Category Archives: Childhood

Coming of Age in an Apocalypse

Is it normal for 9-year olds to write poems for a nuclear holocaust, ones that wistfully imagine the earth carrying on and humanity swiped from its surface?

I had no idea that nature could not persist in the aftermath. In my poem, which was published in the left-wing newspaper my father edited, everything got incredibly quiet. Green things sent their tendrils up through concrete and broke the ugliness of civilization down. When I was 9, we lived then on the wild banks of the Trinity River in Northern California, an incredibly lush place that won all of the battles in gardening. We knew that we merely held our imminent eradication back through constant weeding, rototilling, fencing, and mowing. The vines of blackberries, the bodies of oaks and madrones, star thistles and river drunk grasses, piles of leaves and needles could quickly obscure and devour our paths. Moss grew bright and sudden on trees and rocks and shallows and the loamy mess of the woods got into our fingernails and noses, swept us along, sucked us in, whipped our faces, scraped our knees. Deer ravaged the vegetable patch until my father put in an enormous fence with ever diminishing openings in the wire meant to keep out the smallest of creatures. The bottom rungs he buried beneath the surface. Once he borrowed a gun and waited up, only to wound a deer, which haunted him: she probably limped off to suffer for hours before dying somewhere in the darkness, he said. Once he planted rows of tiny marijuana plants and my mother and sister (protecting us from Camp, government sanctioned militants who we saw on the news standing before other peoples’ burning crops) secretly pulled them up and blamed a neighbor (protecting themselves from my father.) My mom joked about a story she would write: the title would be Roach Clips in my Demitasse, the word for the delicate cups and saucers on great grandmother’s hutch. Humor, subterfuge, and dissimulation kept the violence at bay.

Dinners involved talk of how the government was listening and lying and secretly selling drugs and weapons and hell bent on nuclear annihilation. Our relatives had been poisoned by DDT. The water was running out. We had fled the city and, when the Jonestown massacre was followed by the assassination of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, my mom said she thought we had left in the nick of time. When anything got lost, we would tease my father that it had been stolen by a “big black man with a machine gun,” which always made him stop raging and laugh. White people making light of white supremacist fears. Externalization was a high art in our home and I was often blamed, grabbed up cruelly by my father, ripped from my innocent play.

The apocalypse was out there.

My plan at the time had been to become a veterinarian so that I could live in a cave and have something to offer the animals I would know and love. I did not care much for human kind. My plan was to retreat from the world, from the fighting and the danger of my father, from the empty tummy and the dread and yearning of poverty. I would live off the land with friends, with foxes, rabbits, otters, deer.

I believe the refrain in my poem, went something like: the bombs blow up, but life goes on.

The threat of atomic war receded over the years and I put it in the large category of things over which I am powerless. I have savored a friend’s whimsy: I just assume the apocalypse already happened. She said. We are already living in the aftermath.

Coming of age in an apocalypse, it was fifth grade when I realized I might be gay. To the deep resounding of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” something tough and bright in one of the eighth-grade girls struck me. I would watch them practicing their “routine” over lunch breaks and whisper her name into my pillow and tell no one. Subterfuge, dissimulation, and humor I had learned well. All around me the messages. Bullies invoked dykes and fags and queers and homos. There were things we ought not talk about, things we didn’t need to know, hundreds of shameful things that tomboys could expect to one day out grow.

Now the entitlement and sensitivity of queer white youth provokes me as it would any survivalist: too soft, too dangerous to want. I gave up my plan of the cave, replaced it with a vision of being a doctor and leaving the country, going into other cultures, seeking relief from the gender apocalypse, from the culture wars, and seeking a tradition of social justice that I could neither find nor make here. Instead, I became a historian. I recount the history of white supremacy. I undress it, remove its layers of race, of sex, of class, of gender.

After the election of 2016, so many famous people died, David Bowie and Prince, Princess Leah, icons of an expectant age gave up. In the early 70s when I was 4, listening to “Free to Be You and Me” and playing New Games, where everyone wins, carried along in a giant cookie machine made of hippie dads and moms or lifting a giant earth ball above the ground of us, innocent in our high waters and tennies, the right had been slowly dismantling.

In this apocalypse, a young trans boy leaves the planet, another beautiful boy pictured on social media in hot pink make-up over closed eyelids with tiny hearts drawn at his brow, gilded with glitter. Glitter, glam, Major Tom, sung by a space station astronaut, drifts into space, peacefully, eulogy to the dead rocker. But here, it goes off like a bomb. I listened with jagged breath.

Another one bites the dust and another one’s gone and another one’s gone and another one’s gone.

I don’t fault myself for being ignorant at age nine of the complete and total devastation that one bomb would cause, not until I was seventeen, at a speech given by Helen Caldecott, wherein she described how nuclear winter would darken and starve my homeland for miles. I wept then, as she took us step by step through the process. We were meant to react to this threat positively, to commit ourselves to activism. At fairs where my father staffed booths, we thirsted over ice creams called “nuclear freezies.”

Of all of this, the thing I consciously held against my father was his response to my dream of the cave, of leaving him and all of humanity behind. “There is no point,” he said, “they are going to nuke the planet.”

Now, come the apocalypse, I still have a plan. Somehow, I will get back to the river house, where I will meet my mother and her husband. I count on my sister and her family showing up too. I know it is in us deep, in a matter-of-fact way, so we might not even open both eyes when we hear the distant booms. We’ll be on the road and I hope there will be enough gas to get across the desert.

Easy Chair in a Pick-Up

Under a boat, age six.

The other day, driving into Flagstaff, I saw a worn out brown easy chair, riding solo in the back of a big old pick-up. I thought then of a summer road trip over forty years ago, with my dad and his best friend Steve Harvey: hours I spent in an easy chair, solo, under the shelter of a row boat, in the back of Steve’s pale yellow Chevy truck.

I try to recall the highway, wide and black in new cut mountains. The snow markers by the side of the road made me wonder at how deep the snow could get. I had to ask what they were for. Orange and white they must show depth, mark the way for a snow plow. They seemed ten feet high.

The only road I know like that is the CA 395, up from Bishop behind Mammoth, towards Nevada, still some of my favorite driving. In the back of the pick-up, age six, curled up in my kid’s body, before I even knew how to whistle. I must have daydreamed. I looked and looked at the land. My mind wandered and imagined. I felt free. I felt the men in the cab, safety in that: in their being there and not with me, at them behind the wheel. In the big yellow truck cutting clean and smooth, roaring, gears shifting, a lurch then. But I remember this as us streaking quiet around long wide turns, with the mountain-side  stripped bare above us.

I remember it rained briefly. The boat kept the wet off of me. One of the men looked back to see I was okay. What time of year was it? I assume it was a summer rain. I have to think they would not have put me in the back of a truck if it were too cold. Memory is funny like that.

There was freedom and empowerment in that slight neglect, a toughness came in me from that. My dad made me do things that seemed scary. He pushed me over the limits. I thought I couldn’t, but I could. He was right. I was always let to be wild. I was part dog. Forever, I would lean my cheek out of the window, let my hair whip back, like ears.

I cannot imagine trusting a six-year-old today to ride alone in the back of a truck. When I brought this up to a friend she said, I rode in the back of my dad’s truck too. In the seventies and eighties, kids always rode in the back of the truck. No one doubted we would stay in and hold on, perched on the wheel wells. I miss those days.

Later, after my parents divorced and my sister and I visited him in southern Humboldt, my dad had a series of hand me down cars. They  all had a smell to them, a funk. A homey, hippy, armpit smell. An oily, broken down seat foam smell. Some were pick-up trucks. Sometimes there was no room in the cab and we would come into town from the boonies with our long hair blown into a greasy tangle. As teenagers, my sister and I hated this: the small town girls made us feel rough and grungy. It was a finely nuanced hierarchy of poverty in those towns. The ranks were jealously guarded. Dirty kids were brutally teased. I knew to be clean and to have fresh breath. Gay already, this was a part of my armor: I would get up to shower and brush my teeth, even before basketball practice at 7 am. I still always chew gum. My body could not invade or call attention, could not offend. It was not safe to have a body or to express desire.

The decade of secrecy and unspoken, unrequited, disavowed loves, amazes me, the solitude of the child I was, that I knew not to say at age ten. When I was six, there were already beautiful intriguing girls. And secrets.

I tried for a long time to forget how wise I was in my childish and peaceful solitude.

When I saw that easy chair in the back of that pick-up driving into  Flagstaff, I was overcome with that rush of beautiful memory and with sorrow, at that long lost dad. I had a very childish thought then, like, “it’s not fair.”

How alcoholism takes a father from his child. What must be unforgivable and cannot be lived with, not conscious. That I cannot have him back. That my brown body, my hands, the manner in which I sometimes laugh, all of the things I know how to do. That I can fix. That I can follow deer trails. How I learned to build a fire. My wildness, my wolf pup dog self. So much that I love about me, that road trip.

I do have these.