I often reminisce about my relationship with my father and about what he was doing at my current age. The year was 1964, and he had a 15-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. He worked 55 hours a week as a carpenter, and before and after he went to his regular job he spent a few hours each day building a house for his family. He was profane, bad tempered, verbally abusive, morbidly shy, disorganized, unhygienic, intolerant, unempathetic, and thought that being a good father simply meant keeping your family out of the poorhouse and not making your children work as hard as you did when you were a kid. He also identified as a transsexual and wore women’s clothes under his striped overalls.
He fluctuated between atheism and Church of Christ fundamentalism. During the latter periods, he read his red-lettered King James Bible each night, using his finger as a pointer and mouthing the words. He rarely drank and had quit Camel Cigarettes and Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco cold turkey when I was three. He voted faithfully and sent money to political parties but rarely talked politics.
He displayed little interest in the Civil Rights’ era, although he told the churchmen who asked him to join with them in barring the door against blacks that, “The church belongs to God, and if God doesn’t want niggers to come inside, let God keep them out.” He didn’t think that blacks were as intelligent as whites, but he held many black people in high ethical esteem. He had no close friends, although he expressed respect and fondness for certain individuals and made several poorly rewarded overtures. He expressed feelings of shock, hurt, and betrayal to his family when his affection wasn’t returned or when men he liked would be friendly for awhile and then withdraw.
He worked for Gerald Kees who owned the local Buick dealership as well as a house in town, a ranch, and considerable commercial and residential property. He addressed my father as Tom or Tom Cat, and Dad called him Gerald. Gerald was a dull and devout Southern Baptist who wore gray pants and a gray jacket, and only bought one new car that I remember. He tithed to the church and did volunteer work for the Lions while underpaying and overworking his employees. When the owner of a hardware store offered Dad kickbacks for throwing business his way, Dad reported the matter to Gerald and never shopped there again Yet, he gave me little if any ethical or religious instruction.
He adored me when I was a child, but lost interest as I aged. I was allowed to do pretty much as I pleased and was never spanked or otherwise punished. This held true even when I began failing grades—three in all—and drinking heavily. When I was twelve, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that inspired me to do some foolish things. I cut myself seriously with a razor blade after talking my friends into starting a club and signing our names in blood. They then signed their names in my blood, and the incident found its way into the newspaper.
That same year, I decided to run away from home with my friend Grady, and accordingly filled my closet with items to take along—including all my underwear and a Bible. The railroad was but a block away, so we decided to hop a freight to wherever it might take us. We wouldn’t have really gone, but when my mother discovered my cache, she reported it to my father.
That night, I happened to stay out later than usual (having gone to Wednesday night Bible study with Grady), and when I finally returned home, my mother and sister were in tears and the police had been called. Mother immediately took me to my father, who was asleep. He raised up on one elbow and told me with great anger that he had given me a good home, and that, by god, if I wanted to run away, I didn’t need to sneak around because he would help me pack. I was hurt, but reflected that I didn’t see him much anyway except at supper. He was gone before I awakened each morning, and he went to his solitary room at the back of the house when he got home.
My biggest boyhood problems with my father were my embarrassment that he was a generation older than my friends’ parents; that people feared him; that he was morbidly shy and grievously lacking in social skills; and that his anger was extreme and unpredictable. He would curse loud and long without regard to where he was or who was listening. He would curse God, curse the “whore” who gave him birth, threaten suicide, call my mother a slut and blame her for trapping him into marriage and bearing him children that never should have been born, and so forth. People would look at him as if he had lost his mind, and then they would look at me as if I must be like him, or that I was to blame for his behavior (or such was my belief at the time).
I lived around him rather than with him, and this continued until I grew into my upper teens and began working with him. I can’t explain why I worked with him, other than to say that I wasn’t motivated to look for opportunities beyond those that fell into my lap, and to offer that he seldom directed his anger at me. When he was mad at me, he would say maybe a half dozen sentences about how stupid or irresponsible I was (sentiments that made sense given my behavior), and that was that. He never raved at me, and he never hit me, although I never stopped thinking that he might.