51 and 5150

At age 1, my infant brain had no idea what changes were taking place and what wreckage my defective chemistry would produce in the 50 years to come. All I wanted was a clean butt and a full belly.

At age 11, I was a child genius who loved playing. Baseball, basketball, four-square, card games, dice games, board games, word games, and trivia games kept me sane at a time when people around me tried to force my psyche into submission. I would play by myself often, being an only child, but I always wanted to play with others too. I was not yet anti-social, although I knew I didn’t fit in very well with people my own age.

At age 21, I was an unmedicated mess. I knew I was a little volatile, but I figured that was just my personality. I was emotionally damaged, but trying to recover in small steps. I was no longer a kid, but not a real adult yet until my mom died. I was left with a big mess (literally and figuratively), and my wife-to-be helped me deal with everything. I got married way too early, but we promised to make it work. I was in the middle of my retail career and my college career.

At age 31, I was still an unmedicated mess. I knew my life was spiraling, yet I was too proud to admit I needed help. I tried to figure things out on my own, and I struggled to survive my demons. I had the feeling of leading a double life, with fake-me pretending to enjoy spending time with the family, and real-me wanting to be swallowed by the ocean. I was writing every day, at first to an old friend, then just to myself. I created an alternate reality where I could run away with her, and I was angry because my delusions weren’t real. I was preparing to enter my darkest decade.

At age 41, I was a medicated mess, still fragile emotionally but trying to reclaim a little bit of solid ground. I finished one of the most difficult chapters of my life when I left my job as a long-haul trucker, and started in my current position with the gas company. I rejoined my family just in time to try to help Nicole as her mental illness started to become evident. At the same time I was trying with minimal success to take care of my own problems.

At age 51, I started coming to terms with my age while continuing to struggle with my mental health. I had a significant manic episode where thankfully nothing was broken, whether physical items or my bank account. I had my 30th wedding anniversary, which is something of a victory after all the shit I put my wife through over the years. The coronavirus cast a spell over the year, but thankfully I didn’t get sick. Hopefully the story of year 51 can end without anything bad happening.

5150 is the code word in California for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization. It was also a pretty good album by Van Halen. Finally, 5150 is a road sign that I happened to pass one day in the middle of Illinois:

big time

I hated growing up in my old hometown. People who lived in my town were either senior citizens or people whose families had lived there for multiple generations. It was relatively poor, unless you lived on the ridge above town or overlooking the lake. The downtown was dead (except for one good record store), and you had to go to a nearby city to do any serious shopping. The weather was blazing hot and dry all summer, and the vegetation looked dead or in serious distress every year. High school graduates, who were becoming more rare every year, had to leave town to go to college or find good jobs, and most of them never came back. There were few options for kids to do something other than fight or get into trouble or kill themselves and others while they were drunk driving. Crime was high, suicides were high, and homelessness was becoming a serious problem. There were so many drug addicts, and this was before methamphetamines took over. It wasn’t a fun place to live.

I wanted out, partly because I hated it there and partly because of bad memories of my childhood forever associated with the town. My first escape was to college in Nevada, but for various reasons, I had to return to town. I was angry about it, and I knew I had to leave again. In the meantime my adopted mom died, which broke the last link I had keeping me there. My girlfriend hated the town too, so we made a plan to get out. We got married, sold my childhood house, and moved elsewhere in California; I finished college before we moved out of state for several years. We returned to California for a while, then left again, moving to Ohio where we have been since 2005.

I’ve always liked the song “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel. Some of the lyrics:

The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small, they use small words
But not me, I’m smarter than that, I worked it out
I’ll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out
I’ve had enough, I’m getting out
to the city, the big big city

I remember being in my bed as a teen listening to this and thinking about leaving my hometown and the small-town life there. I think my wife and I have been pretty successful after leaving. We visited her extended family a few times many years ago, but I couldn’t wait to leave again because of the memories of living there. Now her family there has all moved away, so I have no reason to ever go back.

the road trip of ’86 and eddie van halen

Many, many years ago, when I was 16, our family and another family (The Rileys) took a road trip in our RV from California to Ohio, making a half-circle around the country. The Rileys wanted to see their son in Cincinnati; Mr. Riley was going to a church convention in Indianapolis and wanted to visit several churches on the way; Mrs. Riley wanted her best friend, my adoptive mom, to come along; A-mom volunteered to do most of the driving; and I just wanted to see something different than my hometown. 

So off we went, six people in a 25-foot RV. I’ll spare you the details, but the high points were:

  • driving US 50 in Nevada, the “loneliest highway in America”
  • having part of the RV catch fire in Utah (we put out the fire)
  • riding the Pikes Peak cog railroad in Colorado
  • playing basketball and fighting with our foster kid, Bob, at a church in Indiana
  • visiting the Arch in St. Louis
  • getting a really bad sunburn at King’s Island waterpark in Ohio
  • competing in the “Bible Bowl” at the convention in Indy (basically a bible trivia contest)
  • being dissed by the cute Ohio girl who gave me the stiff arm (she liked Bob instead)
  • going to a Cincinnati Reds game
  • seeing the Neil Armstrong museum
  • camping at Yellowstone National Park

Four weeks and 6000 miles later, we all piled out of the RV. The aftermath included The Rileys headed for divorce within a year; Mrs. Riley eventually came to live with us; Bob and I hated each other, and he eventually moved out; and that I thoroughly enjoyed the trip but realized I was socially inept.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one:

Mr. Riley liked Pizza Hut, and we stopped at several along the way. One time there was a jukebox, and I saw something that would make everyone irritated. Soon, blasting through the speakers was Van Halen’s “Eruption”. Eddie Van Halen tapped and wailed and screamed through the Pizza Hut, and everyone was stunned. At the end A-mom asked “WHAT WAS THAT?” I just laughed.

cheerleader

All parents are cheerleaders for their kids to a certain extent, but my adoptive mom was the whole squad. As I got older it became embarrassing when she would tell people how smart I was, how good a singer or musician I was, or how skilled at baseball I was. Even when I was proven to not be the best in those endeavors, she would stubbornly hold on to the belief that I was better than anyone else. She would complain to the coach when I didn’t get enough playing time, and she would tell the choir director that I deserved a solo when I really didn’t. I was her precious genius with superpowers, and she mollycoddled me to the point of smothering.

Despite A-mom being a cheerleader for me to the rest of the world, she never seemed to encourage me very much at home. She never sat me down and said “you can make it through college, you’re smart enough.” I felt like my motivation to succeed came from myself, partly to escape poverty and partly to prove wrong the people who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything.

I wonder if she didn’t feel like she could help me anymore once we escaped the abuse in Treetown. Maybe she felt like I was grown up at that point, which was far from the truth. I wish I had someone to help me through the transition from high school to college, but the reality is I did it all by myself. I don’t think she wanted me to leave home, and I think she was quietly happy when my first attempt at freedom failed and I moved back home.

I don’t want to be unfair to her. We were poor, and we didn’t the financial opportunity to take advantage of special tutoring or coaching or music lessons. In addition, we were both recovering from years of abuse, and we were still in a raw emotional state, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. We needed therapy more than we needed music lessons, but we had the mistaken belief that Jesus would help us more than psychiatrists.

low brass, high anxiety

I was a good trombone player back in high school. I was also good with a tuba and a baritone, but the trombone was what I enjoyed the most. I earned a trip to the state honor band playing trombone, which I thought was pretty cool even though I was seated in the 3rd chair.

When I went to college in Reno, I joined the marching band and immediately realized I needed to elevate my trombone game. I was suddenly surrounded with serious music students who could play circles around me, so I needed to get better. Even though I was still 3rd chair, I improved, and I knew I belonged.

After my short stay in Reno, however, I didn’t play my ‘bone for a couple of years. The local junior college had no music program, and there was no community band to play with. I missed playing.At college in Hippietown, they had an infamous marching band, but I didn’t have time to commit to practice and performances.

There was an informal jazz band, so I joined that group hoping to have fun. Unfortunately it turned out there were serious musicians in that group as well. One time we got to a place in the music where there was supposed to be a trombone solo, and I didn’t know what to do with it. The director, trying to help, said “This is yours, man – just blow!” I had no idea how to improvise, and I quickly became intimidated and embarrassed to be there.

The last day I went to the practice to tell the director I was leaving. I made up an excuse about not having enough time to be able to practice, which was mostly true, but not the real reason I was quitting. As I was walking out the door, he turned to the group and, exasperated, said “Great, there goes our trombone player!”

That hurt. I felt like I was failing, and abandoning the group who had accepted me. Then again, I’ve abandoned lots of people and places over the years, and not dealt with the wreckage. It turns out it gets easier each time, and you care less much faster.

The sting of that day stuck with me, and I never played the trombone for anyone again. I kept it long enough to find out neither child had interest in playing music, then sold it for $100.