The year I was born, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, the Dutch were ousted from Indonesia, and the first Russian nuclear bomb was exploded. So what. It didn’t happen in America, so who cared? Not me. I was too little, only about 18 pounds. I only cared about America, more precisely Baltimore, more precisely the Baltimore suburbs, more precisely my backyard and a flannel blanket that I sat on naked under a Norway Maple tree. I also cared a lot about the kitchen sink which I was small enough to take a bath in. For some reason I also cared about the 1949 model Cadillac because it was and still is the most beautiful car ever made. I appreciated birds. I wanted a dog.
In 1949 my eyes were the same size as they are now, because human eyes do not grow with the body, they’re the same size at birth as they will always be.
That was 1949.
In 1959, with eyes the same size, I got to see some of America in a different car traveling with my parents, who couldn’t stand each other, and my brother and sister who loved everyone. I remember the Erie Canal on a dismal day, the Maine coastline in a storm, Georgian willow trees in the rain, Luray Caverns in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where the stalagmites and the tites were poorly lit. Unfortunately I remember all too well Colonial Williamsburg where the authentic costumes were made out of dacron and poly and the shoes were naugahyde. I remember exactly how much I detested seeing these fakers in these clothes as I was then very concerned with detail. Even more than the outer garments, I imagined that of course they weren’t wearing the right undergarments. I knew in my heart, that, for instance, the person who was dressed up to look like the 1790s blacksmith had on modern Fruit of The Loom underpants. Hiding under colonial skirts that the woman wore were cheap 79 cents nylon panty hose from Woolworth’s. It bothered me very much.
My father’s travel itinerary was mighty strange. We visited a saltpeter mine somewhere in the woods of somebody’s run down farm. It was listed in some tour guide but it wasn’t much of a tourist attraction maybe because saltpeter has a bad name. It’s the stuff used in American cigarettes to make them burn up faster. This mine was really quite beautiful because it was a cave of all white salt crystals that would have sparkled if it had been a sunny day. As it was the farmer who showed us the cave had to keep a dirty checkered oil cloth over the entrance so the crystals wouldn’t dissolve in the rain.
In this year Castro seized power in Cuba and I became infatuated with him, not for any socialist leanings I had. It might have had something to do with the I Love, Lucy Show, but mostly I was impressed at the nonchalance and grace in the way he smoked his cigars. He also had a great fashion sense. He was a clothes horse.
Always with Castro on my mind I spent idle hours of the summer months in the woods behind my parents’ house. In these woods was a strange railroad track, where a mystery train passed through a tunnel of trees and vines twice a day, once at 1 PM and then again in the opposite direction at 3 PM. I would climb a steep hill which sat right on the tracks and I would look down into the smoke stack and always the black smoke would settle on my white clamdiggers. For miles and miles in the direction that the train was headed there was nothing except a seminary and an insane asylum so naturally my assumption was that one of the cattle cars was full of loons anxious to be committed and the other car was full of future priests, students of theology, who, as everyone knows, have to use public transportation because they’re far too religious to drive their own automobiles. The 3 PM train would return the other way carrying the dirty laundry. I imagined that both cattle cars were full of stained straight jackets and sweaty clerical collars. There was always a caboose full of shirtless men playing cards or strip Monopoly. This verified my assumptions, somehow.
In these woods I found a lot of pets. I brought home box turtles, one that I named Fidel that was adaptable to captivity. Fidel would crawl up to my dog Jip’s dog food bowl and chow down. The dog would get angry and covetous and run over and growl at the turtle, who was impervious to it. He kept eating. Turtles are the plodders, in nature’s scheme, the ones that know the term “easy does it,” the ones who won’t let set-backs affect them much. It’s obvious when you look at a turtle. Their skin is as thick as linoleum and their shells are as hard as shells. My parents hated Fidel, only for his name.
I would also bring home black snakes and tadpoles that turned into frogs all over the house and baby opposums that turned out to he rats. My mother was not amused about this.
One day along the tracks I unearthed a yellow jacket hive while rearranging boulders. Stung 17 times, the doctors didn’t see much hope for me. After facing death I gave up the tracks and settled into my life as a young novelist and wrote a book about the Jonestown Pennsylvania flood in 1830—something where Clara Barton threw her weight around. The book was 321 pages long and I had set for myself the deadline of my 11th birthday because I had read somewhere that the girl who wrote Black Beauty was 11. Since I didn’t have any idea of how to get it published I typed it all up, stapled it together, cut up some beer case cardboard, covered this with white butcher paper and Saran wrap. I painted a relevant picture for the cover and smuggled it into the library and put it on the shelves in the correct alphabetical order. I never saw that book again.
I learned at this early age that writing was hard on the body. Blood turns cold and circulation stops at the typewriter, the knee joints solidify into cement, the ass becomes one with the chair. But I kept writing.
I kept thinking about those railroad tracks and how I wanted to go back there and hang around but I just couldn’t for some reason. So I stayed away.
One Sunday around this time, my brother died. It happened at the railroad tracks. He was climbing a dead tree and it fell on him. It was quick. He was 14. He hadn’t seen a whole lot and saved himself a lot of future troubles. He was one of those kinds of people that was just too sensitive to hang around too long dealing with everything that life might slap him with.
So then my mother’s hair went gray practically overnight and my father talked less than before which wasn’t much to begin with.
I never went back to the railroad tracks. None of my family ever went near there again or ever mentioned that area of the forest.
Ten years later at the beginning of 1969 I was in a mental hospital in San Francisco, having been committed by my roommates. They did it out of desperation, after having tried everything including potatoes, nature’s tranquilizers: au gratin, mashed, boiled, baked, and fried.
Everything you’ve ever heard about mental hospitals is true. Patients make paper dolls and they weave baskets and they have a lot of wild fun late at night when there aren’t any doctors available, just nurse’s aids and bouncers. The bouncers would always get in the way and throw people into solitary confinement, which I found out is not as romantic as it may sound.
One day I accidently had shock therapy when I got in the wrong line. It’s the truth.
You may have heard a lot of bad things about shock therapy, for instance in too many renditions of the Frances Farmer story, and you may have an opinion about it. But it really isn’t as bad as you think. It really isn’t so horrible, as a matter of fact to me it was rather pleasant, because it eradicated from my memory all the contents of stupid literature, required reading forced on me by liberal English Lit. teachers in school. It all came back in a few months.
In this hospital everybody got lots of thorazine, stellazine, and hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was doled out constantly after the sun went down for the patients who couldn’t sleep even after massive doses of tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Being that one of the symptoms of insanity is the inability and refusal to sleep there were always a lot of loons walking around all night with styrofoam cups full of the hot chocolate. The floors were sloshed up because after those many pills, people get kind of sloppy. I met some very funny people.
After two months in the California hospital, I was sent to a Maryland hospital. The staff wanted me to be closer to where I was born and raised. They thought perhaps it might help my mental outlook. Ironically the hospital I was sent to was the one that was in the woods behind my parents’ house. I found out that the mystery train from my youth didn’t stop there at all, but I could see it from the barred windows as it passed at 1 PM and then again at 3 PM. Somehow seeing this train did bring me back down to earth. I got better.
In the caboose of the train the same shirtless men were playing the same games, just as they had 10 years before. Some things never change.