Wednesday, October 28, 2009

drug tank blues

This bit, with its missing introduction, feels like a the next part--the "Get out of Dodge' part. Here's my dad becoming more disenchanted, here's the funny story of the drug tank, here again is the thread; the driving fear and anxiety, the impetus to push on. I adore the image of him poncho-ed on a street corner playing a flute.

His story moves between 2 poles; the deep and revealing reflection on his core motivations and comedic, but ultimately shallow, cliche-driven platitudes. Which in some ways is very much a reflection of him--he could be the 'life of the party' with his wit, humor, and easy amiability. He could also be very deep, real, and present. But between the two, in the everyday 'hello and how do you do' way, he experienced perpetual discomfort. He was a very all-or-nothing guy. He found passion in the extremes. And I think that the middle, the sort of boring 'normal' just going about things felt kind of stagnant and revolting to him.

This is probably an over generalization--because really, as a direct result of being wheelchair confined, he was forced to spend a lot of time doing nothing--laying in bed thinking. I still cannot fathom how he made it through the days and nights and months at a time when he was stuck in bed healing from pressure sores. He was pretty damn intimate with boredom, and I think on some level must have had to make peace with it--or he would have gone mad. But having made peace, I'm still thinking he preferred, even reveled in, up vs. down and black vs. white, and that the middle-meshing-gray felt foreign to him.

You may disagree. I'm not even sure I completely agree with what I'm saying.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

...[Ray returns to Cortland State]...[something] was gone, as were Mona, and her class. Things had changed; my old fraternity had no use for a bad boy relic like me. My brother, Charlie, was there, but there was a distance between us. Frog existed only in memory. I was in a strange transition, almost a dead place, like The Wood Between the Worlds in Narnia. I was not about to go back home. I didn't fit anywhere.

Charlie was graduating; Mom and Dad were coming. It would have been awkward, at best, for all of us, especially me. I had a lot to answer for, like why I wasn't graduating and what I was going to do now. So, like before, I headed for California. I was alone. I had $9.50 in my pocket. I would hitchhike this time, spending days standing by 'the side of the road, rain fillin' up my shoes'.

I knew where I was going: San Fransisco and Berkely and I knew why: to join the hippies. The road had always invigorated and excited me, like when I would hitchhike to Florida on spring breaks.

I eventually got to Frisco, eating food left in rest area resterants, bumming meals, cleaning pots and pans for soup and sandwiches. I dozed under bridges, slept in semis, and nodded in diners. I was adept at warding off hungry, desperate trolls.


1968 + San Fransisco, CA

My landing in San Fransisco was auspicious; I was dropped off on Haight Street, in the then notorious Haight-Ashbury District, heartland of hippies. It was about 3:00am on a balmy humid summer night. I was here, California dreamin', in the flesh. All I lacked were the flowers in my hair. I felt I was home, among my own. I was temporarily adopted by an early-thirties, dope-dealing, hip couple, taken to their opulent, near by pad, fed, and given space to crash. Next day I was party to an STP (concentrated LSD, more or less) capping session, during which we put powder into gelatin capsules. I was invited to help myself, which I did, liberally so. I decided I'd hitch to Berkely, across the Bay.

As I waited for a ride the landscape began to shimmer and shake, undulating uncontrollably; like an earthquake. Most unusual. Things were getting curiouser and curiouser and there was no way I could go ask Alice. Before long, I was in the car of two friendly, collegian hippies and several other hitchers. I was chattering inanely away, with no control of the words coming out of my mouth; an on going stream of verbage.

I was freelancing, free bird letting the words roll without censorship. It must have been a hoot. Everyone in the car was in hysterics; the driver could hardly keep on the road. When I asked one of the other passengers later he said my rap was all about tripping, being crazy, STP, the Army, and the shimmering, all jumbled up and delivered deadpan.

"I ingested too much STP,
And very strange sights did I see,
The shimmering shake,
Was like an earthquake,
I'd arrived, but, oh, woe was me..."

Late Winter + 1968, Berkely, CA

I had been living the hippie life on Telegraph Ave, panhandeling, selling political newspapers,and crashing here and there. I was getting by. I would stand on my spot where one could see the Sixties pass by hour by hour. I wore my Clint Eastwood poncho; my hair fit the organic peacenik I emulated. I would entertain passersby, blowing my garishly painted and laquered pseudo-Japanese 59 cent bamboo flute, doing the Pied Piper routine. I felt I was just where i belonged. As for my music making, I was, after awhile, pretty good at it.

It was the late Sixties and the country was divided. Violence and free-love existed side by side; youthful idealism and repression abounded. There was tear gas during anti-war marches, free rock concerts in Golden Gate Park, wild and wilder psychedelic dancing. Fillmore West in San Fransisco throbbed to the sound of the Dead, the Airplane and Chuck Berry. We exhaulted during communal naked swimming, tribal gatherings, hiking and camping at Yosemite, hitchhiking up and down the West Coast, and partying, lots of partying. What a trip, living the life. Not quite paradise. "All the time I was alone, the past was close behind."

Ominously so.

To all my reveries there was a dark side. This was the same dark side that drove Frog into deep depression and turned his life completely around. This time feelings of terror, lonliness, and low self-esteem gripped me like a steel belt, squeezing my midsection. Thoughts of running away, joining a Zen monestary, or ending it all discolored my footloose and fancy free existence. These wretched reminders of unhappy days sucked the joy out of much of what I did. I came to believe there was something very wrong at my core, like a demon armed against me, destroying the good. I was torn. I, the fun loving, idealistic hipster was cages in Dylan's existential Desolation Row., alone and alienated. While others seemed truly free and happy, I was living in a spiritual vacuum. I felt ashamed. I dropped out of many deep conversations, lest I would be exposed as the man behind the curtain. Acid and its kin left me more wretched than ever.

Unresolved, these thoughts and feelings festered and poisoned what they touched. I knew I was in deep waters and a very hard rain would fall one day. When the rain came, I barely made it through...

There were other ominous signs. Ronald Reagan's martial law, more vicious bikers and professional druggies everywhere. Close friends were getting strung-out on herion, stealing from one another, and becoming secretive and paranoid. The city scene got very heavy, dangerous, and forbidding. Haight Street was by now a frightening mix of the very beautiful and the very ugly. Existing side-by-side were lovely, sweet, friendly people, surly dope-dealing bikers, rapists, teenage runaways, and angry cops. Dog shit, garbage and stink were hard to avoid. Flower children headed to the country, back to the land. Just away. My pal Johnny and I talked about leaving for good. He, however, was a New York City boy and shooting junk was taking him away.


December 31, 1968 + San Fransisco, CA

My Army buddy Max, his wife, his brother Tommy, my girlfriend and I had scored tickets for the all night New Year's Eve party at Winterland, a huge warehouse-like dance and concert hall in San Fransisco. Janis Joplin was performing. We were all decked out: I wore well-shined black leather, high heel Beatle boots and very tight black and gray striped pants. My ensemble was replete with India print, long sleeve Nehru shirt with black silk trim, beads, and a black felt gaucho hat. We were, of course, all smoked up and medicated; I had taken several hits of mescalin.

We all loaded into Tommy's pale purple and blue station wagon; I was riding shotgun, Tommy drove. We were in a festive mood as we motored into the city, nearing Winterland. We were very high.

A screaming police siren yanked us back to earth. We were being pulled over by the California Highway Partol. Not to worry, this would be a brief stop for license check, "back taillight out" or something like that. We would be back on our way in no time. All would be well. No. Tommy freaked out and tossed a clear plastic bag which no one knew he had onto my lap. This bag contained a huge supply of pills, capsules, and powders.

"Throw it out", he yelled. "No'" I said, "we'll get busted for sure>" The chorus began, everyone shouting, "Throw it out, throw it out." I gave in to the pressure, even though I knew we were fucked. The bag sailed ten feet, hit a guard rail and landed near our car. Two young officers approached, one hanging back a bit in case of trouble. The other checked us out, warned us and pretended to let us go. cats and mouses. As we were getting ready to leave, the second cop 'discovered' the bag.

We all landed in San Fransisco City Jail, a high-rise office building that was all hustle and bustle this New year's Eve. Mopes and humps and skells and perps were everywhere. As I was being booked, the mescaline kicked in . I felt like I had ingested way too much " Texas medicine and railroad gin."

What followed could have easily been foreseen: psychedelic light show tripping, voices in unknown languages and dialects, and shimmering circles, squares and trianlges of every color imaginable. I saw misshapen faces that reminded me of reflections in a carnival mirror. I probably would have been cackling like the Witch of the West, were it not for a very serious and pissed-off booking cop. He was consistently hostile. This nastiness seemed to be punishment for the Free Love we professed, which he let slip by. Whether it was or no I never knew. The Three Stooges were meeting Abbot and Costello in my brain while I was being fingerprinted, photographed, searched, and interrogated. During all this, people in the Jail "got uglier and I had no sense of time."

Drug tank, San Fransisco Jail, 1968 became 1969. There was no fanfare, friends, family, or fun. The lack of these was more than compensated for by junkies shooting smack in bathrooms using pins and needles, puking codeine addicts, dry-heaving meth-heads, and out of control speed freaks tearing out hair, Trustees sold the entire pharmaceutical catalogue. I was all but overcome with noise, stink, swearing, and filth. Meanwhile, in a paralell universe Janis was downing her second fifth of Southern Comfort and tearing her lungs out to, "Take another little piece of my heart..."

Everybody else got bailed, having either funds or surety or influence; Tommy and I had to stay. My lady friend and even Tommy's brother abandoned us to our fates. As the days went by, Tommy got lost. Emotionally, that is. He was manic one hour, depressed the next. I felt somehow responsible for him, like a father with his young, frightened son. I constantly tried to reassure him. Perhaps that made it easier for me, although my own future was on the line. To sooth him, I actually let him talk me into copping and taking some acid. In the drug tank! In jail!! Fortunately, we got burned on the deal and never got off.

The assistant district attorney would stop by from time to time to chat. It was as if a well scrubbed missionary were visiting a leper colony. He tried to get a confession out of me and force me to make a deal: I would take the rap because i threw out the dope and the authorities couldn't prove whose it was. I would assume the martyr role in this drama and do some hard time in a place that would make this drug tank look like elementary school.

If I did this, Tommy could go free. All very neat. I had to work like hell to keep Tommy from caving in to the pressure and telling all. "Just stay tight and hold on." I told him. I had no plan, but the option of being a shower buddy of some very bad actors didn't particularly appeal to me. Captivity day 5 passed, then days 6, 7, 8, and 9. This business was definitely getting old. I was starting to weaken. I was beginning o consider taking the deal.

Day 10, the DA paid us a visit. I was positively floored, absolutely amazed to hear the DA say:
"Gill, Tommy, you can go. We're dropping the charges." Not content to simply take him at his word and wondering whether this was a trick, I asked why. "We have too many cases; it's the New Year; we're clearing our docket."

With that, in the evening of day 10, Tommy and I were free men, back on the street and going home. I had dodged a cannon ball aimed directly between my eyes. This time it was not some irate Dean because I had pulled a fraternity prank. No. This was heavy-duty, serious stuff. I would have been a convicted felon; law school and a very limited future were on the line. This would include reporting to a parole officer, no travel, and the prospect of hard time should i fuck up in the days to come, even inadvertently. It was time to get out of Dodge, and stay out.

"I always did end up in jail,
and paid for my sins, without fail,
but the day the DA
said "go on your way"
I was saved from becoming jail tail.

well folks...

well...I am regretting to say that I've not yet been able to lay my fingers on that elusive disc (it is somewhere in my home--I'm sure of it--and I will find it!). But, Ive made the executive decision to move forward with the story, and when I do find it, I'll fill in the missing pieces. It's most ironic, really, that the story drops off just as my Dad announces 'EPIPHANY'--but I feel confident there are more of those to come. So, we will take up in the next, soon to come post, with a last shred of post-army, return to NY, head back to Cali, and a chapter (complete) titled FRISCO, STP, AND ME.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Its a strange sensation, a bit repulsive and sideways funny to hear my dad boast about gonorrhea and Mexican hookers. He does really seem to revel in the idea that he was a bit of a romantic rebel, something of a rake, jaunty, a little self-destructive and bad-ass. Flouting authority, and tellin' it like it is. He seemed to feel as though, in retrospection, it would be worthwhile? entertaining? or what? for us to watch as he rolled around in the mud, because we all know that, ultimately he rose above this, or could even then, while reading philosophy and being older-soldier-adviser appreciate a 'higher' sensibility? These stories left me uncomfortable and uninspired. Maybe they are more 'guy stories' or maybe they are just kind of banal. At any rate I'm looking forward to moving forward.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Army

December 1965-January, 1966 + Bellflower, CA

California was a lot Ike New York: loud and drunken scenes in noisy and crowded bars, vicious, pounding hangovers, and that persistent, vacuous, empty feeling. There were long, lonely days, mind-numbing, low-paying jobs, and the incessant, non-stop message that had become the unspoken mantra of my life: 'lost, going nowhere, alone, failure.'

Sid, too. We never talked about it, but it was our anthem. He was spinning way out of control, fighting nightly in bars with anyone, everyone. Any chance remark from any chance stranger, no matter how innocent, brought swift, unmerciful rage and flying fists. Even cops couldn't control him. We got a whole lot of bad press: bouncers bounced, bars barred, ops clubbed, jobs jettisoned, friends flew. Something had to change, a new chord had to be struck, one or both of us was headed for some long hard time or the morgue.

What should fall out of the sky and into this miserable rat's nest but my draft notice. I'm sure you saw that coming. I've got to say, here and now, I'm no believer in general in the military solution to life gone wrong. Training young people to be killers is worrisome, at best. That Notwithstanding, this draft notice did for me what the helicopter ladder does for the guy in the raging river. It cleanly plucked me right out of Bedlam and landed me in this man's Army, Fort Dix, New Jersey, Private Raymond L. Gill, Serial Number US515190471, "Sir, Yes, Sir; Sir, No, Sir".

April, 1966- April 1968 + NJ, CA, TX

May, 1966, NJ--Drill Sergent, 5am, screaming in my face, extreme close-up, spit and nasty cigar breath, informing me of the state of affairs concerning successful completion of Basic Training: "Gill, a word to the wise is pro-fishnet; youse is not going to grajerate, cause youse is ignorant."

June, 1966, NY--Well, Sarge, grajerate I did. Being in the Army in those days was all about your MOS-Military Occupation Specialty. If you got a bad one, say infantry gunner, you were fucked. If that happened after basic, you got sixty days of Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) crawling through mud, broken glass and barb-wire, under fire at Fort Polk, Louisiana (Little Viet Nam)), thirty days leave, then your sorry ass was off to Nam. Hell on Earth. You were told your MOS and where you were headed after Boot camp by the 5th or 6th week of the then-eight week Basic Training. If no orders came by the 7th week, you were headed to AIT and the Nam. That was the Army's fallback.

5th week nothing, 6th week nothing. I'm really sweating now. 7th week, I got called in formation: "Gill". "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, provisional orders are in . You are to report to Fort Polk, Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training. Step back in formation. I was fucked; I figured by death sentence had just been read. I called home; my Mom was speechless. Her worry was palpable over the miles between us. I didn't talk to my Dad; he was a staunch 'my country right or wrong' WWII vet, so there would be little sympathy in that corner anyway. At any rate, my Dad figured the Army would make a man out of me, cure me of my penchant for piss-drinking in public, if that's what it took...

Viet Nam. Infantry. Ground pounder. Gunner. Foot soldier. The Nam. Over and over, waking, sleeping, eating. No matter where i went or what i did, one thought had me in its grip like iron: "I'm going to die a horrible death in Viet Nam, and soon." More fortunate comrades were sympathetic, in that self-centered, well-meaning young person way: "That really sucks man. I'm glad I'm headed to Virginia."

8th week. I was preparing to graduate basic Training and leave Fort Dix, more or less reconciled to the inevitable. Late morning formation on a warm, sunny day, eager GIs lined up to hear the latest. Our Company Commander marched crisply up to the front of the formation, every hair in place, spit shined to perfection, a military model of dress and decorum. "Attenhut."

We do so, standing spine-straight, hands cupped, eyes forward. We are all soldiers now, at least for the time being. I was proud of what i had done: lost 25 unnecessary pounds, made friends, taken the shit, and absorbed the abuse. I had risen to Platoon Guide. I was responsible for platoon discipline, barracks inspection, and timely fallouts. I had successfully completed Boot Camp. I had a goal and direction.

"Gill." "Sir, here, Sir." "Step forward. Gill, your orders have been changed. After thirty days leave, you are to report to Letterman General Hospital in California to begin Medical Laboratory Technician training. Step back." I was stunned, floored, my mind raced: the whirligig of time had brought, not his revenges, but his deliverance. My eleventh-hour, Death-Row pardon had arrived. But how?

Here's what i think happened: some totally unknown, anonymous angelic soldier in some Army office somewhere married up Private Raymond Gill, US Army with the Frog. He had been a Biology Major student (such as he was) and had successfully, albeit barely, made it to his senior year. Do you fully appreciate the irony?

Frog, universal misfit and barely-redeemable lost soul that he was, had been my salvation. For, you see, Medical Lab techs below grade E-5 (which I would never be), were not ordered to Viet Nam. Thanks to Frog and his capacity to pass Biology, Chemistry, and other Cortland science courses, I was saved from an immanent, gruesome death in the jungles of Southeast Asia. How sweet is that!!??

It gets even better. The Army picked six--SIX!-guys by region from across the United States for a first-time experimental lab tech course at the Presidio, San Fransisco, Army Luxury Resort/hospital. There was one guy each from Illinois, Georgia, North Dakota, Texas Southern California, and of course, yours truly. What a break. Out of the thousands or tens of thousands of qualified guys country-wide, I was one of six to get this dream assignment. I would not go to Nam, was assigned a dream MOS, and was headed to sunny California, summer of '66, the Summer of Love. All because Frog was looking out for me. Overcome with love for the dear boy, I wrote him a limerick:
"Private Gill's situation was dire,
They were lighting his funeral pyre,
Before very long,
He must fight Viet Cong,
But then Frog pulled his ass from the fire..."

Summer, 1966- April, 1968 + Presidio, CA & Fort Hood, TX

Shangri L, US Army style. No discipline, no reveille, no inspections, no lights out, no KP, no exercises, no yelling, and not even an olive drab uniform. Pampered favorite sons that we were, we awoke on our own without screaming Sergeants reminding us how and stupid and maggot-like we were. We leisurely made it to breakfast in crisply-tailored, immaculate whites. We sauntered to the hospital past beautiful manicured lawns, lush, fragrant, tropical flowers, and majestic palm trees. We then reported to class among lab tech trainers, doctors, hospital administrators, and nurses. We were professionals, or so it seemed.

It was a combination college/MASH unit/General Hospital. We had weekends off. There were free trips to Kezar Stadium to watch John Brody and the NFL 49ers. We could eat and drink at the sumptuous, high-rent Officer's Club. Woman were everywhere. I was in San Fransisco in the summer of '66--the Summer of Love! (I just had to say that again) Golden Gate Park, Flower Children, and Philosophy.

Philosophy, you say? Does that seem a little out of joint? Perhaps a digression is in order.

Digression: There were several threads that ran through and informed this life I am presenting. One was an insatiable desire to know; this had two parts. Part the first: From earliest childhood I was a reader, thanks to my Mom and Dad. I was blessed with tremendous curiosity, a great thirst to have knowledge, and an endless hunger to know the world around me. From early childhood I read and pondered with a sense of awe and wonder that infected much of what I did.

As I grew up, I felt a void. It was as if there was something I didn't know or have that I very much needed to know or have. I was missing something. My recurring dream sounds the note: I would be at a great height, very precarious, and terrified because I could not get to safety without a way down. What i needed most was what i did not have. So, growing up; and so with the insatiable desire to fill that void, get to safety, be at peace. Find an Answer. The Answer. My Answer. Perhaps that is what Frog, too, sought as he flailed and floundered about. Maybe this was what unconsciously impelled him from one sociopathic episode to another. I had been and was following in the darkest night the sounds that impelled me. There had been many dark nights. There were many more to come...

Ergo, philosophy. The Existentialists, especially Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre. I even read and pondered a book on the definition of is. (Mr. Clinton, are you there?) Plus Freud, Jung, and Adler, Plato, Kant, Aquinas, and Hume. Lots of religious stuff, even the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.

I encountered a seemingly endless torrent of words as I so seriously searched the Worthies for a route of escape from the bind i has created. What i found, in part, were contradictions, heresies, paradox, and confusion. Not much help.

Oh, yeah, and hippies. I was drawn to the hair, the dress, free love, music, the charm, friendliness, and spirit. Creating a better world. I was fascinated, and a GI in Uncle Sam's Army. The incongruity was apparent.

Shangri La and all came to an end. Uncle Sam saw to that, in a brutal fashion. Following Lab tech graduation, I was rudely and unceremoniously shipped off to the Texas Sahara: Fort Hood and 1 1/2 years of heat, dust, pointlessness, and misery. A lackluster solider at best, my promotion demotion record went: E-1, E-2, E-3, E-2, E-3, E-4, E-3, E-2. I had too much time on my hands; there were too many hard-dick GIs like me. Too much booze and too many regulations, inspections, and expectations. Just too many opportunities to rebel and fuck up.

On April eighteenth, 1968 I mustered out, as they say. I was a free man. I couldn't be redrafted. I was twenty-three. I was bulletproof.


June, 1967+ Juarez, Mexico

True to form, several Army buddies and i made the obligatory trip from Fort Hood south and slightly west to this GI's Cuidad del Corupcion (City of Corruption) for 1. tequila, 2. women, and 3. mayhem.

Real Mexican tequila was one standard of pure evil. Agua del Diablo. We were eager to test ourselves against this Satan in a bottle. Like demon rum that can set your hair on fire. This was South of the Border Style. Mexico had a mystic of lawless romance about it, like Babylon has for Christians. We talked about progressing from margaritas to shots with lime and salt to straight from the bottle to blindness and beyond. The challenge and the beyond were our siren songs beckoning us to try the limits of our manhood and sanity.

This, of course, after the women, lest we get overcome with alcoholic impotency lassitude syndrome (AILS). So, as non-Spanish Army soldiers will, we headed into the seediest joint we could find. We strangled the beautiful Spanish language and mumbled our requests for, and price of each his preference for that especially naughty Mexicana Jezebel. because i was young and bulletproof, I failed to consider the risk of hungry violent machos with knives and/or guns and scores to settle for our taking of Texas. We were sitting ducks in a land where, "the cops don't need you and man they expect the same."

The haggling done, i made my way upstairs with my hoped-for amorous (a guy can always dream) maria. Our two minute liaison accomplished (Maria and I were in a hurry, for different reasons, obviously) and our relaxed, triumphant troop was satisfied. We warily muttered out thanks (!) and goodbyes and made our way to a slightly more upscale tequila Tavern. We sauntered up to the bar like so many Clint Eastwoods and stood there, fending off more Mujered de Trabahando (working girls). After informing our pretties we had already donated to their union and were finished with that particular experience; they settled for sexual harassment and drinks.

Things were getting sloppier by the moment, until we were warned in language everyone understood that we were bordering on appropriating natural resources without adequate compensation. None of us were familiar with the peso-dollar exchange rate, so we took this large, dark, threatening hombre's word for it. I whispered 'adios' to my lovely, if a little overweight and hairy maria Consuala and settled in for some seriously antisocial alcoholic behavior.

About all I can recall were some surreptitious grinding, groping, and grabbing that drew real nasty looks from bad-ass Mexicans who may have been husbands or fathers or brothers or who-knows-what. The soberest of us told me later I was defiant, mouthy, and on the verge of the beating of a lifetime so they had whisked me the hell out of there. I had reached blindness by then anyway.

If i ever made it to the Great beyond it must have been in my sleep, such as it was. What with puking, dry heaving, and intense thirst, complete with a restless miserable dream of lying at the bottom of a fresh, cool lake with my mouth open and water running non-stop through me, it was hardly sleep. My night was more like slowly dying of thirst with my insides turned outside while shoveling white hot coals into a blast furnace. So much for the Beyond.

I woke up on the floor of a motel/shelter where the delirium tremens cases are sent to die. The threadbare carpet was rife with the smell of all the bodily secretions of those condemned to pass away in solitude in a penal colony on Forbidden Island. All that was nothing compared with the hangover. It was so bad, as the saying goes, I was afraid i wouldn't die. Short of an exhaustive amount of symptoms, that would bore even a medical student, suffice it to say my eyeballs ached, as if some fiend were driving glowing hot needles into them, slowly. The roots of my hair were on fire. Demon Rum has got nothing on cheap tequila straight from the bottle.

We gathered ourselves as best we could, comparing hang-overs and vowing never to mention peyote-based drinks. Food was out of the question. We pissed, pooped, gagged, upchucked, and stumbled around like pinballs trying not to touch anything, especially each other. When we did, it might as well have been confirmed codeine addicts irritated to the point of daggers drawn, consequences or not. [Note: Stay away from codeine freaks on a bad day. It can be fatal.]

We finally made it back to Soilderville, much the worse for wear. I was hungover and useless for two more days. Standing at attention while good old Alabama boy Sergeant Rittenberry inspected my footlocker and repeated over and over, "W'as the matter wit you Gill, you tarred?" I wrote my Sweet maria a limerick:

"I had to say 'bye' to Maria,
Soon, Love I'm hopin' to see ya',
But it soon came to pass:
Bacillin in my ass,
Dear gal gave me her gonorrhea"


February, 1968 + Fort Hood, TX

There are times when the letter of the law should be set aside to do what idealistic court watchers term 'essential justice'. That is after all, what police and courts are about, right? Maybe not:

It was February, 1968. At hat time i was 'short' or a 'short timer', a soldier getting out of the Army soon. I was due to get out in April of that year; I had sixty days to go. I could get away with anything other than Grand Theft Auto. I was as if I were invisible; the Army had little to no use for me. Short timers never did much. All I had to do was stay out of sight. One of the great things about being short was that i could escape Viet Nam, once and for all.

Many of the guys i served with were gone, mostly home, some to Nam, some to other duties elsewhere. There was a cadre of friends who were very young (18 or 19) and had a long way to go before discharge. These were reluctant soldiers, to say the least. They envied me and my shortness something awful. I was twenty-three and had almost two years in, so they came to me to talk or just hang-out. I grew very fond of these young men. My cynicism and sarcasticness fell by the roadside when we were together.

Each of them and i were well aware duty in Viet Nam loomed as a very real prospect. Since these guys were in a medical unit, they knew that if they went, they would be medics, a job with a high rate of casualties. Most of them feared duty there; horror stories of returnees abounded. Most of those who made it through just didn't want to talk about it. Sight they saw and things that they and others had done were still too painful.

You take a fun-loving eighteen year old kid off a Kansas farm, put an M-16 in his hands, tell him he's a killer, and send him a few thousand miles to a place he's never heard of called Viet Nam. You force him to kill people there, no questions asked, and see what you get. My young compatriots knew all that through and through. They had lived for three or six or nine months with Nam hanging over them, day after day. They contemplated dismemberment and death in that far off place. Orders could come any day, at any time.

Our friendships grew over the weeks and months. I liked my role as adviser, confidant, and friend. I too worried about what combat would do to them. Would Ken, who was ever the gentle one, break and fall apart, as death and the dying crowded in around him? What about Joe the Jester; would he stark reality of killing take the humor out of him? How about Bob the Ball Buster? Could his optimistic take on life survive?

Finally, after months of suspense orders came down. Four were call ed to Viet Nam. They were ken, Joe, Stuart ( dreamy California man), and Art, the tough guy. I hated the thought that each would be tested in his own way, in his own time.

Each of the guys needed to talk, to each other, to family, to friends, to me. I had a car big enough for six. We'd decided we would get together for a couple of beers and some straight talk a few days before they left. We drove to a remote spot at an abandoned airfield, a lonely place where grass and weeds poked up through the cracked runways and where rusty airplane parts lay strewn about. We were a long way from anywhere.

A big Texas half-moon cast an eerie haze over us. We wanted simply to park and talk. The drinking age at that time in Texas was twenty-one. I never thought about that. I figured if you were old enough for the Army and Viet Nam, you're old enough for a few peaceable cold ones at a remote location. I parked; we talked.

Our being together was very important to each of us. The talk was straight forward and honest. These young men were headed to combat. We did all we could to help lift the heavy burden each other carried. There were laughs as we chuckled over days gone by and tears as we contemplated the future. There was worry over life and limb, family, and girlfriends.

Just then, something hit hard against the back of the car and made a sharp metal on metal sound. This abruptly ended our conversation and rudely brought us right here, right now. I let down my window. A local cop asked me what we were doing:

--"Who are you? Show some ID. What are you doing here?"
-"We're soldiers from Fort Hood. These men are under orders to go to Viet Nam
and we're having a couple of beers and talking. We aren't bothering
anybody, are we?"
--"We'll see about that."
(Now that doesn't sound very good--thought I)
--"It says here you're twenty-three."
-"Yes, I'm twenty-three."
--"How old are you?" (he asks my buddies)
---"I'm eighteen, I'm nineteen."
-"Is there a problem? Sir."
--"Maybe, who bought that beer?"
-"I did."
--"We call that making liquor available to a minor."
-"But Sir, these men are soldiers on their way to Viet Nam."
--"Don't matter. Get out of the car."

With that, we all had to stand on that abandoned airfield until we were dragged before a local judge of some kind in some dark out-of-the-way corner. I imagined this Cop and this Judge made a decent living, ten dollars at time. Our talk of "Soldiers and Viet Nam" didn't mean much to him, either.

---(Judge)-"Mr. Gill, I find you guilty of 'Making Liquor Available to Minors'.
Fine, is ten dollars." (this was 1968) "You got the money on you?"
--"Yes, Your Honor."
---"Bring it here to me."

I wonder whether the judge ever made a record of my High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Is there a folder still in existence in some dusty, rusted old file cabinet naming me a traitor to the cause of liberty in this out beloved land?

I was ever the insubordinate wise-ass. Captain Morency: "Gill, if I get a chance, I'm shipping your ass to Viet Nam." Me: "Captain Mortency, I don't care what you do. April 18 is coming, and here's nothing you can do about that." Sure enough, it came and I rolled out of Texas an honorably discharged 23-year old free man. I was still bulletproof and now footloose.

In the meantime i had discovered the dreaded lysergic and the politics of dissent. I had revived my hippie dreams and refocused my quest for authenticity, for genuine, natural being in the world. Inner peace. I had grown up some. There were depths i had not yet encountered...


May, 1968 + Cortland, NY

I was out. Army days were not easily sloughed off, however. Bad dreams in which i had been re-drafted through a mix-up in paperwork haunted me, and did so for years. Immediately upon release I motored to Iowa; a friend in arms held up his wedding ceremony so I could be there. That done, I moved to Kentuky for a short stay...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


1963-1965 + Cortland, NY

Rock band on campus? With faculty chaperone's aghast, the Frog, strutted onstage, at the mike, screaming:
"See that pretty girl in pink,
She's the one that made my finger stink..."
My alter ego was dragged off stage and eventually summoned to the Dean's office vainly trying to explain away the indefensible.
Frat after-party? There he staggers, 4am, scooping cigarette butts out of stale, warm beer. Froggie chugs that vile concoction until he's face down on the stone floor with a bloody broken nose, ultimately hospital bound.
Frat brothers horny? Grog is on the phone lining up a come as you are gang bang. Frog imagines he's winning the hearts of those upstanding school teachers, principals, and superintendents of tomorrow.
Swim at the pool? Frog is on the high board fully clothes, shoes and all, shouting tribal obscenities. As always, he has to be the center of attention. To the consternation of pool officials, life guards, and fellow swimmers, our frat boy dives belly first.
Hungry after hours? Our naughty boy can be seen running drunkenly down the ally. Froggie is being chased by a knife-wielding, profanity-screaming short-order cook. He has brazenly skipped out on his 60 cent late night egg fest at Marty's Diner.
Got a date? There Frog humps, getting laid in public in the back of of Rocky's hearse in front of the Tavern. The cheers of wild and willing well-wishers, hearty, hooting, hangers on and loud, lusty loiterers spur him on.
Poor boy looking for a low-budget snootful? Frog is in the alley, in the dark, going blind chugging rot-gut out of a bottle with the town winos.
You may wonder: How did Frog afford these drunken interludes and late night breakfasts (when he bothered to pay, that is)? Our boy was resourceful. He was a barroom athlete of the first order. Frog was a master of pool, darts, bowling machines, drinking games, word games, and cards. He was everyman: amiable, funny, friendly, and ready with the latest dirty joke or limerick. Frog was a low-rent raconteur. Drinks came readily to him.
Friends? Frog knew everyone; everyone knew him. Cortland State was a very small pond, our boy strove to be a big fish. sadly, effort wasted to maintain his pretense served to undo him. Frog's shallow popularity brought loneliness in its wake.
As the introduction states, Bob Dylan's lyrics are interposed throughout. While Frog was getting hammered in bar after bar, poetic and profound music made its was into his vacuous existence. Frog's self-centered corner of the universe was being invaded. Like a warm breeze on a very cold day. Dylan's idyllic lyrics brought comfort to him. Frog vaguely sensed his life was changing, but he didn't know how or why.
Make no mistake, Frog was still a self-absorbed and shallow creature, but he knew depth and beauty when he heard it. That was it. Most lyrics were much too difficult to grasp at first. When the Poet sang, "Of war and peace, the truth just twists, its curfew gull, it glides", he felt unsettled and troubled.
Frog would sit quietly in noisy, crowded college bars and low-rent dives, enthralled. He knew this music expressed something essential and meaningful for him, yet the meanings were just out of reach. As Frog applied himself to this one compelling thing, glimpses of understanding came. Dylan's existential anthem spoke directly to him:
"You say you never compromise,
With the Mystery Tramp, but now you realize,
He's not selling any alibis,
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes..."
YES! I got it! The Poet was speaking about the world, Frog's world, our world. This wasn't the world of fraternity pranks or thoughtlessness, meaningless adolescent escapades. No, Dylan's was a world where people and ideas mattered, and where freedom and justice were not empty abstractions. These song-poems expressed what Frog had never considered. His choices carried consequences for others. Frog was deeply impressed and impelled to listen.
Something incredible was occurring, I, your author was beginning to see Frog against a backdrop of a troubled world. People began to matter. Frog's antisocial antics seemed silly and embarrassing. I was coming alive to a profound and disturbing personal worldview. I was hooked. Dylan had me. I was forever changed. i was growing up.
Not to worry. There were many more drunken escapades and arrests. The sad and sorry denouement was soon to come. Frog was falling apart. The good time charlie house of cards was getting shakier by the week. Frog's junior year love affair had gone down in flames.
Mona saw that Frog was a loss-leader, with no return in sight. Our boy had loved her, in his pubescent, high-testosterone way. Beneath frog's sociopathic exterior, there lived a starry-eyed romantic and dreamer. Frog was a pushover when it came to Mona. She had denied him access to the chaste treasure of her body. That had driven him mad with desire and respect. yes, respect. Frog respected what was denied him, on principle. Mona repeatedly did so.
She was of medium height and had olive tinted, velvet skin. Her long, dark hair framed her expressive and knowing, dark brown eyes. Mona had a dancer's body: slim and lithe. Her everyday demeanor was self-confident, friendly, and accepting. Frog loved to watch her dance. Her movements were smooth, sensual, and yet Innocent. Slow dancing with Mona and holding her in his arms, Frog felt vitality and warmth, and was transfixed. he was drawn irresistibly to her magnetic manner.
Frog never knew where he stood with her. He wanted Mona exclusively, possessively, like young males do, but she remained elusive. Frog was captivated and perplexed. He knew he was around her. he never knew where.
Mona was an intellectual who read widely and engaged in far-reaching, intelligent conversation. She wrote poetry, was politically active, and hung with the literati, the hippies of tomorrow. Mona attempted to interest Frog in these endeavors. He was not ready to abandon The Frog.
One evening at The Tavern Mona said to him, "Come on, join us; we're going to Syracuse to a Bob Dylan concert." "No," said he, "I'm staying and drinking here." Frog was going nowhere. She saw that all too clearly. Mona knew Frog was ut
ltimatle redeemable, just not yet.
She had simply given up. Frog couldn't take it. He had fallen head over heels for Mona in that way drowning people fall for their rescueers. Niavely, in his ardent clumsy way, he had offerd his heart to her. Frog felt rejected, unworthy, and alone. He drank more often and heavier. Hangovers became blinding headaches, nausea, and dazed, empty days. The seeds sown by Miss White and his father were bearing friut, such as it was.
The scenes got wilder and scarier. Frog quit doing school work and attending classes. Friends quit coming around. He became more lonley, more desperate, sadder. Frog was terrified. He sensed where this was heading. The conclusion would be awful. Frog had never learned to open up and reach out to anyone. He was lost, deeply depressed, and adrift with no anchor. Frog felt alone, without shelter from the storm his life had become. It was no simply a matter of time, and time was runing out. Soon to come would be, in Dylan's words, "the timeless explosion of fantasy's dream."
Shall I bother to describe the inevitable, final fiasco? Crazy, drunk in public, pants down, gross remarks, obscene gestures, deeply offended and undeserving others, cops, arrest, jail, bail, dean's office. Inevitable harsh punishment was on the way. There would be no recourse and no appeal. Frog had become Camus' Stranger, alienated and alone. He was trapped in a predicament of his own making, and held as in a vise beyond his control.
Events now sped along. Frog was on a conveyor involuntarily taking him away from the green pastures of Cortland State:

Dean: "They call you Frog. I know all about you.
You need psychological help."
Frog: "Yeah, I know."
Dean: "I'm expelling you."
Frog: "Yeah, I know. I don't want to get drafted."
Dean "Get help. I can get you a deferment."
Frog: "OK."

There would be no help, psychological or otherwise, and no deferment. What there would be was a road trip from frigid upstate new York to sunny southern california. Uncle sam was close behind...


December, 1965 + NY to CA

Frog had met his match at Cortland State, Psychotic Sid. He was a blonde-haired, crew-cut country kid with a sculpted, chisled jaw. Sid was all muscle and gristle, tight as a wire, and funny and amiable. He could also be drunk and brooding. Sid was up for anything. Anything covered a lot of ground. He would dance like a dervish one minute, cry in his beer the next, and fight to the death after that. Apropos of absolutely nothing, he would say, "Lets go kill a cat", "Lets break some windows", or "Lets go to Cornell and steal some coats." It could be anything.
Frog loved him and feared him in equal measure. Frog and Sid were two of a kind. Sid's girlfriend Mary had seen the obvious and shut him down. Sid, too, was missing classes, ignoring exams, falling apart, and failing. Like Frog, he was drinking way too much. One day, this conversation occured:

"Hey, Sid, I got kicked out of school."
"Good for you. What now?"
"Fuck this place. Let's go to California."
"I'm in. Let's drink to it."

We did. Before he went, Frog had to talk to his Dad to get his blessing, or at least some acknowledgement he still had a father. His father had always been a huge presence in his life, as we've seen, whether rebelling against or acting like. Frog knew getting booted out of school and running off to california would be a hard sell, after the piss-drinking episode and all. To face the music, Frog got drunk enough to call. He stammered drivel about 'going his own way' and wept. Eventually getting his Dad's grudging OK. Frog's Mom was crushed. She had loved and given without measure. Your author (not Frog) had let her down terribly. By this time, Frog had been left behind.
My sordid family buisness done, we loaded up the iol guzzling '59 Ford my Father had given me. Sid and I begged and borrowed California or Bust money. Leaving what we thought were broken hearts and an unjust world behind, we headed out for the Western skies. A pair of hard-luck james deans, we imagined, motoring to a more understanding and accepting world. We longed to be where good-hearted, hard drinking cowpokes got along OK>
Alabama. We were sitting on some cheap, plastic bar stools in a low rent redneck bar in the middle of an overcast Dixie afternoon, jukebox man a-pleadin' and a-moanin':
"Oh Sally Sue, what can I do,
I'll never love no one but you,
You run away with my brother Lou,
You took my horse and left me blue..."

There we sat: two lost and lonely cowboys, Flotsam and Jetsam, a pair of pale-faced Yankees anchorless, adrift, and a long way from home. We too were a-pleadin' and a-moanin' about Mona and Mary, feeling very blue indeed. We were getting hard, mean-eyed stares from the surly, suspicious Confederates around us. These good old boys probably thought we were Freedom Riders or gay boys from up North here to drive ole Dixie down one more time. We would make good punching bags to help release all that accumulated venom, thanks in large part to the rantings of those demagogues of their day: George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and other would-be Sons of the South.
This was a world in transition; the South was changing rapidly; the Civil Rights movement was in full career. I would be part of that transition, but not today. Sid and i were not in Alabama to fix anything. We didn't wait for Stonewall's boys to get even for Sherman's March through Georgia. We dismounted our bar stools and sidled on out.
Back on the endless road, driving and dozing, dozing and driving, pouring in cheap oil by the gallon. Sid and I ate barely edible cheap, greasy meals, dark to dawn to day, day to dusk to dark. Alabama to Louisiana, Texas to New Mexico, Arizona to California. That old Ford radio forever blasted out static, chatter, noise and the Beatles:
"We can work it out,
We can work it out..."

Events conspired to remind us of the obvious. We were running away because we couldn't work out any of it: not Mona or Mary, not college or conscience, not family or friends, not past or present or future. It was all a confused and confusing mess. As we made our way through the alien, forbidding Southwest landscape, we brooded. Where, really, were we gong? Why and to what? Why should life be any better in a place we knew no one? Was there a way to make it all better? What of Mona and Mary? Were we giving up forever on them? Questions without answers.
I couldn't see, as Sid and I motored restlessly through the night, that i was speeding to an unlikely deliverance.

Reflection on Frog

The Frog stories make me laugh and cringe. The reminders of my grandfather's alcoholism, of my father's love affairs with substances, of all the missteps, acting-outs, and regrets I've accrued while playing at being "free" while getting drunk--these thing get handed down like some sort of broken heirloom.
I had heard, numerous times, the story of the sunny-day-baseball punishment. I don't think my dad ever fully got over the injustice and the arbitrary nature of it being handed down by an authority with impunity. He says as much. I do know, however that he came to a place with my grandfather, shortly before my grandfather, Ray senior, died of cancer, that was saturated with understanding, appreciation and deep respect and that he did not spend he years between his father's death and his own bitter, angry, or resentful of the man my grandfather was.
There are a few more Frog stories to come before the narrative moves on the next (equally as entertaining, absurd, and painful) chapter of my dad's life. I will post them early next week, life permitting.

Monday, October 5, 2009


[Note: These stories are not necessarily chronologically presented. Certain sections are grouped according to topic. Locations are provided to ground the reader in place and time.]


November, 1965--Cortland, NY

I had made it at last: College Senior, Cortland State Teachers College. I was the first in my generation on both sides of the family to make it to college. I wasn't quite Booker T. Washington, to be sure. At least I wasn't boosting cars in jersey or passing out in snow banks outside Joe's Bar and grill. Well, maybe once. I was to graduate in June with a BS in Biology Education and become a high school science teacher. A pillar.
My parents were proud, but anxious. I had done about all I could to fuck it up. They knew some of it. I wasn't particularly discrete or clever enough to hide or disguise much. Public intoxication, drunk and disorderly, disorderly conduct, jail cells, fines, reprimands, restrictions, warnings. I had somehow made it through them all. I was the consummate college boy hell raiser. I fancied myself another James Dean, a rebel.

I however was without clue, cause or conscience. I was a drink yourself stupid, perpetual adolescent. I was 21. I was a Big Man on a small campus, or so went my self-constructed and-perpetuated legend.
I was, after all, the Frog, so named for my deep, at times (hungover) raspy voice. I had become the ultimate pre-Vietnam poster child for all things outrageous and gross.


January, 1963 + Domino's Bar + Cortland, NY

The night was a typical drunken Friday evening at a packed and raucous Domino's Bar. Ah, Domino's--how I loved you! What exciting times, how free, how bulletproof, how young and alive I felt. You were the great place for wide-eyes and wild 17 year old kid I was when I first got to college. There was ear-splitting, throbbing, pulsating juke box rock and roll. Teen-age co-ed and adolescent boys were everywhere laughing, spinning and swinging madly around the room. One and all gyrated in spontaneous, frenzied motion. Smoke, beer and a few mixed drinks, like the Singapore Sling, were everywhere, slow-dance groping, grabbing, grinding, cheers, shouts, chants--tribal, primitive--what a world this was.
You entered directly off the street into a dark, low-ceilinged, 25' by 25' mirrored room. Square black lacquered tables and booths, black tile dance floor and bandstand gave to a place the illusion of secrecy. Most collegian's choice of refreshment was beer, which was everywhere: in glasses, cups, mugs, steins, cans, bottles and pitchers; warm, lukewarm and cold, passes hand to hand.Domino's reeked of beer, sweat, perfume, aftershave, cologne hair spray, cigar and cigarette smoke, and sex hormones. Lots of hormones.
A wide, open doorway led to the barroom proper. This was a long, narrow room with a black topped bar and high stools in front and huge mirrors behind. Bottles, decanters, flasks, and booze of all kinds sat before these mirrors. The reflection in the glass gave the impression of a never-ending supply.
Nasty, pissy bathrooms were off to one side. There were plenty of shadowy corners for dark business, such as tongue wrestling and humping with whats-her-name. Oh, yeah, and upchucking, lots of upchucking. We were kids and we were a long way from home.
On the night in question, some loud-mouth, would-be bad-boy from nearby Ithica College jumped on a table. He pulled down his pants and pissed into a beer glass. An ear splitting chorus of hoots and hollers from inebriated spectators erupted. Not to be outdone and for the greater glory of Cortland State, I jumped onto the same table, de-panted, pissed into a glass, and took a drink.
The place went nuts. My fans went crazy over this grand accomplishment. I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest, won Olympic gold, and cured malaria, all in one wonderful, bold stroke. The cheering was deafening. My vanquished foe slunk ignominiously away. I was in my glory.
Somehow the Dean found out. I was summarily and mysteriously summoned to his uninspired office. What for this time? Waiting outside I wondered: Could it be the Domino's piss incident or the public urination outside The Tavern? Perhaps underage drinking at the Hollywood or fake IDs had drawn me inexorably to my present come-uppance.
The Dean's office was yet another enclave of authority existing exclusively for the purpose of punishing me, or so it seemed. The forties-something, uptight Dean pretended to be my friend. he skipped the foreplay and got right to it. He laid out the Domino's incident in vivid detail, as if relishing the verbal replay. I eventually confessed to what he already knew. My friend then surprised me. He wouldn't kick me out of school, provided I told my parents everything when I got home for my sister, Diane's wedding in February. To prove I had done so, my father was to call the Dean Sunday morning to discuss the situation with him.
I knew my father was not going to like that, at all. I imagined an irate Dean: "Mister Gill, are you fully aware your son exposed himself and DRANK PISS IN PUBLIC!?" My father was a very proud man. Putting this sordid business in his face was going to enrage him. I was in a very tight spot.
The wedding was a happy, drunken affair, marred only by the ten below zero weather. Sunday morning after the weather was so cold our chimney was covered in ice, water froze in the toilet, and I could see my breath in my bedroom. The Gill household was by no means a hospitable place even before I confessed. There was no warmth anywhere. We all felt washed-out and surly, and argued about everything.
My father had a vicious hangover. I could always tell. He shuffled his feet like he was trying to keep his balance on a ship on a stormy sea and the clouded whites of his half closed eyes were crisscrossed with fine red lines like a road map to nowhere. He grunted when anyone dared speak to him. Everything about him said, 'Get the fuck away from me and leave me alone.' He was in no mood for any bullshit, of any kind, much less this.
I had to rouse him out of bed at 9:00 am on this hell frozen over morning to explain my behavior to my Mom and to him. I was forced to do that while his head throbbed and pounded like a heavy metal band at peak volume. Following that task, which itself was like awakening a hibernating grizzly in January, I had to get him to call the Dean. The Dean planned to amaze him. In the process, my good buddy would lay out the truth in its every raw detail. He would help my father get a handle on the psychosocial implications and subtleties of this little piss drinking escapade. There are simply no words in any language anywhere ever to justify urine drinking in public.
Have I made it clear that I was caught squarely between two separate but equal authority figures, each of whom would have his pound of flesh? Whether it was the Dean alone or my father alone or my father and an authority junkie of another stripe, I was singled out for blame and punishment. I got punished a lot. This Domino's incident was not the first such episode. I had been through this train wreck before:

Circa 1952 + Greenfield Center, NY

It was a beautiful, sunny early afternoon Saturday. My brothers Jerry and Charlie and my best buddy Eddie and I were playing baseball in our expansive front yard. We New York Gills lived on a countrified dirt road; our neighbors were spread far and wide. My Dad was asleep inside. he worked 11:pm to 7:am and hit the sheets during the day. One of the guys hit a fly ball to me. I ran for the catch, slipped, and twisted my leg, which bent painfully under me. I involuntarily cried out, "Oh, my God."
The next thing I heard was my father, "Raymond, come in here," in an angry tone. Very angry. 'Uh oh,' I thought, 'What did I do?' On the way in I tried to figure out what i had done, my mind racing. There always seemed to be something I could be blamed for, but not this morning. I knew i was innocent, but something was out of joint. I passed my mom in the kitchen. She gave me her, 'I hope its not too bad' silent empathetic encouragement.
My parent's room was very dark. We had few doors in those days, so thick Navy blankets hung in both entryways to their bedroom. The windows were heavily curtained. For this seven year old kid in trouble, this forbidding inner sanctum was like a haunted house at 3am. The darkness of the room carried unconscious, forbidden Oedipal desires and fears. I tip-toed, warily entering into almost pitch blackness. My eyes adjusted slowly. "Get me my belt," came from my father in deep, ominous tones. I could see him in vague outline only. 'Oh God' I thought "I'm in for it now". I still didn't know why.
My father's pants sat folded on a chair by the bed. I pulled the thick, dark brown leather belt out cautiously, loop by loop and handed it to him. Familiar with the drill, I presented my butt. He propped himself on his right arm so he could swing with his left. I didn't count the strokes. "Go to bed." he commanded. That was it. No explanation, no angry outburst, no angry outburst, nothing. He didn't even say how long I was to stay in bed. I was not about to ask. I left the fearsome room, got into my bed, and lay there. I was wide awake in a very small cell on this sunny summer Saturday.
The others came to my window. They stood here mocking me, and asked what I had done. I begged them to go away and leave me alone. I certainly didn't want to be blamed for something else. I felt sorry for myself. After awhile they went. My mom was sympathetic, but there was no board of appeals in our house. Attempts to free me came to nothing.
I was in bed all that glorious day, until my father got up in late afternoon. I never knew what i had done, or if I had done anything. As I grew up, there were more of these unexplained, and in my view, unjustified episodes. I became familiar with punishment without provocation and pain without purpose. My true feelings went deep underground; I buried my anger inside. I felt habitually fearful, insecure, and self protective. The price I was to pay for this over the years included periodic, debilitating depression, replete with self accusation, guilt, and low self esteem. My anger was like my father's belt, menacing and arbitrary. I learned that exercises of power can be capricious and inflicted on the undeserving.

1963 + Number Two School, Saratoga Springs, NY

My fourth grade teacher, Miss White was a tough one. She countenanced absolutely no nonsense. We were all afraid of her. She had a way of making students feel very small and very stupid. She was in her mid-forties, unmarried, and childless. Her hair sat on her bony head in a huge old-maid style bun that resembled a plastic floral arrangement stuck on a bar stool. She appeared ridiculous, but that was one of the styles at the time. The student who said that out loud would be on his way to Siberia before the school day ended. Miss White was severe without being fair. She had her favorites. I would never be one of them. Everything about her said, 'Don't mess with me.' No one did.
One school day i was told to stay late for what was euphemistically called 'extra work', which was punishment under another name. I sheepishly told her i couldn't because I had no ride home if I missed the bus. Thar was true. She relented, which was completely out of character. We both knew it. Through a no-fault mix-up I missed the bus anyway. Eventually someone took me home.
When i got to school the next day she furiously ordered me in front of the class. In her sadistic show-and-tell she dressed me down something awful in front of everyone. Miss White exposed my perfidy in very clear English. She told the class i was a nefarious, deceitful, and devious Machiavelli. I was nine years old.
She wrote a note which i was to deliver to my father and get his written response. This meant I had to pace in agony until 10pm when my dad got up for his 3rd shift job. I might as well have been walking barefoot over red hot coals. I knew he would be irritable from too little sleep, which was caused by the incessant noise we four Gill kids made. I had to hand him the note and take the blast furnace heat that was sure to come. From the note and what i had said, he saw that Miss White had accused me of lying. He was equally pissed at us both. "Who does that #@* old *#@& think she is, calling my son a liar?" "What the !^#& are you doing lying to your teacher?" Not exactly the clearest logic, but I thought better of pointing that out.
Dad wrote a note taking Miss White to task for calling me a liar. 'Oh yeah', I thought "That'll go over just great.' I had to deliver it. 'The janitor ate the note.' I think not.
That note delivered, Miss White went absolutely ballistic; she was furious beyond control. She indicted me for libel, slander, malicious persecution, and character assassination. She spewed salty spit all over me in her near-hysterical vexation. I was once again caught between two heavy weight authority figures. They both had their own agenda, for which i was the convenient, yet innocent foil.
True to form, Miss White wrote another note. This, the third in the series, laid out in great detail the twenty reasons I was beyond redemption. That note dutifully delivered, my father sat smoking his pipe, gazing blankly at nothing. He was obviously fuming. "Raymond you tell that #@^ old *&# @ I'm sick of this @*$# and give her this." 'Sure' I thought, 'that's what this hing needs.'
I wondered, 'Am I just going to continue passing notes forever? Does this nasty business have an end? Will this very bad dream go on until one of them runs out of paper or ink?' Eventually, they got sick of writing those pointless epistles and agreed i was to blame and would be for whatever happened in the future. I was impaled on my own sword like a good Roman and commanded to take detention. Which was a hell of a lot better than the note fiasco. The early Texans and Mexicans used to shoot the messenger who delivered bad news. Following the maximum psychological damage this incident afforded, the matter was dropped. The messenger had received his reward, such as it was.
I was on two shit-lists and under two microscopes a long time. I learned the hard lesson more than once. Whether I was innocent or not, right or wrong, authority would have its due. If i was blamed and punished anyway, I might as well have my fun. Preemptively that is. Miss White and my father had watered a seed that would produce some outrageous ant-authority fruit. The consequence of "Punish Ray, no matter what' policy would be far-reaching. I almost choked on it.
My pain and anger went deeper into my being. I have been paying a heavy price a long time. Humor can cover a world of hurt:
"Miss White wrote a note to my dad:
"Ray's lies show he's nothing but bad"
My dad wrote right back:
"He's no liar, you hack"
Which drove that old battle ax mad.


February, 1963 + Greenfield Center, NY

Meanwhile, back at the Siberian Gill ranch, I laid out the public exposure, piss drinking episode to my stupefied parents. At the time, it was all about me, I thought. What of my parents? Their only daughter had been married the day before. This meant a new, loving family household and probably grandchildren. Jerry, the eldest, was an honorably discharged navy veteran, like my father, and in seminary. He was preparing to be a Roman catholic priest. Charlie, the youngest, was doing fine, he was a high school junior and student athlete. Here I was, drinking... Well, you know.
Mom and Dad were proud and private people. They carried themselves with dignity. each had a strong sense of personal responsibility. How must my mom have felt? She protected and believed in me. She supported all I did. She encouraged me to go to Cortland State. She personally got me through the application and admission process. She never judged or condemned me. Her gentle and loving mother's heart must have been breaking.
What of my dad? It's one thing to drink too much and fight for the glory and honor of your school, go on an innocent panty raid, or kidnap your rival team's mascot. It's another thing entirely to do what I had done in full view of a room full of people, co-eds included. For my fathers there was absolutely nothing honorable, worthy, or understandable in my grand triumph. To pull my ass out of the fire, he had to suffer the humiliation of being confronted and accused by proxy by this faceless academic 150 miles away. Perhaps this captures the moment:
"I was born 'neath a troubled star,
My folks knew i took things too far,
They were not very proud,
When in front of a crowd,
I drank piss from a glass in a bar."

I confessed the incident in detail to my parents, who sat looking like I was describing an alien abduction. Under the circumstances what could they say? 'You know Raymond, urine is not for drinking.' Could an 18 year old not know that!
Following a prolonged silence pregnant with disbelief, rage, and extreme, humiliation, my father reluctantly swallowed his pride, choked down the bitter pill, and called the Dean. For the immediate future, the worst was over. I was restricted to my dorm, other than for classes, for the entire second semester. I was ordered not to drink alcohol in any form, anytime anywhere. The authorities put me under about ten disciplinary microscopes and admonished me in no uncertain terms. I was never, ever to do anything like that again. Everyone involved, I believe was fully aware that this escapade was one of many more to come. Come they did.

Friday, October 2, 2009

reflections on Ladders Matter

Transcribing this introduction--word by word, restraining myself from editing, where I find the prose repetitive, and allowing myself to sink into the flow of my dad's voice as he prefaces the story to come, has been something close to magical. I can, quite literally, hear him speaking; swimming in the nostalgia and reliving his love affair with Wellington, the land, the ideal. It is as though he is mentally walking through the woods and gardens, describing them to us and himself in song of lush, loving detail. I am struck, softly, and with great force by the depth of his intimacy with the landscape.
I found his description of the actual events and direct consequences of his fall and injury the tightest and most intense piece of writing in the introduction. He makes no apologies, wastes no words--it is compelling, also humorous and tough-minded. Its a nice counter balance to the sweet-swampy idealism of his homesteading-dream, honey bees and migrating geese balladeskery of the previous 4 pages. We get a sense here of what we're in for humor and cynicism, yes, hard realizations and realities, certainly, rooted in his crazy-deep and pervasive awe.