The Goner, Part III: Mission Accomplished

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(Note: This is a three-part post. Please read first The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through the Grass, and The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers)

I debated writing about this for a long time, back and forth in my mind. My ‘Goon Squad’ says,

People don’t want to hear this stuff.

People can’t handle this stuff.

People want to hear about hope, happy endings, and inspiration.

It’s too personal.

It’s too hard.

It’s too self-indulgent.

You have nothing original to say.

Well, maybe the Goon Squad is right, and every one of those things is true. But I always think about what Joe Dimaggio said when someone asked him why he gave his all every day:

There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.

I feel I owe anyone out there who may have lost a child, my ‘best’. Oh, and anyone who hasn’t lost a child, but might (yes, that means you, Mary, and you, Clyde). And anyone who has lost anyone, and is trying to go on, and make sense of life, make sense of death, or just find a reason for this whole crazy kit and caboodle.

And what is my ‘best’? It’s kind of like in A.A. – it doesn’t mean advice, or rules, or Ten Commandments. It means being willing to share my experience, in the hopes that some small part of it may help someone out there, because we’re all in the same boat.

The other day I was in line at the post office, and a sweet-looking older woman was going up and down the line, embarrassedly saying, “Anyone got a felt tip marker?”

Well, I did, and I handed it to her. She said, “Don’t worry – I’ll return it.” I said, “You know right where I’ll be,” and everyone in line smiled, because the Post Office operates on geologic time.

A few minutes later, she walked up to me (I was perhaps two feet closer to the front of the line), handed me the pen and, reaching in her purse, held out a dollar bill. “Here, let me pay you for it.”

I gently pushed it away and said, “We’re all human beings here.”

That’s the spirit in which I offer these words. I’m saying, “I’ve been there – and survived. Here is my story. I hope you can use some of it.” Don’t panic, I’m not going to go into gruesome detail, or really, much detail at all. There will be no stories about tossing and turning all night, or wandering down Broadway dead drunk (just kidding, though I did once take an extra Advil).

No, it’s just a story that could happen to anyone, but it happened to me, and now I’m sharing some of it so that when something happens to you, you’ll know you have company.

I know I could have used some, then.

And if you want to lodge a complaint with my Goon Squad, they’ll be glad to oblige you. See ’em?  They’re right over there on the Grumblers’ Bench.

What does it ‘look like’ to lose a child?

Well, to me it looked like this: My wife had wanted to take the boys (six year-old fraternal twins) to a relative’s birthday party in Modesto. When your wife is a Mexican-American gal with ten brothers and sisters, there are a lot of birthday parties. Me, I had no intention of driving to anyone’s party anywhere: it was a beautiful Fall day, and that meant the baseball playoffs were on. If I haven’t mentioned baseball before – well, it’s a big deal to me. Neither of the kids really wanted to go to the party, I think, but Nick was more insistent about wanting to stay home with me than Brett. Not that he cared about baseball – nope, no such luck with any of my kids. But he knew I would probably take him to the park to fool around together.

And as for Brett, well that was the whole thing about him: Brett was a good boy. And by that I don’t mean a goody-goody, no, not that, not by any stretch of the imagination. I mean he was a good person. He could see that Mom needed at least one recruit for this gig, and he would never let her down. Besides, he could have a good time anywhere, as long as there was people and action.

So they left. And we did go to the park and fool around together. In fact, we had a great time. Finally, it was time to go back home. As we pulled in to the driveway, I saw two people standing there, that shouldn’t have been there:

One of my wife’s aunts, whom I had maybe seen one time before.

And a cop.

Shit.

The cop said I needed to pick up my mother-in-law and get to Memorial Hospital, in Modesto – right now. And Nick needed to stay with the aunt. There had been an auto accident. No details – just that.

Crap.

Now I am going to skip a bunch of the details, because they don’t affect what I want to say to you, and because the details aren’t the issue – what it feels like is the issue. If you want to know details, you can contact me anytime and I’ll talk your head off – but now we’re getting to the important stuff, like why I titled this Mission Accomplished.

I can’t speak here for most people who have lost a child – everyone has a different personality. I suppose some people would have gotten into rage, or blaming (there was a lawsuit involved, against Ford Motor Company), or hatred, or utter despair.

Maybe some people would have said, “Well, we can always have another child.”

Maybe some people would have considered revenge against the ‘other driver’ – the one who caused the accident: I know I did.

Also, I wasn’t ‘there’ when it happened: what my wife had to deal with – the guilt, the helplessness, the mental images – was far beyond anything that was on my plate. I hear that most all marriages break up in these circumstances. ‘They’ say women need to talk, and that men don’t talk, and that that brings relationships down. I don’t know about that. I’m a talker, and I talk to people all day about ‘heavy’ issues, so the talking/not talking thing wasn’t in play for me.

All I can speak to is my experience, and somehow I suspect that the way I thought about my loss is specific to men. As you’ll see, that’s why I prefaced this whole thing with my experiences at the Veterans’ Hospital. In the film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks plays an Army captain in World War II who is in charge of a company of men tasked with locating a particular paratrooper, just after D Day. At one point in their mission, they are ‘crashing’ for the night in a bombed-out church. It is the first time they have had a chance to stop and gather themselves, to talk and be human beings for a few minutes.

At one point, Hanks and his trusted friend, Sergeant Horvath,are talking about a man in their company who was killed some time before. At first, they’re laughing at the memory of some of the crazy things this kid did. Then, Captain Miller (Hanks) intones the name of yet another man who was killed, the same day they are talking. The mood suddenly shifts, downward, as he continues, with terrible pain and irony:

“You see, when you end up killing one of your men, you see, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two, or three, or ten others – maybe a hundred. (Pause) Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command?”

Sergeant Horvath: “How many?”

Miller: “Ninety-four. (Pause) But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many – doesn’t it? Maybe even twenty, right? – twenty times as many? (Pause, his face showing the devastation) And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you rationalize making the choice, between the mission and the men.”

It is obvious from the dialogue, and throughout the film, that, while Captain Miller wants to help win the War (after all, he’s in the Rangers, an elite unit), his primary emotional investment in this whole thing is all about protecting his men. He carries with him, every day, every night, the exact number of men he has ‘killed’.

And that’s exactly how I felt: through my ineptness, I had lost one of my men. It happened on my watch. I was a failure – I had failed Brett as a parent, as a guardian, as a protector.

He wasn’t supposed to know about Life – I was.

No, I wasn’t crazy with it: I knew that having allowed him to go to a birthday party in Modesto wasn’t ‘negligent’ – not in any real sense, but I still felt like I had been negligent, asleep at the switch.

Maybe I should have gone.

Maybe I should have been driving.

Maybe I shouldn’t have let him go.

Maybe . . . Maybe . . . Maybe . . .

In this kind of situation, you realize the crazy, happenstance quality of life: anything – anything at all, that would have changed the scenario by even half a second, would have ‘prevented’ the disaster.

If only this, if only that . . .

And this makes you realize the crazy odds ‘against’ something like this happening.

And that makes you wonder:

Why?

Why was my boy chosen for this insane spin of the Russian roulette wheel?

And that brings you back to your own ‘responsibility’. Am I being punished (by God) for something I did? Something I didn’t do? Maybe if I had been a better person. But if I have been a bad person, why was it taken out on him? Because ‘they’ knew how much I loved him, so that I would have to live with the unbearable pain of losing him, of being responsible for losing him, for the rest of my life?

You go through all these things. It doesn’t matter if they make sense – you go through them anyway.

You look at your wife sleeping at night – twitching, moaning, crying, whimpering out loud, jerking around, and you blame yourself, somehow:

It happened on my watch.

You look at your wife during the day, half-crazed with loss, pain, despair, and you blame yourself, somehow:

It happened on my watch.

You look at your son. Yesterday, he had a best friend, a soul mate, an other ‘half’. Today, nothing. And you blame yourself, somehow:

It happened on my watch.

I found myself starting to think about Victor again. Now, I understood: it wasn’t that he had lost his platoon, his ‘family’. It was that HE had lost his platoon, his family. He must have thought, Why am I alive, and they aren’t? What could I have done differently? If anyone should have died, it should have been me!

I thought that a million times about Brett: Why not me? Please take me! Make time go back, and take me, dammit!

There were things I couldn’t listen to anymore. One of my favorite songs was Moon River. I’ve written before about the songs that got me through the hard times of junior high, high school. One of them was Moon River. I don’t know – something about the lyrics was evocative in a way that really registered with me. But now – no way. Why, you ask? Listen to these lyrics:

Two drifters, off to see the world –
There’s such a lot of world to see . . .

To me, that was always Nicky – and Brett. Now, the words were just a hole burned in my heart.

There were lots of others. You realize, suddenly, that the lyrics to almost any love song can ‘apply’ to your child – your lost child. You ‘see’ him everywhere: cloud formations, shadows, children walking down the street, alive.

Like I say, now I understood Victor’s pain. And I started thinking of Brett as one of The Goners. He was the platoon member that I, as his commanding officer, had lost to enemy action. And, crazily, it helped. It felt like I had a kinship with Victor, with all the vets I had worked with – men who had lost something irreplaceable, whether it was their buddies or parts of their ‘normal’ selves and lives.

And it felt like Brett had company – honored company, The Goners.

And it felt like I had company, too – the vets I had worked with. When you’re in war, you change. Then, you have to come back – but you’re still ‘changed’. What do you do? You walk the streets feeling like a freak: you’re not part of normal life anymore, but then the ‘normals’ are not part of your life anymore either, or your memories.

That’s how it feels walking around when you’ve lost a child. Like nobody understands your pain – they haven’t ‘been there’. Oh, they think they understand, but they don’t – they can’t. They want to be nice, to help, but your pain scares them.

My wife told me a story about an encounter with a relative who asked her, “So, how are you doing?”

My wife said, “Okay.”

The woman frowned solicitously and said, “Just okay?”

My god, at that point, “Okay” was a fucking miracle! I remember talking to a colleague I saw on the street one day, a few months after ‘it’ happened.

He said, hopefully, “So, is it getting any better?”

I said, “I’ve read it takes about ten years to really get better.”

He flinched, visibly, then walked off as if I had electrocuted him with a hot wire.

Guess what: It takes about ten years to really get better. Sorry, folks, but that’s my experience. That doesn’t mean every single day is unbearable, until a sudden bolt of lightning strikes you ten years later, and you’re fine. No, it means you’re ‘working on it’ actively, all the time, for about ten years. Then, you seem to reach some kind of crazy peace, most of the time.

Still hard nights?

Hell yes.

Still depressing sometimes?

Darn right.

Still feel like a failure, a loser sometimes?

Absolutely – just not all the time, and not as intensely.

And, if you’re lucky, you eventually find your own personal ways to honor the lost, and keep their spirit around. You find that, in a way, you can ‘memorialize’ them by incorporating their best qualities into your everyday life, so that their life wasn’t lived in vain. In the case of Brett, a sense of aliveness, or pure joy in the moment, was his hallmark. I’m definitely not noted for any of those things, but dammit, I try – I try harder, now that he’s gone and can’t do it for himself, and others. And sometimes I succeed, for example in helping my patients appreciate, and even revel in, the ‘moment’, and then I feel that I have carried out the sacred obligation I owe to Brett.

As I’ve said, for some reason military things seem to come to mind when I think of Brett. Maybe because honor, duty, valor, courage, loyalty and fidelity were his strongest suits. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, especially when in the service of someone else. One day, we were going to be riding the Skunk Train, a small old-time railroad in Northern California that we really loved. While waiting for the train, the boys and I were passing the time at a sort of restaurant and store near the station. There was one of those kids’ rides there – the kind where you put in a quarter and can ‘ride’ the horse, or car, or whatever – except in this case it was a locomotive.

This much older kid was riding it over and over, kind of giving Nicky and Brett the gloat, and flaunting the heck out of his hegemony over the locomotive. Nicky was getting agitated and starting to lose it.

I was almost about to say something when Brett boldly stepped up, put his hands on his hips and said,

“Get off, kid – you’re through for the day.”

The kid meekly got off and slunk away. Then Brett waved Nicky onto the train – not proudly, just like ‘mission accomplished’. He went through his life like a soldier on a mission – a mission to have fun, and to make sure everyone else had fun, too. There was a seriousness about him, a strong claiming of place, that was striking and unusual.

When he was five or so, I noticed him playing ‘soccer’ with some other little kids on the playground after school. They weren’t really playing by any rules – they were too young, and most of them were sort of paying attention sporadically and mostly goofing off.

But Brett was determined and focused.

Later, I said to him, “Wow – we should get you on a soccer team.”

He looked me square in the eye and said, “I’m already on a soccer team.”

That’s my boy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers

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(Note: Please first read The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through the Grass)

The summer weeks drifted by in Asheville: group therapy, botanical rounds, the cockroach and raccoon wars, loving a neighbor’s puppy named Shane, doing individual therapy sessions, hopes borne out with some patients, hopes dashed with others, teaching my wife how to drive a stickshift in the Blue Ridge Mountains, claiming my gifts, accepting my limitations, crossing back and forth through Beaucatcher Tunnel, work and home, heat and humidity, summer rain, lessons, lessons, under the hot Southern sun . . .

A new patient arrived: Victor. A Vietnam vet. His diagnosis: Depression. I don’t know why, but I gravitated to him. Make no mistake – all patients are not treated the same. Not that all don’t get the benefit of everything the program has to offer, but sometimes you take a special liking to, or a special interest in, a particular one, and spend “more time than you’re getting paid for,” as a supervisor once put it, in his care and treatment. Such was the case with Victor.

He was a big, likable guy, a heavyset bear of a man with a deep, resonant voice that you noticed right away. Paul Robeson’s voice came to mind – and William Warfield, maybe Billy Eckstine, but for obvious reasons I wouldn’t have made any of those particular comparisons to Victor’s face. White guys from Mississippi don’t like that.

I scheduled some individual sessions with him, and we talked of all kinds of things: the wife he still loved (she had left him for another man while he was in ‘Nam), his lonely childhood (an only child of a drunken mother and a father who was on the road all the time), his own drunkenness and addiction to pills (he had kicked both years before, “on his own”), and most devastating of all, his loss of the guys he called ‘the only family I’ve ever known’ – the platoon that was annihilated by the Viet Cong, all but him.

Victor was the first person I ever heard say, “I wish I had died instead of them,” and really mean it. He explained, “The dead get to rest. I have to face hell for the rest of my life, because aloneness, and life without The Goners, is hell.” That’s what he called them – The Goners.

I thought about that, and thought I could understand it, a little. I had never suffered a significant loss of a person in my life, but I could see what he meant about the dead ‘getting the best of the deal’, in that their struggles were over, while the living had to go on and face life without their loved, and lost, ones.

But what about that peculiar phrase, The Goners? For some reason, I felt I needed to file that question away for later.

In the meantime, I tried to talk to him about the things he did have to live for.

What about other women?

He would shake his head sadly, and say, “For me, Joanie was the beginning and the end.”

Subject closed.

New friends?

“What’s the point? You let people matter, then you just lose them, and it’s worse than never having them in the first place.”

Subject closed.

Work?

“I’m an electrician. I do my job. I go home. What else is there to say?”

Another one bites the dust.

Finally, I mentioned his voice.

“You’ve got quite a voice. Ever done any singing?”

That got a small smile. “Singing? Sure – when I was a kid, in church. I was a soprano. Then, my voice changed.”

“It sure did.”

He really smiled, for the first time ever. “Now I’m a bass – like Daddy.” He grinned, proudly.

Hmmm – were we finally onto something? “Daddy?”

“Yeah, you know – my father.”

I smiled, “Yeah – even a Yankee knows what ‘Daddy’ means, Vic. It’s just that I never heard you talk about anyone before – anyone other than Joanie, or The Goners – with any feeling. I guess your Dad meant a lot to you.”

He pursed his lips in thought. “He meant everything to me.” He paused, his eyes moving as he searched his past. “He used to sing.”

“To you?”

“He sang all the time – in church, everywhere.” He paused, his eyes lighting up, head nodding proudly.  “He used to blow out speakers, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sure – a really powerful, deep bass can do that, you know.”

“No – I had no idea.”

He was quiet a moment. “But he also sang, special – to me.”

“How do you mean – special?”

“At night, in my room.”

“Like, bedtime songs – lullabies?”

“Not lullabies. Just anything: popular songs, hymns, gospel – you know, church.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I know gospel has something to do with church.” I paused, considering. “Would you sing for me?”

He did a double-take. “What – right here?”

“Yes – right here.”

He looked at the closed door. “Is that okay?”

I did my best Edward G. Robinson. “If they come to arrest us, I’ll take the rap, see?”

He looked down, clearing his throat. “Well, I don’t really sing anymore. It’s kinda like, when Daddy died . . .”

“The songs went with him?”

“Um hmm.”

“So, you don’t really feel entitled to do it on your own?”

“I don’t know about that – I just haven’t done it.”

“Would you do it for me? I’d be honored.”

He looked around again, like we were up to something illicit. “What do you want to hear?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know – maybe some of that hymn and gospel stuff you were talking about?”

“Like, what hymns?”

“I have no idea – I’m just a Jew-boy from California.”

That earned a rumbling laugh. He looked down and cleared his throat again. “Okay, then”

He began, timidly,

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing by the throne of God?

Now, he really gave it his all – his voice molten gold:

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

He looked at me. I nodded, “Keep going.” He continued through the verses, belting it out, body swaying, his eyes closed, and ended with,

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver,
With the melody of peace.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

By god, I almost converted, right there on the spot!

There was a knock at the door.

Victor flinched.

I said, “Yes? Come on in.”

The door opened, and two nurses poked their heads through a crack in the door, timidly, one head on top of the other. “Is everything alright in here?”

I nodded. “Everything is great in here.” I looked at Victor, then back at the nurses, asking them, “What did you think?”

The one on the bottom had her hand clapped over her mouth. They both had tears in their eyes. The one on top said, “It was just . . . just so beautiful.”

Victor looked alive for the first time since I had known him. Something had happened – it doesn’t matter what, or why, or how, only that it happened. A spark of life had been struck. Now it was my job to keep that spark alive.

I continued to meet with him, and, while he was still depressed, it seemed he had turned a corner and stepped out onto the street of life. There was only one thing I still wanted to know, and I waited till our last meeting to ask him. Maybe he’d be willing to tell me now.

“I know you don’t like to talk about the War, but could I just ask you one thing?”

He drew in a breath, hesitating. He still didn’t want to go ‘there’, but he said, “Okay – what is it?”

I had earned my one question. “Why do you call your platoon The Goners?”

He smiled. “Oh, is that all? That one’s easy.” His eyes did that moving-back-and-forth thing again, searching the blackboard of time. “When I was a kid, and my Daddy came home, which wasn’t often, he used to play soldier with me all the time. And whenever I would ‘kill’ him, he would clutch his hand to his heart, spin around, say, ‘I’m a goner’, then fall down.

“So, every time he had to leave home again, it became a regular thing that I’d say to him, ‘Guess you’re a goner, huh?’ And he’d say, ‘Yep – I’m a goner, boy.’ Somehow, it made it easier.

“So, when the guys were all killed, I just took to calling them The Goners – like, they were with Daddy, somehow.” He looked at me, but not really at me. “I guess it makes it easier.”

I nodded, and stuck out my hand. “Thank you – I appreciate it. I think I understand, now.”

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would ‘borrow’ his father, and the platoon, to make it easier for myself when Brett died.

Oh, before I get back to Brett, there’s one more thing about Asheville, and it’s in the nature of an ‘amends’. While we lived in Asheville, the older, nice guy, Bob, whom I mentioned earlier, was wonderful to us. He ‘had us over’ to his lovely house for dinner, did everything possible to make me feel welcome, talked with me patiently about my doubts and questions at work, and even laughed at my dumb jokes sometimes.

And yet, there was something sad about him, something very human. Maybe he was a self-questioner, a self-doubter, like me? I don’t know. I didn’t know, then, that ‘old guys’ were human, too, could need companionship, too, could be lonely, could doubt themselves. I just know that, on my last day at work, on my way out I glibly said to him,

“I’ll be in touch.”

He immediately replied,

“No, you won’t.”

Not like an accusation, or anything of the sort – just straightforwardly, like a statement of hard-won truth. It took me momentarily off guard. People aren’t usually that direct, or that honest. I think I shrugged it off at the time, and continued my merry way down the hall.

So, for the record, and to my shame, I just want to say that, Bob, you were right. I was a boy in a hurry – to get my Ph.D., to grow up, to get paid, to earn respect, to ‘make it’. I so wish that Botanical Rounds, that your generosity toward me, that the South, had taught me to slow down and let my heart put down roots in life, sometimes. I know it now, but I didn’t, then.

And I’m sorry – I’m the one who missed out on the privilege of a continued relationship with you, Bob – I’m the loser. And now that I’m an old guy, I know that age has nothing to do with it: I think you recognized in me a fellow traveler, and wanted to know me longer than my three-month ‘hitch’ in Asheville. Maybe at the time I couldn’t imagine an older guy actually wanting to know me, or finding genuine companionship with me – I didn’t think I had that much to offer.

But now that I’m older than you were then, I see that when a soul connects with another soul – age, or race, or gender, or background doesn’t matter much at all; sure, maybe those superficial similarities make it easier, but if the actual connection isn’t there, those things don’t make up for it. The connection is the precious part – and I let a true connection fall by the wayside when I failed to follow up on our friendship.

Maybe somebody reading this now will learn and realize that truth, and think twice about letting a special connection lapse.

That’s all I can offer you now, Bob, but I am offering it, with all my heart.

(Next: The Goner, Part III: Mission Accomplished)

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through The Grass

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8/29/2014

Today, my son Brett would have been eighteen – knocking on the door of manhood. People say to me, “Well, at least you have another one – and with the same birthday, too.” Yes, that’s true, I do have ‘another one’ (Nick – his twin brother) and that is a balm, of sorts.

We will celebrate Nick’s birthday today, and happily. I am so proud of him I could bust, with all he’s been through in his short lifespan, including, but not limited to, losing his brother, his twin, his protector, and his best friend, at the age of six. I admire him for going on, for making the best of a bad situation: he not only lost his twin, but to some degree, his parents, too, for a few years at least, and in truth, he lost some parts of us for good, for those parts — innocence, naivete, a certain smiling belief in the basic goodness of life — are gone forever.

But I’m not going to talk about Nick here, because he has his whole life ahead of him, and besides, he would be embarrassed and mad at me, for what eighteen year-old boy wants his father to blab a bunch of stuff about him to the whole wide world?

Nope, I’m going to talk about things that have to do with Brett, the ‘goner’. Why do I use that term? Because of a patient of mine who, if he’s still alive, most assuredly doesn’t remember me at all. But more on that after a little background.

A long time ago (1972), in a galaxy far, far away (The South), I did a summer internship at the Oteen Veterans’ Administration Hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina. I have only fond memories of Asheville, though some of them are leavened, and improved, by the passage of time. Like what? Well, like the fact that in the little clapboard cottage (well, shack, actually) where we were staying, out on Old County Home Road, if you turned on the lights at night the walls were teeming with hundreds of big, fat cockroaches. And they didn’t just sit there and look at you when the lights went on – they all scrambled madly for the closest available darkness, making the walls a living Hieronymous Bosch canvas of squirming bugs.

And they invaded the kitchen, too. If we didn’t put our silverware in sealed bags, our food, everything – well, it was ‘game on’. Oh, and it didn’t stop at roaches, either: big, bullying raccoons owned the night, too, and they weren’t subtle or scared – not a whit. They would bang around in the darkness of the night kitchen, searching, angrily and with total ownership, for whatever ‘goodies’ you had, in their opinion, procured for them and them alone.

For years, my wife would laugh about how, that first night, hearing the coons scuffling around aggressively, I jumped up in bed and said, “What the hell – there’s a goddam bear in the kitchen!”

But she wasn’t laughing when, the next morning, as she went to put a tablespoon full of cereal in her mouth, a roach suddenly shot out from the underside of the spoon and made a mad dash for her Cheerios!

And Southern culture is, well, different – or at least it was, then. There was a tunnel I had to transit every day on the way to work. It’s name? Beaucatcher Tunnel. Get it? Only in the South. And there was a famous mountain (part of the Blue Ridge Mountains) that was visible from town, too, with a smaller peak next to it. Their names? Mount Pisgah, and The Rat. No, really – it’s a big deal there.

Asheville is famous for a few things: the author Thomas Wolfe was born there, and his book, Look Homeward, Angel, is set in the Asheville area. The Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, is a tourist mecca. They have a minor league baseball team, The Asheville Tourists. In the old days, the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the U.S. was established there, and it was widely believed that Asheville’s ‘salubrious’ climate was ideal for healing all manner of ailments. After the Civil War, the government began to establish what were then called “old soldiers’ homes,” to take care of the medical, and later psychiatric, needs of veterans, and one of these was the beginning of the Oteen VA Hospital (now the Charles George VA Medical Center). The hospital has lovely, large grounds and high-ceilinged buildings that give some of the feel of the old, gracious South.

I first realized that the place had a work ethic, and a pace, all its own on my first day on the job. I was gung ho, hoping to impress my superiors with my dedication to my job, my willingness to learn, and my ‘potential’. As we gathered at lunchtime in the office of the Chief of Psychology, I expected, maybe, an informal ‘in-service’ training session, or at the least a grilling on what I had done with myself all morning.

Instead, the Chief and his cohort, Bob, a friendly, older guy who had been there forever, looked at each other and said, “Okay – we’re all here. Ready.”

I looked from one to the other. “Ready for what?”

The Chief smiled indulgently at my ignorance, picked up his hat and said, “Botanical rounds, of course.”

And with that, we all trooped out to take a long, leisurely stroll through the extensive, green grounds of the hospital, which included, as I remember, picking blades of grass and attempting to whistle through them – one of the manly arts of the Southern gentleman (and if you think I’m making this up, check this out). They could name most of the flowers, trees and birds of the grounds, and aside from an occasional bit of juicy gossip about the staff, no business whatsoever was discussed on these daily perambulations. So, it turned out to be a kind of in-service after all, just not one about work. There was a courtliness – a gentility, about this custom, and these men, that I never found anywhere else I ever worked, and though I didn’t get the fast-lane, sophisticated educational apprenticeship about being a ‘working’ psychologist that I had hoped for, I ultimately ingested something far more valuable, merely by the osmosis of hanging out with these guys: namely, that, while work matters, so does Life. Don’t forget who you are; don’t forget the natural world; don’t forget your family; and don’t forget to have some fun every day.

In effect, they were telling me,

Sure, you may think we’re just backwater old-timers, piling up years until our pensions kick in, and maybe we are, but remember this, boy: you may become a big-city fancypants someday, but you’re also just an ordinary Joe, along with the rest of us, so learn to enjoy it, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

And man, were they right. I never did learn to whistle through a blade of grass, but I did learn from them a couple of other crucial ‘manly arts’: humility and the capacity for a light touch.

Amen.

And then there were the patients. For some reason, I seem to remember that most of the guys I dealt with were Korean War vets – forgotten men from a forgotten war.

Two memories, of two men, stand out especially, because they involved lessons taught to a young, arrogant, would-be hotshot who thought he was slumming in Asheville for the summer.

The first one was Sonny, a small, beady-eyed, unprepossessing guy in his mid-forties. He was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and he did have a wild look in his eye, along with a Southern accent of dark molasses. On his tongue, “shit” was a four-syllable word. I was assigned to interview him, to provide a progress report. You understand, everyone was supposed to be making ‘progress’, due to the powers of our treatment plan, which, along with medication, meant group therapy, where we talked about ‘life’ issues, daily problems, and how cute the nurses were. I’m not knocking it – if I was a paranoid schizophrenic veteran in 1972, that’s what I would have wanted, too. It definitely beat sitting in a bare, one-room apartment and nursing your delusions with Camels and Southern Comfort all day.

So, as I say, I was assigned to meet with this guy and assess his ‘progress’, of which there was, to be honest, virtually none. Well, maybe the fact that he wasn’t out stabbing people or causing the police any trouble. But for Sonny, progress mostly meant keeping his inner demons at bay, rather than ‘getting better’ in the sense that a layman would think of it. In truth, he was an odd duck who unfortunately got caught up in an odd war, and it had ‘affected’ him. I remember his mental disability was rated as 80% ‘service-connected’, which meant that somebody, at some point, had determined that whatever happened in Korea had significantly degraded whatever pre-service mental stability he’d ever had. I wouldn’t know, because he wouldn’t talk about the war, or his experiences in Korea, though I asked. I let it go at that. It’s not like in the movies, where you help a guy ‘recover’ lost memories of how a sadistic platoon sergeant sent him out on night patrol for kicks, knowing the area was infested by North Koreans, and then he sobs into a pillow and screams, “I hate him! I hate him!” for an hour, and is miraculously cured.

Nope, Sonny was ‘gone’, for good, and nobody knew, really, what caused it, or ever would. My guess is that, like I said, he was a very odd guy who was probably barely making it in civilian life, and never should have been subjected to whatever things he went through in war – things that would probably have made even a normal man a bit odd for the rest of his life, but pushed this fragile guy around the bend for good.

I didn’t look forward to my assignment: the guy not only had that molasses accent that meant ‘ignorance’ to me, but a major mouth on him, too, to go along with a chip on his shoulder about everything and everybody in general. He had earned his paranoid ‘wings’ honestly: when he wasn’t being crazy, he could slash and carve with the best of ’em, and sometimes the staff almost hoped he was in his private delusions so that he wouldn’t spray around that verbal machine-gun fire and disrupt the staff and patients with his accusations. He was just crazy enough to harbor wild suspicions about everybody, but just un-crazy enough that his suspicions had the ring of truth and could really hurt.

I thought I would try and put him at ease with some small talk, establishing ‘rapport’. After he had taken his seat, I noticed him looking at a poster on the wall – of a castle. I nodded towards it. “Pretty amazing place.”

His eyes shifted from the poster to me, and back. “Oh yeah?”

I nodded. “Yeah – it’s in Austria.”

He smiled. “You mean, that place near Germany?”

Wow, this was going better than I expected. He was ‘responsive’. Actually, I had been to the castle, but I didn’t want to flaunt that in front of him, not now, when we were doing so well. I played it low-key. “Yeah – I guess Hitler stole their country for a while there, but they got it back after World War II.”

He nodded.

Why stop now, when I was doing so well? “I hear Walt Disney used it as the model for the castle in one of his cartoons.”

He pointed. “You mean, that castle?”

I nodded, enthusiastically.

He pounced. “You mean, Neuschwanstein?”

Paranoid schizophrenia: 1

Bernstein the Intern: 0

I scrambled to regain lost ground. “So – you were stationed in Germany?”

“Nope, never seen the place – I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Ludwig II built it as a refuge for himself. Like me, he didn’t particularly like people.” Spoken with no accent – could have been elocuted by an Oxford don.

Johnny Reb: 2

Yankee Fool: 0

Of course, you know what I was thinking at that point, but he even anticipated that.

He smiled at me, knowingly, his accent back full strength. “Yeah, yeah – if ah’m so smart, what the hail am ah doin’ heah? Well, what the hail else ah got to do? They don’t make no jobs for crazy folks, and gals don’t cotton to ’em much, neither, an’ that’s a fack.” He paused. “Ah on’y tail you this cuz ah lah’k ya.” He paused, then muttered, “Y’all done good with Bobby.”

I racked my brain, and finally made the connection. “Bobby” must have referred to a black patient the staff called Robert – who insisted on being called Robert, in fact. Some of the staff had been trying to transfer him to another unit because he was annoying and provocative to staff and other patients. I dimly remembered a heated discussion at the nurses’ desk weeks earlier, where I had pointed out that his ‘problems’ were precisely why he was here in the first place, and that to transfer him because of them ran counter to the whole purpose of our being there. Apparently Sonny had overheard the conversation, or someone else had, and passed it down the grapevine.

But two things really struck me: one, that a confirmed Southern redneck had appreciated my standing up for a black man. And two, the realization that the white patients apparently called him Bobby all along. It took me a long time, but because of this incident and others, I realized that Southerners didn’t just ‘hate’ black people, pure and simple, as I’d thought. White Southerners saw black people almost as children – hence the automatic use of the diminutive (even affectionate) ‘Bobby’, a name which Robert probably accepted as normal from them. And, they felt in a sense protective of blacks, as they would toward children. From their point of view, the real problems only came when blacks didn’t know their ‘place’, and therefore forfeited their status as protected children. Yes, I know it’s called paternalism, and like I say, it’s ugly and I don’t condone it, and it had to change, but I learned that it wasn’t as simple as pure hate, either. As someone once said, stereotypes work best from a distance. Once you get up close and personal, it’s a little more complex.

I think Sonny had used up all his energy making his ‘point’ with me. Soon after his victory over my own ‘paternalism’, he lapsed back into his psychotic delusions, and though he nodded to me, vaguely, whenever he saw me, we never really connected again.

But I’ll never forget, and will always honor, even the momentary glimpse I was afforded, into the mind of what could have been an extraordinary man.

(Coming Soon: The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia

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(Note: please read Route 66, Part I: For the Long Haul, first)

Culture shock is such an overused term. Besides, it is wholly inadequate to describe what I found when we finished our marathon journey on Route 66 and pulled up into the front yard of the Smiths. Yes, I said the Smiths. You see, where I came from, everyone but everyone was named Sherry Brodsky, or Max Leibowitz, or Marla Epstein. Am I making myself clear? I mean, in my world, I was the only one who was at school during Yom Kippur, being a ‘half-caste’, you see. We always celebrated Christmas, with the tree, the presents on Christmas morning, and all the trimmings – I never saw the inside of a synagogue my entire childhood. But my whole neighborhood was Jewish, my school probably eighty percent Jewish, and my name – well, what are you going to do?

But hell, my Mom was all-WASP, all the time, and certainly no Jewish mother. She was more of a cool cucumber than any of my friends’ parents, careful always to keep emotions, and emotional ‘displays’ to a non-embarrassing minimum. She didn’t hug, she didn’t yell, she didn’t argue, she didn’t cry – whatever was going on went down into the undertow below, to be guessed at by whomever had upset her in some untold way.

So, to me, Jewish meant warmer (good) but overwhelming (bad), whereas WASP meant icy cool (bad) but non-abrasive (good). And then we arrived in Williamstown, West Virginia, where I met the Smiths, and my Uncle Tom.

We pulled in to the gravel driveway and my Uncle Skeet ran out to greet us. Imagine that – I had an uncle named not Leo, not Max, not Irving – but Skeet! Skeet Smith. Or Skeeter, for ‘short’. Later I figured out that this was a regional nickname meaning ‘mosquito’, that is, a little guy. But he wasn’t a little guy to me – he had a big ol’ smile, a ready hug and a funny way about him that you just couldn’t not like. Now I knew what the expression ‘salt of the earth’ meant. Though nobody else ever said it, that I know of, I somehow immediately knew he reminded me of Will Rogers, the down-home, unofficial humorist ‘laureate’ of America in the Thirties: the crinkly smile, the dancing eyes, the genuine aw-shucks manner he affected, while seeing through you down to the bone. Or if you ever saw The Rockford Files, you might remember who Noah Beery, Jr. is: same thing. Honesty, realness, warmth and a big wink, all in one folksy package. Skeet Smith didn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body. Now, this was a kind of WASP-iness I could get to like!

And his wife, Aunt Naomi (pronounced more like “Nay-el-mah”), my mother’s sister. Another one who had a lot more acceptance than judgment. She was big – real big. Think of Jane Darwell – Ma Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, if you’re a movie person. But like Ma Joad, she was an earth mother – unpretentious and caring. And like many women who have been heavy most of their lives, and have therefore mostly let go of personal vanity, she was not posturing or brittle. A big woman with a big heart.

Theirs was a home you felt at home in right away, as opposed to my house, where you always felt everything was on display, even (or maybe especially) the kids. As usual, being my reticent, shy and observing self, and being in a new and foreign place, I mostly stayed to myself, not really connecting too much with anybody, but I felt comfortable, and at ease.

It was summer, but a different summer than I was used to: the air was ‘close’ (a new word for me) a lot of the time, and the skies even broke out into rain (my favorite) every so often. It was hot and ‘sticky’ – another novelty for me. We didn’t do sticky in L.A. We also didn’t do ‘outdoors’ in L.A. very much, other than playing ball with the guys in the street, or on the playground. Not with the whole family. Here, most of summer life took place outdoors, and what an outdoors: they had a big, big yard. My cousin Susan had a horse – named Mabel. Imagine that: a horse! There was a cat named Fancy, and some kind of a little terrier named Missy. Uncle Skeet would raise his hand and say, “Missy sing!” and she would give out with some kind of caterwauling that was hilarious.

The summer game was croquet, and Skeet played the ‘course’ with genius and virtuosity. He could make his ball hunt the wicket like it was pulled by a string, and if he wanted to, he could knock your ball clear into the next county.

The official summer treat of the Smith house was homemade ice cream, and Skeet Smith was the Babe Ruth, the Jascha Heifetz, of the ice cream maker. I would go with him to the ice house to get rock salt and dry ice, and he would pack it all into the big grinder and let me crank till my arm just about fell off. Then he would laugh and take over, whirling that thing like it was nothing, all the while keeping up a stream of good-humored commentary that made me feel like a person, not a kid, like a family member, not an outsider. And when we were done, and it was served: ahhh – the gods wept with envy!

It was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I remember sleeping in the screened-in porch at the back of the house. In my mind, it was my personal fiefdom, at least for the duration, and I loved it. What I do remember is this: I found a 45rpm record that had Anything Goes on one side, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin on the other, and I about wore that thing out, I played it so many times. Like the porch, it felt like mine – my own little secret. Who would have thought I would discover Cole Porter in Williamstown, West Virginia? I never talked about it, and no one ever noticed, or if they did, they never asked me about it. In fact, I’ve never mentioned it to anybody until now.

At home, all the records (except the weird kid stuff like King Thrushbeard and funky Burl Ives or Danny Kaye) belonged to Mom. At some expense, she’d had a very high-tech (for the time) Hi Fi installed in the area behind the living room, where she could play all her opera and classical LPs during the day – it was important to her. I think it reminded her that she was more than ‘just’ a housewife, marooned in suburbia, like some landlocked cetacean.

But this little record, and this guy Cole Porter, was my discovery – all mine! And like the trucks, and the trains, and the broasted chicken, I reveled in it, coveted it, secretly, as a small building block of my shaky and scattered identity: something, some one thing, I could call my own, had found on my own, that had nothing to do with “the way we are”. In my family, there was no place to not be part of wewe took in the whole universe, and to defect from we meant — well, you just didn’t want to go there. It didn’t need to be said: it was our way or the highway, but the highway was, and is, unthinkable to a child.

But back to the ice cream. Peach ice cream. Sometimes strawberry, maybe, but what I remember best is the peach: hot, sticky weather, croquet, and then, blessed, cold peach ice cream, a la Skeet:

Ambrosia.

And then there was my Uncle Tom, who never married (and probably never dated) and lived with my grandmother, his mother, and had all his life. He had suffered some pretty severe health problems for much of his childhood, and most likely it had taken him out of the mainstream so far, for so long, that, combined with his innate shyness, it was too much to overcome to try to fight his way back in. He was smart, quiet, reserved, wry, and slyly funny, if you got what he was talking about, which was sometimes a little bit on the odd side. Finally, a relative whose mind I could relate to, at least a little bit. That helped, to have one like that. No, I definitely wasn’t the type to never marry – in fact, I was the type to marry as soon as possible, and for life, if possible, but I had the same kind of mind, and wit, and the ways of the born observer, and appreciator.

But Tom was too quiet, and too shy, to be a real role model – in fact, he was a role model for what might happen to me if I allowed myself to sink into my shyness too far, and thus he inspired me, albeit unintentionally, to stay on the path of a ‘normal’ social life. Thanks, Thomas!

But what I’m really getting at in telling you all this – and what’s relevant for all of us – is that with my ‘immersion’ in West Virginia life, I started understanding that these were ‘my people’, too: yes, I absolutely was the “Jewish kid” (of sorts) from North Hollywood, and I’m proud of that, but I was also ‘of’ these other people, these lovable, loving and gentle people of the Ohio River. And now, with a broader cultural framework to draw from, I could cast my net wider – I could stretch out and embrace all of my cultural background: instead of feeling neither/nor, I could become both/and.

Yes, it would take me a long, long time (and a lot of therapy) to put this complex, unique jigsaw puzzle together, because I eventually had to figure out how to be my own ‘role model’, but the extra time, and work, was worth it: by being a complex person, with boots in several cultural ‘worlds’, one is able to partake of, and appreciate, the whole banquet that life has to offer. I don’t have to just ‘choose one from Column A’ – I can mix and match in all kinds of creative ways. And it has enabled me to relate to all kinds of therapy patients, as well – I have a personal understanding of being in the mainstream, and of being an outsider; of being a minority, and a majority, of being quiet and reserved, and outgoing and warm – of being lots of things at the same time.

I think I was a blob when I hit West Virginia – by the time I left, I was on my way to being almost human.

Of course, the downside of complexity is that nobody ever knows what movies I’ll like (!), but consider this: the most treasured professional compliment I ever got was from a woman I had seen through a very difficult, and very self-destructive, obsession with a man. When she finally came out the other end of this harrowing episode, she was telling me one day that she appreciated how, though we are very different people, I was able to ‘stay with her’ through hell and high water.

I said, “I hope you could feel how much I value you – no matter how different we are.”

She said, “Gregg – you could make a wall feel right at home.”

Well, the old hymn says, “It’s a gift to be simple”, but I’m here to say, it’s a gift to be complex, too. So thank you, Route 66, thank you Uncle Skeet and Aunt Naomi, thank you, Uncle Tom, and thank you, Cole Porter.

I couldn’t have done it without you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Route 66, Part I: For The Long Haul

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Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip,
Get your kicks on Route 66…

Route 66, by Bobby Troup (who lived for a time in North Hollywood, one block over from our house, with his wife Julie London).

We drove across the country almost every summer when I was a kid – from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Ohio, where my Mom’s relatives lived. When you left the city, things changed some, but by the time you left California, things changed a lot. No, not like nowadays: there were no Red States, no preening redneck patriotism, no strident gun lobbies, no divisive Fox News rhetoric.

There were only country people, and country people then were mostly kind, generous and helpful, and when they weren’t, it was because they had things to do: morning-to-night things that 9 to 5 people know nothing about. Running a farm, working the land, watching the weather, and tending to farm animals, you don’t live by the clock, don’t take regular breaks, don’t have paid vacations, and don’t often have time to sit and gabble with strangers. You have your hands full trying to get by, survive and maybe put enough aside to see you through the next drought, or flood, or bad market.

So, once we were past the California line, the scenery changed, but the people, mostly, didn’t. It was different, but marvelous, and I loved it: to me it was the all the variety that was America, come to life. I was living Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, before I had ever heard of Whitman.

The wondrous and frighteningly hot Mojave Desert:

Mirages (“Daddy, I think I see a lake over there!”)

Shimmering heat waves

Those funny tubular swamp coolers people used to have on their car windows

The burlap water bags hung in front of radiators

Dipping paper towels in water, then folding them and pressing them to your forehead, just to get a little relief

“Last chance for gas!” signs at the few-and-far-between service stations (“Daddy – what if we run out of gas? Do we have enough water?”)

Curios – yes, two-headed snakes, calves, and other misbegotten middle Americana, there for the looking. We didn’t have curio stands in North Hollywood!

Navajo Indians, tending their sheep, selling their turquoise jewelry and their angularly beautiful blankets

Q: Mommy, how can they do anything here? It’s too hot!

A: They do it anyway.

Q: Well then, why don’t they just leave?

A: Where would they go? This is their land.

And for the first time, I began to understand how people could have a fierce connection and loyalty to their ‘land’, their place on earth – no, not because it was easy, or lush, or perfect, but precisely because it was forbidding, because they had to work so hard to exist there, had to sacrifice and sweat, to make it – to endure. I saw how there was a kind of pride in all these things, a feeling of ‘we did it, dammit – and we’ll keep doing it’ – a feeling we didn’t have in North Hollywood, where the hardest thing about the physical environment was the smog burning your lungs at the end of a long summer day playing with your friends. This was long before I (or anyone else) knew of the concept of cognitive dissonance, which explained, ‘scientifically’, why having to work so hard for something makes it all the more valuable.

And the staggeringly flat endlessness of the Great Plains:

Mile after unimaginable mile of planted crops. Waving wheat, tall corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and all the others I couldn’t identify but had been planted by somebody, helped along, fretted over, brought along with infinite care and patience. The big machinery: massive tractors, threshers, cultivators, harvesters, operated by men who sat alone in them, stoically, for hours and hours, quietly doing their jobs under the hot summer sun.

We thought our backyard was enormous, and for North Hollywood, it probably was: the total area behind our house was maybe a hundred yards by thirty, populated by ants, Jerusalem crickets and horned toads when we moved in.

But these ‘backyards’ were like entire states: mile after mile of flat land, far as the eye could see, all planted with something, all needing tending, all subject to the whims of nature. It gave a kind of scale to things that we didn’t have at home – a scale so grand, a space so big, that it made even a boy think about things like life and death, creation, the purpose of things, time, what we are doing here. Or at least it did me, but then of course, I was always The Dreamer – the one who sat in his pajamas and watched the world go by, wondering, always wondering . . .

The middle of nowhere. A train goes by:

Q: Mom, where are those people going?

A: I don’t know.

Q: But don’t you wonder?

A: No, not really: we’re on our vacation now. What they’re doing is none of our business.

Q: Are they okay?

A: What do you mean, okay?

Q: Are they moving away from somewhere because they had to? Are they all together, or did they get separated?

A: I’m sure they’re fine – and besides, that’s not our worry. We’re fine, and that’s what matters.

Q: Mom – are they Okies?

A: That’s enough: now, be still and enjoy your own trip.

Eastward we pushed: Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Amarillo (god, Texas went on forever!), Oklahoma City, St. Louis. License plates to watch; roadkill that was a user’s guide to the fauna of south-central America (Could I make a coonskin cap of that raccoon we just saw? What’s an armadillo anyway?); regional cuisine (except we didn’t call it cuisine then, just hick food) – I became fixated on ‘broasted’ chicken for some reason, that and chicken-fried steak, yumm!); the clothes changing from cowboy hats and bolo ties to bib overalls and tractor-brand caps, to slacks, button-up shirts and Fedoras.

And, all the way across the big country, in their rolling majesty – the semi trucks: citizens of nowhere, rumblers-through of everywhere. Oh yes, the big rigs, the semis, the long-haul boys. Now, they were something to fire the imagination of a small boy! Just the names: Mack, Freightliner, Peterbilt, Kenworth, and the names of the hauling outfits, that you saw over and over again till you knew the logos, and the slogans, by heart: Navajo (“route of the blue-eyed Indian”), P.I.E. (Pacific Intermountain Express), Consolidated Freightways, Ringsby, Yellow Freight, Transcon – they became my friends and traveling companions all along Route 66.

Sometimes the drivers waved to me, and sometimes, when I was very lucky, they honked their horns, and smiled down at me. Why did they do this? It took me a while to figure out that, unlike the adults in my world who didn’t seem to need anything, these guys were lonely – even my childish waving, though I’m sure it was annoying at times, was a sign of humanity for them. Imagine that: I had something to offer an adult!

Of course, like most small boys, I was fascinated by trains, too, especially the sleek-looking ‘streamliners’ that flashed past on their way from one coast to another. And sometimes we had to stop at a crossing while an endless succession of rail cars rattled past us. My Dad was impatient, as always, probably anxious to get on to our night’s destination, but I, with a small boy’s relation to time, could revel in it, enraptured by all the different types of cars, with names – Great Northern (with that cocky mountain goat prancing on the sides), Santa Fe (“All the way, with Santa Fe!”), Southern Pacific – that became familiar after awhile, betokening the romance of faraway places and never-to-be-met strangers, and of course, my endless questions, which by now I had learned to keep to myself: Where are they coming from? Who is shipping this stuff, and where, and why? Why is it needed in one place and not another? What’s it like to be an engineer? Do their families miss them? How do they decide when to blow the whistle, and how many times?

But trains, though magnificent, and fascinating, were of such a scale that they seemed to be from another solar system, whereas ‘my’ trucks, and my truckers, existed down here in my bailiwick. Truckers existed in real life: I could see their frustration, and commiserate with them, as they struggling at a snail’s pace up the hills, as lines of angry cars passed them, each one watching for oncoming traffic, then zipping out into danger to get by; and then, on the downhill side, playing truckers’ Russian roulette, as they balanced the need for speed, to make up the time they lost on the uphill, with trying to avoid going out of control and plunging to disaster – their gears grinding viciously, their brakes hissing like angry cats.

Now, this was a connection with being a man I could actually conjure with! For at least a year or so there, when my parents, or anyone else, asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would say proudly, “Gonna drive a diesel pruck (sic).” In fact, I think my parents only asked in order to hear me say that. And of course, it was unspoken, but clear, that plying such a lowly trade would be beneath me – beneath us. What they didn’t hear, or pay attention to, was that, hidden in my answer lurked some pretty clear hints about who I was and what I actually would go on to do when I grew up.

Like truck driving, psychotherapy is “long haul” work, requiring consistent, sustained effort over long periods of time. Semi drivers, like therapists, are entrusted with a precious cargo, a cargo they have to ‘see through’ to the end of the line, and mostly alone.

There is no boss sitting there looking over your shoulder, no fixed set of rules telling you exactly what to do each minute: it’s up to you to get the job done, in a way that works for you and the client. It takes personal dedication, and perseverance, to do the job well – no one is there to tell you that you put in a half-ass effort on a particular day. Also, like a trucker, it’s up to you to ‘entertain’ yourself during the long haul, to keep it fresh, rather than fall prey to boredom, dullness or lack of involvement in the task, to see it not as endless repetition, but ever new, ever different.

I watched the truckers when we would stop to eat or rest. How they joked with each other, flirted with the waitresses, told ‘war stories’ about road life, and swapped gossip and news about other guys, other truck lines, their bosses, their equipment, road conditions, best routes, and best places to eat, or pull over and catch a few winks. Like sailors, they had their own jargon, and their own network of news and information. I came to understand that, while they were solitary, cut off and isolated in some ways, in other ways they were privileged insiders in a world all their own.

And that’s how it is with therapists, too: sure, everyone knows, basically, what you ‘do’, but they don’t know at all what you really do. It takes another therapist to understand what it’s like to listen for hours, to have it be ‘about the other person’ all day long, to sustain your interest, your involvement, your dedication, to improve your skills and hone your craft not because it’s required, but because it matters to you to do the best job possible. Like truckers, therapists have to take inner pride in ‘getting the load through’, in a timely manner, undamaged and in good shape.

And best of all, now I don’t have to wonder, Where are those people going, and why? They come right into my office, sit down, and tell me.

So, to all the people who asked that little boy what he was going to be when he grew up, I actually gave you the right answer, folks, if you listen with your heart and squint a little:

Gonna drive a diesel pruck!

Our cross-country trip down Route 66 rolls on in the next installment:

 Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia.

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.