Down Broken Willow

Those two summers, we swam every day in the bayou “down Broken Willow”, as we said back home. There were different people there on different days, but always the three of us: my brother, his friend Danny, and me.

Being younger than the two of them by five years, I was assigned the lowest role in whatever games we were playing. The most common of these was to be a lookout for ski boats if we were playing too far from the tree or the shore. I also “got to” (it was a privilege, you see) chase and retrieve overthrown footballs, bring each of them towels, and go to shore to receive messages on behalf of the two of them (usually “come home”), and so on. I spent the better part of those two summers almost completely sunburned; the Florida sun pretty much laughs at things like t-shirts and sunblock.

Even though they used me as a lackey, a nine-year-old boy is pretty lucky when his fourteen-year-old brother will let him hang out, and I realized that at the time. All of that ended sometime during the next year, as my brother withdrew into his own world, a place he’s never really returned from in the forty-six years since.

My wife asked me last night why my brother and I never talk; I don’t really have an answer, other than that we’ve been having the same conversation for decades, and it never really varies. He tells me little to nothing about his own life, even when asked specifically, and has no interest in mine. We can relive the old days, though, laughing at the old stories; he still thinks its funny the errands he used to send me on, and the fatuous reasoning he’d use to justify it. And it is kind of funny.

Sometimes, you love someone, like a brother, but can’t really connect with them, except on some old ground. Maybe if he and I went swimming, back in our old neighborhood, we could still interact as though our lives had some ongoing commonality. But there doesn’t seem to be one.

Not every estrangement in life comes from anything bad really happening: sometimes, it’s just distance and difference, and you find yourself facing a stranger — one you love, but, who you no longer really know — if you ever really did know them.

With my brother, I’m not sure I ever did.

Where I Come From…

I grew up in Florida, in a flat country near the Gulf of Mexico, spending most of that time near or on the bayous that feed the bay that then feeds into the Gulf. Because we were on the far side of the bay for most of that time, trips to the beach were common, but not frequent. The bayous, on the other hand, were every day things; we drove over them, past them, walked by them, swam in them.

On the map linked to above, the bayous are the little fingers reaching inland from the bay. You can see them around Fort Walton Beach (where I lived when I was very little, then again in my 20’s) and Niceville (where I lived near the rest of the time, and went to high school), in a tiny town called Valparaiso.

I was not, as a child, renowned for my cheerfulness. I loved the water, though; swimming, skiing, diving — whatever there was to do in water, or on water, I liked it. Given the climate, those pursuits were usually available something like 6 months per year.

My parents had very strong and definite views on ethics and morality. They hated racism, or any other type of “superiorism” of any kind. My father’s family was from the branch of the Republican party whose main purpose had been the elimination of slavery, and then the fight for equality under the law for the entire citizenry. My mom had grown up in abject poverty, and her sympathies always lay with the downtrodden. She was (and is) a Democrat, and while she and my father joked that they cancelled out each other’s vote every election, they came from much the same moral view, which was why it worked.

Again, and for entirely different reasons, neither of my parents drank alcohol, smoked, or used profanities or obscenities of any kind. For my mom, it was her reaction to having grown up with an alcoholic father and abusive uncles; she was the only one of of her family (fifteen children in all!) who didn’t drink or cuss. 50% of my father’s family turned out to be either ministers or missionaries, so they approached teetotalism from a different angle; nevertheless, it was another area of compatibility between my parents.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there was anything “different” about my parents. Since most of my friends (already) drank alcohol by age sixteen, and since their parents all did, and since no one had parents who didn’t swear on occasion, I realized my parents were unusual in this regard. My father’s career as an Air Force officer had suffered (considerably) due to his not being “one of the boys”. But he did what he thought was right and took the consequences.

At the age of about seven, I came home from school and repeated an ethnic joke I’d heard at school. I’d never seen my parents so angry. I’ve never told or countenanced another once since.

To my mother and father, making ethnic distinctions of any kind, for any reason, made you no better than the Nazis. And millions upon millions of people had died, horribly, to defeat them.

“There is no difference between anyone and anyone else,” my mother told me. “Same God, same worth. No difference.”

Just in case you think this turns into a tale about my parents’ ultimate hypocrisy — it does not. My sister, who was the oldest of my parents’ three kids, dated boys of every race and creed, and my parents welcomed every one of them. They lived exactly the way they talked, and they treated everyone the same.

If you go back to the map linked to, above, you can find Eglin Air Force Base, in between Fort Walton Beach and Niceville. That had been my father’s last duty station before retiring from military service. We lived on the base for 5 years, on a street called Bens Lane, which is actually on the map. We would have been in that house between the ages of 5 and 10 for me.

One of the most common experiences I have heard people relate in my lifetime is how small things seem once you grow up and go back to where you came from. You know, small trees, small backyard — things that seemed huge when you were a kid.

I myself, however, have not had that experience. Things seem pretty much like I remember them being.

The main difference I have noticed is the difference things like Google Maps has made. Geography to me, as a kid, was one of the most fascinating and mysterious things in the world; I always thought there might be another street, another hill, another creek I didn’t know about, because there frequently was. Satellite mapping has removed all the mystery from geography in a way I find very sad. No countryside I travel through seems as exotic as it once was.

Discovery is one of the things we are built for; the modern world is one where discovery is difficult, as everywhere we go, we find the signs of others who’ve been there before us, and who’ve left little for us to explain or understand anew.

Writers, artists, and musicians struggle with this, of course; the feeling that things you might want to say have already been said is an oppressive (and depressing) one.

If you were to ask me where I come from, how would I answer?

I could answer my describing the geography of the part of Florida I grew up in.

I could answer with stories about my parents: either their ideas, or the way those ideas worked out in practice.

I could answer with stories about how the world I came from is no more; something true for all of us, even if we were born yesterday.

But the fact is, where we come from is only part of our story; it is our interactions with our surroundings and circumstances that make us who we are.

And Google has yet to map human souls.

Music and Madness

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I learned the following piece of music, playing it on the piano located in the lobby area of the facility.

Suffering from mental illness has a unfair degree of stigma attached to it; however, the stigma is arguably less than when the same types of people were thought of as “mad”. 

There have always been two types of words for mental illness: stigmatizing ones like “insane” or “crazy”, and minimizing ones, like “troubled” or even “eccentric”. My coworkers thought of me as troubled, for what that was worth. The people at the hospital, on the other hand, knew I was mentally ill.

I practiced that old upright piano in lobby every day. I had to do something with the hours. I went to individual and group therapy. I saw doctors and social workers. I took various meds.

I thought a lot about suicide.

I had one book of piano music with me: 8 Brief Pieces by Gabriel Faure, of which the Nocturne, above, was the last. I kept working on them and it, everyday. Trying to create order out of the chaos in my head.

I had a crush on a nurse, then one of the social workers. I made friends. 

I kept working on the music, every day. People would come by and ask me to play popular tunes, songs they knew. I would.

When they left, though, I went back to learning this music.

Loneliness. Isolation. Chaos. Madness.

Trying to play music. Trying to breathe.

We built things for therapy, and in my mind, I was the jar and the crepe paper and the rhinestones and the glue smell and the man next to me had magnified eyes like jumping out of airplanes through kites in white satin —

Remember the music. Starts with an F in the right hand.

Why is there blood on my pillow? What are those shapes across the room?

You can’t go play at 3 AM.

if you had just done it while you had the chance…

No! Stop it, I’m tired of this!

Mr friend Jeneen smuggled my cat in for a visit. Her boyfriend had been feeding the cat every day. On another visit, she asked me to play “that song you always play”…

The Nocturne. The Faure.

“The therapy music. Like little bits of hope riding waves of despair.”

Little bits of hope riding waves of despair. I like that.

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I survived

Among the Rites of Passage

The first time I ever saw a condom dispensing machine, I was eighteen years old. It was in the bathroom of the Villa, in Niceville, Florida, a now defunct bar. The drinking age in Florida in those days was eighteen.

It had never occurred to me in my life to buy a condom. At that age, I’d scarcely been a situation that called for them. Coming face to face with a condom dispenser, I considered doing so. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that buying condoms in the filthy men’s room of the town dive probably said something about the quality of the experience I would be likely to have using said condom.

But I bought one anyway. Rites of passage, you know.

I placed it in my wallet and returned to the group of friends I had come in there with. The condom didn’t get used that night, nor, so far as I can remember, did it ever. I wasn’t exactly unpopular with girls at that age, nor was I particularly popular. In the year or so that followed this, I probably dated something like twenty-five different young women. None of those relationships ever got to the condom using stage. They just — didn’t.

I made a group of seven male friends starting in 7th and 8th grade that have stayed my closest friends now for something like 40 years. Three of them were with me the night I bought my first condom, and the same three (plus one) were with me at the Villa four years later when I actually picked up someone up at that bar.

I had graduated and was working back in the old hometown; the rest were back visiting family during Christmas vacation. We decided one Friday night to meet out at the Villa; one of the friends had the (good) idea to call some women we had known from school to meet us out there.

One of those women was a very good friend of my old high school girlfriend. She was a very intelligent young woman, but not someone I had every known all that well. As we sat and drank, and talked, and laughed, I noticed how funny and likable she was; when we were dancing, it really struck me just how much fun she was to be with.

At some point, (we were there a long time, and I wasn’t wearing a watch) we were no longer talking to anyone but each other. We also both had quite a bit to drink. We went out to my car, and —

— well, I couldn’t have used the condom then, either, if I’d still had it. But other things happened, things that men rarely complain about when they happen.

Eventually, she decided she needed to get back home. The bar (which stayed open until very very late) was still going strong when she got into her car and pulled out, me right behind her. When she turned, she turned the opposite way from what I was expecting, because (it turned out) she was going the back way to her parents’ house, a way I wasn’t familiar with. But I was puzzled by it just long enough to pull out without looking.


I had pulled right out into a car as it drove by. It smashed into the side of my car, knocking it off the road and into a telephone pole.

I got out of the car (I was either okay or too drunk to notice I was hurt) and immediately started apologizing to the woman in the car. Neither she nor her vehicle seemed damaged in any way. Someone in the parking lot of the bar had headed back in and called the police. An officer showed up about three minutes later.

I admitted it was all my fault; the officer got her information, then mine, then she left, then he was about to administer a breathalyzer to me when five more police cars suddenly came zipping down the street, flashers flashing, pulling into the Villa. The officer who had been dealing with me said, “Wait here,” then dashed across the street.

I stood there for what seemed like hours next to my pitiful, smashed up car (which still ran, surprisingly) while the police attempted to break up a giant bar fight that had broken out.  Ten people (by my count) got arrested and herded into cars. Then, after a long while, the original officer came back, and said, “I can’t believe you’re still here.”

“You told me to wait.”

“Well, it’s been too long for a breathalyzer.” He handed me a citation for pulling out into traffic, and left. I drove my beat-up car the four blocks home.

The next afternoon, my roommate (who had been one of the friends with me the night before, but who’d left early) asked how things had gone. I told him about my car wreck, and the riot that had broken out at the bar, but he seemed impatient and uninterested. “I mean with you and HER.”

“Oh, that. She is fun.”

“Are you going to see her again? Call her?”

I hadn’t even considered that. He continued on:

“Her friends were really excited you two seemed to be hitting it off. She’s never apparently had a boyfriend, or so much as a date.”


“That’s what they said. I told Sandra I’d let her know your side of the story. I just had lunch with her. She says she’s never seen Margaret so happy.”

Uh, oh. Um. Fuck.

I called her, telling her I needed to talk to her about something. I drove over to her parents’ house (using the only route I knew) and she met me at the door. We walked around back to a kind of covered garden area.

“You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where was she last night?”

“She goes to school in Mobile.”

“So you just thought you’d have a little fun.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. Look, I wouldn’t even have come here, except I felt like I owed you…”

“Owed me what?”

“An explanation.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“No, it’s just that I — I really like you.”

“Yeah, well. Fuck off.”

She wasn’t crying. She was angry. I got back in my smashed up car, pulled out, and drove home.

“So what happened?” my roommate asked as I walked back in.

“Nothing. I told her about Annette.”

“You just made a big mistake, boy. I’ve never seen you as happy with Annette as you were last night with Margaret.”

Mistakes: the true rites of passage.