Friday, December 17, 2010

Where Am I From? Everywhere and Nowhere

    I was born in Blackfoot, a small town in Idaho, on November 27th, 1961. In 1963, after my sister was born, my parents moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where my father is from,  and soon divorced.
    For the next ten years, it seemed  I was  constantly in motion. I was sent, or shipped like a package, from parent to parent, state to state. Or, if a parent was unavailable, I would end up with a relative or friend of the family. I never felt at home, or like I had a home . . . at least not until 1974.

    Being passed around like a bad cold, I never developed a sense of who either parent was, or what they were like. I  have some  memories, but they are bleak and skewered at best. My mother was small  in stature and it seemed like she was sick all the time. When I was in  third grade, she came down with a form of hepatitis, and within months  had  the  first of several heart surgeries. She may have been in her 30s at the time. I also remember her as having an alcohol problem at one time and being a heavy smoker too. Coming to terms with my own mental health, I now understand my mother was  a manic-depressive.
    My mother had four children and I was the oldest.  During the times  I stayed with my mother, I became the caretaker of the younger children. Memories of childhood do not paint a pretty picture. We were not a loving family, and with me being in motion constantly, I became alienated from the other children. I was the outsider.
    We were also a welfare family back in the days when food stamps had a cash value and commodities such as cheese, powdered eggs, powdered milk, peanut butter, and the gallon cans of spam were given out monthly. I can’t count the trips we made as kids to the store with food stamps just to buy a piece of candy or another small item so we could get change to buy cigarettes and other things food stamps couldn’t buy.
    The times I spent with my father were puzzling to me and there were occasions when he seemed reluctant to take me. My father was a large man, over 6 feet and looked like the Indian he was. But it was never clear as to the tribe he, or we, belonged to. Part of the family said we are Choctaw, the other half claims to be Cherokee. I heard my grandfather say we were Quapaw. Not that it means much to me anymore, but I can trace my family back to the Dawes Commission Rolls.  Back to the days of resettlement of Indian tribes commonly known as the Five Civilized Tribes who were sent on a forced march known as the Trail of Tears. My ancestors originally settled in the Pryor Creek area, known today as Pryor, Oklahoma, which is where Whitaker is. I guess you can say being at Whitaker brought me full circle.
    One of the problems my father had was that he loved women. Over the years I had three stepmothers with a total of eight siblings, again with me being the oldest. I met most of them as a child. It seems that out of all of us I was the only one who got shipped around. There were a couple of times  my sister, from my mother’s side, accompanied me, but over all it was just me.
    The last time I saw my father was about a year, maybe more, before he passed away. Prior to that the last time I saw him was when I lived with him and one of my stepmothers in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. It’s a lovely little town where he abandoned me with a lady who didn’t know what to do with me as I was recovering from chickenpox. I was in the fifth grade.
    Both parents are gone now. My father died in 1993 at 51, my mother in 2000 at 60. Both died from heart disease or complications associated with congestive heart failure, and the only reason I know this is because I’m going through the same thing right now. I’ve never mourned the loss of either parent, for me they were both strangers.
    1974: After a couple of years in and out of jails and courts as a runaway, I was made a ward of the state; deemed a child in need of supervision. I was eventually sent to Whitaker State Childrens' Home in Pryor, Oklahoma.
    Entering Whitaker was intimidating to say the least, the place looked huge. My memory is a bit cloudy, but I seem to recall 11 dormitories, one administration building, a mess hall, school building and gymnasium, out buildings including a large warehouse. We were taken to the orientation center where we would spend the next two weeks.
    I was used to the institutional life before entering Whitaker. I had spent three months at the Lloyd E. Rader Diagnostic and Evaluation Center. It was at the Rader Center when I began to realize my potential, but it wasn’t until after I arrived at Whitaker that I blossomed. I became a big man on campus, literally, and it was for all the right reasons.

    During this time I was beginning to develop my love for writing. I would dabble in poetry and  help some of the guys with there little love notes to  girls. But it wasn’t long before the girls knew who was writing what. I was also into extra curricular activities. I became president of our science club, allowed to go off campus on field trips. I joined the drama department, taking part in our Christmas program as the narrator. I was dressed as a wise man and should have exited after the play began, but froze up instead and stood there off to the side behind my podium and watched the whole play.

    As my popularity soared, with teachers as well as students, so did my confidence. I was pretty much allowed to do what I wanted at the school and would often visit other classrooms, or volunteer for projects, instead of staying in my scheduled classes. I was too smart for my own good and the teachers had a hard time challenging me without over challenging the other students. These days I wonder what has become of that boy genius. My three favorite teachers, in no particular order, were Mr. and Mrs. Moore, math and English respectively, and Mr. Wyatt, my science teacher.
     I was also assigned privileged chores, chores you had to meet certain requirements for. It may be hard to believe, but I was once a snuff-dipping cowboy with matching hat. Whitaker was self-sup- porting and had its own cattle ranch/dairy, hog farm, and meat processing facility. I spent a lot of days tending 300 dairy cows, which includes shoveling certain “byproducts”. I can literally say that I have been knee deep in dung. The job entailed washing out the milking barn, then going out to the hog pens to do the same. Summer months we hauled hay and stacked silage. If we got bored we chased peacocks. In the evenings, my chore was to help deliver dinner to the dormitories, girls dorms included.

    Some of our weekend activities included bike rides, from the main campus to the dairy and back, pond fishing, and social mixes where I would spend most of my time sitting and watching, though I did try dancing once and only once. On Saturdays two dorms, one male and one female, would be allowed to socialize at an on campus hamburger stand.

     I had many friends at Whitaker but the one who comes to mind, the one I think of most was a little kid named John. John was six when I met him. I was sitting outside in the common area one day and he just showed up. Normally I would have shooed him away, but there was something about him so I let him stay. I’m not sure, but I think that on that first day together we just sat there, lost in our own thoughts.

    John was a skinny  kid, the kind you think will blow away unless he holds onto something or puts rocks in his pockets. He also had a catheter, with a bag strapped to his leg that often leaked. The other kids teased him about it, but it seems that after we began hanging out the other kids left him alone more. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but it’s how I  remember it.

     Don’t tell anyone but I had a nickname at Whitaker too, and you had to be special to earn a nickname there (okay, I’m still special). As a teen, I developed a fixation with trucks, semi’s. I wanted to be a truck driver when I got older. (Not becoming one was one of the best things in my life.) Because of my love for trucks, always drawing pictures of them (did I mention I was artistic too) and because of my size, I was pegged with name of Diesel. After the Christmas show, when I had to wear a crown as a wise man, I was given the name of King Diesel.

    Days at Whitaker weren’t always sunny and happy.. I  developed a dark side too, what was then known as a bad attitude. It was the reason I spent so much time in detention.  The detention center was  right in the middle of the campus and, like any grapevine, it wasn’t long before everyone knew who went in and why. Our punishment was standing in front of a red brick wall for four hours a day with a scrub brush. We scrubbed back and forth, no looking around, eyes forward at all times and no talking. , Break the rules and get a day added. They were the shiniest bricks I ever saw.
    I had my first major panic attack in detention, only then it wasn’t known as a panic attack. Detention had a common area, like a dorm room with four little rooms off to the side. It seemed like every time I went to detention, I ended up in isolation.. These isolation rooms were about 6’x6’, with one small window you couldn’t see out of, a small light overhead, and a stainless steel commode. I don’t remember a bed but I do remember  we were only given thin mat and a blanket at night. My first panic attack resulted from being in isolation, and after repeatedly being told by staff to shut the hell up, security was called and I was placed in a straight jacket. I was a couple of months away from my fifteenth birthday.

    Still, the time at Whitaker was, for the most part, the happiest time of my life. It was there that I realized I was not alone. I was not abnormal. I was one of many. There were approximately 300 children at Whitaker just like me, and I had found a home.

    The year 1977 brought an end to that. During the three years I was there I was sent back to my mother a couple of times, only to find my way back to my friends. I would do almost anything to get back to Whitaker, but I eventually became too old. My last visit was 1978, I almost begged to come back, it had become my home, they had become my family.

    The years after Whitaker were a whirlwind of expectations and disappointments. I tried to enlist  in the military but was turned down by three branches because of my size, I was too big. I then tried a stint at Job Corps, which went well, until I thought my mother needed me and I subsequently dropped out, but I did obtain my G.E.D. (On a side note. In 2009, while a resident at the shelter I ordered a copy of my G.E.D. Diploma. It's dated July 26, 1979 and it's the first copy I've ever seen, and it only took me 31 years to get it. I was also wrong about my mother needing me.)

    After leaving Job Corps, forced to return to family that had no use for me, unless of course they needed something, I began experiencing more of what is now known as anxiety and panic attacks, and going through bouts of depression.(In writing this I remember seeing a shrink on a weekly basis as early as the third grade) I eventually ended up doing time in prison because of these attacks. So yes, if anyone asks, I have two strikes against me. One in 1981 and the other in 1989. I discharged my parole on 9/11/1990, over 20 years ago. This is also the time I began traveling across country, I spent years it seems hitchhiking, living on the highway. Homelessness became a way of life, only I never saw myself as being homeless or having a problem with it. It was just my lifestyle.

    When people ask me about my past, my fondest memories are of the years 1974-1977. When asked where I come from I usually tell them I’m from everywhere, but in my heart I come from a place I called home, a home of children who belonged nowhere.