This is the fourth part of a series. Click here to catch up on previous entries.
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” —Soren Kierkegaard
How close to the flame could I go and how long could I stay there? Fear, anxiety and teenage testosterone combine to make an uncontrollable personality exponentially worse.
A particular incident from my childhood stands out in my mind these days, more so now than when it occurred. I was about 8 years old and school was out for the summer. This meant that I was home alone all day while my dad went to work at a plumbing supply warehouse and my mother worked at a coffee shop.
As fate/luck would have it, some neighbors from Ohio had moved permanently to a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale and now lived about 3 miles from us. A&E were in their late 60s and a delight to be around. They lived across the street from us in Ohio and never had children. As an only child, I was the apple of their eye but visits to their duplex were tough on me.
I had two strikes against me. The first strike was that A smoked foul-smelling cigars, the kind whose smoke turned into a semi-opaque blue cloud when exhaled. My parents told me that A really enjoyed his cigars and that it would not be polite for us to expect him to stop smoking while we were there for a visit. Besides, the cigar smoke was ‘bad for my asthma’ and this time I agreed.
The second strike against me was that A&E had a dog, a wonderful little Pekingese with long tan hair. You guessed it, he was also ‘bad for my asthma’.
The way our visits to A&E worked was like this:
- If A was smoking when we arrived, I sat outside the front door in a lawn chair under the roof of their lanai.
- If A was not smoking when we arrived but began to smoke a cigar during the visit, I sat outside the front door in a lawn chair under the roof of their lanai.
- If A was not smoking when we arrived and the dog was loose in the house, I could stay inside until I started to get a stuffy nose, at that point I sat outside the front door in a lawn chair under the roof of their lanai.
I spent a lot of time outside people’s homes listening to adults chatter on about work, weather, news from home, politics, yada-yada-yada. I was back to being an observer once-removed again; only this time I was on the outside looking in. This pattern was repeated when we visited other families. My parents seemed to know a lot of couples who did not have children, or whose children were grown up and gone. I spent a lot of time alone in the company of strangers.
You can imagine how surprised I was that summer day when my parents told me that while they were away at work I was going to spend every day for a week with A&E. This was wonderful news as I would be around people during the day and they would have a youngster around to take part in family activities.
Apparently A agreed to not smoke in his car while driving me around, and my folks agreed that I would stay outside if A wanted to light up inside his house or if the dog hair started to affect my allergies/asthma.
All of this was fine with me, I just didn’t want to be alone. I was unable to say this to my parents because they had expectations that I would do what I was told, when I was told, the way I was told to do it— no questions asked or comments allowed. I grew up with the policy that I could think whatever I wanted to but I was never to say it aloud.
Day One at A&E’s began when my mother drove us to their house and took me to their front door. A&E greeted us and we went inside to complete the transfer. E mentioned to my mother that they wondered if it would be all right to take me to Ft. Lauderdale beach one day that week. My mother said that it would be fine with her and that they would not have to worry about me because, “Allan is not a daredevil, he will stay close to shore and not go out very far.”
In my head, my first response to this exchange was, “What exactly is a daredevil and why is that not an option for me?” I had a vague conception of what a daredevil was: someone who did stunts or took risks that most people found unacceptable, but entertaining. I remember feeling insulted and looked-down upon when I heard my mother say those words.
It was as if I was expected to go through life as a docile, compliant child who would never say “Shit” even with a mouthful (I was already headed in that direction and not happy about it). I smiled and agreed that if we went to the beach I would not do something crazy to endanger my life and thereby cause undue stress for A&E. From that day forward, I have sought to push the envelope, to go farther and higher than the next guy and to find the edge of the envelope, any envelope.
Hunter S. Thompson said that, “…the only people who really know where it [the edge] is are the ones who have gone over.” I agree, given that I have spent most of my life in the extremes of any given situation or activity.
I learned to be a functional alcoholic in college. It wasn’t intentional and I was not even aware of the process or the ultimate goal. The fraternity guys that I drank with were a cross-section of my personality traits: we had guys who could do manual labor; ones with an artistic flair; plenty of the kind of people who could analyze mechanical devices or read/draw plans; there were athletes and scholars galore.
I found that most of these guys were better than me in anything that you could throw at them. The depth of their talent and experience was impressive. I certainly felt ‘less than’, if not downright worthless, when I compared myself to them. As I sized up my situation I found that the only place that I could excel or be in the top percentile was in the Land of Crazy. My best thinking told me that if I could do the things that others balked at doing, if I could be ready anytime, anywhere to do some irrationally entertaining stunt, then I would be admired and accepted by these guys.
Back in junior high and high school I felt somewhat apart and above others because I took up the challenge to be a pole-vaulter. I wasn’t anywhere close to being good in anything else in Track & Field and only one of the two guys that were vaulting with me had any ability, so I decided to learn from him. The same theory popped into my head when I decided to start drinking: learn by doing with others who are more experienced than you.
Drinking games were popular in my frat house and they were a good training ground to help me find the edge, the awareness that my mind or body’s coordination was off the rails. An avid researcher such as myself used these opportunities to learn how my body reacted to alcohol. It was a lot like a science experiment when I began to drink. I was in good enough shape that I did not suffer from hangovers for very long and I could put away more than a few beers and still function. The brown and the clear liquids were still foreign to me, but I eased them into my system faster than I thought I would.
In the beginning I learned to drink a lot and to maintain a certain control over my physical and mental processes through playing these drinking games. I was good at them because they allowed me to use my strong points at that time: I was a voracious reader as a child and made use of a backlog of useless information accumulated after school and on the lanai’s of family friends.
These games did not have winners as much as they had survivors. The players that were still left in the game would have to mutually agree to quit to end the game.
From 1966 to 1968 my situation was the same as it was for all the other young men of Draft age: Stay in school and study (drink) hard, or learn to love green and march off to war.
It has been extremely difficult to put this down on paper for all to read. The term, “What the Hell were you thinking?” resonates constantly in my head as I write these words. My actions only made things worse in the long run, but it was awhile before I could see that, and a lot longer before I could admit it to God, to myself and to another human being.
Fingerprints will continue with Part 5.