travelers was prohibited by law. Even in 1970, there were still some Sundown Towns – towns in which blacks were tolerated during the day but had to leave before the sunset.

In the entire time we were out west I don’t recall seeing one black person. Not one. 

The Interstate highway system was still a work in progress in many of the western states. Freeways would end in cornfields and you’d have to exit to some rural two-lane where desperate motel and restaurant owners would do whatever they could to get some business before the freeway passed them by completely.

I got to see a little of a vanishing America from some of those two lanes. I kept looking for cowboys but there weren’t any. But I could imagine them ‘out there,’ among the buttes and draws.

Kids can be awfully annoying on long road trips (No! really?!) and my sister and I were no exception. At Yellowstone, every gift shop had these little black bears stuffed with straw. I wanted one and went on a multi-day campaign to wear my parents down into buying me one. Days of effort paid off but that was on the condition that this would be my one and only souvenir.

I spent the rest of the trip home holding this straw-filled bear to the window and narrating a travelogue on all the sites we were passing because, well, it was a magic bear and needed to know about every cow I saw.

All. The. Way. Home. That’s about 700 miles. To this day it’s a wonder my dad didn’t grab that bear and fling it into the South Dakota road dust.

There were real bears – everywhere. Any time one showed up in the park, the tourists would cause a traffic backup the rangers called ‘bear jams’ and throw all kinds of Great American Junk Food at the bears. Our contribution was marshmallows and we probably rotted the teeth of half the bears in the park before we were through.
NatGeo photo of a 1972 bearjam at Yellowstone.

Of course, at seven, I thought bears were harmless furry creatures who just wanted someone to pet them and give them a marshmallow. Kind of like ‘Gentle Ben’ on TV.
So one time we stopped for a roadside brown bear that was absolutely adorable. We were supposed to throw marshmallows from the van but somehow, I sneaked out of the van with my trusty GAF 126 film cartridge camera and moved to within six feet of said bear.

“Ed where’s the kid,” mom said. “I’m right here taking a picture of this bear.”

The next thing I knew, my dad grabbed me and yanked me back rather unceremoniously back into the VW van through the side door. It must have looked like a child snatching because. . .well, it was.  Aside from the usual stream of Marine cursing, I was told under no circumstances ever to do that again. “That damn bear would have ate you in seconds,” Dad yelled. 

“But. . . “

“Shut up and never get out of the car unless I tell you,” Dad said. 

Years later when watching ‘Apocalypse Now’ with my high school friends they couldn’t understand why I was laughing so hard at the scene where the one guy gets chased by a tiger back to the swift boat screaming “never get out of the goddamn boat.”

Fucking A right. Tigers, bears, Jungle Larry’s African Safari (lions), it’s all the same. Little kids are tender and crunchy.

But I got my photo.
'Doesn't that kid know he should stay in the car!?'

14 April 2016

Every Picture Tells a Story

Look up. Look wayyy up. That’s me on the tortoise.

So (early) seventies. Kevin Arnold had nothing on me.

Look at those groovy plaid pants. Looked fine to me back then, but I was seven-years-old and about to enter a world where everything I would wear would come from The Husky Collection . . . sold only at Sears.

But that’s another story.

What really bugs me are the blue socks – a fashion crime committed why wearing groovy shorts. Mom, what were you thinking here? Christ, no wonder my dad called me ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy.’ It’s not my fault that my mom dressed me funny and my dad didn’t care.

Has ANYONE seen socks like that, especially on a young boy, since 1970 – or ever?

It is July 1970 and the tortoise I am nervously (don’t let the smile fool you) straddling is at a popular tourist trap called Reptile Gardens, just outside Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s still there although I doubt they have the staged Wild West gun fight (with dead cowboys and everything) anymore. Damn PC.

Same thing with the FBI tour six years later: the agents were nice enough to demonstrate a Thompson sub-machine gun on a firing range. Nifty. Some years later they did away with it, blaming improper ventilation in the viewing gallery. 


Imagine: guys got ‘shot’ with blank guns and actually fell backward about 10 feet into a hayloft. Up until that point it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Now imagine doing that today. A real excuse for a ‘trigger warning,’ if I ever saw one. Some traumatized child crying out “mummy, is that man really dead?” Or “ow, that noise hurt my ears.” 

How dare you show kids this . . . this . . . nasty history? They don’t teach this violence at school. The violence is confined to the streets around the school and on Netflix.

I know I sound like a lot of other old fogeys before my time, but God only knows how we survived into adulthood with all the toy guns and jarts and all. It seems like we didn’t know that there was a killer hypodermic needle behind every privet hedge waiting for our tender feet.

Same with Yellowstone National Park, which was the ultimate destination for this family trip. There are ‘mud pots’ at the park that bubble up from the surface with a satisfying ‘plop’ which reminded me of farts and, frankly, smelled worse. The mud pots are deceiving in that they are superheated from underground thermal streams.

Note this modern day photo:
Mommy can we play in the mud?
 Now dig this: when I was there, there were NO fences – just planked walkways.

We were actually told a kid was grab-assing around (my dad loved that phrase) and fell into the mud pots and came up skeletal. 

No fence. You grab-assed around, you fell in, you died. Tough shit.

Disclaimer: I think this is true, but I was seven. A kid remembers strange things. I heard about a kid who died mixing pop rocks and Coke. I could believe it, but I couldn’t prove it and I was damn sure not going to try it.

But the point remains. Kids listened to their parents and park wardens and adults in general in situations like this and lived to tell the tale. Parents were responsible, for the most part.

And I’m 53 and get off my damn lawn. I know how this sounds. I remember a specific world, filled with scrubbed kids, dirty hippies, fun TV (seven channels) and having my father backhand me across the room when I misbehaved.

Well, you didn’t think this would be all sunshine and roses, did you?

Anyway, back to the tortoise and the dweeb.

I didn’t want to get on the tortoise. My dad made me. 

If you think this is faintly ridiculous, try to imagine how HUGE that beast looked to a kid that stood barely over four feet tall? And, to top it off, I had heard about snapping turtles. This, of course, was not a snapping turtle, but how was I to know? I thought: one false move and this think he’s going to snap a leg off. Notice I placed my leg toward the back to protect them from Mr. Turtle (Hell, I didn’t know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise. I thought it was a mutant 150-year-old giant turtle). 

“Just get on the goddamn thing so I can take a picture,” dad yelled (he yelled a lot but he didn’t know it). “Your sister got on it. What’s wrong with you?”

As I have repeated ad nauseum, I was seven. But I could have started a list back then of what I thought was wrong with me. 

Nevertheless, I was afraid that if I didn’t get on Ol’ Snapper, dad would pick me up and put me on the poor animal, so I slid on it – carefully. Dad snapped the photo and I got off sliding backwards away from those menacing jaws.

“See, was that so bad,” dad taunted. He did a lot of that too. “Kid I don’t know about you sometimes.” 

That was the first iteration of Hank Hill’s “that boy ain’t right,” and I would hear it often throughout childhood. 

As strange as it may sound, this stop at Reptile Gardens was the last happy memory of this whole vacation. While pulling out of the parking lot, dad ripped the gearshift right out of the floor of our ’69 VW van, freezing the gearbox in second gear.

And for the love of God, don’t romanticize those hippy vans (why my dad ever bought a ‘hippy van’ remains a mystery). They were unreliable and, as obvious here, good for shit in pretty much every way – and they still are.  As far as I’m concerned, Volkswagen is Hitler’s revenge.

So that would turn the Happy Family Vacation into a desperate struggle to return home to Ohio. Part two of that odyssey next.

But at least we have this one last picture of a terrified young man disrespecting one of nature’s most dignified creatures before everything went to Hell in the Badlands. 

So this photo will remain, until I get tired of looking at it, as the blog’s mascot. It represented the last moment in my life before I realized that things could go very wrong in the world and, sometimes, mom and dad aren’t omnipotent beings.