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.

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