C’mon Get Happy
I don’t know exactly when I started watching “The Partridge Family.” I imagine from the very beginning, in 1970. Wiki says it ran from September of that year (shortly after I turned eight) until ’74, and was of course syndicated after that. I know that it hit me pretty hard. I hadn’t had the slightest inclination to do anything whatsoever with music – my little monster skits didn’t need a soundtrack, after all.
I have little bits and pieces of memories from those many episodes, but a spark was ignited by one episode in particular – or at least a single scene from that episode: Keith (David Cassidy) is sitting on his bed, writing a song. He’s playing his guitar, a notebook and pen beside him as he works through a little bit of it. He plays part of it for Danny (Danny Bonaduce). Danny says it sucks, so Keith stabs him right in the fucking eye with his pen. Danny bleeds. Danny dies. THE END.
Of course, that didn’t happen. It’s just a cool dream I have. You know, ‘cause Bonaduce turned out to be such a dick. In fact, I don’t recall how that episode ended. It was just the act of songwriting which had captivated me. I remember thinking that was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’d be ten years before I’d actually become a songwriter, and more than twenty before I’d write a song about Keith Partridge (below), but that’s what started it all.
Sure, I watched “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch,” just like everyone (it seemed to me, from watching those shows, that one didn’t have to be particularly talented to be on TV – or to write for it). But TPF was my early muse. I wrote down the lyrics to their biggest hit, “I Think I Love You,” my young ears glued to the Top 40 station for those opening harmonies, rushing for my notebook to scribble as fast as I could, adding a line or two each time until I finally got the transcription completed. Probably about the same time it fell out of heavy rotation. I remember scouring the music magazines any time we went to the store, aggravated that none of the fan mags seemed to give a shit about lyrics. I wouldn’t have been able to buy a copy even if I’d found such a publication, but how tough could it be to rip out a page and stuff it in my pants? Fuckin’ sociopath.
I also fell head-over-heels in love with Laurie Partridge (Susan Dey). I was smitten. I dreamed about her, yearned to comfort her when she got braces and had her heart broke. Later, when I was in my teens, Susan Dey had a pretty hot sex scene in an R-rated movie, I think with that feller William Katt, who was the Greatest American Hero (dumb dumb dumb). Anyway, watching that movie made me feel particularly tingly.
Laurie wasn’t my first love. I’d just gotten over my Judy Garland infatuation, come to grips with the fact that the star of “The Wizard of Oz” was not going to un-overdose, when I started watching the Partridges. I remember riding home from my Aunt Bev’s place in Dallas, looking out the window into the night sky, wondering if Judy Garland (who’d just died) was watching from Heaven. I knew she sure as shit wasn’t in Kansas any more.
It would have been for my ninth birthday that I got Mom to get me a guitar – it was just a toy, and I never did anything but bang around on it. But it was enough to prompt me to organize Stacy and two kids from across the street (the ones whose parents we extorted, not the ones we ran away with. Another brother and sister duo. I’m wanting to say the little boy’s name was Rex. Then again, I wanted to attribute “Rex” to the dog in “Dick and Jane.” Somewhere in my life there’s a goddamned “Rex”) to form a band. I don’t think we ever even tried to practice, or decide what the fuck everybody else would play…and I couldn’t play either. I doubt this whole thing took up more than a couple of days, but it stuck. I’m sure I wrote all sorts of band names and plans in my notebook. I do remember Stacy and the others at least feigning enthusiasm.
I imagine feigned enthusiasm for my whimsies and notions has been a recurring theme throughout my life. Overall, I don’t think anybody’s ever been as thrilled with me as me. And, if I weren’t me, I wouldn’t blame them.
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I don’t recall learning how to read. Mom says Darrel taught me, and that it redeemed me in his eyes. I hadn’t shown signs of any real athletic ability (had I been a more coordinated kid, I might’ve been able to get that fucking duck out of that fucking trash can), and Mom says he’d pretty much written me off. But I took to reading like a duck to a june bug, and that “brilliance” (her words, not mine – I tell myself I’m brilliant all the time, but only do so publicly when intoxicated) made him proud to acknowledge I was his.
My reading skills got me some attention at school, but not until I’d been introduced to public humiliation. On the very first day of first grade at Orvis Risner Elementary School in Edmond I got my palm slapped with a ruler by Mrs. Collins, my teacher. I was fascinated by the pencil sharpener attached to the wall, so I kept using my little left-handed scissors to cut off the sharpened lead, giving me another opportunity to use the intriguing gizmo (I keep hearing “Born to Be Wild” in my head). One of my classmates pointed out my curious atrocity to Mrs. Collins, and she whacked me. She’s dead now, though. That’ll learn ‘er.
The first attention of the non-pointing-and-snickering variety came some time later, as we sat in a circle and read some sort of “Dick and Jane” shit. As I equated fast with good (we only learn later in life that that ain’t necessarily so), I probably sounded like a pint-sized auctioneer, zipping through the tales of the (I think) siblings and their dog “Rex” or “Spot” or something.
The very first real book I read was Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I was about eight. That was one bitch of a read for an eight-year-old. It’s a bitch of a read for most grown-ups, what with the Victorian style of verbiage and the what-not. I was immensely pissed off that I had to read two-thirds of the damned thing before the fucking monster was brought to life! I liked monsters.
I don’t recall the first thing I wrote, but it was probably about monsters. I’d write little sketches and make Stacy perform them with me in front of family and friends. I was always the monster (generally Frankenstein or the Wolfman), she was always the victim. Bless her heart. She’s dead now, too. Life is a long, hard road, and happiness is just those smooth patches between chugholes, speed bumps and roadkill. Some folks are just blessed with better infrastructure is all.
I don’t remember not having a notebook. I’ve always written. It took many (like, thirty or so) years for any semblance of “style” or “voice,” to find its way into my scribbling, but I was just laying a foundation, anyway. I didn’t know that then, of course. I just liked what was going on inside my head a lot more than what was outside, and writing stuff down made it seem more real.
I read everything, but preferred reading about monsters and/or dinosaurs. I believe my first career aspiration was to become a paleontologist. (That didn’t work out). Our folks got us a “Childcraft Encyclopedia” set when I was very young. I believe there were twenty-six volumes. I read them all. A few years later, Mom got a set of “Funk & Wagnal’s,” (a name which never failed to make me snicker when said aloud). I read all of those too, with the exception of I think “O-P,” which had somehow got lost in one of our many moves. So I don’t know as much about “Oncology” or “Platypuses” as I might have otherwise (I already had “Paleontology” down). I’m digressing.
Getting that first set of encyclopedias is one of very few memories I have of the house we lived in before Beverly Drive. It was a two-story house, also in Edmond, I think. About the time we got those books, I also got a new pair of cowboy boots. I called them “go-go boots” until a friend told me that go-go boots were for girls, and inquired if I might be a “sissy.” I was horrified by the notion, as girls were yucky. I remember a gray cat named Smoky, who later committed suicide by jumping out of my Grandpa’s truck window as he was helping us move. Honestly, I’m not sure he actually died, just that Mom told me he’d gone out the window. Don’t matter. One way or the other, Smoky’s dead.
Another memory I have from that house is of jumping on a bed upstairs, and Stacy landing on a bedpost. On her face. A chunk of wood went into her lip, and she had to have stitches. You know, after they removed the wood. That memory always leads to this rhyme it seems I’ve always known:
Two little monkeys, jumpin’ on the bed
One fell off and broke his head
Took him to the doctor, the doctor said
“That’s what you get for jumpin’ on the bed”
Of course, “monkeys” seems rather counter-intuitive. I’d think monkeys would be among the least likely of primates to suffer a bed-jumping mishap. I mean, they’ve got fucking hands on their fucking feet. “Two stupid humans” works fine, both content- and meter-wise. Not as cute, though. I guess you could make the bed-jumpers “drunk monkeys,” but then the meter would be off a smidge (the opening line would no longer have the same number of syllables as the third, which is kind of cool). I’ve probably spent entirely too much time pondering on this.
Like my dream of paleontology, my parents’ marriage didn’t work out, either. They were married eight years, which means I was seven when they split up - about the time man landed on the Moon. I remember that, but don’t recollect the fighting and/or strife which led to the divorce. I just know that we hardly ever saw our father, until we didn’t see him at all. Mom says there was some breaking of the vows on Darrel’s part, that he was always popular with the ladies. He’s been married four times, I think, so I guess she was right.
Any man who says he’s never pissed on his own nut-bag is either lying or has a really small nut-bag.
No idea where that came from, but it made me shoot coffee through my nose when I thought of it.
Sometime between the departure of Darrel and the arrival of my first stepfather Dick, Mom gave birth to our little sister, Rebecca Belle. She’s always been “Becca.” Sometimes “Becca ding-a-ling” (the latter part always said as an onomatopoeia – like ringing a little bell). I rarely use that now, and do so only in the spirit of fun.
Happiness is akin to physical pain, I think, in that they’re both sensations which cannot be replicated through memory. In fact, they kinda pull a switch-a-roo sometimes. When we think about physical pain, we can feel happy (or at least relieved or amused), because thinking about it means we endured it. Conversely, memories of being happy are not always happy memories, as we contrast the past with the present. Of course, physical and emotional pain can intertwine. That shit’s always sad.
One of the happiest days of my early childhood was when Mom brought Becca home from the hospital, and that day will always make me smile. Honestly, that was the first really happy day I remember. School was a few blocks away, and I ran all the way home. I was just so stinking excited. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I love to love, or because I love to be loved. Or because, as the oldest child, I’d just doubled my realm of authority (a word which I cannot speak or write without mentally hearing Cartman from “South Park.” You know. “Author-i-TIE!”).
I was just tickled to death with my baby sis. Honestly, I’ve almost always been tickled with her. During her first weeks, I’d wake up every night and tip-toe down the hall to look in on her. The first time I remember feeling real fear was the night she wasn’t there. I looked under her crib. I looked in the closet. (I mean, really…what are the odds an infant would be under the crib or in the closet? That’s stupid. I guess if there’d been a fridge in the room, I’d have looked in there too. At least the light would’ve been better). I looked in Mom’s room, careful not to wake her. Didn’t see Becca. So I went back down the hall and re-checked under the fucking crib and in the fucking closet. Then I woke up Mom. Of course, Becca was sleeping peacefully on her bosom.
Memories are weird. I only have a couple of memories of even being in Mom’s room as a young child. There’s that one, then there’s the time I sat on her bed, listening to “Jesus Christ, Superstar” on the radio as she got ready for work. As the opera was born the same year as Becca (1970), these memories are not far apart. But that’s pretty much it for Mom’s room in the house on Beverly Drive.
I was sometime around then, I think after the split but before Becca came along, that I recruited Stacy to help me break into our next-door-neighbor’s car, my friend Danny Reynold’s house, and to try to extort money from the folks across the street. Not all on the same day, of course, but I don’t think the incidents could have been too far apart.
We didn’t get anything from the neighbor’s car, I don’t believe. But I did leave a note claiming responsibility. Signed “The Wolfman.” Fuckin’ idiot. I knew the jig was up when Mom asked me to re-write the note. I remember liking these neighbors – the son especially was cool. He had Playboy pin-ups on his wall (I didn’t quite get why one would want to look at such), but also had a poster of a guy with his head up his own ass with the caption “Your Problem is Obvious.” I got that, and found it hysterical.
We broke into Danny Reynold’s house in the middle of the night, while he and his parents slept. Beats the shit out of me why. We entered through an unlocked sliding-glass door, and started rummaging through the cabinets. He had some really cool breakfast cereal I remember – “Cap’n Crunch” or some such shit. His dad heard us and got up. I recall the layout of the house, the kitchen, living room, and dining room situated so that one could travel in a circle through the three. Which, for a few seconds, we did. It was rather cartoonish, as Stacy and I tried to outmaneuver Danny’s dad. Then he changed direction once when we changed direction twice, and he nabbed us in the dining room. Seems funnier now than it did then.
We never got caught for vandalizing the back yard of the neighbors across the street, nor for the note we left demanding five dollars to keep it from happening again. I guess I didn’t sign it “The Wofman.” We never got the five bucks, so I guess – to use some current political logic – we never really committed a felony.
It’s funny, I don’t believe we got whupped for any of those things. “Sparing the rod” was not in our mother’s nature, not later at least, but for some reason I can’t recall getting beaten for any of that stuff. I remember stuffing a sofa pillow down my pants in anticipation of a whuppin’ (which I had about as much chance of getting away with as signing shit “The Wofman”); maybe Mom was going through too much at the time.
Maybe she was just getting geared up.
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CHAPTER ONE Reaching and Fleeing
My very first memory is of reaching for something I couldn’t quite grasp. I’ve a feeling I’ll go out that way too.
It was a toy of some sort – I want to say a squeaky duck – and it was at the bottom of a metal-rimmed trash can or waste basket. I know it was metal, as I recall the pain of the rim digging into my abdomen as I reached in, standing on my toes, the blood rushing to my head, my little fingers just inches from the prize at the bottom.
Why I didn’t tip the can over is beyond me. If it was a trash can, it may have been in some sort of rack…doesn’t matter. I think it was at a long-dead aunt’s and uncle’s house, probably in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I don’t know why I think that, and I have no clue why that particular memory has stayed with me.
Even as I type the words, I realize I know exactly why. Always reaching. Never quite grasping.
I joked in one of my first bios that I was “born in California, but – like many Californians – raised in neighboring Tulsa, Oklahoma.” We were only in California because my father, Darrel Hager, had joined the Marines not long out of high school (and not long after marrying my mother, Carolyn Conwell) and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside. Same place Gomer Pyle was stationed. They may have served together – they were both pretty fictional, although I saw quite a bit more of Gomer.
Mom was the second of six children, Darrel the oldest of four, I think. My father’s parents had owned a convenience store, my mom’s father worked for Southwestern Bell (he’d installed the very first phone lines for a number of folks in northeastern Oklahoma, including pretty much the entire town of Nowata). Darrel and Carrie (as Mom’s called) were high school sweethearts in Cleveland, Oklahoma, a small town northwest of Tulsa.
I’m not sure if Darrel joined the Marines out of a sense of duty, if it was just kind of what a lot of young men did back then, or if he was inspired by my mother’s oldest brother, Uncle Ronnie, who’d already signed up. No matter the reason, I can’t imagine he’d-a made a very good marine. Army, maybe. (TOTALLY kidding. I equally respect all of our service men. I just think that many of their missions have been fucked).
Darrel was only in for four years - long enough for both me and my sister Stacy to be born (me on September 8, 1962; Stacy a year and eighteen days later, on September 26, 1963). The next time I went to California, I’d be twenty-two, and I’d get there via my thumb.
I believe it was 1965 when we returned to Oklahoma, and I believe we landed in Collinsville, just north of Tulsa. At some point, Darrel also got some sort of degree, and was administrator of a hospital in tiny Pawhuska, which is in Osage County, northwest of Tulsa. I don’t know that much about that time, and anything involving my father is not something my mom and I much discuss.
We were living at 3012 Beverly Drive in Edmond (outside of Oklahoma City) when I started kindergarten. That was the year I ran away from home for the first time. And the second. On the same day.
I’m still not sure what prompted the first escape. I don’t really have any memories of early abuse (that would come later), and this was a couple of years before the divorce, so I can’t say that there was any noticeable strife in the home. Maybe I just wanted to fly.
Stacy would have only been four at the time - it wasn’t too difficult, I imagine, to recruit her for the adventure. I also recruited a couple of kids from across the street – a brother and sister, I believe, about the same ages as Stacy and I. I don’t remember their names, or even faces really. I just have this memory of an incident where the little boy tried to get his sister and Stacy out from behind some bushes, using a plastic baseball bat. He pissed off a wasp. I’m sure I’m remembering this wrong, but I swear to God the image I have in my head is of that wasp crawling into the kid’s fuckin’ tear duct! I mean, that’s got to be wrong – I can’t imagine that wouldn’t send a kid to the hospital, where they’d use some sort of device to apply baking soda to the brain. But I digress. On this day, we marched several blocks to a convenience store, where we promptly selected several items each from the toy display and left. We knew nothing of money, or how any of that stuff worked.
This was also the first time (of MANY) I rode in a police car.
I remember telling the officer, on the way to the station, that our parents beat us. Again, I don’t believe this was true. I think perhaps I was learning to be manipulative, which is something we all learn to one degree or another. It starts with crying, and we sharpen our skills from there.
Stacy and I didn’t get in any trouble that time. I recall waiting anxiously for our father to get home (he was the family enforcer during those years, I suppose), and I recall the immense relief I felt when Darrel – perhaps trying his hand at child psychology – didn’t spank us, but instead told us what a disappointment we were, and that he didn’t want to be around us. “Do whatever you want to do,” he told my sister and I.
It’s the damnedest thing – my mind has always seemed to have some sort of malfunction which inclines it to default to the most inappropriate place in a given situation. Usually words, sometimes actions, sometimes both. You don’t want to know where it goes at funerals. In my defense, I usually manage to filter myself, but – on that day – I just went with it:
“Let’s run away again,” I told Stacy. I remember it like it was yesterday, and not over a half-century ago. We were standing on the front lawn, still processing our unlikely reprieve. Stacy looked at me like I was nuts. Then we skedaddled.
Seems we went another direction the second time, our adventure thwarted not by the police but my kindergarten teacher, who saw us passing outside her house and lured us in with cookies, then called our dad. I had a feeling we’d not get off so easy this time, so I made sure to compliment Darrel’s hair. That didn’t work.
Man, that was an ass-whuppin’. The first ass-whuppin’ I recall, and the only one from our father. Made him cry, too, which may be about the nicest thing I can say about him. Funny that until that day, I didn’t even know grown men did such things.
I sure do now.
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“I think that we are only shadows cast by the light of time, each of us in our own way trying to make our silhouettes leave a stain...”
I wrote that recently, as I pondered about writing this li’l opus of reflections and observations and weird shit which just pops into my head.
Mortality's a motherfucker, and a lot of what goes on in our short lives is a motherfucker too. But it is what it is, and we've got what we got. I posted that at the same time as the “shadows” thing, which I’d written in my trusty little notebook some days before, as I sat on my sister’s front porch in Copan, Oklahoma, watching the sunrise, smoking, and thinking on the nature of life and shadows.
I’ve been threatening myself with this for years now. I’ve done a lot of livin’ and sufferin’ and laughin’ and the what-not. It’s been quite the adventure, and – while there are so many things I’d do differently now – I don’t guess it makes any sense to go so far as regretting anything. Not the hitchhiking the country, not the homelessness, not the rehabs or suicidal leaps out of speeding cars, nor the radio shows or songs or gigs I can’t recall (but was told about). I think that it’s much more productive to head off future regrets. And, if I have any notice when my time comes, I don’t want to regret that I didn’t write as much of my story down as I could. I mean, shit, there’re gonna be a shitload of regrets anyway. But one fewer, should I at some point write “The End” on this bad boy.
I tried writing my life story in longhand in 1992, to send to my daughters before I embarked on what was certain to be a journey of despair and homelessness, and – so I thought at the time – almost certain death. I was right about the first two (and not too far off on the latter, ‘though I’d jumped the gun on the timeline). I only got twenty or so pages written before I had to skedaddle, and they never got sent. My darling daughters Rachel and Liana were three and two, respectively, at the time, so I imagine I figured I had plenty of time. I did, then. I wish I had those pages now – I imagine I remembered the earlier stuff more clearly then. Shit, I wasn’t even thirty.
There’s a lot of autobiographical tidbits in my novel, “Diary of a Dead Guy,” but – as it was cloaked within the context of fiction – I felt freer to embellish, and to maybe not make myself look too bad. I’ll try not to embellish too much here. While I think inevitably that’ll make me look bad at times, I care more about the act of telling truths than about the impressions they leave (which sounds noble, but is probably just delusion, which is why I used the phrase “try not to embellish”).
I’ll be relying on my own memories and oral history from family (please don’t make a sex joke here. Please) for up to 1992, which was the year Greyhound lost everything I’d written ‘til then, along with a shitload of pictures. After that year, I’ve got notebooks to help jog memories. Yeah, a big-ass box of notebooks. I don’t want to make my kids and my sis go through all that mess after I’m gone. Hence, this project.
Beginning in 2002, I’ll have emails to help me remember as well. From 2009 onward - there’s good ol’ FB. I’m not sure how much I’ll use of that stuff, but I’m not sure of much of anything.
In the early ‘90s, I wrote a song about a foxhole, said that after I buried myself in it, I could “put a question marker on it, wondrin’ why I did it.” My life has been filled with far more questions than answers, many of which I know I’ll never know. My stories and history don’t really provide answers – they’re just among the things about which I have a fair degree of certainty. To the best of my recollection.
This type of thing is much more interesting when it’s somebody famous, when you know that – even if the ending itself isn’t particularly happy – there are still happy points along the journey with which you can identify. This’ll prob’ly be different than that- my happier times have only been relative to my own misery, and probably not yours - but I’ll do my damnedest not to bore ya.