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Driving to Jacksonville

2015-12-21

This is a first draft.  Anyone with comments or who has personal knowledge that can contribute to this story, please send your comments here.

Driving to Jacksonville

I was about eight years old in 1962 when my father (Theodore) drove me (Conrad) to Jacksonville, Illinois from Denver, Colorado. We were living in Denver with my sister (Cathy), me, and my mother (Greta) when my father came back from a trip. Unbeknownst to me, my father was dating a woman named Vicki, who would soon become my stepmother.

By this time, he had me living with him part of the time at his bachelor apartment with a closed-in porch that I slept in. One day, he threw out some old magazines, Playboys, and left a pile of them on the stoop. I came in, saw the magazines, and sat down to start reading them. He noticed that I was reading them, but he didn’t say anything, just let me keep on reading. I didn’t understand at that time what it was all about, or why there were so many pictures of naked women (with their pubic areas discreetly obscured.)

This was part of my desensitization to pornography and other shocking things. My father didn’t know it at the time, but he was making the pornography uninteresting to me by not reacting to my reading it. Maybe he did realize that not reacting was the best way to deal with it.

Another day, he stacked some milk cartons (at that time, they were made of waxed cardboard), crushing them and putting several crushed cartons inside another one. Then he set them on the sidewalk and lit them. They burned, slowly, for an hour, as the wax melted and contributed to the fire. I was impressed that so much energy could be obtained from old wax milk cartons.

He had an old Nash car, which was on its last legs, but it ran and got us where we wanted to go. Nash automobiles were last produced in 1957; I don’t know what year this car was, but it had to have been at least five years old or more in 1962. Here is a picture of a 1946 Nash four-door sedan from Wikipedia:

Nash_4-Door_Sedan_2
The three of us, mother, me, and my sister, were living in the student apartments, a group of three-story dormitory-like buildings of brick with basement common rooms. Our apartment had two bedrooms and my sister and I slept in one, on a bunk bed. My mother slept in the other bedroom.

The kitchen had a window that looked out over the yard between the buildings. During that time, I had many friends among the children who lived there while their parents were studying at the university. We played hide and seek, even at night, and met in the common rooms.

One day I was playing with matches in the window well of a basement common room. There were bushes around the window well so it was hard to see in. I wanted to strike a match and see what it looked like. The ground in the window well was wet and slippery, and I pitched over backwards onto the glass. I hit the glass with the back of my head, broke the glass, and cut myself in the occipital area of my head.

I stumbled out of the window well, ignoring the broken window behind me. My first concern was that my brains would fall out. Crying and screaming, I ran to the nearest first floor apartment and banged on the door. Blood was pouring out of the back of my head onto my shirt. The lady who answered must have been shocked, by her expression, and she helped me to my parents.

They took me to a hospital, and the doctor put thirteen stitches on the back of my head. My father took me home in his friend’s sports car after that; I think it was a Triumph TR-3. I stayed with my father more at his apartment. Here is a picture of a Triumph TR-3A, the most popular TR-3 model:

220px-Triumph_TR3A
I was confused and upset by my parent’s separation; I didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t explain it to me. I knew that they had been arguing a lot, but that seemed to have stopped after they were separated.

We had been living in Hawaii; I was four when we moved there, and six when we went back to California. We flew to San Francisco, and my mother, my sister, and I moved in with her mother. I don’t know where my father was at that time. My mother argued a lot with her mother.

We moved to Davis, where my mother enrolled in the University of California, Davis for graduate school. I learned how to ride a bicycle in Davis, but other than that nothing happened. I still didn’t know where my father was; I only saw him once in a while.

We moved to Denver, and that was where I started seeing a lot more of my father. Apparently he had been working and going to school at the University of Denver the entire time. My mother, my sister, and I first lived in a nice brick house which had a basement; at Christmas I got an Erector set.

My mother stitched a large number of stuffed animals while we were living in that house; my sister arranged them all on her bed so that there was just room for her to lie down surrounded by stuffed animals.

One day my father told me that we were going to move to a new place, that it would be good for me. I had already had a number of tests of intelligence and creativity, part of his thesis for his doctorate in psychology. He was studying at the University of Denver to get his PhD in psychology. He said that because he was getting a doctorate, he would be able to take this really good job in Jacksonville.

It was only when we were in the car, the Nash, that I started asking questions about my sister and my mother. He told me that he and my mother had gotten a divorce, and that Cathy was going with her and I was going with him. I told him I didn’t like the fact that he had gotten a divorce. He said to me, “She was the one who asked for a divorce. It wasn’t my idea.”

I only found out years later that my father had told my mother that he had gone to a judge and had gotten custody of me and left my sister in my mother’s custody. He said the judge had ordered him to pay child support to my mother for my sister. He really wanted to avoid paying child support to my mother for me; that was part of his motivation for taking me with him when he moved to Jacksonville.

The part about going to a judge was all a lie; he had never gone to a judge, but he felt that telling her that would make it easier for her to comply with what he thought was right.

He also felt that my mother wouldn’t raise me right and that I would be intellectually stunted if he left me with her. For example, my mother told me that I didn’t have to memorize the multiplication tables, that I was too smart for that, and I should be studying other things. In fact, I finally did learn to memorize the multiplication tables and it took just a few minutes of study, well worth the time. Now, after memorizing the tables, I was able to do all those things, multiplication and division, in my head, and that made shopping, for example, a lot easier.

I also had terrible penmanship, and when I started doing math problems, the numbers would wander all over the page. My father had Vicki work with me to straighten up the numbers into columns so that the mathematics problems would be easier to understand; without the straight columns, it was difficult to do multiplication and division problems on paper (this was before calculators replaced doing these things with a pencil and paper.)

I said I wanted to see my mother and my sister again and my father said that they would come and visit us. I didn’t like it but there was nothing I could do. Later when I was really upset, after we had been in Jacksonville for a few months, I started thinking about how I could get back to Denver. I knew it was eight hundred miles, but I thought, “If I start walking now, maybe someone will pick me up and take me along.” I thought of all the cold and snow on the way, but I was so upset I just wanted to get up and start walking back to Denver.

I got sick and had a fever, and I wanted to see my mother, but she couldn’t come. I felt really small, like a bug on the bedspread, and everything was as big as mountains. I walked and walked along the spread, and I was still in the same place. Then everything reversed and I felt vertiginous as the scale seemed to slide back in place.

It was dark as we drove down the highway, there was no moon, and the headlights of passing cars were the only things we could see, white in front of us and red behind us. Not driving, being a passenger, just looking out the side window, I could see nothing in the darkness.

We ran out of gas a mile before reaching a town, and the dawn light was already full on us when he came trudging slowly back. After cranking the starter for a while, the engine fired again, and we set off into town to the gas station for a fill. I slept for a while. Then it got cold; my father fiddled with the heater controls but no warm air came through the vents.

We finally reached Jacksonville after driving straight for eight hundred miles, stopping only for gas. As a faculty member, my father was allotted housing, a first floor apartment; the second floor was occupied by a language laboratory, where students listened to taped lessons in their chosen language.

The first thing I noticed when I lay down in bed was that the sounds from the language laboratory could be heard through the ventilator shafts, which were commodious and made of sheet metal. Even at night, it seemed, I could hear people talking in French, Spanish, German, Russian, or unintelligibly in some unknown language.

I wanted to get a cat, but my father said no, you can’t have a cat. I suspected later that he didn’t want me to have a cat because he was afraid it would make me gay. So we went to a farm outside of town and he got me a puppy, a beagle. We tried to keep him in the house, but he couldn’t be paper-trained. Nothing would induce him to poop in the right place.

One day the dog pooped on the floor right in front of the front door. My father came in from class and stepped right into it, almost slipping on it. That was the last of the dog. My father gave the dog to our neighbors across the alley, who kept the dog tied up in the back yard.

My father got me two hamsters, a boy and a girl, and I played with them a little bit. Sometimes they got out of their cages and I had to go looking for them under the sofa.
Before we drove to Jacksonville, my father began dating a woman that he met in his psychology class (he was a student instructor, already having his master’s degree.) After he got the job in Jacksonville, he proposed marriage to her (although he had already made sure of her by taking her to bed.) She was very taken with him and accepted.

During the Christmas vacation, they got married while I stayed with my mother and sister. My mother was crying and I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but much later I realized that she was crying because she still loved him and didn’t want him to get married again. She couldn’t live with him because of the arguments so she had asked for a divorce; but she couldn’t avoid him completely, depending on him for money, for one thing. After the divorce, she only asked for child support for myself and my sister. Even so, it was hard on him.

We drove back to Jacksonville, the three of us, after Christmas. I had met Vicki, my new stepmother, before, and I had thought she was very nice; in fact, I preferred her over the other girl that my father had suggested to me for a new mother. I’m not sure, but I think he was pleased with my choice because he preferred Vicki too.

Many years later, Vicki told me that Ted had laid down some rules for her to follow. She told me that he had said that she should never touch me, not even a hug or a kiss. I was to be kept in the dark as much as possible with regards to her and she was to stay fully dressed whenever she was around me.

Nonetheless, Vicki and I developed a close friendship and we played word games and other little amusements. I don’t remember exactly what we did but it was like playing with codes or something.

When we got back to Jacksonville after Vicki and my father had gotten married, we opened the front door to find the rooms completely filled with steam and water all over the floor. The pipes in the bathroom had frozen and burst, and there was a natural ice sculpture in the bathroom with icicles hanging from the ceiling. Apparently the heat had been left off while we were gone and it got so cold that the water in the pipes froze. When it thawed, the pipes that had broken open started spurting water everywhere.

When I went to school, I found that classes had already started, and I was a few days behind. Everyone stared at me. I was not surprised to see a few black faces in the class, although I had never seen a Negro before. My father had told me that there would be black people here and explained that they were exactly the same as everyone else except that their skin color was darker.

He told me to treat everyone the same. I didn’t understand at first what he meant, but later I realized that not everyone thinks the same way. I got into trouble one day when I passed a note to Stuart Freiburg that had a naughty word in it, “shit” or something like that. The teacher sent me home with a note and I had to explain to my father.

He said that there are several words that people don’t want to have heard in public, and it was just a social convention. He said that I should not use those words with other people, but when I was grown up, it wouldn’t matter so much.

At first, I thought my father was a fount of wisdom, but after several years I began to question his judgement. The place where he succeeded the most was in making me get good grades. He paid me, for example, ten cents for every “outstanding”; if I got a “satisfactory” I got nothing. If I got a “needs improvement” then I lost ten cents. We got report cards every six weeks and there were some thirty or forty marks on each card. There was a chance I could get as much as three dollars on a single report card.

After he instituted this system, my grades picked up rapidly. Within six months, I was making two dollars or more on every report card.

 

This is a first draft.  Anyone with comments or who has personal knowledge that can contribute to this story, please send your comments here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard L Steagall permalink
    2015-12-21 09:43

    As a fellow graduate of Jacksonville High School, I am glad you did come to Jacksonville. It will be developed later in your biograpy but my regret is that because a coach did not do his job we did not come to know each other better.

    Thanks to our mutual friend MIke Baise — another Jacksonville High School graduate — who made a concerted effort to track you down.

    Like

  2. Robin Atkins Smollar permalink
    2015-12-21 14:03

    How enjoyable to read your post and know how you are doing. I liked that you were my sister Terri ‘s date for the Beaux Arts Ball. I was fascinated by you so I have wondered what became of you. Good luck. Robin Atkins Smollar

    Like

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