The Walrus

Dismissing painful details started out as a defense mechanism, I suspect, but quickly became a genetic trait as ingrained as my black hair, hazel eyes and crooked smile. Much like the anger and alcohol that would rise up to defend me when those repressed details came bubbling back to the surface in the many years to follow. Nothing stays buried forever. Subplots of abandonment and fear became half-felt spasms of phantom memories severed decades in the past and waiting like zombies hungry for blood and pain.

The first thing I remember is snuggling with my mom and little sister on a small couch under a thick quilt high in the mountains of Summit County, Colorado. With a large bowl of buttered popcorn balanced between us, we watched the Beatles’ animated live-action film Yellow Submarine. Google dates the memory as October of 1972 when CBS aired the US television premiere to a waiting audience of Beatles fanatics. The movie was one of the few shows broadcast in color at the time, though our little black and white set couldn’t make the distinction and we didn’t really notice.

I was two and a half years old.

We lived in a one bedroom, one bath apartment with a kitchen and living room combination filling the rest of the minimal square footage. Bric-a-brac gathered at thrift stores and garage sales was customized and commingled to create a living diorama that moved from surface to surface, tracing the short and adventurous journey we had taken thus far. Books and articles of every description. A small laughing buddha. A half-melted, multicolored candle from the craft fair we attended every Sunday in the summer. A silver picture frame with my two-year-old head brushing the top edge and my dad’s outstretched arms just visible at the bottom. Sentimentality transformed into social commentary, like the traditional Japanese art of Kintsukuroi where cracked pottery is repaired with melted gold, the resulting work considered more rare and more valuable than an undamaged original.

Our apartment was the bottom floor of a converted garage without a house in sight for it to belong to. A second unit upstairs was reached via wooden steps to a small deck and sliding glass doors. It was a homey building ringed by the majestic peaks of the Rockies and a barren field waiting for a spring an entire winter from being sprung. The hippies upstairs also longed for the snowy emptiness around us to turn into a field of Technicolor wonder given the amount of poppy tea they brewed in 5-gallon pickle jars lined up on their balcony all summer long, sun transforming water and pistils into God’s own beverage of choice. Mom says the hippies I remember were actually a gay couple who were home most of the time with no obvious source of income, so I suspect they gently scored the immature bulbs months before the flower explosion to call forth the raw materials of a more potent and lucrative brew.

My first exposure to the entrepreneurial lifestyle as it turns out.

I don’t recall many details beyond the kid-friendly tea, but flashing lights and firemen made an appearance one night when the couple paired magic mushrooms with an Hibachi grill and burned the place to the ground, though not before getting us all to safety. Over the years, we would try to separate the smoke-stained photos that melted together that night. Those lingering memories from the first time we escaped with only each other and our lives would rip away from the crooked stacks, leaving half-shredded images behind as a bittersweet reward.

Movement has been a constant companion of mine, much of it in darkness and most without warning. Physical and emotional evolution at a speed that would make both Jesus and Darwin proud. This early exodus would be the first of more than a dozen moves before I landed at Job Corps in Reno, Nevada, at the age of seventeen after being kicked out of all three high schools in Yuba City, California, the year before.

It wasn’t my first move, actually, only the first one I can remember.

Mom says I was a just mass of dividing cells when she and my father drove their maroon 1967 Barracuda from Middleton, Wisconsin, to Anchorage, Alaska. Every time we talk about that drive of theirs along the Alaskan-Canadian Highway in the summer of 1969, she mentions how the same style car just sold at auction for nearly a million dollars. I like the story of how they left Alaska a year later in an overloaded VW bus that blew an engine at mile marker 604, just outside of Watson Lake in Canada’s Yukon Territory. As miracles go, the 16-wheeler that showed up after a couple of tense hours was a good one. The copious tears on my dad’s young cheeks dried promptly and my mom’s faith was renewed in the gods she was praying to just before their trucker savior showed up.

The hasty, ill-considered and ill-timed trip from Washington DC to Eugene, Oregon, some 44 years later with a pregnant wife more than six months along and two old dogs tucked into the back of our Prius was likely the result of the demons I thought long buried triggering my urge to run whenever confronted by their foul breath and bad intentions. I made detailed and grandiose plans to avoid that comeuppance at any price.

God laughed.

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