Friday, October 21, 2005

THE STORY OF GEORGE WATSON

I don’t need to tell you that the childhood my brother and I experienced wasn’t the happiest. Oh, there were good times and my brother and I were pretty close, but there was an 800-pound gorilla in the living room that nobody was allowed to talk about and everybody had to ignore. That gorilla had several names. One of its names was Alcoholism. Another was Child Abuse.

Our father was very controlling. He made sure that we did not have access to modern material items or modern ideals. We lived a few miles out of town in a little suburbia neighborhood at the base of the mountain just north of where Joshua Tree National (Monument) Park begins. The children who lived in the area lived far away from us (several blocks away, which can be the span of the ocean to a child), and our parents rarely took us on trips out of town or in town for that matter. The farthest place we would go on a regular basis was a town called Yucca Valley, and we would only go there if there was a special at one of the hardware stores or if one of us had to see a medical specialist. We never went for pleasure.

There was no indoor movie in our hometown of Twentynine Palms. There were no fast food restaurants there at the time. No shopping malls. No entertainment centers. Our five-and-dime and the drug store were the places we shopped and hung out. There was a pool at the park and a skating rink that lasted a couple of years, and we sometimes went to those. Getting around wasn’t easy, though.

Our mother did not drive a car and even if she did there was only ever one family car that our father took to work daily. So, we walked wherever we wanted to go. We enjoyed walking and it was normal for us to walk the three and a half miles into town for a root beer float and to do some grocery shopping. Sometimes we took a cab home, but most of the time we walked back carrying our parcels. I always thought it was peculiar that our mother complained that nobody would pick us up and give us a ride to or from town. After all, it was our choice to walk. This walking was just one of the peculiarities of our family, and I took it for granted as such. Still, sometimes in the scorching desert heat of summer someone would stop and give us a ride home.

When my brother and I became a little older we would ride our bikes into town for the root beer float or to play video games at the drug store. Most of our childhood play involved making forts in the field, riding bikes with our friends, and playing make believe or “pretending” games when it was too hot to go outside. We rarely went outside of the boundaries of our neighborhood for anything.

One of the jewel times of our childhood was the years that our parents allowed us to play with the Watson children. They lived many, many blocks away at the very top of our neighborhood, but Ricky was my age and didn’t mind playing with my brother who was younger, and Tammy was a few years older than me. Tammy would let me listen to her disco music, which I loved, but it was forbidden in our house. Ricky liked to play with little plastic dinosaurs and would involve my brother in dinosaur games of pretend. The very best part of being friends with these kids was that their dad, George, loved to do things.

George Watson was a tall, muscular, kind, and generous man who grew up in Georgia and joined the Marine Corps. That’s how he knew our father. They both work in the same place. George knew us kids because his stepson Ricky was in my elementary school class.

George had a converted Volkswagen Beetle that we called “The Baja Bug,” and somehow all of us kids managed to fit in the back seat and George and his wife Carlene sat in the front. We would go tearing through washes and dirt roads in the dark of a summer’s night, kicking up dust, and going over moguls. All of us kids would laugh with sheer joy and then cough when the dust caught up to us. We didn’t care. We were having fun and loving life.

Sometimes George would take us out in his huge, green, four-wheel drive truck that had a shell on the back that all of us kids would pile into. Again, we would tear up the desert and get into gnarly places where the sand was deep. Sometimes George would put the cruise control on and walk outside the truck steering the whole time. This was a very “dad” thing to do, and we kids loved it. We thought that was “so cool.” Trips in the truck usually ended up at the Foster’s Freeze or A&W for an ice cream. My brother and I were so grateful to be out and doing something fun that they could have served us dog poop and we wouldn’t have complained.

There was always a strange look in George’s eye when he would drop us off back home. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, but today I know that it was something close to sorrow. Maybe even pity.

These outings went on for a period of about two years. Every time George took his children out for ice cream or four-wheeling in the desert, he would always stop by ask if my brother and I could go, too. We were so delighted when he did. If my mother was home when George came by, there was never any trouble. We were always allowed to go. If my father was home, there was always a bit of contention and we were not always allowed to go.

My father had several problems with George. For one, George was younger and more energetic and making rank fast. I think my father felt threatened by him. Secondly, my father knew in his heart that George was an example of fatherhood that he could never measure up to. My father knew that George could see the 800 pound gorilla in the living room, and I think George knew a couple of the gorilla’s names. One of the other things that bothered my father about George Watson was the fact that George was black.

I sometimes wonder if George was one of those rare individuals who grew up in an abusive household and instead of repeating the behavior, decided to go in the opposite direction and be a loving person instead. I might never know. What I do know for sure is that his acts of kindness to my brother and I gave me the hope that there was a better life out there waiting for us, and the knowledge that not all adults ignored the obvious. I have tried to live in his example and take my own son on regular outings. Some educational. Some just for fun. I also decided that the cycle of abuse in my family would end with me. And the cycle of prejudice.

I have tried several times to contact George in my adult life. I’ve tried Internet searches, I’ve called up complete strangers in Georgia named George Watson hoping it was him, and usually got hung up on. I’ve emailed both of his stepchildren through Classmates.com, but never heard back from them. I don’t want a reunion or correspondence. I just want to tell him thank you. For so many things, thank you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

COURTESY FLUSHES

I have long been an admirer of the manners, hospitality, and etiquette found in the people of the southern United States. That admiration increased significantly during my business trip to Pascagoula, Mississippi last week. People who had suffered losses invited me to their homes for dinner or treated me to lunch and wouldn't hear my objections. I was, after all, a guest. Those of us on the coasts could learn a thing or two from The South's generosity.

I was amused to find that southern courtesy extends even into the restroom. While partaking of a pitstop in a government building, I found myself staring at a bright red, plastic, white-letter engraved, exquisitely composed sign mounted on the stall door. This sign listed the rules of the powder room.

The first rule was, and I paraphrase here: Do not leave sprinkles on the seat. There is nothing unusual about this request, and similar instructions are provided in restrooms throughout our nation.

It was the second rule (again, paraphrased) that caused my amusement: Courtesy flushes are recommended and appreciated. Perform them several times if necessary.

A water-conservative Californian, it took me several minutes to figure out what a courtesy flush was. Apparently, it is customary in the south to immedately flush the toiled after each expulsion of the bowels. This apparently reduces the amount of stench that could possibly offend tender feminine noses in the adjoining stalls (or at the sink if you had the barbequed beans the night before).

Though my water-consciousness prevents me from partaking of this kind ritual, I have to admire the extent to which courtesy is instilled in the southern mind. And, whenever I hear multiple flushings in the women's restroom in the future, I will no longer get annoyed at the wasted water, but will instead remember to appreciate the spirit in which the flushing occurred.