Smells Like Child Neglect
by Arlo Hennings
Excerpt from the book "Guitarlo."
My earliest memory is of riding a train that caught fire. I was four years old, and my brother, Randy, was six. It was Christmas Eve, and our mother was taking us to her hometown in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, across the Allegheny Mountains from Pittsburgh. Coming down the mountain, the brakes on the train burned out. Thick smoke quickly filled our car, people began coughing, and my mom looked panicked.
A man in a soldier’s uniform said, “Can I help you, ma’am?”
My mom blushed, behind her bright red lipstick. She smiled and straightened her 1957 sheath dress — the kind with the big white-collar and empire-waist pleat in the back. “Thank you, young man,” she replied.
The man, in his impressive, pressed uniform, covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief, and Mom covered my brother’s mouth with her hand.
“My honor, ma’am,” he said, tilting his military cap.
Tears blurred my vision, as a thickening smoke burned my eyes, and I heard shouting about the brakes. I felt terrified, having thought that the train would fly off its tracks into the dark of night. The next morning I woke up to find my gifts under the tree. Randy and I were dressed as cowboys. The train and Santa’s reindeer had all stayed on track.
I was a Hoosier, born with a plastic spoon in my mouth; a bouncing Boomer boy who arrived one late snowy December evening in 1953.
Mom and Dad named me “Gary,” a short, comfortable name that traveled easily with me as we hop-scotched across Middle America. My friends and neighborhoods changed often in those suitcase-filled days. Dad, absent much of the time, moved us back to Indianapolis when I turned six.
That’s where the next big event of my life occurred, with the birth of my sister Cindi — the only blonde in our family. One day, a few years later, she asked me to get her some Kool-Aid. With cup in hand, I somehow walked directly into the burning end of my mother’s cigarette. My right eye swelled shut with hot ash. I collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain, while mom chatted undisturbed with a neighbor. I saw the neighbor with my one good eye pretend as nothing happened.
With a few exceptions, most of my memories from early childhood are a strange mix of mice running over my feet, and S&H Green Stamps. The mice were the unwelcome guests in the ratty dive that my dad had rented. We received the bonus stamps with our purchases at local stores. Mom licked them one by one and stuck them into her collection. Books of stamps could then be traded for items at the Green Stamps redemption center. One September, after months of stamp collecting, Mom traded in her green boon for a pair of black dress shoes and blue trousers. Those were my first school clothes.
Late one night during an Indianapolis winter, I was asleep in an apartment or hotel (I didn’t know) and my dad woke me up. I hadn’t seen him for a very long time.
“Here’s 10 cents. Go down to the street and get me a newspaper,” Dad said.
I got as far as the lobby door and froze. I was too scared to go out and ask for a newspaper. My dad was behind me, and he took me out to the street.
We didn’t have jackets and I started to shiver in the late November temperature.
“John F. Kennedy elected president,” the newsvendor announced, “read all about it.” His voice was hoarse from shouting.
“Hand him the 10 cents, son,” Dad encouraged.
I gave him the dime and the man handed me a newspaper.
“Say thank you,” Dad urged.
“Thank you, mister,” I said.
The next memory of my dad came a year later. My parents were watching black and white TV. I came into the room and complained that my groin hurt. My dad pulled my pants down and stared in shock and said, "His gonads are purple! What happened to you?”
“I fell on the bike,” I answered.
“It would appear so,” he said.
“Get a bag of ice,” he told Mom.
She gave me the ice, and told me to place the bag between my legs, then go and lie down. That was the last memory I had of my dad for the next several years.
Later, to my amazement, a new baby arrived one winter day in late December. My parents told me that she was my newest sister, Sue. We were now a family of four kids — two boys and two girls, the perfect nuclear family. I didn’t know where Sue came from because I didn’t remember my mom being pregnant, or anyone bringing Sue home from the hospital. Suspicious of her identity, I mercilessly destroyed her comfort blankets.
Even though my dad was a traveling salesman, and I thought she could be from anywhere, it dawned on me she had a striking resemblance to Dad. Satisfied that Sue had survived my interrogation, I declared a truce. We shared breakfast cereal and popcorn while watching Walt Disney. However, for the rest of my life, she would never forgive me for burning her blankets.
Dad never seemed to make his sales quota, so every few years he uprooted the family in search of new territory. Finally, when I was in the middle of fourth grade, we settled down in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville, while Dad enjoyed a long, winning sales streak until that very sad night that, once again, would uproot us all.
One evening the police found my dad face down in a country road ditch — nowhere near his car, which was found running at a deserted intersection. He had a large, grease-covered lump on the back of his head. After the accident, a red linoleum chair became part of his body, while Dad passed his days chain-smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, and watching Lawrence Welk’s “champagne music” reruns on TV. My dad’s hospital bills and his inability to work landed the family in bankruptcy — like the game of Chutes and Ladders that we kids played, wherewith the roll of the dice we went down the slide to climb back up.
The fighting between my parents intensified with the growing bills. We needed books and clothes for school. Utility bills piled up and mortgage payments lagged behind.
“What did you spend the $25 on?” my dad shouted, as he tried to balance the checkbook while scrutinizing every entry.
“I bought school supplies,” my mom cried.
The fighting lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
“I’m going to punch Dad in the face if he doesn’t leave Mom alone,” Randy said, as he lay in bed next to me.
“Do you think money grows on trees?” Dad screamed. “You spent too much. This is your fault.”
A lamp crashed against the wall. Furniture tumbled. A body made a loud thump as it landed on the floor. Gasping for words, my mother screamed, “Stop it! You’re hurting me. I will get a job.” Scratching my dad’s arm, she hollered, “Get off of me.”
Every word from my parents flowed through the floor like it was made of paper. My brother was on the swimming team, and he’d started a cool rock band. A whole lot was riding on his future. I didn’t know what to think. Instead, I dreamed of going on an adventure, or running away — so, I figured out how to do both.
The next day was Sunday.
In an effort to show we were a normal family, mom tried her best to impress the neighbors that we were a good, God-abiding, Christian family. Before my memory could recall, Mom had us baptized under the Lutheran seal of approval. The four of us dressed in our best clothes, and she drove us to the only church in the area. If I refused to participate, I would be locked in my room for the day. Given the option, within my juvenile perspective — the Holy Bible was better than solitary confinement. During that summer we attended church, Randy became an altar boy, and my sisters colored religious comic books. I was placed into Sunday school.
“Why do these people from Jesus’ home village have nice haircuts and clean clothes? I thought they were poor shepherds,” I inquired of the middle-aged, suburban, white lady Bible teacher.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
“People didn’t look like that 2,000 years ago,” I protested, “Is there proof any of this really happened?”
My remark was ignored, and more storybooks full of detailed drawings of bearded men with canes and sheep were placed into my hands for homework. I thought I had enough homework to do from regular school, and didn’t like the idea of getting more.
“What is all this for?” I objected.
“After Sunday school you will be confirmed so you won’t go to hell,” the teacher explained.
Watching my parents duke it out was, by any description, living in hell. No point in trying to say I wasn’t going there. The summer ended with one less confirmed soul, and I never attended a church again.
One morning, Mom and Dad stepped out. My brother and sisters sat at the dinner table together eating cereal.
“I’m not going to move,” Randy protested, splashing the Wheaties out of his bowl with a spoon.
“If you’re not going,” I chimed in, “then, neither am I.”
“Where are we going?” Cindi asked.
“Not true,” was all Sue could say.
We vacated the newly built, two-level, 5-bedroom house with its finished basement and a big yard with a nice green lawn. The golden new bowling alley — would become those parts in my game board of my life’s memory bank. Once again, my brother and sisters and I would be hauled away like used furniture and return to the struggling, low-income, blue-collar world of the inner city.
The day before my first-grade day of school, the chain on a swing had snapped, and I fell on my back. The nerves pinched and my legs wouldn’t move.
“You’re not staying home to play,” Mom hollered, as she walloped my hind end with a stick.
“I can’t walk,” I pleaded.
I was supposed to walk to school with my brother but he left without me. Mom got a neighbor to pick me up and drop me off. I stood in the hallway, unable to move as the other kids ran past me at the sound of the bell. Slowly, throughout the day, I began to retrieve control of my legs. By the next day, I was still sore but I could walk normally again.
The first-grade teacher was older than Whistler’s Mother. A white knob on the wall behind her desk had a pair of dangling wires.
“Rules are simple at School 66,” the teacher warned. “Follow them and you won’t get switched.” She used the word “switched” to mean “electrocuted.”
The girl next to me started to cry.
After school, I wandered into the house of a schoolmate and discovered a piano. My fingers danced upon the white and black keys while serenading magical melodies through my ears into my soul, suddenly turning me on to an amazing musical discovery from within me; an epiphany moment in my musical history that would cause me to be forever changed — my first sudden breakthrough and ah-ha moment — and I would continue to emulate and describe these most eternal musical truths within my being the only way that I could within my musical compositions and contributions which would become throughout and for the rest of my entire lifetime.
“Do you like music?” the boy’s mother interrupted my improvisational concert.
Without lifting my hands off the keyboard, I answered, “Yes, I like it a lot.”
The high notes sounded like the tiniest droplets of rain. The lower notes sounded like dark, heavy thunder under my bed during the darkness of night. The middle keys were a balance between the two sonic clouds. My small arms could span the width of several octaves, and it was on those keys where I grabbed the sunlight.
In fifth grade, I was sentenced to sit in the hallway for disciplinary reasons. My behavior had been deemed “disruptive.”
In the hallway, I channeled my creative energies into drawings on paper; furious, fantastic, intricate sketches of undersea worlds. The drawings were ripped from my hands and smashed into a ball by the principal.
“Where do you think drawing cartoons will get you?” he roared, “Your hair is over your ears and you’re growing a ducktail.” The principal pulled my shirt collar. “I’m issuing you a citation,” he continued, “If you get three citations, it equals one misdemeanor. The penalty is expulsion from school.”
Perhaps the problem wasn’t me. Maybe it was Mr. Francis, my teacher. I entered Sioux Trail elementary school in 1964, the first year the school opened. Everything smelled new from the chalkboard to the urinals. The electrical switcher was gone. My class was evenly divided between boys and girls. I sat in the front row, on the far left aisle. My teacher was new, as well, that being his first year teaching.
Mr. Francis was of average height, sporting short brown hair with one Brylcreem-sculpted wave above his forehead that was large enough for surfing. He wore a purple dickey bow tie with a black flannel business suit, and men’s cologne — none of which enhanced his appearance or body odor. His square chin jerked forward like a pecking rooster, as he limped on his artificial right leg. Every step on his bad leg made a fart-like noise that was a never-ending source of class jokes.
I can’t pinpoint exactly where the breakdown occurred between Mr. Francis and the class. I think he was simply too slow and conservative for modern, middle-class students who found his military-tactics teaching style to be quite awkward, and something I decided to deem impossible for myself and fellow student-body to adapt into our school’s already-established way that we were used-to, which he did not fit into. His was oriented around discipline, versus our usual system of accountability-based pranks.
Although, I didn’t start the rebellion — I played a leading role.
The class grew increasingly unmanageable when Mr. Francis refused to let us visit the gym during our gym period. We needed to run around, play marbles, kick a ball, and burn off excess energy. Instead, Mr. Francis had us hide beneath our desks, and play an atomic bomb drill. The girls in skirts refused. I thought we needed to respond with a shot across the bow; i.e., a ballistic missile launch.
I chewed off the largest piece of paper I could soak in my jaw. When it was soggy enough, I rounded it like a cannonball and hurled it at the blackboard. The spitball made a loud whack as it struck the chalkboard next to our drill sergeant. The class broke out in a roar of laughter.
Mr. Francis spun around abruptly on his bad leg. “Who threw that?” he screamed. I was ready for retaliation. The tips of my chair legs were reversed so one self-propelled kick ejected me across the floor like a pilot from a cockpit. Mr. Francis tried to slam my desk into my chest. Unfortunately, the classmate behind me took the full brunt of the impact while I went sailing. So, Mr. Francis sent me off to the hallway. After ripping up my drawings, the principal stepped in to finish the class, and we never saw Mr. Francis again.
After revolving-door visits to the school counselor, there was a consensus: whatever my problem, I would eventually grow out of it.
“If not, perhaps “medication” could temper him,” I overheard the counselor tell my parents. He also mentioned re-ha-bi-li-ta-tion, which was a big word I didn’t understand.
By the time I was 10 years old, I grew adventurous. One afternoon I got 50 cents from my brother to go see a movie. I walked by myself for several blocks to the local cinema. It was the bravest thing I had ever done. My brother said the movie was scary and dared me to go. I looked up and read the marquee — Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds. I couldn’t imagine what would be so scary about some birds. I paid my two quarters to the woman inside the glass booth, and she slipped me back a ticket through a hole in the glass.
The cinema was empty, which made the gigantic screen seem even larger. Halfway through the the black-and-white movie, I was so petrified — I began to believe that what I was watching was real. I was too scared to get up and leave. The idea that nature could have its own consciousness and a revengeful one at that rattled my imagination.
On the way home, I carefully eyed the telephone wires, rooftops, and trees for any sign that a flock of birds might be gathering. My expression must have given me away.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Mom surmised. “You went and saw that scary movie, didn’t you?” she prodded.
I shook my head no, while immediately becoming suspicious of our pet parakeet. The bird was named “Max” and I thought he couldn’t be trusted.
Before my father’s accident, a bug bit me one Christmas when I opened a box and found a telescope inside. It was bigger than a common pirate spyglass, sporting a two-inch-diameter lens, complete with tripod. The magnification couldn’t read the surface of Mars but it could take me to the moon. I’d climb out of my window and up onto the roof to scan the heavens for life.
Many a night, I laid there on my rooftop zooming-in on the moon, looking for any secrets that only I could be entrusted to know. The moon’s face opened up to me and revealed all of her wounds. I noted the size of every crater and the length of their shadows across the lunar soil, aka “moon dust.”
After the wonderment of the night sky turned me into an insomniac, my interest turned from outer space to inner space. For my 11th birthday, I received a 48-piece microscope set. I could now, for the first time, peer into the laboratory of life at super magnified levels of blood, dead skin, and the body of an ant. The set came complete with glass slides, Petri dish, sample vials, and tweezers. Wearing my mother’s white church gloves and a lab coat fashioned from a bedsheet, I turned my microscope loose upon nature.
“Is anybody in there?” I queried while examining a piece of human hair.
My first travel machine was handmade from one of the many moving boxes left behind by my mom, who followed dad on his endless pursuit of a job. Using a flashlight, I crawled into a packing box and began to design the controls of my ship.
First, I drew a screen with a black crayon. Below the screen, I inserted sewing spindles for control knobs. With a butter knife jabbed through the box, I made a good sturdy throttle. Since my machine could travel much faster than the speed of light — just raising the knife slightly upwards shot me across the Milky Way in a blink of an eye, and in a slightly lowered position I slowed down enough to observe life on other worlds. The last component missing was a steering wheel. I extracted the part from a broken riding lawnmower I found in my parent’s garage and mounted it into the cardboard wall below the screen. My control panel was similar to the design of the dashboard in my dad’s 1966 Thunderbird.
A simple blast of a Cracker Jack whistle announced my departure. Inside the box, I traveled to the gates of Asgard and to the center of the subatomic universe. Time was irrelevant as my machine could also travel back through time to the lower Jurassic or forward to the homeland of ancient aliens. When the fighting between my parents got to be too much, all I had to do was enter the coordinates for another dimension and I was carried away until I could no longer hear the violence.
When I outgrew the inside of a Mayflower mover’s box, I became fascinated with railroad tracks. There were tracks not far from the house and I would walk the rails, balance myself on one rail, or place a penny on a rail to watch a train smash it to twice its size. I studied the graffiti on the passing train cars. Names in strange languages in colorful red, white and blue designs like Zapata Lives! were spray-painted over the doors. Who were the people who wrote their names on the train and where they came from? The rails seemed to go on forever, and there was great delight in the feeling of looking down the tracks and imagining them to be the throat of eternity.
The tracks beckoned me to take long bike trips.
Each day, I peddled further down the road on my sky blue Schwinn Country Roamer. My wonderful bicycle, complete with its muscle handlebars and fabulous silver-ribbed stingray fastback seat, carried me into the next neighborhood, past the woods, and beyond.
My walks in the woods became longer, too — more like scouting missions to find a lost civilization. Even in the winter, I trekked out into the woods, taking note of wind direction, sunlight, cloud movement, and peculiar prints in the snow — until my feet froze and I was in dire need of shelter.
Fort building started one winter when I made an igloo out of the snow. I sat within my shiny icy dome, illuminated by my camping lamp, dreaming of polar bears snorting, whales surfacing, and the call of a snowy owl. Next, I built a year-round retreat in the rafters of our garage. From that vantage point, I could spy on my dad. I remember seeing him leave and return at all odd times of the night.
My next engineering feat took me up into the trees. High above the ground, my lofty tree shack provided a magnificent view of the Minnesota River valley and an artificial lake called, Black Dog, where I speared for carp. I was also high up enough to see further across the valley and out to the edges of the city.
One afternoon, I noticed that the city was on fire as a great cloud of smoke engulfed the buildings below. Later, over dinner, my dad talked about something called nigger, and how people were rioting, destroying buildings, and should be shot.
Finally, seeking to be invisible, I went underground during the spring season, after digging an elaborate self-sustaining Earth pod and furnishing it with a sleeping bag and supplies; including Snickers bars and soda pop. The explorations became more elaborate and complex, as I added a canteen, Boy Scout compass, and a bow; whereby I fearlessly shot arrows at the sun.
By 1967, when I was 13, Mom started to pack the house for the big move and I swapped enough bottle-refund pennies, Kool-Aid stand nickels and lawn-mowing dollars for the one-way Greyhound bus ticket from Minneapolis to St. Louis. I didn’t put much thought into the planning of this runaway scheme. A friend of mine had moved there and offered to house and feed me. He thought for sure his parents would learn to like and adopt me. There was no way to confirm any of his promises, nor how long it would last. It was sort of like against the rules of the adventure to ask very many questions.
As I rode the bus en route to St. Louis, I watched as my old stomping grounds disappeared behind me, along with my translucent wide-eyed expression reflecting back through a great big wide window, from high above it all in my fat cushy comfy tilt-back chair.
Riding these massive planes of sensational visual existence, I was experiencing an unfolding and refolding right before my eyes, through my translucent image in the window to a greater escape within my ever-changing reality.
Meanwhile, my riding companions and I embarked upon many spans of farmlands, rivers, and bridges like patchwork tapestry quilts alive and weaving their own stories appearing and vanishing right before my eyes. I dreamt... “ever-evolving doors.”
Travelers treating me like a grown-up, talking in their strange accents asked, “Where you headed, son?” Enthusiastically, I answered them with a hearty “St. Louis!” noting the southern drawl I imagined Huck Finn used while shouting for Jim after their raft was smashed apart in the fog. My fellow travelers and I were all bonded together on an adventure to paradise. In a bus or on a river raft — no matter — it was my movement toward freedom, and my freedom was where I saw fit.
When I arrived with my Huck Finn bag of clothes, the story was spun quickly by Tom Sawyer.
“He’s a friend from school and we’re doing a sleepover,” my friend Tom explained to his frowning parents.
Two nights later, Tom Sawyer asked me to pull my pants down. I saw he had already done so, and I followed.
We laid there outside in the back yard, side by side, butt naked beneath the moon.
“Let’s rub ourselves,” he suggested.
The next thing I knew Tom was down there bobber hopper on my fishing tackle. He asked me to return the pleasure, and with hesitation, I complied. Having never done anything like that before, I didn’t know what to expect.
“Tom, don’t take this the wrong way. I like you and everything. I mean consider me your wingman for life… but I feel very confused by what we’re doing,” I explained, “and why are we touching each other like this?”
Tom hugged me while encouraging, “It’s no big deal, really. Forget it. We’re friends, forever, and when I run for president vote for me okay?”
“Yeah, sure, let’s keep this our little secret,” I whispered.
Tom’s parents caught on when the sleepover lasted a week and they asked where I lived. The adventure ended the next day after that — when the police car pulled into the driveway and I found myself being shuffled into the back seat.
On my long ride back to Minneapolis, I felt a new sense of growth, as well as dread.
I was fingerprinted, photographed, and pushed before a judge. In an amazing miscarriage of justice, they connected me to a rash of crimes — pinball machine hacker, Christmas bulb snatcher, skateboard bandit, cigarette smuggler, Playboy magazine peddler, Halloween pumpkin smasher, and babysitter stalker. They also accused me of punching Roundhouse Rodney (a TV kid-show celebrity) in the stomach on an ice skating rink. The judge found me guilty on all charges. My syndicate was so vast they dubbed me the “kingpin” notorious gang leader for the River Hills raiders.
“Let the trial of nobody’s son begin,” the Judge commenced as he hit his gavel on a sound block.
My parents stood before the judge with me for a moment and then stepped away.
“The State versus the hoodlum,” the judge read from a paper. “Do you understand the charges brought before you?”
“No.” I shook my head.
“How do you wish to plead, guilty or not guilty?” The judge asked.
“Not guilty, your Honor,” I spoke up.
The probation officer grabbed me by the seat of the pants and gave a hard yank. The idea was I stand straight like a soldier to accept my verdict with respect.
There was whispering back and forth between the probation officer and the judge. I overheard the word, “Boy’s Town” and a shockwave shot up my spine. I felt my skin grow scales. Nothing could penetrate me. I was invincible.
My parents remained silent and offered no defense or any possible explanation of why I might have run away.
The judge whacked his gavel again against the sound block and it was over.
By law, I had no rights as a minor and consequently any testimony in my own defense was useless. I now had a criminal record. As an official Juvenile Delinquent, I was considered a potential menace to society. I was a person 10 times more likely to have a career behind bars. For being a “runner” I received several years on probation.
The court assigned Mr. Booty to monitor my activities. He was a tall, ancient man, who wore skinny black ties, and pin-striped suits, similar to a G-man. He looked down at me in disgust through his wire-rimmed bifocals and scribbled things about me in his notebook. This was part of my weekly interrogation.
I remember the time he questioned me about my whereabouts between 3 and 4 p.m. on a particular Thursday.
“I was riding my bike around the neighborhood,” I told him.
He held a pen to his lips while probing me for answers to his inquiries, “Are there any witnesses?” he asked.
“Mrs. Johnson was outside watering her flowers, and she saw me,” I answered.
Whether he followed up with Mrs. Johnson to corroborate my account, I do not know — but thanks to Mrs. Johnson’s faithful gardening, I had a tight alibi.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
|Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold|
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© Arlo Hennings 2020