Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Life

Most of my childhood I was a loner. My stepfather was an electrical engineer for the horserace circuit, and we moved with the horses every three months. We lived in a smallish aluminum trailer, and everything we owned went with us wherever we parked. I was the backward kid who wore rubber boots to school and never quite fit in. My brother and sister were farmed out to other relatives—my sister to an uncle and my brother to my grandmother. As the youngest, I stayed with my mother. My stepfather was a great guy. He always took time to ensure I did well at school and even gave me formal tests on manners by taking me to fancy restaurants. I was his project.
I was heartbroken when my mother divorced my stepfather and hooked up again with my father. They say love is blind and, in Mother’s case, I think it was deaf too. My father wasn’t a particularly nice person, and my standard of living took a huge hit. Instead of a clean aluminum trailer parked in a shady trailer park somewhere on the West Coast, I found myself in a run-down shanty home adjacent to the city dump in Everett, Washington. That was the lowest point of my life. Well, almost. There was that time when my father took me and a friend camping in the Cascade Mountains and dropped us off at the Boy Scout Camp gate near the snow line. After he drove off, we discovered the campout was scheduled for the following week. We were stranded and it was cold.
We had no food, but we were prepared; we were Boy Scouts. We picked berries and, after dickering with the owner of a cabin about a mile from the camp, managed to trade a large coffee can full of berries for a rabbit. I’m not the Naked and Afraid type, but I can attest that a half-cooked rabbit can be a wonderful treat after four days without protein. We survived and made the best of it. By the time the real camp began, we had already broken into one of the campsites and settled in. We were scout heroes for that week.
After my friend’s father picked us up at the end of the campout, I was dropped off at our house next to the dump. That’s when I discovered my parents had moved. We didn’t communicate much about things like that. I didn’t even know my mother had divorced my stepfather until after the fact. I knocked on a few doors until I found a neighbor who knew where my parents had gone. It took a while, but I finally got re-united with my family that evening. That I’d be home again someday apparently slipped their minds. We weren’t your typical close-knit family that talked about things.
My brother and sister had returned from relative exile, and my parents had purchased a small new house in a nice section of town where we could all live in reasonable comfort. The location was a great improvement over our former neighborhood, especially the smell, but it did have some downsides. For one, the home only had one bathroom, and my sister seemed to live in it. Also, there were no rats to shoot, and the kids in that neighborhood didn’t readily accept outsiders. I became a paperboy there, still somewhat an outcast, and I ended up with one of the best routes in town—the one where large homes overlooked Eliot Bay. Those homes were beautiful, and I knew then I wanted to live like they did—life on the edge, but in a good way. That was the last move I made until I left home to join the military.
I also discovered a new friend there, a friend I’d keep most of my life. He was a playful sort, and mischievous in marvelous ways. Despite the opportunities to go astray in my past, I never did. I was the obedient one. I did what I was told and scorned my brother and sister who had very different views of life than me. They grew up to be Democrats, and we still don’t agree on much. Anyway, until I met my new friend, I would NEVER have considered spending a Sunday afternoon in any way except flying model airplanes. He changed all that. He introduced me to girls.
Okay, I admit it, I was a late bloomer. I liked being in the honor society. I delivered papers and saved for college—the University of Washington—the school I selected when I was in the sixth grade. I was Beaver without the Leave it to Beaver family. It was awkward to be born non-union into a union family; even worse, a Republican. Again, I was an outcast.
My new friend did not hold my conservative shortcomings against me. Instead, he encouraged me to explore life from different angles. After he convinced me to trade my motorbike for an automobile, I bought a 1941 Austin for $125. That was a fortune back then, at least to me. The little convertible gave me a significant dose of freedom, and I loved it. I could date, and I loved that too.
I always liked girls. In fact, I had at least one girl for a friend as far back as I can remember, and I mean “friend” in the most sincere way. My new friend encouraged me to view girls differently than I had before. The girls also seemed to change in ways I could not have imagined and, about that time, I began to notice my mild allergic reaction to them. If I was around one for any length of time, my face would break out in pimples. That should have been a warning, but it wasn’t. Years passed before I realized the outbreaks were a reaction to menstrual cycles. Wouldn’t you know, those darn cycles synch up in a confined space…like a house with a wife and two female children. That’s when I knew my allergy was real. I looked terrible as a middle-aged man with monthly zits.
Dating for me didn’t begin in earnest until I was a high school sophomore. I didn’t know a lot of girls, but the ones I dated stayed with me for a long time. I only had two girlfriends from the time I started dating until my junior year, and that’s when I fell head over heels in love for the very first time. My friend led the way in that relationship too, encouraging me to try things I’d never considered before. He was right. More than being attracted to them, I became addicted.
My high school girlfriend and I planned our life together. We were like one person until my senior year at the University of Washington. That was a bad year for me. At the end of my junior year, I went crab fishing in Alaska like I always did, and sometime during that summer, when the float plane landed to deliver food and mail, I was dealt the most devastating blow I have ever experienced. Her letters were sweet and loving right up until the one that said, “I got married today.”
I cursed my friend then, and swore off women. I spent a lonely summer on the back deck of the boat pulling up crab pots. When I returned to school, I dove into my studies like never before. I kept the full beard I always grew during crab season (the one that kept the mosquito netting off my face), and became somewhat of a recluse. In prior years, I had worked during the school year at several jobs. Pulling wet lumber from the “green chain” at a local saw mill and assistant manager of a grocery store were almost full-time work, but my job at the drive-in theater was only part-time. During my senior year, however, I just studied. I had been an “A” student since my freshman year, but this was different. Now, studies were all-consuming; they became everything. My friend would occasionally encourage me to go out to meet people, but I ignored his every suggestion. It takes some time to overcome heartbreak.
I thought I was safe from the draft when I graduated with a draft-deferrable degree, and I intended to seek a cushy job in the nuclear industry. Back then, working in that industry wasn’t considered a bad thing, but the government intervened with a rude change of plans. Three days after I graduated, I received a draft notice from the Marines. Apparently Uncle Sam had not overlooked the little form I filled out in Junior High School asking, if I were ever drafted, what branch of service would I prefer? I must have felt macho that day, or just plain crazy, because I checked the little box labeled “Marine.” Who knew that simple act would return to haunt me so many years later?
The country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and Marines were dropping like prom dresses at an after-graduation party. I really didn’t want to join that group, so I did what any non-macho kid would do—I called around the state until I found an Air Force recruiter who would enlist me IMMEDIATELY. Fortunately for me, recruiters got “enlistment credits” for enlisting people with college degrees. The next day I joined the military, skillfully avoiding the draft, and a day later I stepped off an airplane in San Antonio, TX, on my way to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. My friend stayed in contact, but there wasn’t much time for him during basic training.
I had heard many horror stories about basic training. Most turned out to be false. Two of us in my training flight were older and wiser college guys and, for me, basic was more of a holiday than torture. Yes, we had to march in the blistering sun. Yes, we had to get up way early to exercise. Yes, we had to pick up cigarette butts and clean the dishes at the local military hospital. Yes, we had to clean latrines with toothbrushes. Yes, the drill instructor screamed in our faces and threatened us with violence if we didn’t begin marching on our left foot. There were some downsides, but there were upsides too…like a good night’s sleep and three square meals a day. For a college student who worked his way through that pain with almost no student debt, the military was a Godsend. It’s all about attitude, and I loved the sunshine, food and rest. I was from Washington State—sunshine was new to me.
I never returned to Washington State. Texas became my home. Maybe I could sense the state was turning Republican, and that I would fit in better there. Maybe I just liked the sun.
I applied for Officers Training School during my stint in basic training, passed the tests, and entered “casual status” while I waited for the next OTS class to begin. That was a good time in my life. I was assigned to the computer section where new inductees were processed into the Air Force. It was a great job in an air-conditioned room, and I had a natural affinity for the systems there, even if they were primitive. I did not know I would spend the rest of my productive life designing code and hardware.
Near the end of OTS, my friend showed up in Texas, and we began to hang out together again. Sometime during that period, my old college girlfriend called to tell me how sorry she was for getting married. She said she had made a huge mistake, and she wanted to join me in Texas. My friend intervened—that would only happen over his dead body. I trusted his instincts and, as it turned out, he was right. The last I heard she was married to husband number five; by now it’s probably husband number ten.
OTS was a cake-walk compared to basic training. Mostly we attended classes, learned military rules and laws, studied war strategy, and did physical training. I have never been in such good shape as I was then. For the first time in my life there wasn’t an ounce of fat on me, and I could run like the wind, even turning a mile in 4:55. I was the second fastest runner in that particular OTS class. My friend and I also got to know San Antonio a little. That was an eye opener. I discovered there is a lot of truth to the movie called An Officer and a Gentleman. Going to town was like sending a starving man to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And then it happened. I met a really pretty Mexican girl at the OTS club. Even my friend loved her. We became so close over the next few weeks that I couldn’t bear to leave her behind when I got orders to leave. I spent every second I could with her, and a full military wedding followed, swords and all. My mother came down from Alaska for the ceremony and party, and the mariachi band played well into the night. The last thing I remember at that party was finding my mother and the maid under a relish table. Both were giggling and toasting with full cups of punch. Mother was a teetotaler, but she seemed to like the punch. I could tell she wasn’t reasoning well when she pulled on my new bride’s arm and elided, “Why do you want to leave this great party so soon?”
My life became routine after I married. I went to war. I went to work. I went to school. In between I traveled a lot. I had the most fascinating jobs imaginable in the Air Force. High-altitude particle sampling downwind of nuclear air bursts for one, part of a study to determine where to move cows in case of a nuclear war. Cows take up strontium 90 in their milk, so you wouldn’t want them grazing under a radioactive cloud. People, apparently, are less of an issue.
In Vietnam I worked in the Southeast Asia Weather Center where the computers were. Most of my career was involved with computers or going to school to learn more about computers and software design. I was a meteorologist, but never made a forecast. Instead, through my Masters and Ph.D. programs, I developed software models and displays used by others. By the time I retired, I had been involved with some of the most advanced atmospheric research hardware and software in the military.
I went to work for Lockheed Martin after leaving the military. I traveled a lot and performed systems/software engineering work. The highlight of my time at Lockheed was winning a Robert E. Gross Award for technical excellence in 1989, an honor awarded to only sixteen people out of around 80,000. The job required considerable time away from home and extreme hours. My wife of 26 years grew tired of the routine…and of me. During a prolonged divorce, my friend introduced me to an ambitious young configuration management engineer on one of my programs. She was very cute.
It was a stressful time. Divorce takes a toll. My oldest daughter moved with me to an apartment, and I began to re-build my life. That was harder than it sounds when most people already consider you over the hill. I was forty-nine. I chased after the cute configuration management engineer and learned a lot about a new kind of female, at least new to me. She wasn’t at all dependent on anyone and didn’t particularly like men. My friend still thought she was too cute to pass up, so I persisted even though she was semi-engaged to another. In my heart, I knew he wasn’t right for her.
My persistence eventually paid off when she told her boyfriend she wanted to try something new. I assumed that meant me, and we soon decided to date exclusively. Three years later, we jointly established a plan to reach retirement while we were still young enough to enjoy it. That was during a trip to Saint Maarten. In the prior three years, I had been to 24 countries and had taken her to 12 of them with me. We both knew there would be sacrifices, like curtailing travel, but we believed following our plan was the right thing to do. We were united in our belief that the only reason to work was to reach a point where we didn’t have to.
When I retired from Lockheed, my fiancé and I started a high-tech meteorological software company. I was president and she was my executive officer. Mostly I hired great people, provided direction, and traveled the world as a sales representative. My fiancé took care of all the routine business details and minded the store while I was out. The company did well and in just seven years we had met all the goals we had laid out in our original plan. By then, we had been dating for eleven years. We decided to marry after we left the company. Our subsequent wedding wasn’t a big affair—just her and her sister, me and the judge. We were married two months after we retired for the final time.
My lifelong friend began to feel poorly sometime around my 60th birthday. He just didn’t have the pep and energy he had as a youth. I began to suspect that this vibrant individual, my lifetime stalwart supporter who had such a strong mind of his own, was beginning to forget how to act, especially in private. As time went on, I began to suspect Alzheimer’s.
Now I write novels, many of which are based on my travels through life…and on memories of my friend’s antics. My young wife still bounces around like a gazelle, and I admire her energy as mine fades. She is an inspiration and seems completely happy in every aspect of her life, as am I.
My lifelong friend continues to fade into oblivion. It is sad to watch; sad to experience. Once he was so vibrant and lustful, so full of life, and now he withers away with little purpose. I am sad for him and will mourn his passing. One of these days, not too far in the future, I fear he will bid his fond farewell. I am comforted, however, by his memories. Having him as part of my life was an enriching experience I will cherish until I take my last breath. I also accept his decline as just another phase of life, like a flower withering after having a glorious bloom.
A good thing about being a retired writer, verses a working writer, is not worrying about the next royalty check, or if one arrives at all. Life is good and, except for the slow passing of my friend, life would be perfect.
Now, about that writer thing. I have discovered within me an alter-ego called Miss Havana. She is the heroine of my four paranormal comedy novels: The Substitute; Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana; The Training Bra; and The Trophy Wife. The stories are risqué and hilarious, but there is more. Like the story of my life presented here, the Miss Havana stories depict a larger concept than the words indicate on the surface. The overarching theme across all four novels is “redemption,” although that will be hard for most people to grasp. Each story also deals with a different aspect of the Bible. That will be even more difficult to pick out. Nevertheless, for those “in the know,” the stories will transcend the jokes, killing, back-stabbing, and hilarity. That’s the fun of being an author. You can hide whatever you want in your words. I’m betting, even at this last sentence of this blog, most readers will believe my life story above, which is true in almost every detail, is centered around a guy I’ve known most of my life…and they would be wrong.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch



Tina Donahue said...

Wow - sad sad tale, James. I have to wonder about your parents. How could anyone forget to tell their kid they moved? I mean, really.

I was with you all the way until you said your siblings became Democrats, as if that's something to be ashamed of.

I'm a Democrat - a moderate - fiscally responsible, but liberal when it comes to social issues. Unlike some of the current Republicans in office, I don't think it's Christian to let people starve, lose their homes, have to live in their cars (if they still have one), all because you're chasing the almighty dollar and want to make the one percent richer. Talk about evil and a warped sense of priorities.

I'm not a religious person by any means, but I believe Christianity does preach that money is the root of all evil. Our current House of Representatives proves that. They're more worried about the Kochs than the millions of long-term unemployed put there by Wall Street and banksters because of deregulation of the financial industry and simple human greed.

From what I've read about him, Ike was a great Republican. From what I can see, he was the last great Republican.

Liberals have been called libtards, bleeding hearts, stupid, morons, etc., etc. ad nauseam.

Just read an excellent article about crony capitalist/vulture capitalist Republicans - aka Cheap Labor Republicans. Or what I call them - Slave Labor Republicans.

Here's the link: http://sideshow.me.uk/annex/defeattherightin3minutes.htm

I understand how a horrible childhood could make one believe that independence (eg: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps) and believing only in yourself is the way to go.

I also had a truly horrendous childhood (physical/mental/verbal abuse). What that did for me was to make me more determined to help others who needed help.

Call me what you will, I'm proud to be a moderate Democrat.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina. Glad to hear that there is such a thing as a fiscally conservative Democrat. I too am physically conservative and socially liberal. I know now that I am a Libertarian, but I didn't know that when I was younger. I think it's something in the genes. My family is classical UNION DEMOCRAT, and they don't read anything. They just follow whatever the shop steward says. It's pretty typical for blue collar workers. Like I said, I never fit it. I read. That alone set me apart. I also thought about things from a political view. That made me an outcast. Despite the slogan at the time, my parents did not like Ike (although I did). Even worse, I didn't like Truman much. You see ... an outcast from the start. There's no hope for a kid like that. OKAY, now about the post. Did you realize what the post was really about? It's not my life that is the story, but the story within the story, and that's the way the Miss Havana books are--a story within a story. In this case, the story below the surface is the coming of age of a young man and then the waning of manhood in the later years of life. That's what my friend represents. I know the blog was long, but I was trying to show that writing can be mulit-dimensional, even at the level of the story itself. Hope you enjoyed it. Thank you for making such an interesting comment.

Fiona McGier said...

My late father was a union Democrat because he was a carpenter for 50 years. He had been trained in Scotland from the time he was 12 to be a cabinet-maker, but no one ever wanted to pay him commensurate with his time for those skills. So he remodeled offices, buildings, houses, etc. He was a damn good carpenter and enjoyed that he never had to take his job home with him.

He earned his GED when I was in grade school then spent over 30 years taking college classes for fun. His last few classes were Spanish, which he took in his late 70s because he watched his beloved soccer on the Spanish channels where they don't break every few minutes for another crappy commercial...they show them in the bottom corner of the screen so he never missed a goal. But he wanted to understand what they were saying.

So he was a proud union Democrat who read constantly--always non-fiction. He studied and became fluent in German at one point because he was studying Freud and wanted to read his words untranslated because he said you missed a lot of the humor reading translations. He brought us up to believe that education isn't the pursuit of a degree...it's something you enjoy your whole life because your brain gets flabby if you don't use it. I wear a button to honor him: "I think therefore I'm dangerous".

I think you might be using too broad of a brush to paint all union Democrats as uneducated and proud of it. That certainly hasn't been my experience. There are educated folks on both sides of the political aisle, and all of us are appalled watching as today's kids graduate from college with huge mountains of loan debt, only to find the only employment they can get is cashier or pizza delivery person.

I'm sure you enjoyed being able to retire at 49. I'm just hoping that we'll be able to pay back enough of the student loan debt we're taking on to help our 4 kids through college, so that eventually we can retire, maybe by 72 or so (thanks to Reagan the age advances every year). And if we live past that, maybe there'll be something left in Social Security which we've both paid into since we were 14, so we'll be able to live modestly without having to eat canned dog food or work as greeters in Wall-mart.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Fiona. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it is a different time now. I don't know if a kid can work his/her way through college any more. I almost did that, but I started saving when I had a paper route, and continued saving for that until I actually went to college. I lived at home too. That helped. And I had absolutely NO social life, especially in my senior year. Can kids live like that now, without TV, Phone and the like? Can they live on government rations like I occasionally did? Can they go to the shipyards to load Japanese ships with frozen logs in winter? I don't know the answers. I could then. We were very poor and did what we had to do. My answer was education. That wasn't the case for my brother and sister. My brother retired with far better benefits than I did from Tacoma power as a lineman. My sister retired from Boeing. Both are doing well in retirement. They are hard-core Democrats to this day, and I am a hard-core Libertarian. I think the point to that is that we all made it in our own way, regardless of political persuasion. Different life choices but the same result. Of the three of us, my brother probably lives the best and has the most security, so perhaps I should have stayed in the lineman career path when I had the chance (I spent one summer helping build the 305,000 tower line out of Wenatchee, WA). Anyway, politics aside, which I only mentioned in passing, did you catch the drift of the story?

Fiona McGier said...

Of course I did. I'm an English teacher so I always read between the lines. I even analyze and spell-check newspaper articles!

All 4 of my kids got their first jobs when they were legally able to, at 14. There are no paper-delivery routes anymore. That was husband's first job so our kids would have done that if papers weren't tossed from moving cars these days. And my kids continued to work all through college, and took out loans themselves. I feel for the kids whose parents can't or won't help.

But I have a cartoon on my fridge that has a mom telling her son he has to go to college and he asks what for, since he'll just get laid off like everyone else. She says so he'll get laid off from a better job. Would be funnier if it wasn't so true.