I was born in 1976, a bicentennial baby and first son to the first son of a first son. Ford was in office then.
The umbilical cord had been wrapped so tightly about my neck at birth that the doctors told my mother I had likely suffered brain damage and would be handicapped.
But they were wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I reached my developmental markers unusually early, taking my first steps and speaking my first word at six months old. That first word was not Momma or Dadda, as you might expect, but a most unlikely word: light.
My father was by all accounts a true genius. He attained a full academic scholarship to study architecture in spite of having lived out of a napsack in the public park and nearby forest throughout his high school years. But he dropped out of college in the last semester, as I’m told, “to prove that he could.” His experiential turn of thinking may be attributable as much to the philosophy of the era as to his experimentation with LSD in college.
After they were married and my mother became pregnant with me, my father took an entry-level job at L.A. Paperbox and Boardmill Co. breaking down boxes. Menial labor was what he wanted at the time. And in the mid-1970s he was able to afford a little house, two cars, and ample groceries for his budding family. Nowadays in L.A., thanks to the covert tax of inflation, it generally takes two full-time white-collar incomes to do that.
But at some point he simply disappeared. That is not to say that he walked out on us; no, he vanished without a trace. My mother and grandmother filed a missing persons report and were assured that if his Social Security number was used anywhere in the country or abroad, he would be found. That was more than thirty-five years ago. I only have a couple photos of him, but he gave me my name and his mannerisms. Though I have no real memory of him, all who knew him remark that I have his way about me, so it seems our common culture was impressed by more than the associations of imitation. It is a folkway of blood and bone. And to a son who had not the benefit of knowing his father, a cherished inheritance.
My mother, at least throughout my adolescent years, may best be described by example: she was very much like Jenny, the love interest in the movie Forrest Gump, played by actress Robin Wright. In my father’s absence she turned to cocktail waitressing and plunged into a nineteen-year methamphetamine habit, even selling meth herself, for many years.
My earliest memories are of my mother, my sister, and me living with my grandparents in Bell, CA, in the house in which my mother had grown up. My great aunt and great uncle lived a couple houses away. As did my aunt and uncle. And my great-grandmother lived right next door. Mine was a close-knit clan in those days.
At four years old I determined to protect my great-grandmother from the black crawdads that lived under her house. I stood sentry, often squashing any of them that would burrow up around her yard. She called me her gentleman soldier. Years later, I came to realize that the black crawdads were in fact scorpions. Truly, children survive but by the grace of God.
In 1980 it became apparent to my grandfather that their neighborhood was in the throes of a massive violent crime wave which just happened to coincide with the demographic shift browning Los Angeles county. Though he was at the time embroiled in an ongoing court battle stemming from an auto accident wherein the other driver was scion to a Jewish law dynasty, my grandfather yet had enough wealth to procure a new home in a better neighborhood.
Shortly thereafter, his multi-million-dollar aeronautics machining firm was seized by courtcraft.
Though undaunted, his attempt to rebuild his empire coincided with the crash of the American steel industry and the offshoring of American industry, generally. And the lawyers came back, alleging that his second, if faltering, climb toward success proved that he had hidden assets against the first round of seizures. So in his late 50s they stripped him of his livelihood and assets a second time. He never really recovered after that. He no longer believed it worthwhile. What’s more, he saw his own story as representative of the national narrative, concluding that “the Communists won the war.” I wouldn’t understand his meaning until years later. But at length I would come to agree with him.
My mother, being a product of the time, was appalled at my grandparents’ rationale for moving out of Bell to a safer (Whiter) neighborhood and, after a good deal of fighting, she opted to move my sister and me away from her parents’ bigoted influences. We got an apartment in Bell Gardens where my mother enrolled me in Suva Elementary. Trouble was, even under the circumstance of a 50% White population for the city, the ratios of minority children were far higher than those of Whites. What this meant for my school, believe it or not, is that there were no English-taught classes available. Yes, I attended kindergarten and first grade taught all in Spanish. And as an English-only speaker, this meant that the teachers merely sat me in the corner with crayons while they tended to prepping the foreign legions to commandeer my inheritance.
Sometime in my teenage years it occurred to me that if such a thing had been done to a non-White student (for two years), it would have been considered a scandalous “civil rights” as well as a “human rights” violation, and a matter of international outrage. This realization, among others, would slowly impel me to acknowledge a thing totally at odds with the social narrative I would learn in government school and the network media – that White people had, both socially and legally, somehow become second-class citizens in their own lands.
But when my grandparents learned of the pitiable educational situation to which my mother had resigned me, they insisted we move back in with them at their new Paramount home. From there I could finally attend school taught in English. Her multicultural vision for my education having somehow resulted in no education for me, my mother grudgingly conceded. But not without suggesting that instead of drawing, I should have paid attention in those Spanish-taught classes and learned the language.
The adult population of Paramount (and Hollydale, the adjoining suburb where my new school was located) was at that time still almost exclusively White, but the demographics of my new school itself were tipped slightly in the other direction – probably only 35% White. Obviously, this huge age-correlated disparity spoke to the semi-geriatric and largely childless White community there. But there were other factors in play which would shortly exacerbate that offset further.
My first day we met with my new principal, a Korean woman, and the vice principal, a Black woman. The former spoke clearly, if mechanically, but the latter was nigh unintelligible for her broken English and foreign inflection, which is so characteristic of the Black community and which would shortly be heralded in government schools as an official American dialect: “Ebonics.”
The vice principal and a coterie of Black administrators oversaw placement testing. Considering the fact that my first two years of schooling were a wash, their evaluation concluded rightly that I was illiterate. So they informed my mother that I would be held back a year to remedy my reading problem. This news of failure was so distressing to me that I begged them to allow me to take a reading book home over the weekend, and retest the following Monday. Reflexively dubious, they denied my request, but my mother was moved enough by my grandparents’ outrage over my previous school situation that she now insisted these administrators give me the benefit of the doubt.
From the moment we arrived home I occupied myself with that reading book. Through desperate tears I absorbed it cover to cover. And come Monday my retesting tendered surprising results: to the shock of the Black administrators, I tested well within the required parameters of equivalency. So surprised were they, in fact, that they openly accused me of cheating somehow – right under their noses. The chief matriarch on scene actually wanted to scrap the results of my second testing in favor of the first, saying, “C’mon now, you especk me beleeb dis boy tote hissef t’read since Frahday? Nah, dat don’ happin.”
But this was an occasion for which my mother’s lack of inhibition was well suited. She dug in her heels and pitched an unholy fit. Although the Black administrators were unmoved, once the principal (the Korean woman) was called down she looked at me and simply asked, “Did you cheat?” To which I replied, “No. I studied the whole weekend.” And she was satisfied with that answer. I was admitted to the correct grade.
No sooner had we left the campus, however, than my mother’s social programming kicked in: she well lectured me along the homeward drive concerning my duty not to allow the unified hostility of the Black educrats, nor their feeble grasp on the English language, to affect my view of them. It was an angry lecture belying not just her irritation with the Black functionaries, but also hinting at the likelihood that she was trying to convince herself as much as me.
Upon describing these events to my grandmother, and contrary to my mother’s insistence that I should never allow apparent realities to influence my view of things, Mema contextualized it all plainly: “Don’t you pay them old nigger women no mind. They’re just mad that you were able to teach yourself in a weekend what the whole government can’t teach all them little Darkies inside eighteen years.”And when Poppa came home he echoed Mema nigh verbatim. And rather than the scolding I’d gotten from my mother, I received praise from the both of them.
But aside from my mother’s convictions, even at age seven I’d seen my fair share of after-school specials and, of course, had attended a virtually all-minority school for two years, so it was in my ear admittedly somewhat scandalous. Upon later reflection, I came to realize the scandal I perceived in it wasn’t on account of Mema’s words being untrue, but just the opposite – because she was voicing certain unpopular truths. Mema’s explanation was at once contrarian with respects to government education, to big government generally, and to racial egalitarianism. And my mother’s explanation offered the perfect contrast – a trained resentment at reality for the love of fantasy.
My grandparents came of equal parts Confederate and Copperhead clans out of Missouri and Kansas. My grandmother’s family was part of the network which offered aid and support to the James gang. Devout Christians, all. So doggedly contrarian has my family been to the Union government and the rise of world communism that no man on either side fought in any American war throughout the twentieth century.
In fact, during and after WWII my grandmother’s philo-Germanic and Christian sympathies moved her and others to routinely throw food over the fence to the starving German POWs confined in one of Eisenhower’s concentration camps outside Springfield, MO. Since her family ran a German restaurant, their offerings to the starving soldiers were the cuisine of their Fatherland. She imagined this to boost their morale, too. Poppa said Mema was working against something called “the Morgenthau Plan.” I wouldn’t understand the meaning of that statement for many years.
After the loss of my father, my mother’s slide away from the Christian ethic imparted by her parents led to immersion in the meth culture, in recurrent stints of jail time, and other things well enough forgotten. So, all in all, my sister and I were really raised by my grandparents because even when my mother was physically there, she still wasn’t.
My grandparents felt they had failed with my mother and were determined not to make the same mistakes with my sister and me. Among other things, this meant that in spite of Mema not attending church herself (on account of her having been deaf from childhood, and dependent on reading lips to communicate), she saw us off to Sunday school every Lord’s Day. It was her ritual before we boarded the church bus to speak the same benediction over us: “I’ll be here waiting, praying the church can do something with you.”
And though Poppa was a believer and could quote large sections of Scripture from memory, he had by that time little use for the institutional church. As he explained it, the church was “full of do-gooders now.” Of course, this was a very strange statement to my young ears. Aren’t Christians supposed to do good, after all? But in time I came to understand his meaning. He wasn’t criticizing genuine good. Just the opposite: his distaste was for those who in their philanthropic zeal confused Christian priorities to the point that they actually inverted Christian ethics.
Such, he said, was demonstrated in the telethon phenomenon where supposed Christians pled for American believers to give their children’s inheritance to heathen cannibals. He explained that aside from impoverishing our own by such misguided philanthropy, it never helped the starving Africans on TV either. Even in the rare case when some donated seed made it past the tribal government or warlord, the intended recipients wouldn’t allow it to be planted. They just ate the seed corn out of the bags in week-long feasts, after which they returned to starvation. And rarer still, if White people were able to plant it for them, the Africans regularly dug the seed up at night and ate it before it could yield a crop. Such was the case with virtually all the major charitable causes now. Playing on guilty consciences, they served only to impoverish our own children while enriching the middlemen and the worst of the heathen. Such charities never achieved any of their stated goals, but perpetuated those very problems. What he meant by ‘do-gooders’ was those who, through their confusion of priorities and guilt, did evil in the name of good – which is to say, Liberals.
Nonetheless, he consented to my Sunday school education because he had gone through the same as a child and, in spite of the do-gooders overrunning the churches now, considered familiarity with Scripture indispensable to a Christian.
The church itself was a First Baptist assembly. They must have been doing quite well because they had a fleet of some four or five full-sized school buses which picked children up from their doorsteps every Sunday.
I was a very attentive and enthusiastic catechumen, but my experience there from ages seven through ten was instructive in ways which my teachers did not expect. I was definitely a believer, but the churchmen told me that unless I could pinpoint a moment when I said the “Sinner’s Prayer” and “invited Jesus into my heart,” I wasn’t yet saved.
This was deeply distressing to me. Not just because they told me that my faith in Christ (which I’d had from before all memory) was not proof of my salvation, but because they offered no remedy. You’d think if they were committed to such an incantational and anthropocentric view of conversion that they would at least have led me through the needed steps as they saw it. But no. Instead, they directed me to continue searching my heart prayerfully to locate a moment of conversion in my memories. And if I could not, I was not saved. As far as I could understand, they were telling me that on top of not being a Christian, I could never even become one, and was irretrievably damned.
The terror of that false teaching was assuaged only by the Scripture to which that terror drove me. Therein I read that Abraham was justified by faith. And so then was I. On the heels of elation I realized that the churchmen had been wrong. How could they have been so wrong? I did not know. But if my faith in the Sunday school teachers was diminished, my faith in Christ and His Word were that much stronger.