Leaving Home

I left home twice—so to speak.

The first time was when I was 18. I had graduated from high school a few weeks before and I was lying on the couch one day in the living room…

of my parent’s house.

I phrase it that way—space it that way on the page—because it was kinda-sorta-more-or-less understood that once I graduated from school it was no longer my home—it was my parent’s home and I was just staying there—despite the fact I grew up there.

I’m lying on the couch and my dad walks in. He stops—stands there in the middle of the room looking at me with a look of—I won’t say “disgust”—but whatever comes right before disgust.

He just says “Whatta you gonna do?”

I know exactly what he’s talking about—I know exactly what he’s thinking.

“I’ve enlisted,” I reply. “I leave next week.”

He says nothing—his expression never changes. He walks away with not so much as a nod.

My dad was a product of the depression and World War II—with all the psychological, emotional and social baggage—deriving from that era. He grew up on a big dairy farm in the northern Midwest during the depression so he and his family never went hungry. They made, grew and raised almost everything they needed—and bartered for the rest. His idea of a good time was working on his mechanical hobby projects and sitting around talking to people just like himself who confirmed his opinions.

In the world my dad grew up in you existed for one reason—to work. And once I finished school that was it. Get a job or get out—better yet—get a job AND get out. By going into the military I was able to oblige him on both accounts.

The day before I left I stopped by to see my mom in the hospital. That was how she got attention and some facsimile of love—a couple times a year she’d get sick and have something removed. By the time I was in my 20s she’d had everything taken out that you can live without.

I go by to say goodbye—I tell her my plans. She lays there in the hospital bed looking at me with tears in her eyes, nodding her head slightly and says something along the lines of, “If you can’t cut it—if you fail…” and her voice trails off into fearful ambiguity.

At the risk of over simplifying a bit–that was “home” for me. A blue-collar world where, after high school,  a kid’s choices were pretty much the military or the mill–toting  a gun or toting a lunch pail. Life was about working, getting by paycheck to paycheck and survival. And only the incredibly stupid would ever hope for more much more than that.

Seven or eight days later I am at Fort Dix, New Jersey learning how to be cannon-fodder.Three years later I’m delighted to report I was still alive—I hadn’t been “fodderized” in Viet-Nam. I went into the Army a bit too early. Viet-Nam was just getting cranked up big time when I was discharged—I just missed it.

Immediately after discharge I spent a few weeks in Detroit visiting relatives—I didn’t return to my parent’s house in upstate N.Y. I left from Detroit to begin college. That trip from Detroit to my first college–was my second—and I feel the much more significant—leaving from home.  In this context I am defining home not as a place or domicile (although that’s a significant part of it) but more a frame of reference—a Weltanschauung or world view.

The military was just an extension of the blue-collar, do-your-job//keep your-mouth-shut-and//-be-damn-glad-you’ve-got-a-job, don’t-get-your-hopes-up view of life I grew up with.  (Sorry about the run-on sentence and catalog of descriptors.)

One of the great things about college was talking to people that didn’t think a minimum wage job breaking your back and ingesting something that will eventually kill you was the best you could hope for in life.

The first day of classes was the day I started becoming someone I like better than the person my parents taught me to be–a worker bee or ant. Qualities like intellect, ideas, creativity  were all but meaningless unless you could prove it put food on the table.  It was like growing up in a hole and only being able to see a little patch of sky. As the years of education and living life passed, I was gradually able to climb up out of the hole and look around. It was like being born again (no religious implications or offense to Born-Again Christians intended).

There’s knowledge, there’s wisdom and there’s enlightenment. Knowledge comes largely from books, classes, intellectual inquiry and deliberate searching and is a continuation of what you currently know. Wisdom comes from living—getting it right sometimes, getting it wrong sometimes and unfortunately—doing things you regret and suffering the consequences. Enlightenment comes from detaching from all the stuff that’s piled up in your head over the decades so it doesn’t get in the way of your freedom or cause problems for those who care about you.

My parents have long since passed away but their legacy has not. After a half century of distancing myself from that scraping-by, working-class existence it demands to be acknowledged and dealt with. I’m old now and one of the agendas of these last few decades, I believe, is to look back and try to decide what all that stuff that happened amounts to? What were the key events and decisions that led, point by point, year by year to where I am now–who I am now. It’s a connect-the-dots and summing up kind of thing—a part maybe of getting one’s affairs in order before checking out.  I suspect most people, when they hit the 4th quarter, do something like this.

And hey–occasionally you may get to share a few of those profound truths you come up with–with kids you think need to know them–assuming you can get them to slow down long enough to listen. Yeah–right!  When you were a kid–how much slowing down and listening to some out-of-touch, dried old wind-bag did you do?

The dots begin at home—the geographical place and the mentality. I read somewhere years ago it says in the I Ching—the Chinese Book of Changes—“When a thing reaches its limit it starts back again.”

I have started back again and am looking—with a modest amount of senile detachment and dithering curiosity—at my origins. I do this through semi-autobiographical fiction writing and photography. Not only is it fun but for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, I have found in it,  a little contentment and have been entertaining the delusion that all that stuff that happened (my life) makes a bit more sense now than it used to.

Forget, “You can’t go home again.” If you’d like a little more peace in your life—especially if you’re an old fart like me—you must go home again.

Another–much smarter old fart–Mark Twain–once said, “A young man leaves home because all things are familiar.  And he returns for the same reason.”

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