I have a complicated relationship with my father like many sons and daughters. Mine is filled with a whole gaggle of drugs, lies, and hypocrisies, but also love, loss, and looking for collective happiness. To attempt to better understand my bowl cut, hippie childhood, and my punk rock, young adulthood, I’ve written this reflection on the labyrinth that is my relationship with him.
As a child in the blurry-snowed, flatland of Central Minnesota, my dad used to equate himself to both TV mountain man Grizzly Adams and Jack from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. I saw him as both: sometimes a bearded and long-haired hero, and other times a deeply frightening lunatic in the middle of a raging blizzard.
My dad is a proud Vietnam veteran who professes publicly to this day that he is 235% disabled according to the U.S. Veterans Administration. That means he adds up to two and one-thirds people. 100% of his disability is mental illness attributed to PTSD.
His unique experience began as a counter-culture hippie who ran from the draft, then enlisted due to pressure from his family. When he returned from the war, he became a prison guard at a correctional facility he called “The Joint.” He worked there for 25 years.
He has told me over recent years that he can’t remember much of the 1970s or 1980s. This is probably due to his self-medicating with a wide variety of intoxicants over the last 60 years.
How do I fit into the equation of this story? I grew up in the middle of it. Born just two years after my dad returned from the Vietnam War.
From the age of five to the age of 16, my family and I lived in a 100-year-old farmhouse in the country outside the city of Saint Cloud, buried between snowdrifts, snow piles, haystacks, marshland, pine trees, cornfields, and wheatfields. My childhood on “The Farm” was a loving but challenging one.
I was forbidden from playing in the abandoned barns and pig sheds built around my home but did so anyway. My nearest neighbors in the cul-de-sac suburbs were across a mile of flat fields so my time was often spent alone, especially in the winter when the snow would get too high and the fields would get covered in the frozen marsh. My best imaginary friend was my own imagination.
By 14, I discovered girls, drugs, punk rock, goth, cigarettes, and booze, and began hanging out with my group of self-pierced, torn, and frayed teenage friends. We’d hang out in drain pipes and under railroad bridges. We’d light our jeans on fire and draw pictures on them with black magic markers. We’d stay out all night and find 24-hour laundromats to stay warm in during the minus-20 Fahrenheit winters.
And there was sex. Smearing lips and tongues with beautiful girls wearing thick eye make-up, hair sprayed several inches high, with soft skin, and smelling of tantalizing youth like sweet butter. Grinding against cemetery plots while The Cult played She Sells Sanctuary on car stereos in the distance. Grasping and groping with fingernails painted black.
At the end of my 14th summer, before I was taken to the Minnesota Children’s Hospital for major surgery on a birth defect related to my kidneys, I woke up and my mom was sifting through my closet. I saw her dig into the shirt I had been wearing the night before. In it, was a bag of excellent weed, my pipe, and a bottle of poppers.
When I got up and crept down the steep wooden steps of our farmhouse to the kitchen, she was there with my dad, and very angry.
“Are you a drug addict?” she glowered at me.
“Whaaat?” I not-so-innocently protested.
“If you are, there are places you can go.”
“Then, what’s this? Are you smoking crack?” She held the popper bottle aloft which had a small, white bead at the bottom. “We’re going to have it tested and find out.”
“That’s not crack, Mom. It’s called Rush,” I sneered.
“You’re grounded. For a week. We’ll find out what it is.”
Knowing full well that my father smoked weed several times daily made this worse and that definitely wasn’t the only drug he did. I got my speed by stealing white cross pills from the glove compartment of his van. And that summer, I had found an old photo tin with remnants of cocaine and a razor blade inside our family coffee table. Plus, he drank like a fish.
The fuckin’ hypocrite, I thought as he tried to pierce me with his ferocious stare. Jack was in the kitchen.
A year passed and I was stumbling through the cornfields between my home and the suburbs nearby with my friend Sean. We were high on acid and wanted to get higher.
Sean asked, “Does your dad have any weed?”
“Probably,“ I sniveled back.
“Oh, man. He hides that shit from me.” Then, I thought again. “His van, man. His van is where he keeps drugs.”
We hiked down my quarter-mile driveway to my dad’s van and luckily found the driver’s side door was open. I checked the glove compartment and there was a bag of buds. Next to it was my pipe, confiscated a year before.
“Fuckin’ A, man. My dad stole my pipe.”
We took my pipe and a few buds, and after getting even higher that night and enjoying a number of psychotropic hallucinations, we forgot about our exploits and moved on like degenerate droogs in A Clockwork Orange.
A few days passed and I ran into my dad in our kitchen. He looked angry, but this wasn’t unusual.
He commanded with his baritone, “I want back what you took from me.”
I thought for a moment and then I felt a sheepish grin grow inside me. I didn’t let him see my inner revelations on my face though, and said slyly, “What are you talking about, Dad?”
“You know,” he glared at me through already bloodshot eyes.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean.“ My voice was filled with sarcasm which neared the edges of fuck you. “If I know what you mean, I’ll give it back.”
“You know what you took. And you don’t know how it is. I need that.”
I know now that he was referring to his incessant need to self-medicate. He was a middle-aged man deep in the throes of anxiety and depression. Self-medication was his weapon against his inner turmoil. But he wouldn’t use the word ‘pipe’. He would not say that word to his teenage son.
As a gothic 15-year-old experimenting with drugs, I felt I had my own excuses. Living with Jack was one of them. And I felt empowered after years of mental and emotional abuse. This time, I would keep what was mine.
Months after I took my pipe back, I was 16 and taking driver’s education to get my license. I had to be driven “to town” to take classes in the evenings after school. Dad would drive me.
At 5:30 one early evening, it was time to leave and I found my dad out in our dilapidated garage. He was more edgy than usual.
Dad had begun having flashbacks over the last year. We had gone to see Platoon together and afterward he had sat in his van for five hours listening to the film soundtrack play. He was a live wire now. More dangerous and unpredictable than in my younger years when I remember only furious bouts of anger, spit in my face, fingers poked sharply on my chest, and abusive words spoken as if we were in an army barracks or a prison hall.
This was different. Angular. A sharp knife of derision. He was in his own jungle nightmare and I didn’t want to be pulled into it.
“Hey, Dad. Time to go to driver’s ed,” I called into the garage with a lilt of innocence.
“What? What! What!? Oh, yeah. Yeah. OK. OK. OK,” repeating himself and speaking in a guttural, bass-heavy voice.
We got into the van and began the journey to town. Dad had a bottle of beer between his legs and he was already obviously drunk. Wasted and driving me to driver’s education classes. Buzzing along with far more than a buzz. He kept looking over at me. I was scared and wanted out of the van.
Speaking like a general-in-command, he started, “Ya know, Gentry, you gotta be defensive…I don’t know…ya know…when you drive. But in LIFE, too! You can’t ever let the fuckers get you down. Never let the fuckers get you down!”
His head bobbed with the roll of the road.
“Ya get it? Ya get it, GB,” he got louder and began using my initials instead of my name. “NEVER let the FUCKERS get you DOWN!”
I just listened until we arrived at my destination and I got out of the van. Dad drove off into the autumn light leaving me to learn how to pilot a car in a makeshift classroom off Germain Street downtown. My head full of his drunken, obtuse, philosophical fury. But I was safe and free.
I have heard many excuses for my father’s behavior over the years from others. The excuse has nearly always been: He had a hard life. He was in Vietnam.
I believe that is unacceptable. I know that there are many people with PTSD who do terrible things and there are those that work very hard to overcome their afflictions and be better people. I am one of those people and my PTSD stems from growing up. Growing up with Jack. Growing up was my war and it lasted 18 years.
I did everything I could to understand the Vietnam War and flew there in 2001. I landed in Da Nang where my father had been stationed and spent a month traveling to the Chinese border in the north and then to the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta in the south. It was a very difficult trip, but I learned a lot from the people of Vietnam about forgiveness.
To overcome my own PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and OCD, I’ve done many things and lots of work. Thousands of hours of therapy, reading, meditation, music, swimming, surfing, stretching, and Western and Eastern medicine. Sometimes that’s also included my own self-destructive self-medication.
One of the important things I did was to forgive my father in my thirties for being who he was in his thirties and forties. He did the best he could given the circumstances and I was certainly far from the perfect son. I hope and believe that conversation was good for both of us, though our scars and wounds still exist and may never go away. I accept that.
I’ve accepted the labyrinth that is my Shining childhood and I have good memories of the Grizzly Adams times. The war may never have truly ended for my father but I surrendered a long time ago.