My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys . . . and Judges . . . and Teachers . . . and Writers . . . and Carpenters
A picture of my paternal grandpa, in his heroic cowboy days.
I wrote the following diary exactly one year ago. I never posted it, probably because I wasn’t yet prepared to share it. I forgot all about it until I was reminded of it by wendydavis’ wonderful diary about grandparents.
U.W., my employer and my very dear friend of 20 years, died a couple of days ago. He was in his 80s and he lived every minute of all those years. His widow asked me to help write his obituary. He was, at his core, a teacher and a mentor. Thinking about him made me reflect on how fortunate I have been to have had teachers and mentors who were there for me during the most critical times of my life. This diary is dedicated to them.
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All four of my grandparents were teachers. Grandma C., my maternal grandmother, died in 2012, a few weeks after reaching the age of 100. In the late 1950s, she thought it was important to teach both English and Latin to the elementary schoolchildren in my tiny hometown in Nevada. In the 1960s, Grandma C. taught the children of California migrant workers in the Central Valley, spending weekdays and weeknights in a school that was located in the fields and only returning home on weekends. Grandma C. taught me all kinds of things, including how to be a lady and how to make macaroni art. I’m still pretty accomplished at the latter.
Grandpa A., my maternal grandfather, was a rear admiral who was awarded two Navy Crosses as a submarine commander in WWII. He taught high school algebra when he retired. His fancy digs in San Francisco were decorated with exotic mementos of his world travels. Grandpa A.’s second wife, a Swedish bombshell named Esther, wore capri pants and those lucite high heel slippers with feathers. Grandpa and Esther were glamorous, they were devil-may-care; they put Yakety Sax on the hi-fi and started drinking at noon. When they rolled up to our house in The Middle of Nowhere, Nevada in their shiny new El Camino with a travel trailer in tow, it was like rock stars had come to town. They bought us ridiculous gifts. One Christmas, my little sister and I got a slot-car racetrack set that wouldn’t even fit in our living room. Grandpa A. taught me to think big.
My maternal grandfather’s photo, taken from a Naval Academy yearbook which says that “no bull session is complete without his wit and volubility.”
Grandma R., my paternal grandmother, was also an English teacher in her younger years. Later she was a ranch foreman’s wife, the Assistant City Clerk, and something of an iconoclast. She taught me how to bake and how to sew and how to believe in myself (lessons my mother, the spoiled Navy brat, never cared to learn). In the late 1970s, Grandma R. sewed her own tangerine-colored disco pantsuit. Nobody else her age even dared to wear pants, not in our town. She wore that pantsuit to church and even insisted on being buried in it. She nourished my creativity every second of every day. Grandma R. never stopped believing in me.
Grandpa R., my paternal grandfather, the cowboy and ranch foreman who could balance on a saddle horn, was also a teacher, though unofficially. He had an eighth grade education but he taught me how to read and how to spell; I was the spelling bee champ throughout high school. I have vivid memories of sitting on his lap and sounding out ten-dollar words like “paraphernalia” in the evening paper. He let me help him with the monthly ranch payroll; I loved the mechanical noise the adding machine made. He taught me the names of all the ranch machinery (“harobed” is one I remember quite specifically because the man who invented it named after his daughter; it’s “Deborah” spelled backwards). He single-handedly captured two cattle rustlers in the act, made a citizen’s arrest and escorted them back to town, with his wife, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters in the car. Grandpa R. loved me unconditionally; he called me his “favorite blonde.” He saved my life.
My fifth grade teacher was an oddball, for her time. Mrs. H. drove a jeep, had a man’s haircut, and dressed like she was about to go on safari. She took us on field trips out into the Nevada desert to gather rocks. She showed us how we could look right out our classroom window and see evidence of the ancient lake that once covered our little valley. Mrs. H. was weird, like me. She taught me that it was OK to be weird.
My Creative Writing teacher in my senior year of high school in a little Texas town was also weird like me. Mr. S. set aside the standard curriculum and had us read Larry McMurtry novels for almost an entire semester—Horseman Pass By (which became the movie Hud); Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show. He made us write daily passages about our lives in a journal that we were required to turn in at the end of each week. For some reason, I trusted Mr. S. and I crept right up to the edge of writing about my real life. I didn’t come right out and tell him that my father had been beating me and sexually abusing me since I was five or six. I didn’t tell him that when I wasn’t making straight A’s, I was drinking and smoking pot. I didn’t tell him that one of my many high school sweethearts had gotten me pregnant and that I’d had an abortion a few weeks before graduation. But somehow, I told him enough; he knew I was struggling to be heard. His encouraging words lit a little spark in me and made me realize that I really could write and that I’d be able to tell my story—someday.
The generous souls at the weekly Dallas newspaper where I worked in the early 1980s taught me how to be a journalist. I answered their Help Wanted ad for a typesetter. I was 19; I’d had a few months of typesetting experience. The editor hired me on the spot and took me to lunch to celebrate at the dive bar they all frequented. The reporters, the photographer and the art director all took me under their wings and before long, I was writing for the paper. With a byline! A year or so later, Reunion Arena opened in Dallas and I got to write about the concerts and interview some of the celebrities who appeared there. The Oak Ridge Boys came to town to put on a benefit to prevent child abuse. As part of the story I was writing about their event, I had to interview a psychologist who worked with abused children. Coincidentally, my dad, stepmother and my four younger sisters had just visited me and Mr. HFC, a visit that was filled with all of the fear and tension that had suddenly stopped feeling so normal. The walls were closing in.
I’d never spoken a word to anyone about the sexual and physical abuse I’d suffered. I was deathly afraid of my dad. I was certain my husband would leave me in disgust if he were to find out that he’d gotten such damaged goods. Before long, Mr. HFC pried the ugly truth out of me. Once his suspicions were confirmed, he told me he loved me, whisked me into counseling and reminded me that three of my four younger sisters were still living at home. My sisters. Holy fuck. It had never occurred to me that the same thing was happening to them. My newspaper colleagues busted out a few six packs and then held my hand as I rewrote my Oak Ridge Boys article to include my own personal experience (anonymously). And then Mr. HFC and I set about trying to rescue my sisters. [I just added “Carpenters” to the list of heroes in the title of this diary. Mr. HFC is a carpenter and a hero for rescuing me.]
Ending my dad’s reign of terror took forever. The child abuse laws were awful back then. Because of the statute of limitations, what had happened to me hundreds of times didn’t count. We had to prove that the abuse was still going on. My dad, who had figured out the jig was up, called me at home and at work, threatening to kill me. When I didn’t call back, my dad hopped on a plane in Reno and showed up on our doorstep in Dallas in the middle of the night. That scared us away for a while, but ultimately, Mr. HFC and I moved back to Nevada, kidnapped my little sisters from summer camp and spirited them to the district attorney in our hometown. Eventually my dad was sentenced to prison. He spent eight years there—an eternity in those days.
That’s where my friend U.W., the one whose obituary I just wrote, comes in. I went to work as a writer and graphic designer for his company about 20 years ago. I was quite intimidated. U.W. was a retired judge and a Republican; most everyone at the company was. They all had lots of letters after their names. I was a loudmouth Democrat with no letters. But it turned out that the judge and I shared the same twisted sense of humor. He was the perfect audience for my Mad Magazine mentality. His enthusiasm for his business was contagious. The fact that he was in his mid 60s at that time did not deter him from learning how to use a computer. He was a father figure, teacher and mentor extraordinaire.
One day, I found myself in his office pouring my heart out about my dad, who had recently been released from prison. My dad was no longer quite the monster he’d been when he went to the Nevada State Penitentiary; he had emphysema and was so weak that he needed a wheelchair. But I was still afraid of him, and I was still angry and vengeful. I wanted to warn other people about him. I wanted to pass out flyers warning people that Chester the Molester had moved into their neighborhood. The judge listened very kindly and patiently to me. I was sure he’d tell me that was a great idea. But he didn’t. He told me I had to let it go. I took that under consideration and, many months later, I gave it a shot. And that’s a whole ‘nother diary.
R.IP. (Rest in Power), Uncle Warren.