When The Saints Came Marching In

 

I hear some people say they knew this or that at age 5, 6, 7 or 8. They knew there was no Santa Claus or they knew their father was having an affair with the neighbor. Not me. Throughout grade school, with all evidence to the contrary, I trusted that the adults in my life knew what they were doing, didn’t lie to me and moved our family around for good reasons like better neighborhoods or better schools. Then my mother yanked us from our midwestern roots, away from my absentee father and took us to the East Coast. My sister Erin and I landed at the doorstep of my mother’s sister, Aunt Joanne, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with her husband Bill Dorsey and their seven children. It was Christ-Rohrmid-May when we entered St. Mary of the Assumption School where the nuns “sought to imitate Jesus Christ.”  In 1959, St. Mary’s was still segregated except on the playground where I joined girls and boys, blacks and whites defiantly playing baseball all together.

The eighth grade class at St. Mary’s had spent the entire year before I got there memorizing one poem a month. In order to graduate, I had to memorize all nine poems. Not only did I rebel against this arbitrary standard, I became hysterical over it. My mother had taken two of my sisters to New Jersey to live with other family members and for the first time in my life I absolutely knew that she had gotten it wrong. I needed her with me, to defend me against the injustice of those nuns. I had sacrificed a lot for her and it was time she helped me.

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The Dorseys at Bethany Beach, Delaware

Uncle Bill had a different idea. He told me I could do it, that we’d do it together. Never before had anyone sat me down and given me a pep talk. Every night after dinner for four weeks he helped me learn those lines. Poems like “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tyger” by William Blake, “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman and my all-time favorite, “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Uncle Bill’s love flowed through me and poured out onto the paper, lighting up the poetry. He gave those words to me. And now, when I hear or see them, my heart pounds with a thunder of love for his eternal soul.

The Dorseys threw a party on my 13th birthday just before I graduated. They invited all their friends and children. My mother arrived from New Jersey with my baby sister. The backyard ballooned with streamers and bunting, barbecue, birthday cake, and something I’d never seen before – a keg of Budweiser. Uncle Bill gave me the first draw of the tap. I gulped it down without tasting it. My first beer. Then I had another. And another. And suddenly I loved everything around me. I knew I belonged, in that family, at that party, with those saints.

The St. Mary nuns blundered in their seeking to imitate the Christ. But Uncle Bill Dorsey? He was the real deal.

Journey to Paradise

JFK was still alive the September I drove with my father in his white Cadillac Eldorado down the pike from our temporary home in Washington, DC to boarding school in Williamsburg, Virginia. My head overflowed with questions. Will they have a television? What will I do after school? How will I wash my clothes? I dared not ask my father for fear he’d mock my questioning of such mundane matters. In his silence I could hear him say, “They’re nuns. They take care of people. Stop worrying.” I wasn’t worrying, just wondering. In spoken language between us, different words seemed to have the same meaning—wonder and worry, driving and speeding, drinking and drunk.

Unfamiliar signs became our talking points.

“Look there’s Fredericksburg. Did something historic happen there?”

He told me it’s a Civil War town. 10,000 slaves ran away from the plantations there and joined the Union Army.

Slaves? I had never been in a place where slaves had lived. Monticello. Is that Jefferson’s home?

I’m not sure how much I knew of Civil War history or American history as I was entering my junior year in high school, but clearly the road signs along the highways in Virginia had awakened some schooling. Petersburg and Appomattox. My premature view of life misinformed me that places I read about in history books, like these, no longer existed.

Until then, I had lived my whole life at sea level—the flatlands at northeastern Illinois’ Lake Michigan and the New Jersey seashore. The Virginia road climbed up and down between wavelengths of blue and green, tree-lined hills with wide verdant medians. My mother used to call me a nature-lover. I guess she was right. The scenery captivated me, as if we were driving through the Garden of Eden. I imagined Paradise at the end of our journey.

“What’s the Blue Ridge Parkway?”

My father loved to drive and he’d already been on Skyline Drive, the main road through Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our route to Williamsburg didn’t bring us near there. Thirty years later, remembering my father’s description of the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and the hills rolling down to the Shanandoah River, I drove there myself.

At Richmond we turned southeast toward the Norfolk Naval Base, Hampton Roads and Williamsburg. I was leaving no one behind. My mother, sisters, cousins and friends lived in another place, another time with their wild summers and grey winters. A vagabond life brought me to live at Walsingham Academy run by the Sisters of Mercy, the school that housed girls from mothers who didn’t mother and fathers who didn’t father—girls who had ulcers and girls who dyed their hair.

We turned onto Jamestown Road toward my new assignment. Fear tightened my grip on reality. Had he told the Mother Superior I had mononucleosis? Got drunk? Swore? Didn’t believe in God? Had an ectopic pregnancy? Did he even know I was tired all the time, and lost? I feared and I hoped they’d care for my soul.

Dearest Jean, Key West, 1943

My cousin Therese cleaned out the old dresser in the basement next to the washer and dryer after her mother died in 2001. She found a letter my mother had written in 1943 from Key West. My mother was 22 years old, married to my father, a Navy pilot.th-2

The letter begins with sisterly reasoning about why she isn’t using her best writing paper. “As long as you’ve seen my good stationery, I’ve decided to use this stuff.”  She makes no apology about why she hasn’t written sooner: “Laziness accounts for all the weeks I haven’t written.”

My mother, Agnes, and her sister, Jean, were a year apart. They lived for a time at Georgetown Visitation College, an all-women convent school on the grounds of Georgetown University, where they met their husbands. In my mother’s letter to Jean, she gossips about former classmates. Dorothy Castle’s husband Ed was in the Navy’s “Sound School”, training to detect enemy submarines, and would soon be commanding a “sub chaser”. “Water Wings Haley, up in Miami, was waiting for a ship to get outfitted that he would command.”

She mentions that my father “will jump from Ensign to full Lt. if the Air Corps ever gets tharound to promotions.” And then she writes, “I personally don’t give a damn, but that’s all anyone talks about.”

Ah-ha! There’s the mother I knew, not giving a damn. And judging people who do–give a damn, that is.

She then reveals that my father’s mission, patrolling the Florida Straits between Key West and Cuba looking for German submarines, is a military secret. On liberty in Cuba, he and his fellow pilots acquire contraband —English gabardine, cigars and liquor. “We’ve become quite the rum and scotch ring. I’ve had to acquire a taste for Daiquiri’s because of the lack of gin,” she writes.

Next we read about her new bathing suit, her tan, the new officers’ club where “we have to bring in our own liquor because it’s on an Army Reservation.”

I have no idea how or when criminal activity became just another part of life to my mother, like clothes shopping or mixing a martini. Until I read her letter, I thought my father had influenced her. Her nonchalance on smuggling reminds me that she seamlessly taught me to shoplift from the A&P as a child and that she stole from her employers.

The second child of seven, she grew up in one house in Westfield, NJ where the children revered their successful father and adoring mother. Yet, like my father, she wasn’t governed by her conscience. My parents didn’t pay bills, cheated their friends and families and relied on midnight moves to escape rent-collecting landlords and hotel managers. They left me with a lifelong struggle “to give a damn.”

The day she died, I visited her last residence, a nursing home in Point Pleasant, NJ. Her closet overflowed with clothes she stole from other residents. The nurses said my mother expressed a lot of emotions in her dementia but guilt and shame were not among them.

When James Carville Tried to Save Me

 

James Carville called in early March 1992.

“This is not your fault,” he said in that red-hot Cajun voice of his, ”I take full responsibility.”

I knew right then that the campaign advisors on the road with Bill Clinton were blaming me.

A few days earlier, Carville, chief strategist for the campaign, had directed me to schedule Clinton at a correctional facility in Georgia reasoning that a picture of Clinton strolling with black inmates and Georgia’s all-white male politicians would cinch Clinton’s appeal to the state’s voters.

It did.th

Clinton won the Georgia primary, but not without a price. The national press and the other candidates excoriated Clinton for his racial insensitivity. Jerry Brown said Clinton and the other politicians looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.”

And that was all my fault.

Five months earlier I’d been asked to give up my job in Chicago and relocate to Little Rock to be Clinton’s Director of Scheduling and Advance.  “You already know this, Regan,” Campaign Manager David Wilhelm reminded me, “the scheduler in any campaign has the worst job.”

It’s true. The person who plans the candidate’s calendar has an enviable yet risky position. An unplanned photo with an unscrupulous politician? Protesters blocking the entrance to an event? A rained out rally? It’s all the scheduler’s fault.

Campaign operations temporarily moved from Little Rock to the Palmer House in Chicago just before the Illinois-Michigan primaries in 1992. The extensive Chicago staff in Little Rock wanted to celebrate Clinton’s St. Patrick’s Day victories that would clinch

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March 17, 1992 Palmer House Chicago

the nomination.

An old friend of mine, a Chicago policeman, volunteered to be Clinton’s driver. He called me around 2:00 am the morning before the Primary.

“Regan, that Greek guy, George, and Bruce someone were in the car telling Clinton you have to go.”

“What?”

“Yep. But Clinton said he wants to be sure you have another high-level job in the campaign.”

“Really?”

“Yeah! Dees guys are strategists? Der talkin’ ‘bout firin’ you in your hometown — and your buddy drivin’?”

We howled at the strategic error.

I was offered a job that was already filled. Wilhelm shrugged when I asked if I was fired. The New York Times reported I’d been replaced by Bruce’s wife.

I took a trip to the Bahamas, became achingly lonely and came home early. Herb and Vivienne Sirott got me into a rental apartment across the hall from them.  Cook County Clerk David Orr hired me as Deputy Director of Elections. We worked hard that year to pass the National Motor Voter Act. A young community organizer, Barack Obama, walked into my office to plan a large-scale voter registration project.

Things looked good from the outside, but inside ego-busting despair maintained constant watch over my soul. Depression, sick leave, isolation, shame, all led to suicidal thoughts. Vivienne brought a psychiatrist to my apartment. That’s when I started Prozac, my first legal anti-depressant.

 

 

 

Ghosts of Navy Pier

My son Joe and I bought sneaker roller skates from a typical Chicago hustler at the Dearborn Garden Walk street festival in early summer 1977. They were a novelty—yellow canvas shoes attached to shock-absorbent, sound-proof neoprene wheels. We lived in nearby Sandburg Village and skated home that day carrying our shoes.

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Joe Kelly, 10, on Roller Skates

The rest of the summer and into the fall, after school and work and on weekends, we’d skate around the Near North side and downtown Chicago, charting the smoothest sidewalks, the longest ride, uphill climbs and downhill coasts.

One October day we skated over to Lake Michigan’s Navy Pier. Built in 1916, Navy Pier has been used as a cargo hub, a military base, college campus, convention center, recreation center and wedding pavilion. Before its retrofit, the watery concrete jetty hosted Chicago Fest and the International Art Expo. That day in 1977 when Joe and I were skating around, the deserted mile-long slab of steely smelling cement shouldered two low-slung cargo sheds divided down the middle by a midway for tractor trailers. A few joggers who’d parked their cars in the lot in front of the pier were trotting out and back along the sun-drenched lake side, a perfect 2-mile run.

We chose the leeward route, the interior midway, because we noticed half-opened doors to the cargo sheds, though no workers were in sight.

“Let’s go look inside.” I said to Joe.

Gregarious ring-billed gulls hawked insects on the wing overhead. Otherwise, the place

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Joe Kelly, 11, on Skateboard

was noiseless. We skated off to a half-opened articulated overhead door, bent under and slid through. Our squinty eyes adjusted to the shadowy warehouse. Row after row of two-story high floats showcased Dumbo, clowns popping out of train cars, horses hanging over barn doors, dragons, Charlie Brown and Lucy, castles and fairies, Santa’s sleigh and reindeers and Old Mother Hubbard’s shoe with her big-headed children clinging to the side.

“Whoa-ho!” said Joe, “this is where they store the parade floats!”

We skated under dragon’s fire and around angels’ wings farther and farther into the semi-dark. It was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, movies that put head-trip phantasms in our everyday journeys. The bang of an unseen door slamming shut whooshed life into the moribund creatures. The two of us tacked on our skates and sailed back through the outsized flatbeds into the light to shake off the spirits of our fright.

I once heard the old parade floats got dumped into the defunct Riverview Amusement Park, and I hope that’s true. It’d be a perfect graveyard for the ghouls on parade.

Joe took up skateboarding the next spring when he was 11 and rolled around his own
Chicago with his friends. I dumped my skates for a bicycle and I often pedal around the modernized Navy Pier. Every once in a while I get spooked by a mysterious whop. I shake myself real: those clowns popping out of that train car are not coming for me.

Heads Up! Who Said Pot is Not Addictive?

Tricia Thack and I left our husbands in New Jersey and headed to Vermont soon after I returned from peace and love and LSD and pot at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969. I had a 2-year old son, she had an infant and toddler daughters, so together we rented a first floor 4-bedroom apartment in a 150-year old Victorian on the Villageth Green in Pittsfield. We drew close because we had a love for beer, pot and men. New Jersey friends up for ski weekends on nearby Killington mountain, and new friends from the places we worked in the resorts all flocked to our door for after-hours hoopla.

We reveled in breaking the chains of constraint that kept us from having fun. We were always broke. When our kids needed winter clothes I, having been taught by my mother, shoplifted from stores in Rutland. Tricia spent a lot of time on the phone begging her husband and parents for money. We waitressed, cleaned hotel rooms, babysat and tried to budget. But all our money went for booze and drugs and we had trouble holding onto jobs.

Once I drove 150 miles down to Boston to buy a kilo of marijuana in a carful of other amateur pot-buyers. We heard it came from Mexico by boat and was free from sticks and seeds, insuring a higher potency than what we’d been smoking. Somewhere in the supply chain the pot was dried, pressed into bricks and wrapped in plastic. I’d never bought pot in a brick – it was a get-rich-quick scheme dreamed up by the local ski-bum-Unknownpusher guaranteed to turn our $300 investment into a $1000 profit.

In the car we had a load of fresh-rolled joints and a case of Rolling Rock to fortify us for the 6-hour round trip. At our destination, I simply handed my cash to the leader of our pack, too stoned to get out of the car. We partied all the way back up Interstate 91.

I can’t remember when someone passed me my first joint – late teens? early 20’s? I don’t know where or when. Such is the nature of cannabis. You lose track. I saw God many times, in the consciousness-raising vapors arising from Joe Cocker, the Rolling Stones and The Doors. My foray into pot dealing withered on the vine though. I smoked it all up, shared it with friends and strangers alike, unable to make any kind of clear-headed money transaction.

Tricia and I used to laugh that we ingested more drugs and alcohol in an hour than Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland did when she accidentally died that year after swallowing 10 sleeping pills and a few glasses of wine. The delusion of our invincibility propelled us to smoke more pot, drink more alcohol and swallow stronger drugs.

Against all odds I survived my addictions.  But pot? Man, it still calls my name in the night.

 

1971, 25 Years Old and Still Alive

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.