The first time I remember that I saw my father cry was when we were living on a small ranch in the south-central Texas hill country, when I was seven or eight. There was a pond about half a mile from the ranch house where my father and his friends shot doves late summer and early autumn evenings. Beside the pond was a raised platform with a roof, and the shooters would stand on the platform in partial concealment, drinking beer, talking, and waiting for the birds to come winging in to water for the night. When someone knocked a bird down into the pond, the dogs raced to retrieve it; and the man whose dog swam back first with a downed bird won a bet, as of course did the man who downed the bird. Across the pond from the platform, there was a telephone pole standing in long grass and weeds.
I’d been begging my father for what seemed like an eternity to let me come to the pond when the men were shooting. He always said no, it would be too dangerous. Then one day he gave me an old 410 shotgun of his, took me out, showed me how to load and unload, aim, and shoot. And he must have told me that the men would hold off shooting until I’d got a bird and gone back to the ranch house.
Which was how I came to be sitting by a pond, in the early evening of a hot September day, in long grass by a telephone pole waiting for a dove to land on a wire. But I had buck fever and missed the first two birds, just sitting there no more than thirty feet from me. To the great amusement and guffaws of the men across the pond. I had better luck with the third dove and knocked it off the wire. It fluttered down into the grass where I found it immediately, not dead but alive and looking me directly in the eye. Its head and neck were beautiful and incredibly graceful, its coloring an astonishing grey. I called out, “Dad, he isn’t dead.” He said, “That’s all right, son. Pick him up and pull his head off.”
At first I simply did not believe my dad had said that. But I realized he did say it when he repeated with implacable and irrefutable adult logic: “The bird is suffering, son, pick it up and pull its head off.” So I picked the bird up. And I said, “I can’t, Dad.” I could tell dad’s anger was rising, and this put me on the edge of tears. He said, “Pull the goddam bird’s head off, G.L., or you’re going back to the house.” In tears now, I repeated that I couldn’t. “Pull the bird’s head off, and put it out of its misery, or you’re going back to the house and you’re not coming back to shoot with the men.” By this time my face was crimson with tears and shame and the only thing I could hear or see was a noise inside my head. I stood underneath the wires with the dove in my hand, bawling. Then I was running back to the ranch house.
I’m sure my mother and sister must have consoled me when I got back to the house, but I don’t remember. The first thing I do remember was dad coming into my bedroom hours later, and he was crying. He told me he was sorry for getting angry with me. How he could understand why I didn't want to pull the bird’s head off. And that when I got used to pulling the heads off sparrows that I knocked out of trees with my BB gun, I could come back to the pond and shoot with the men.
Someone said something like, “Childhood is an eternity; all the rest passes in an instant.” During the part of my eternity when I lived on a ranch in Texas, three brothers lived on an adjoining ranch. Jim was my sister’s age, a couple of years older than I was; Johnny was about my age; and David was several years younger – so young he usually was excluded from our games and horse-riding adventures. Johnny and I were eight or nine by the time we even realized we lived next to each other, and although we weren’t best friends, we were close. He was a year behind me in school, which at our ages ordinarily precluded close friendships, but Johnny was old for his class and I was young for mine.
One day Johnny invited me to a Saturday birthday party for one of his classmates who lived on another ranch adjoining ours; I didn’t know him but Johnny got the OK. The invitation was unexpected, and ultimately I regretted accepting it. The prospect of cake and ice cream and excitement was fine, but I found out soon enough that my parents had decided to not drive me to the ranch house where the party was being given and pick me up afterwards. Instead, they expected me to ride my bike, although I’d never been to the ranch, much less to the ranch house. So Johnny drew me a map. The part of central Texas where we lived was low hills and rocks, plus extreme heat in the summer. So by the time I’d ridden my bike to the ranch where the party was, by the back way following Johnny’s map, the sun was high and the August heat was extreme. Now, “rocks” on ranches where we lived are too small to be boulders but large enough to be immovably embedded in the ground, turning the parallel paths considered roads on ranches into very uncomfortable rides except for very comfortable vehicles. Many hills are too low for the roads to wind around them, so it’s up one side and down the other. Going up a hill on a bicycle was hard not just because of gravity but because the embedded rocks were best avoided. And gravity could be exploited going down a hill only by riding so fast that the embedded rocks were frequently unavoidable, making the ride so bumpy that keeping the bike upright was a challenge When Johnny’s map directions became obviously inapplicable to my physical surroundings, I realized I’d missed so many unmarked forks in the road that I’d become totally lost. With each hill, I resolved to continue past the next one, and if I didn’t see the ranch house from there, I’d go back by tracing each fork’s handle, as it were.
The sweat was running down into my eyes, but there was never a ranch house to be seen. Just more low hills and parallel paths with embedded rocks. The afternoon sun cooked my bare head unbelievably and reflected off the whiteness of the road and the rocks. I hadn’t the foresight to bring a water bottle, and the thirst was killing me. My father had repeatedly lectured me on the ignominy of quitting, but at last I did just that. I stopped, turned around, and headed home – not even attempting to fake it by wasting time on the way back.
Jim and Johnny and David had dark black, curly blond, and indescribable orange hair respectively, and their hair colors fit their personalities. (Many years later my sister told me they were all three adopted.) Jim was taciturn, Johnny was always laughing and extroverted, and David was, well, David was just strange and quiet little David. Our different ages and distinct personalities pretty much left Johnny and me sharing the most times together of the five of us – exploring, competing, playing catch-up games on horseback, fishing, and on and on. But the idyll ended when I was ten years old in 1952 and our family moved from the ranch to San Antonio, in order for my sister and me to go to good schools and because the polio scare had passed. And we never saw our erstwhile neighbors again. But five years later, I was getting drunk on beer at a typical Texas-teen party in Austin, and I heard the last thing I’d ever hear about Johnny.
Evidently Johnny had gone to a good school too, in Austin, a special school for boys with “behavioral problems.” One of the guys at the party had also gone to the school, and he heard me mention Johnny’s name in connection with it. He butted into the conversation I was having and asked me if I’d heard what Johnny did last semester. I said I hadn’t. “He hanged himself,” the guy said, “He was a queer, you know.”
The second and last time I remember that I saw my father cry was when we were living in San Antonio. I was fourteen and I’d finished my second year at a military school after leading my class both years in scholastics, military leadership, a sport, and everything else I was interested in. Two years before, dad had transferred me from a public school I’d been attending because I was only an average student there, and he decided I needed discipline.
I remember seeing him cry a few minutes after he hit me with his belt for the last time. There had been an argument at the dinner table, and I got up while it was in progress, went to my room upstairs and slammed the door. Then I heard him coming up the stairs, and then he was standing in the doorway taking off his belt. A while later, he came back to my room and said he wanted to talk to me in the guest bedroom downstairs. In the dark guest room, I saw his figure sitting on one of the twin beds and I heard him weeping. I sat on the bed beside him and he talked to me. I probably expected him to apologize for what had just happened, but he didn’t, and he didn’t apologize for the years of hitting my sister and me that went before. Instead, I only remember him saying through the tears, “Son, you can be anything in this world you want to be...”
For almost my entire life since I stopped feeling so horrible in my twenties, I’d thought that dad’s hitting irreparably damaged my self-respect. And I still think the hitting predisposed me to depression. But I’ve identified two decisions – a good one overlooked and a bad one made – which I believe triggered my horribles in the summer of 1960, and I’ve stopped thinking about what being hit when I was growing up had to do with who I am. But for more than twenty years now, I’ve returned to thoughts of whether all the hitting damaged my mother – the physically uninjured witness who didn’t intercede. She never intimated to my sister or me that she had tried to convince dad to not hit us, or even that she had disapproved of it. In fact, I remember my mother coldly telling my father about our misbehaviors during the day, when he came home from work, and then him whipping us. But if my mother had opposed him, how could she ever have talked about it to us as long as we lived together as a family, which we did as long as she lived?