My parents were such witty and profound communicators that if they had been children’s authors, they would have been the suburban Atlanta equivalent of Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown. Utterly brilliant, minus charm and comfort. But they were not children’s authors. They were regular people, which meant they had no need to render themselves appealing to their own children. If I told them their perspective was amusing, they said they weren’t trying to be funny. If my brothers and I failed to appreciate them, they said there was little question where fault lay. And if there was any possibility of getting muddled by the simple plot of our family narrative, it was only because ours was a character driven story.
When I started my senior year at the University of Georgia, they said, “Son, we’ve been hearing about this new phenomenon where kids come back to live at home after they graduate. They call it boomerang parenting. It’s ridiculous. That’s not the way it is going to be with you. We’ve given you food, shelter, medicine and education for 20 years, and we are done. You can return home for thirty days after graduation to find an apartment and collect your clothes. At the end of thirty days, you are gone. If you need medicine, we don’t know what to tell you because you won’t have health insurance. So, don’t get sick.
“You may not take any furniture or bedding with you. That’s ours. You can take your clothes because they only fit you anyway. And your toothbrush. It’s been in your mouth. If you fail to have your bags packed by day thirty, we’ll put them outside the back door for you. You may not contact us if you are in need. You are an adult. You may not come back to visit or do laundry or raid the refrigerator. Also, it would be good if you did not call us on the telephone for three months.”
I chuckled. They stared at me. And sensing I might be misinterpreting them, I agreed and acted like I had always assumed that would be the case and that I couldn’t care less and it only made sense. Complaining was frowned upon in our family as pointless and hard on my parents’ ears. When I shattered my thumb playing football my senior year of high school, my parents did the logical thing. They called our doctor, not to make an appointment, but to find out if he had any contacts with the Atlanta Falcons. He did, and we were soon at the Falcons’ training facility in Suwanee, Georgia. I had an operation to put the pieces of my thumb back together with metal pins, like a jigsaw puzzle held in place with toothpicks. The Falcons then developed a special rubberized cast that laid over the pins in my hand, which was then wrapped with a mile of tape before being covered by gladiator style hand pads like sparring gloves. I only missed one game. So when my parents laid out the game plan for my post-graduation experience, I believed them.
To say my mom and dad favored the School of Hard Knocks doesn’t say the half of it. I not only believed they had bred me and my brothers to be their servants, but I believed if anyone could physically locate the School of Hard Knocks it would be discovered that my parents, through a unanimous vote by the board of that same establishment, had been installed as its co-principals, administrators, recruiters, groundskeepers, faculty, and donors. I can confirm the rumor that their signatures appear on the notarized copy of the School’s charter on file with the county registrar. When I confronted them with as much—pointing out that if anyone ever found the School of Hard Knocks, their names would be clearly visible on the metal cast with the School’s emblem hanging beside its entrance—they said, “So. Mike and Bettie are popular names. That doesn’t prove anything.” I didn’t know what to say to that. But years later, after conferring with a friend of mine who knew the whole affair of my upbringing and whose parents were like minded, he said he had been at the library and seen a document on microfiche showing our family crest – two disembodied arms in chainmail holding something bloody – emblazoned on the deed to the grounds and my mom and dad listed as the original property owners. He said their names were inked in blood.
I would like to say growing up in our home was difficult, but I’m afraid of being called a wimp. By my parents. So, I won’t say that. But I will say that my mother had taken sixteen penny nails and nailed all the windows shut on the first and second levels of our tri-level house. She said it was to stop burglars. I observed there was no crime in our neighborhood, and she said, “That’s how they get you to let your guard down.” In addition, she installed keyed deadbolt locks on all the doors, including the sliding glass door that led to the deck. Again, for burglars. She was unwilling to give me or my brothers a set of keys, which meant when we needed to exit the premises, we had to track her down or rouse her from sleep. She said she didn’t want keys “floating around out there” where they could be copied by burglars and shared among the criminal element.
My friends referred to our home as “the submarine” because it felt like there were hatches and protocols in place to navigate the place inside out. Sometimes my mom left to run errands and locked the door behind her, leaving us imprisoned in our own home with no way of escape. She said it was an accident.
I said, “Really? That keeps happening? This is a fire hazard! What do we do if there’s a fire?”
She said, “I bought a folding metal ladder. It’s in my closet. Just dig it out, throw it out the master bedroom window and climb down to safety, if you have time.”
“And if there isn’t time?” I said.
She said, “Then jump, dummy.”
I said, “And break a leg.”
She snorted, and said, “Big, strong football player won’t jump out of a house on fire. All right then, burn up.”
Sometimes it felt safer being at work than at home as a teenager. I sliced off my shoe cutting the neighbor’s grass, but no toes. Flipping burgers working fast food gave me burns from hot grease, but it wasn’t a house on fire and there were several possible exits. Digging ditches with skull-splitting pickaxes did, actually, split my skull and my friend Charles’, so that’s not a good example. And laying CATV cable with heavy machinery run by inattentive teenagers and selling liquor at the package store to angry drunks late at night – both felt more predictable than being at home.
I had been keen on buying a car with the money I earned working those jobs. My parents pressed me to buy my mom’s black Volkswagen with the Rolls Royce front. I balked. They countered by steering me toward my grandfather’s old Polara, which my grandmother had given them after he passed. The family nicknamed it Sherman because it was green and because automakers weren’t skimpy with steel back in the day. My folks reasoned that having a car that would need constant repairs would not only help me appreciate what it took to keep a car in good working order, but it would motivate me to get a good job to cover the considerable expenses of adult life. They were not unusual in their perspective, just the application of it. It was the official parenting motto: good education equals good job equals good money equals a good life.
I said, “There’s another car rated higher with less mileage and a clean service record for the same price in AutoTrader.”
They said, “That’s not real life” − they felt a young man grows into reliable transportation. Nobody starts off with that. They said, “Besides, you are not really paying for it. If you were living on your own and attending high school as an emancipated minor, you wouldn’t even have money for a car. We’re enabling you to buy a car because we are housing you and feeding you. So, really, we’re buying it.”
I bought my grandfather’s car as instructed, and it was miserable. One repair after another. I lived to work so that I could fix the car to get to work. When I complained that it all could have been avoided, they said, “Now you’re getting it.” I insisted I had “gotten it” before I bought Sherman, and they said, “That’s just head knowledge. To really learn a lesson, you have to live it.”
I was not allowed to take Sherman when I started college. I could have the car at my disposal when I was truly on my own and paying my own way for everything. It made campus life challenging, because while my job as a busser at an on-campus diner was in walking distance, my second job as a coach at the YMCA was not. And getting from the archery fields at one end of the UGA campus to the English department on the other was nearly impossible. I was late to class every day and my daily grade suffered for it. But I got used to taking the bus and walking long distances, which was good. Fortunately, I had friends whose parents allowed them to take their cars to school, so whenever I needed to go home on breaks I could catch a ride.
I traveled home one weekend and told my mother I had become a Christian.
She said, “You joined a cult?”
I said, “It’s not a cult. It’s Christianity.”
She said, “Are you living with these people?”
I said, “Well, it’s a dorm, not a commune.”
“That’s weird,” she said. “Don’t give ‘em your stuff.”
I said, “Okay, mom.” It was the first of many conversations to follow.
Back at school, time passed quickly. I thought little of the major transition ahead of me while I worked and carried a full course load my last year of college. I didn’t stand still. I participated in career fairs, met with teachers to secure references and formulate a plan to work in my field, and I applied to newspapers and magazines in Georgia.
I graduated on time in the spring, as my parents had protected me from another social aberration whereby kids took more than four years to achieve a four-year degree. I returned home and was surprised how short a month was in suburbia compared to campus life. On day twenty-nine my stuff was by the back door ahead of schedule. The next day at noon, I loaded my clothes into my car and said goodbye to my parents’ house for the last time.
When I pulled out of our driveway I had nowhere to go. I drove to Wendy’s where I worked in high school. It was familiar and familiarity was comfortable. There were no cell phones. No internet. After lunch, I drove around a while and ended up at Parkaire Mall. It was clean and quiet. I waited inside until nightfall. At closing time, I went out to my car and climbed behind the wheel and sat there. As the hours passed, I got sleepy and stretched out along the bench seat.
I slept, and at some point awoke to someone tapping on my window. I sat up and rolled down the window. I heard an officer say, “Boy, what are you doing?”
I said, “I was supposed to have a job and place to live after graduating, and I don’t.”
“Kicked out,” he said.
I said, “Yes sir.”
He said, “Well, son, vagrancy is against the law.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “The general state of being homeless, sleeping in your car included.”
I said, “Oh.”He said, “I’m not going to cite you, but you can’t stay here. Food and shelter have to be your first order of business now. Good luck.”
I thanked him and headed out into the night again. I drove around for hours thinking. This was my fault. No one was giving me instruction. What choices had I made and what were the consequences? What had I done to attract the police? I figured out that parking for the night in motel lots and apartment complexes drew less attention. Cars were supposed to be there all night. Parking in the middle of a big, empty mall lot was dumb. I was learning to connect choices with outcomes. Driving gave me time to think, and I realized that in college I hadn’t done enough of it. I was now, thanks to my parents. They ran the best school I ever attended.
As the summer drew on, I hoarded gas money to get to interviews. The cheapest, most accessible food was fast and unhealthy. Convenience stores, fast food, break rooms, hotel conferences, community events. I ate what I could find. The flood of anxiety caused by being quasi-homeless and wondering what I was going to do next never ebbed. I didn’t blame my parents. They did their part. But it felt like I didn’t have a family anymore.
When Sherman’s AC gave out, I hung out in movie theaters when I wasn’t looking for work. I had graduated from college, left Athens with my diploma in hand, only to fall backwards into a real-world arena of higher learning somehow. And I wasn’t even fond of school. Movies were a welcome distraction.
I saw Top Gun and left the theater feeling like I had real direction. I wanted to help people. I could fly a jet and protect the U.S. from Russians. I always wanted to be in great shape, have time for recreational sports, and drive a motorcycle. It checked every box. So, I met with the Navy OCS recruiters, took the entrance exam, and followed up with them a few days later.
There must have been different versions of the test because mine had way too many physics questions. The Navy guy told me a little too pointedly that I had such a poor grasp of physics that they would never let me fly a jet, and that they were uncomfortable imagining me behind the wheel of anything that moved. They said they would have to confiscate my driver’s license because, apparently, I wasn’t sure which way the car would lean when I turned the wheel.
When the Navy didn’t pan out, my friend Ron’s parents took me in until I had enough money for my own place. They had a nice townhouse in Marietta overlooking the Chattahoochee River. Ron was working his way through college the long way around and was roofing houses near Stone Mountain at the time. He got me a job on his crew.
At night, Ron and I slept side-by-side stuffed into the same full-size bed. Instead of me sleeping in my car and getting a bad night’s sleep every night, it was now the two of us in an air-conditioned townhouse getting a bad night’s sleep every night. That’s what friends do. They sacrifice themselves. His family was good to me. We were out the door before 4:00 a.m. every morning and drove over an hour to Lilburn, where we met the rest of the crew and loaded up the trucks with supplies before heading out to job sites across north Georgia.
It was insanely hot on the rooftops of Atlanta in the height of summer. The owner of the construction company was kind and down to earth. It wasn’t long before I had enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Dunwoody. No furniture and no cooking implements, but I didn’t care. I didn’t know how to cook. I had enough to pay rent and occasionally some utilities. I had a bathroom and a place to go home to each night.
Every day on the job was the same. Head-banging heavy metal, the hiss of air hoses, and the spray of flying shrapnel whenever Megadeth or Metallica whipped the guys running the nail guns into a frenzy. Each man worked in a cocoon of suffocating heat and humidity, soaked in his own sweat. Every object on the roof absorbed the hellish temperature of the sun and held onto it. We left with burn wounds every day, scalded through our jeans and gloves.
I was the biggest crew member by far. They used me to haul bundles of shingles up the roofing ladder when the little motor on the lift gave out. It was always out. Up on the roof, granules of sand fallen from the shingles lay scattered like seed over the black roofing felt. It was dangerous, a minefield of tiny balls that threatened to dislodge each man from his perch as we worked and sweat and moved like mountain goats atop the slanted decking.
The two best roofers were younger than I was and both looked like Axl Rose. They weren’t related. They wore jeans and t-shirts, and bandanas on their heads to shield them from the sun. They worshiped heavy metal and shared it liberally with the rest of us. Sometimes our boss would ascend on high and tell them, “Boys, the owner says to shut that thrash racket off but didn’t say racket if you catch my drift,” and they would oblige and transition over to their Walkmans, which was worse in a way because there was no warning when a particular song would galvanize the Roses into a fit of death metal ecstasy that sent a stream of nails blasting from the guns into the surrounding neighborhood. We got good at ducking.
Most of the time, the owner took jobs where the pitch of the roof was low and there were no hips or valleys or few of them. That way he could set the Roses blazing across the roof at a blistering pace with the nail guns, while the rest of us worked with hammers and nail aprons. We could pound out two houses a day that way. No other crew could do that.
I wanted to use the nail guns because reaching into my apron to draw out a nail, turn it with my thumb, guide it into the shingle, align the shingle with the chalk line, and whack the nail with the hammer had gotten old. It was almost more tolerable to be on the ground cleaning up the old roof tear off, but no one learned the trade that way. I asked the owner, “When can I use the guns?”
He said, “Well, you can’t,” and it sounded like cain’t.
I said, “How come?”
He aimed his face to one side and spat tobacco juice off the roof. “Well, boy, cause you ain’t on the go juice,” he said and tapped his nose. “Doncha’ wanna’ get off this roof as quick as you can? I’m burning my fanny off. What’s a college boy doing on the roof anyhow? You don’t belong here.”
I said, “Why not?”
He said, “Cause you keep falling off the roof into the truck, that’s why. Ain’t you tired of being poked with nails?”
I said, “I don’t mind so much. I like it outside.”
“My insurance minds,” he said. “You studied journalism, right?”
I said, “Yes sir.”
He said, “Let’s talk on Monday.”
On Monday after work, he handed me a slip of paper. “Call this guy here,” he said. “We went to high school together. He’s a friend of mine. Head of HR at CNN.”
My interview at CNN took place later that week in downtown Atlanta in the biggest office I had ever seen. A glass wall looked down over the newsroom. I could see the live on-air talent delivering the news as we watched from above. I recognized their faces from TV. The man and I talked about school. We talked about me. We talked about my media consumption habits and how I developed my view of the world around me. Mostly, we talked about the network and what it meant to be a real journalist.
He said, “When the space shuttle disaster happened, we didn’t call anyone to come in to work. Not one person. Everyone was here immediately of their own free will because they care. They knew they were needed, whatever their job, from anchor to custodian to intern. This is where the world would learn about the disaster and begin to heal. Our staff eats, sleeps and breathes the news. Does that sound like you?”
I said, “No sir.”
I was certain from his expression he had never heard an answer like that from a recent college grad with a journalism degree. He said, “Listen, we are going to start you off in the mailroom during the day. At night, you will take broadcast news writing classes from our staff. The job is yours. Take the weekend to think it over.”
When we spoke again, it was more of the same. I thanked them for the opportunity. They pressed me to take advantage of it. I declined. They questioned my choice. I thanked them again.
My parents were devastated and angry. I was a coward and a fool and afraid of the world. I said, “The news changes every minute of every day. There’s no finish line. Anyway, it’s done and over. I’m taking a job as an editor for a housing nonprofit down south. Everyone needs a simple, decent place to live. I won’t be a volunteer. I’ll be on staff and make $14,000 a year.”
“You can’t live on that,” they groused. “After taxes and insurance, you’ll be in spitting distance of the federal poverty level.”
“I’m not sure we know about poverty. I’m moving out of my place,” I said. “I guess we won’t see each other much anymore.”
“Why are you doing this?” they asked.
“Helping people seems like a good idea,” I said.
My mom said, “Says who?”
She huffed and said, “You gonna listen to me or one of your friends?”
Two weeks later I was on the road headed south alone. I passed a pecan grove set back from the two-lane blacktop I traveled. The setting sun lit the dust within, hanging thick veils of light from its boughs. As the wind moved through the trees, the sparkling curtains stirred and made the grove seem like a pillared hall of mystery waiting for someone to discover the truths it hid within.
I have thought about those days since, now that I have been long at sea, so to speak, and have children of my own. “I will tell this tale in sighs ages and ages hence,” as the saying goes. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I left my parents there at the pass to search for another home that I might bring it forth. As my path unfurled before me through the years, it diverged again and again, and at each new juncture a devil pointing the way to a thornless trail, well worn, safe and free of reproach.
Should my children have children, may they walk the woods with them and find a narrow, grassy path back in time. On that road, they will teach my grandchildren to fish and put their hands in the soil and feel the leaves of the trees on their faces. And on and on they will pass through time and seasons, and at its end I will search for them, climbing up through the woods, and find them high among the hills gathered around a fire, laughing, peaceful, happy and free. And there I will love them for all eternity without end, and we will always be at home together.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/pattwala