My Southern Legitimacy Statement: Like some odd hybrid, I was born in Pensacola, Florida to a New York Irish Marine pilot and his Virginia bride—but raised in Pittsburgh. Yet after six years in the Marine Corps (itself an odd hybrid—as if the urban Northeast and rural South had a baby) the South, like spirits in Richmond’s Hollywood cemetery, continues to haunt me. While eating breakfast in Houston recently, I was addressed as ‘honey’, ‘baby’ and ‘sweetie’ all in the same sentence—I felt as if I’d been blessed by the Pope. If that’s not legitimacy, I don’t know what is.
Currently, I’m having my mind blown (yet again) by James Baldwin—arguably, America’s greatest writer. As well, the works of James Dickey, Harper Lee and Zora Neale Hurston continue to fuel the fire. Charles Portis—as a fellow Marine, is an enduring inspiration. I’m submitting ‘Sheepdogs’—a memoir of sorts, inspired by the South and the above writers—especially their unflinching love of humanity, in all its broken forms. Much of my work focuses on ‘demythologizing’ the hero myth. Given where we are as a culture, the time has never been better for such an exploration.
My father punched out Jay, from ‘Jay and the Americans’—the moderately successful singing group from the early 60s. This occurred somewhere in New York, possibly at a party in the Village. As the blessed event happened before my birth, the punching out of Jay has always been shrouded in a dim mythology; a memory of a memory really. When questioned for specifics, all my father would say is that Jay ’fucked up’.
Yet the story of Jay’s penance took root, becoming part of our family DNA; a genetic trait passed down, not unlike my affinity for long division. My father’s gone now. Agent Orange—his own penance—took him almost twenty years ago. He exists only in memory and in my own sense of righteous indignation. We’re all just prisoners of our genetics, really.
This isn’t to imply that my father was a violent man, or that his emotions were tied to his fists—on the contrary, my father was an often gentle and articulate man; as kids, we held hands well into puberty, and he told my brother and I that he loved us, often and unapologetically. He absolutely worshipped my mother. So when he did ‘punch out’ (his preferred term) somebody, it always seemed justified—even ‘good’. For a man of his generation, born into a world where guys who looked like him ran the show without question, he was fairly evolved. Even by today’s unforgiving standards, he possessed an unerring sense of what we’d now call ‘social justice’, though such a term would have seemed pretentious to him. It was a simple matter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to my father, the distinction always clear, something felt rather than thought, a matter of intuition. As he saw it, the world was all sheep and wolves—and my father, a sheepdog.
The winter I was eleven, my father took me fishing to Florida. Three fish-less days into our trip, we went to a county fair, on the shores of Lake Okeechobee—the air heavy with diesel, spun sugar and cigarettes. Men with home-made tattoos, knife-wound smiles, missing fingers and teeth patrolled the muddy saw grass. My father’s eyes brightened, his body stiffened and his head tilted, like the cocking of a gun. He watched dutifully as I climbed inside rattling cages with names like ‘Bullet’ and ‘Kamikaze’, and played midway games, even winning a goldfish in a globe of cloudy water. Toward the end of the night, I got suckered into ‘Drown-a-Clown’, a game involving shooting water into a clown’s mouth while a balloon inflated atop its head. First balloon to break won a prize; a Farrah Fawcett or Suzanne Sommers poster, actresses from TV and schoolyard fantasies.
“I need players, I need shooters. Who got the killer instinct?” The carny’s voice droned into a microphone.
There was just me and two others, a teenage couple, entangled in a hormonal knot. The carny running the game wasn’t much older than me—but with an already old face and a barely-there mustache—wearing an ‘old-timey’ striped blazer, a size too big, like he’d borrowed it, and a fat ‘stars and stripes’ bow-tie. A styrofoam boater floated atop his fuzzy head.
“Shooters, shooters—who gon’ bust this ol’ clown’s mouth? Who got the killer instinct?”
My father stood just outside the tent’s swampy glow, disappearing into the dark as much as is possible for a 300 pound man. I positioned myself behind my water pistol, red paint worn silver by thousands of sweaty hands. I had zero doubts about beating the young lovers, more interested in kissing than shooting. As the son of a Marine, I knew marksmanship was in my blood. I took aim; a bell rang. My stream of water was machine gun fire entering the narrow slit of a Viet Cong bunker, my Marines pinned down. The couple giggled, their aim poor—clearly their Marines were fucked—but I held steady; my balloon grew. The carny paced, whacking the countertop with a bamboo cane. I ignored him, punishing my clown mercilessly. The balloon popped—I leapt from my pistol. Seconds later, the couple’s balloon burst. The carny stabbed his cane at them:
“We got a winner!”
“But I won. My balloon broke first…”
“Take a hike, kid.”
“But that’s not fair. I won…”
“Get the fuck out, faggot…” He raised his cane as if to swat me.
From the shadows, my father revealed himself; his soft yet still dangerous muscles hidden beneath a Schaefer Beer t-shirt and too-tight Bermuda shorts. He moved swiftly, even gracefully, going straight for the carny. No talking, no threats. All business. My father grabbed the carny’s jacket, lifting him from the ground, his forearms bulging. My father’s forearms were his ‘secret weapon’, best used, he instructed, for breaking noses. ‘Just like hitting them with a baseball bat,’ he’d say—an idea as terrifying as it was thrilling.
“You want I should pinch your head off?” My father asked, strangely calm, as if relieved that whatever bad was going to happen, was finally happening. The odd phrasing of his question made it somehow more threatening, a dangerous vestige of his New York upbringing, like a knife or pistol strapped to his ankle.
“No sir, I don’t…” the carny rasped, his voice like a struck match. His rational answer to my father’s irrational question only added to the impact—as if ‘pinching his head off’ was an actual possibility. Humiliation was indeed a complex art.
With a practiced motion, my father tossed the carny onto the bank of clown heads, his boater floating to the sticky floor with surprising delicacy, like a fall leaf. The carny’s face pulsed a cardiac red, his mustache twitched with shame, offering me any poster I wanted; hell I could have the Rolling Stones mirrors, the giant pink poodle dog even. My father ignored him, as if he were suddenly invisible, jerking his head toward the dark where we melted away. I was pissed—I really wanted that Farrah Fawcett poster.
The YMCA this past Saturday. The whole family, which is yours truly, my ever pragmatic wife, my son and his big watchful eyes, who just turned one, and my daughter, and her big feelings. We’d just finished ballet class. My daughter spent most of the class staring at herself in the mirror of the dance studio. That about sums up her interest in ballet. It’s a phase all girls go through I think, like the ‘princess’ phase. But like that billboard says, I’m ‘taking time to be a dad today’, and I’m cool with all of that. I’ve got no agenda for her other than to be strong, make good choices and to do something in life that makes her happy.
So I straddled the driver’s seat, maneuvering my son into his car seat. It’s like trying to stuff a raccoon into a sack.
“He’s just tired…” My wife volunteered, anticipating my anger. “No shit…” I thought, but said nothing, not wanting to prove her right. I’m wasn’t looking for a fight—not that day. Not over this. Simultaneously, I tried to sweet talk my daughter into her car seat. She’s looking at herself and that tutu in the reflection of the car. Suffice to say, I’m frustrated. But that’s my normal state, so not a big a deal.
“C’mon, honey. Please get in the car…”
Only I discovered that she’s now sobbing. We’re not talking standard five-year-old girl sobbing, related to say…the ‘Tuppence a Bag’ scene in Mary Poppins or when Brietta is reunited with her parents in Barbie: The Magic of Pegasus. (Our daughter makes us leave the room.) This is beyond that, a sadness I’d never encountered with her before. To be honest, it scaredme—the hinted at depth of her sorrow and my corresponding inability to make it ‘right’. A hot shank stabbed my heart.
“She’s just tired…” my wife explained again.
I ignored her, focusing instead on my daughter, wanting her to share her feelings, but not wanting to scare her off by coming on too strong. She can be tightlipped, like her mom. I want our relationship to be different.
“What is it honey? What’s making you cry?”
“Please talk to me…” I plead, not wanting to seem too desperate.
This is followed by another sob. And when I fear that we’re headed down a familiar dead end, she sighed “Those boys…”
“Boys?” This is an important detail. A trigger word. You see, I don’t like men. They’re bad enough alone, but when they’re in packs? Assholes. Pretty much all of them. Myself included. In my sudden rush of adrenaline, I managed to subdue my son, momentarily distracted by the sight of his big sister crying.
“Where honey, where are those boys?”
She didn’t even look up. Just fiddled with the hem of her tutu and pointed down Schrader, toward Hollywood.
“How many, honey? Howmany boys?”
“Three…” Three? Cowards.
And with that I jogged up Schrader, towards Hollywood, not even noticing how out of shape I’ve become. It’s good stuff, this adrenaline. My wife yelled at me: “No. Don’t do it…” She’s angry. Divorce angry.
Ahead, past the intersection, I saw them. Three boys, late teens or early twenties. I recognized their taxonomy; knew their species. It’s them. I had no doubt of that. A car honked as I sprinted through the intersection. Ahead of me the sidewalk is wide open; just me and them. I hoofed it now, pass them and wheel around, blocking their way. From their faces, they immediately knew who I was and why I was there.
“Turn around.” I pointed in the direction of my daughter. “Now.”
They get that I’ve done this before. I herded them back towards the YMCA, back towards my daughter, now just a tiny pink blur on the sidewalk.
The boys started talking, offering up excuses. I said nothing. My heart thumped in my mouth—I couldn’t speak if I wanted to.
I presented the boys to my daughter, like a Conquistador back from the New World, with trophies for the Queen. My daughter was oblivious, concentrating on blowing her nose into a napkin my wife was holding. My son though, was all eyes; watching through the car door, open to the sidewalk. My daughter wiped her nose on the sleeve of her tutu, looked up at me.
“Is this them?”
She nodded gravely.
“Do you want them to apologize to you?” She stared at the ground for a moment, nodded again. I turned to them. They apologized. Something made up. Total bullshit. I didn’t care.
“Are you satisfied?” I asked. My daughter regarded the boys, her thumb thoughtfully in her mouth now, suddenly aware of a strange new power. Without taking the thumb from her mouth, she nodded. My wife was furious I might add. But to her credit, said nothing. I dismissed the boys with a look: Get lost.
Driving home, my wife refused to speak. My son and daughter slept in the back. Apparently they were tired. My wife would get over her anger—or not, adding it to her growing list of grievances. Most importantly though, it’s quiet. Finally, she announced matter-of-factly: “I have book club tonight. I need to stop at Trader Joe’s.”
She’s a lawyer; a matter-of-fact person. (I swear ‘book club’ is just an excuse to drink rosé.)
Again, I said nothing. Just nodded.
But for the moment, it was just me and my thoughts. I’m not sure why it was so important to chase those kids down. Because that’s what they were, kids. Not even worth my time. My father would’ve done the same thing—at least that’s what I told myself. My wife’s a smart woman. But there are things she simply does not understand.
I love both my kids, but I love my daughter beyond all reason. It’s sad, but my son will have to fend for himself. His moment will come. I have no fear of that. But my love for my daughter is ‘beyond’. I used to feel the same way about my wife, but that’s changed. I want my daughter to know that she’s loved. And that the kind of love she deserves, is the kind that makes you chase three boys down a Hollywood street. I can only hope she finds a guy who loves her as much as I do. Because when she’s seventy-five, I’ll be gone. But she’ll know.
But if I’m being honest, it’s not just the love—that’s only part of it. The part that doesn’t make me sound like a sociopath. It was a kind of ‘showing off’ I guess; for my daughter. I want to be worshipped; to be looked upon with awe. I want her to mythologize me; as a ‘righter of wrongs’, a protector. A sheepdog—like my father. And it was important to not only humiliate those guys, but to do it in front of her. She had to bear witness; had to be a part of it. That’s the important part. It’s selfish, really.
But if my father taught me anything, it’s that I’m gonna fuck her up somehow, right?