Notes from a family history (Continued)
Summer, 1992, and I ran. I graduated high school in May and it took a couple months to realize the goal I’d been striving towards ever since my father left and our world fell apart seven years earlier. I wanted to leave every element of my family behind. I wanted to forget the past, get far away from my mother and the ghost of my father, and disown the legacy of my name. My sole impetus throughout the 90s – first with the need to separate myself from my family and, later, to survive Trigeminal Neuralgia – was to validate my existence. “Proof of life,” I called it. Then, as now, I never really felt alive. I felt like I was a patchwork of ideas, hopes, and the dark angels of my ancestors.
It’s taken me over 20 years, since that last summer of my childhood, to understand that I am much like any child that was forced to raise themselves. There’s no point to the question “what do you want to do when you grow up” when you’re forced to grow up – hard and fast – as an 11 year old. The response I could never put into words was that, when I was old enough, I planned to escape. Don’t ask me what’s next.
I suspected, of course, that I would spend my adult life escaping. I shouldn’t be surprised now as I sit here and try to put all this together. As it was, in 1992, I didn’t get very far. The college I picked was nestled in the mountains of central West Virginia. For someone who hadn’t been further than 50 miles from the place of his birth for 18 years, 250 miles deep in the strange mist of that strange state seemed to be an impossible distance. It’s all I needed to feel isolated.
We’re a family with a sense of home in three states. My uncle’s New Mexico captivates us. That’s how far he traveled to escape the family in the 70s. Washington, DC, is my home. Born and raised, though I’m the black sheep in that regard. It’s my father’s family who settled in DC in the mid-1930s, and nobody was talking about them in 1992. My mother’s side all hailed from Parkersburg, West Virginia, which nestles against the Ohio River in the north of the state. Even for those with diluted West Virginia blood in their veins, the state possesses a strange Siren’s call. We are always coming home, it’s been said.
West Virginia possesses the odd ability to lull you into a false sense of security. The world doesn’t seem very big there. The hills are big, forested and gobbling up the sky. The air is mountain crisp, and downright haunting in the autumn. The pocketed communities that curl up in the embrace of the ancient hills seem to exist independently. Claptrap, poverty-stricken Brigadoons, always about to vanish into a lackadaisical timelessness.
To get to my college from DC, you have a couple of options. The rational path through Virginia, and the path insane loners who run from their families take – up I-270 to Frederick, then onto I-70 West until you hit I-68 just past Hancock, MD. The long, quiet pull along I-68, in the early 90s, was often done in silence, alone on the big highway as it sliced through mountains and bypassed forgotten towns. The madness of city life falls away, just as the headlights in the mirror do when you make that turn off of I-70.
By the time you hit US 219, it’s possible to lapse into a Zen-like state. Then you commit to the journey, once and for all, and turn south on little 219, a two-lane road that weaves down through Maryland and into West Virginia. That road, too, is one of loneliness. It was the journey more than anything else that kept calling me back to my college. Four hours alone with my thoughts and the road and that sense of distance as I fell deeper and deeper into the Monongahela National Forest.
At college, I briefly tried to find my lost childhood. I spent a year adrift, sad, and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that the road ahead wouldn’t be as easy as I had hoped. Bored with my studies, I threw myself into the lark I had started in high school – a publishing company specializing in chapbooks.n Reading, television, and movies had always been my refuge. I was raised by sci-fi books, and the cast of Magnum PI and Battlestar Galactica, and I learned my life lessons from Sarah Conner and the Ghostbuster’s team. In 1991, I decided to explore my story-telling interests and applied to be the editor for our high school lit journal. My off the wall ideas – which included a parody of the Bible and a “print whatever anyone sends us” attitude – earned me a swift rejection, so I started my own lit zine, Splinters. I parlayed that into a “publishing company” where I sold collections of poetry, short stories, and that Bible parody.
In college, I threw myself into the project, complete with print runs of the chapbooks and a quarterly catalog that I mailed out to several hundred people. I avoided calls from my family and hid away in my fruitless side-projects while my studies suffered, eventually bouncing me back to Maryland for my second year of college, at the University of Maryland, where I fizzled out on college all together and decided to focus on working and making money, embracing the three jobs that I had been working at, off and on, since my second year of high school. I camped out in my grandparent’s basement and attempted to avoid the ongoing family stain as best I could, even though it played out all around me. I gave up writing and publishing and all other outlets in favor for tireless work, running from the end of a shift at one job to the start of another elsewhere. On many occasions, I slept at my job, often working back-to-back 12 hour shifts. Partially, this was to keep me out of my grandparent’s house. Mainly, though, it was another attempt at that “proof of life” thinking. An attempt to prove that I was alive, and that I had a chance. I had no idea what I wanted to do or study. I had no sense of what was around the corner. I lived, exhausted, day to day, saving every penny.
Slowly, in late 1994, a plan emerged. I would travel. I would spend a month in the UK exploring the larger world – and whatever was festering inside of me. Then I would return home and go back to that little West Virginia college and do things right.
There wasn’t, really, any sort of revelation, or come-to-Jesus moment. I made these decisions mechanically. I knew I would have to travel and, eventually, get a college degree if I wanted to guarantee freedom from my past and my family. I wanted to get these tasks over with. I’ve approached my whole life, since dad left, the way most people approach their jobs. I review my tasks and I tackle them…or I don’t…and then I move on to the next day. A mindless, sad sack routine biding time until the next paycheck, and, ultimately, retirement. That, I assumed, was how everyone lived.
It was on that trip to the UK, in 1995, when I did have my revelation, along a forested path between the village of Brampton near Hadrian’s Wall and the quiet little train station that services it.