Karlsruhe 1972 – 1973

We have so much freedom on the Army Base. We hop on our bikes in the morning and go, our only guideline being, “be home when the streetlights come on.” We also have at least a little disposable cash from doing chores around the house. My dad has come up with a price-per-chore remuneration system: Fifteen cents for cleaning a bathroom, ten cents for cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, fifteen cents for vacuuming the rugs, ten cents for dusting. If my brother, who is totally into Nazi memorabilia and has found a local shop that sells it, is really keen to buy a new piece, he will hog all the chores, which at times is a comfort (since I’m pretty lazy when it comes to housework). Somehow, I always manage to have enough pocket change to buy comic books and candy come Saturday morning, and it’s unusual for me not to hop on my bike and ride to the PX or the Commissary at the grand old age of 7 to buy whatever I like.

I love living in Karlsruhe. I have freedom, I have wheels, I have discovered the love of reading (and Beverly Cleary!). I can go wherever I want, and there is a big sandbox in the middle of the circle we live on, and plenty of kids to play with. Military kids are so used to moving every year that we make friends quickly. Our standards are low. You’re in my same grade? Perfect. Let’s be best friends.

Our next door neighbor is a major who has married a German woman I have come to understand is a bombshell, although I don’t really understand what that means. They have a son my age, Randy, who never wants to play Marriage or anything like that, but when he talks to his mother, he uses this sissy-boy voice, like he’s three years old, and I find it cloying and stupid. I decide he’s of no use.

My favorite times involve climbing up the metal clothesline and perching there (because I can), and playing in the sandbox, where I can build things and no one bothers me. I can play there for hours, and have the mosquito bites to prove it. I love to read. In the winter, I plow through a book a day. I’ll come home, plop down on a high stool next at the counter next to the stove and put my feet against the radiator while my mom makes dinner, devouring another biography about Our American Heros.  I can disappear into my books.  No one bothers me.

Sometimes my sister and I go to the movies. They show oldies at the theatre for a quarter, and a bag of popcorn is a dime.  We go a lot on Saturdays.  The “new” movies, usually at least six months past their original release dates, are never kids material, although I remember my dad taking my brother to see “The Godfather” and hearing all about the horse’s head. I love the movies, too; another place I can escape from my everyday life. There’s a lot to escape from.

There’s my dad’s drinking, which is unpredictable but frightening. He can go weeks without touching the stuff, and sometimes, a night at the Officer’s Club – dinner and two or three martinis – can end peacefully enough; maybe he’s hungover the next day, but that’s the worse of it. The really bad times are when he goes on a binge that lasts all weekend, sometimes even into Monday. It starts out well enough on a Friday night, although by the time we’re living in Karlsruhe, even I, at the age of 7, am savvy enough to know that the Friday night martini, or bourbon, or glass of wine, is the beginning of what is going to be an unpleasant weekend.

After one drink, my dad gets charming and expansive. He’s funny, he tells jokes, he seems interested in his children (a rare occurrence). After two drinks, he’s even more charming, but starting to get a little slurry; by the third drink, he’s sloppy, and if we happen to be out at a restaurant, there’s a good chance that he’s being really inappropriate with the waitress, no matter her age or appearance. 

By the time he’s hit drink number four, he’s starting to get angry and belligerent and starts to recall how the world has done him wrong in so many ways – and to be honest, it has. My dad experienced a lot of trauma, with no support whatsoever, and no clue as to what to do with it. Most of what he inflicted on the people around him was no doubt a result of that trauma, but of course I didn’t understand that then, and even if I had, it certainly wouldn’t have made his behavior any less scary or more palatable.

After belligerent comes weepy and pathetic, and at this point, I don’t even think he knows who he is anymore. I think it’s this stage that I hate most, in part because it’s during these times that he’s likely to insist on cornering one or more of us to sit and listen to him talk, and talk, and talk. Most of what he says makes no sense at all, although I’m sure to him he is speaking the great truths of the world. A lot of what he says is also completely inappropriate for his kids to hear. He says things to me like, “well, your mother has always loved your brother the most,” or “when we get divorced, you’re going to have to decide who you want to live with.” Those are the kinds of things that really fuck with your mind.

When my dad isn’t drinking, he is all business, all the time. He’s a rigid, tightly-wound guy who does not tolerate nonsense. He is exacting in everything he does, and there is never any excuse for not doing everything right the first time. Age is not an excuse, lack of experience is not an excuse – if he tells you to do something, whether you understand it or not, you do it. Of course we are expected to do well in school, because he did, and to do well at most everything, because he did, without the benefit of a father, with two younger brothers he helped his mother support from an early age. My dad had no money for college and completed a year at Penn State while waiting for his commission to West Point to come through; he was only able to afford that year in State College by working in the kitchen at a fraternity house (which is how he ate) and working late at night cleaning printing presses at a newspaper (which is how he paid his rent and tuition.

All of which is impressive and could help one understand why he is so tough on his children and has quickly formed the opinion that they are spoiled, except that we all do try hard to please him. The problem is, nothing pleases him, because he is, at bottom, a desperately anxious, depressed person. 

And the drinking doesn’t help.

I am terrified of my father, and my response to him is to avoid him as much as possible. I am deeply attached to my mom but could pretty much do without my father altogether. I pretty much view him as an interloper in our otherwise happy home. When my dad is around, there is yelling and tension and anger. When he isn’t, things are easier, and tend to go more smoothly. We are happy. We don’t need him.

Of course, that’s not the entire truth, because after all, there’s my sister. My sister can take any birthday party and turn it into a dog fight, any sunny day and transform it into a hurricane. If she is in a bad mood, she makes sure that everyone else is, too. My sister is impulsive, emotional, and frequently out of control, in a way that makes no sense to me at all. Her feelings are so entirely disproportionate to any situation, and she is utterly ill-equipped to deal with frustration or disappointment. Living with my sister is difficult and unpleasant.

She picks fights. She hits me. She criticizes me mercilessly. She gets angry with me for no apparent reason.

She gets into trouble with my parents so regularly that it is hard to keep track of when she is “on restriction” and when she isn’t. When she is caught misbehaving, her response is to object  loudly and long about how unfair it is, and to argue that she hasn’t done anything wrong. I hate the noise, the drama, the hysteria. I hate how long she goes on. I hate that she puts my parents in such a bad mood.

These eighteen months in Karlsruhe are the happiest of my childhood, despite my sister’s behavior and my father’s drinking, both of which are a constant of my life.  For this brief period of time, I have one wonderful year of school with the my favorite teacher of all, I have a space of my own to dream and be alone, and my mother takes us on adventures in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland while my father is away with his battalion and not able to join us. My brother had not yet begun to manifest the issues that will break my parents’ hearts, and my sister has not yet begun the psychological warfare that will largely influence the next fifty years of my life.

Somehow, I know to hold on to every day of those eighteen months, and I do. I live every day with every single ounce of myself; it’s like there’s this tiny window of something resembling a normal family, or if not that, a time when I can take what I need and only think about what I want. I worry only about doing things that make me happy, a concept that will become so foreign, it will take decades to reclaim it.


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