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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