The following is an excerpt from SCREAMS FROM THE TREES: MY ESCAPE FROM ABUSE, ADOLESCENCE, AND RELIGION. It’s a pivotal moment in the narrative and a short-story that stands on its own. Thought I’d whet your appetite.
The beginning of the new year arrived and Jesus tarried. We didn’t get raptured and Armageddon didn’t begin. 1989 started with less than a sparkler, but it would end up with one hell of a bang.
To paint the picture, here’s a few excerpts from my personal journal at the time:
Last night I fell asleep during The Whiz. It was about 3:47 AM I think.
Cordell came in at 8:30 AM or so and kicked my bed. Church starts at 11, ends anywhere from 1-2, and he likes to get there at 9:30…
I fell back asleep and he came back again.
I got up and he told me to make some eggs and toast. I wasn’t in the mood, so I poured some 100% Bran in a bowl for some cereal. He came in and said, “Why are you having cereal?! I said make some eggs and toast!”
“You don’t need cereal for breakfast. Eggs and toast are better for you!”
I walked in my room, bowl in hand, to finish getting ready.
“Now don’t go in your room and sit in front of the television!”
I didn’t say a word.
For 30 minutes Cordell and Mom lectured me on how I was not obeying them. The ordeal went on and on. I asked them nicely and three times to leave my room.
“Shut your mouth,” Cordell said.
“Sit down,” Mom said.
I sat on the floor with my back against the wall.
“If you don’t shut your mouth,” Cordell said, “I’ll come over there and bash your head through that wall.”
“That would be child abuse,” I said.
Mom tried to give Betina to Cordell. She wanted to have a go at me. I got up to leave. Cordell told Mom to wait a minute and took off after me.
I ran out the back door. He was right behind me, chasing me. I made it out the side gate and ran down the street. He ran after me. I was so fast, there was no contest. I ran around the whole damn neighborhood.
It started raining. I hid in some bushes for several minutes. From way down the street I could see his large shadowy figure slowly trundling towards me.
I burst through the bushes and ran to Michael Garner’s house (a fellow freshman) and banged on the screen door. His mom saw me with no shoes and no shirt, just my Levi’s. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said and asked for Michael. She led me to his room.
He flipped on his light and asked, “What’s the matter?” He was just about to crash. He offered me a cigarette.
His mom watched Cordell walk up and down the street four times.
I stayed and watched Action Jackson starring Apollo Creed. Mike’s mom asked me to call home.
“Get your butt home,” Cordell said.
I stayed at Mike’s.
At 11:47 PM I snuck and hid in my room. I could hear Cordell and Mom talking. They still thought I was gone.
Cordell eventually came in. He sat on my bed.
“I thought Mom said not to talk to me,” I said.
He told me to put my pen and paper down. For minutes, he said nothing. Then he went on 80,000 times and for 2 ½ hours. Nothing. He grounded me for 4 ½ weeks.
Well, I got to school late, as always. Ms. Habbit doesn’t get too mad ‘cause I do it all the time.
Mr. Gabriel was still his old fogey self. He said, “John, what you got to tell us, John? Tell the whole class. Stand up!” So, I stood up and gave a speech. Everyone laughed.
In 4th period English we had to write our experience of jumping into a picture. Well, my picture was of two guys in a canoe white water rafting. The lesson was to teach the use of vivid verbs. Well, today the paper was due since we had three days to work on it. Most people turned in a paragraph or two. I turned in four pages.
She wanted to read a few aloud so we could analyze them. Everyone wanted her to read mine first. So she did. At the end, I received applause. I was totally, severely, grotesquely embarrassed. Then she said, right before she read the next one, “I shouldn’t have read Nathan’s paper first since there is no comparison.” She kept on bragging about it through the whole period. “Nathan’s paper this, Nathan’s paper that….” AAAGHH!
At PE the weight room was locked so I couldn’t lift weights. So I played Shannon James and Adrian Jones, two cool black dudes, a game of 21.
I walked home and as I walked down this one street, some girls asked me where I was going and my name. They couldn’t have been any older than 6. I said, “My name is Dorothy and I’m going to the land of Oz.” They freaked out.
Here I am! My alarm is set for 6 and I’m as tired as any hound dog on the scent of a cheetah. Goodnight!
January 6, Friday
I got to school ten minutes late. Ms. Habbit expected it to be that way.
I was gonna sign up for track again, but I’ll be grounded for a long time and probably won’t make many practices. Same with swimming, I’ll probably have to quit ‘cause I’ll miss so many practices.
Squeezed my finger between my dresser and the wall and fished out a cigarette. I never smoke but I just wanted to try this time. I grabbed some matches out of my pencil box and went outside. After 20 million matches, I got the cigarette lit.
I didn’t go to school ‘cause the report wasn’t done and plus, my lips were so chapped I couldn’t eat or brush my teeth. I think I’m allergic to Chapstick. So instead of going to school, Mom, Betina and I went to Nana’s. On the way we went to Walgreens to get some ointment for my lips and we went to school to drop the report off.
When Cordell came home there was 5 minutes of peace, only because they were sitting in my room watching TV. After that, they began to argue….
Well, Mom wants to move to Round Rock. But she’s said that so many times, I know we’ll be in Houston.
January 21, Saturday
Been up every night the past week after or around 12 AM.
Well, I got a first-place trophy for my history fair project! It was presented to Greg and I on Friday. Ms. Watkins announced it and we got a lot of applause. As I went to receive it, Mr. Ferrarra, the principal, shook my hand and as I shook his hand, we had a surprise snapshot taken. Later we were interviewed about it. I let Greg take the trophy home first. He said he would bring it for me Friday. He didn’t.
Yesterday, George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as our president. He placed his hand on the same Bible that George Washington placed his hand on as he was sworn into office. Cool.
I stayed home and read The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. A book of Biblical prophecies about this generation. It is quite long and drawn out.
February 12, Sunday
I’M NOT GROUNDED.
Let’s see how long this lasts….
February 13, Monday
Saturday, I had a swim meet at Lee High. But I couldn’t swim because I had an F on my report card. Typing. Of all stupid things, I failed Typing.
On Sunday I woke up and the first thing that hit my mind was, “I’m not grounded.” I wasn’t overwhelmingly glad, but I felt better.
By Spring, Cordell and my mother were separated. Once the schoolyear was over, my mom, Betina and I moved in temporarily with Grandmom, my mother’s mother, who lived in Round Rock, Texas, roughly twenty miles north of Austin.
Grandmom was an accountant for the Texas State Commission on the Arts downtown in the capitol city. She was a beautiful, independent lady with curly blonde hair who loved to dance, loved the outdoors, loved everything South of the Border, loved Jim Beam, and had huge pale blue eyes that always reflected her intelligence and zeal for life. I was looking forward to spending much of my summer at Grandmom’s country place in Llano.
On a Sunday afternoon at her home in Round Rock, I was sitting on the white shag carpet of her bedroom watching Family Feud when the phone rang. Grandmom answered it.
“Oh no,” her voice trembled. “I always knew it. I always knew he would do this.”
The tone in her voice was something I’d never heard before.
While this was happening, Mom and Betina were on a visit with Cordell, who had driven up from Houston to try and patch things up.
I watched the blue gameboard and big red X’s flash on Family Feud.
Grandmom went into hysterics. I walked into the dining room. It had a cutout in the wall so I could see into the kitchen. Grandmom was slightly bent over the sink and the phone to her ear.
“OK, thank you, thank you for calling,” she said. “No, don’t worry. I’m OK. I’ll tell the kids.” She hung up the phone. When she finally lifted her head, glistening red eyes locked onto mine with a look of desperation and sorrow.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I always knew he’d do it.”
“Your granddad killed himself.”
I stood there and blinked. I repeated the words. It didn’t register.
Grandmom looked wrecked.
I turned on my heel, walked back to her bedroom, and continued watching Family Feud.
A few summers ago, when I first moved to Texas, Granddad and Grandmom tried to get back together after being divorced for almost three decades. I spent quite a bit of time with them at Grandmom’s property in Llano. We swam in, fished in and floated on the Llano River. We built a garden, planted apricot trees and pear trees. Granddad taught me how to track and bow hunt deer on foot. I drank my first beer with him after a long day of using the weedwhacker and mowing the tall grass around a wide swath of Grandmom’s mobile home.
They took me on my first real hike. Granddad knew of a bluff tucked away somewhere in the central Texas hill country amongst a labyrinth of dirt roads. It was a popular place to find Cliff Swallows.
“Cliff Swallows are the spirits of the native people who once lived here,” he told me. “This is a sacred place.”
Granddad took a lot of pride in his Native American heritage. His Great-Grandmother was Cherokee. Her name was Little Finger. Granddad carried his beer cans in a yellow koozie with blue letters that read “A Country Boy Can Survive” – with a fat red marker he wrote “INDIAN” over the word “Country.”
He was an artist, an outdoorsman, a pilot, and alcoholic. A passionate man, for sure, and a unique one. He fought in the Korean War. He held several patents. He worked for Texas Instruments which contracted with NASA during the Apollo missions. He lived on a tiny private airstrip in Brookshire, Texas, alone in a studio attached to the hangar where he kept his three airplanes: a Cessna 182 and two experimental aircraft he built himself, one being a fire engine red open cockpit single-seater controlled with a stick and powered by the engine of a VW Beetle he christened The Red Rogue. Also in Granddad’s hangar was his brown 1979 Toyota Celica and his green 1969 Volkswagen Westfalia bus.
We spent the afternoon exploring the bluffline, looking for ancient arrowheads, watching the Cliff Swallows fly in and out from under the overhanging bluff as we sat beneath its shade enjoying the views of the hill country from our elevated perch. Granddad took several pictures and showed me how to work his Canon. I took a picture of them together.
Later that evening back at Grandmom’s spread in Llano, we had settled down after dinner when Granddad invited me into the kitchen for a game of chess. They were both pretty sauced at this point. Grandmom was slurring a bit and laughing too loud and Granddad was chainsmoking his Tareyton 100s. I quickly put his king in check.
Granddad blew smoke in my face. “You cheated,” he snarled.
I did not cheat. I beat him fair and square.
He took another long pull from the Jim Beam and Coke in his white Styrofoam cup.
“I don’t like cheaters,” he said, squinting his eyes at me.
“John!” Grandmom yelled. “Now you quit that. Leave him alone.”
Granddad sat there with his elbows on the table, one hand clutching his drink, the other pinching his cigarette which he kept puffing on so hard eventually his entire face was covered in swirling smoke and I only saw the red embers of the lit end of the cigarette glow brighter then go dark as he puffed that thing to its butt. He crushed it out in the red plastic ashtray quickly filling with other butts then took a long swig of his bourbon.
He slapped his palm on the table, “Betty? Let’s dance!” he yelled.
Grandmom gave a Texas Yell and the next thing I knew all three of us were twirling around, hopping and doing The Twist to Ravi Shankar’s Greatest Hits.
Granddad loved Ravi Shankar.
“What kind of music do you like, Nathan?” Granddad yelled over the din of Grandmom’s blasting boombox.
“I don’t know!” I hollered back.
“Don’t you have any music?” he asked.
“I only have a soundtrack with me!”
“Go get it!”
I popped the Top Gun soundtrack out of my Walkman. Next thing I knew we were all prancing around to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” like a bunch of drunk chimps.
That was the last time I’d ever see them together. Their drinking eventually escalated and the skeletons came out of their closets. They fought and stalked and threatened, everything fueled with whiskey.
Due to his behavior, Mom cut Granddad off. We stopped communicating with him. A year went by with no contact. No more drunk phone calls at 3 AM.
Later I discovered Granddad took to wandering around Texas in a 1966 GMC Milk Truck he converted into an RV. He kept flying his planes to remote places in Texas to go fly-fishing and camping. He got sober.
And then he was gone.
When Cordell and Becky returned from their visit, Grandmom told me not to say anything and just let her deal with it. I stood in the living room as Grandmom opened the front door and let them in.
Mom was holding Betina. Cordell stood behind them. Mom was chittering away as usual. After a minute or so, Mom could sense the energy was off.
“What is it, Mom?” she said through a fading smile.
“Becky,” Grandmom took a big inhale, “your father shot himself.”
“What?” Mom said.
“Your father shot himself.”
Mom’s face drooped like a melting candle. “Wha . . . what do you mean shot himself?”
“He’s dead, Becky.” Grandmom took a step towards her.
Cordell took Betina out of Mom’s stiffened arms.
Mom stood there wide-eyed.
“He committed suicide.”
I saw her lights go out.
Just before I thought she was about to go completely limp, she shot straight up and with a throat-cracking “AAAAAGGGGHHHH!” that ripped her upper palate she stiff-armed Grandmom away like Tony Dorsett, spun around on the ball of her right foot and took off hauling ass straight towards the front door.
Which was shut.
Which had a big oval stained-glass piece, large enough to walk through. Large enough to burst through.
Mom had completely lost it and whether she was cogent of it or not, she was going for it. She was going to burst through that glass.
Cordell tossed Betina to Grandmom and bolted after Mom. He leapt through the air and in a fully extended diving tackle, he and Mom crashed to the floor, sliding and slamming into the front door. I thought he knocked her out cold.
Whatever happened next, I don’t have the faintest memory of. I could make something up for the sake of drama, chalk it up to poetic license, but it wouldn’t be honest. Mom survived. She was bruised up a bit, shaken, but nothing serious. At least she didn’t bust through Grandmom’s glass door and receive multiple lacerations and a concussion.
Granddad’s memorial was held two weeks later. He was given a Veteran’s Ceremony and buried at the JL Yates Family Memorial in Houston. After the 21-gun salute, per Nana’s request I was presented his US Flag by one of the soldiers on burial detail.
Nana never believed the whole suicide bit. She thought the FBI put a hit on him because of his involvement with the space race. He was a bit of a maverick and knew things he couldn’t discuss. She even hired a private investigator. Unfortunately, she succumbed to Alzheimer’s shortly thereafter and the case never saw the light of day.
My mother never recovered from the shame she felt about her father’s suicide. She came up with all kinds of conspiracies to assuage her embarrassment, her guilt, but at the end of the day, according to her belief system, suicide was a one-way ticket to Hell. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. There was never going to be a chance in that very Hell that she would ever see him again and patch up all the carnage that happened in her life due to unaddressed Father Wounds she never forgave him for. This condition certainly was her own personal Hell.
“He was possessed,” she said.
“He was oppressed,” she said.
“He was off his meds,” she said.
“He was manic,” she said.
I didn’t know what to make of it other than it was a horrifying end to a bad story. Granddad was only 59 years old. He was a brilliant man but alcohol had destroyed so much of his life. Grandmom told me that he probably had a sudden “moment of clarity” and realized all the destruction in his past due to alcohol, all the damage, and he was alone and getting old, and just didn’t want to face life anymore.
My mother and Cordell were tasked with dealing with Granddad’s affairs. He didn’t leave much. Turned out he gave his planes and vehicles to two of his life-long buddies. They had all been pilots since they were teenagers in high school. Back then they called themselves The Skull Squadron and wore matching leather jackets. Cordell contacted them and they invited us out to their places in the country.
Both old fellers knew who I was and had a lot to tell me. They offered the planes and vehicles, whatever I wanted, and invited me to come out whenever I liked.
Granddad’s closest buddy, Billy Kemper, was a successful attorney and on top of opening his home to me he gave me a carrot and told me to go out to his pasture where his horses were grazing and pick any one I wanted, and I could have it. I did so and picked one, but of course I told Billy I didn’t have any place for it yet. He told me he’d hold him for me and I could come back for him as soon as I was ready.
Cordell and I attempted to retrieve the old VW Bus but the clutch and brakes went out as soon as we got it on the road. We towed it back to Houston and ultimately parted it out.
Cordell and I also retrieved that old milk truck Grandad used as a camper. We somehow got it parked in the backyard where it would die a slow death, rusting and growing mold. It became a harbinger of nightmares for me. A bloodied Granddad would appear from the dying old truck, hobbling towards me, trying to speak but I couldn’t hear anything and I’d scream and I’d wake up, jump out of bed, look out the window into the blackness of the backyard night at the old milk truck just to be sure it was all a dream.
My Uncle Rusty, who was my mother’s cousin, had the gruesome job of identifying Granddad’s body at the morgue. Granddad shot himself in the face with a shotgun, so it wasn’t a pretty sight. The coroner gave Uncle Rusty a small manila envelope containing a few personal effects Granddad had on his person at the time he pulled the trigger. Uncle Rusty had no desire to examine its contents, so he gave the envelope to my mother. She wasn’t curious about its contents either, so she handed the envelope to me.
I did check the contents:
Swiss Army knife.
Dirty black comb.
Half a pack of Tareyton 100s.
Wristwatch. With blood on the band.
Yeah. Dried red blood was smudged on the black wristband. Still there to this day.
I guess that’s a morbid detail but what’s even perhaps more morbid than that is I even smoked a couple of his cigarettes late one night while investigating the interior of his converted milk truck.
There were lots of little treasures in the cabinets and drawers. There were binders of drawings and reproductions of his paintings, from aircraft and spacecraft to canyonland landscapes and portraits of Air Force Generals, Mayors, Old Ladies in Mexico. I found his infamous beer koozie. I found his green felt fedora with a hatband made of rattlesnake skin, from an actual rattlesnake I watched him stone to death on the side of a dirt road in Llano. I found a box of shotgun shells sitting underneath the driver’s seat. I opened it.
I finished smoking his cigarette and swore I’d never smoke another.
The trauma of Granddad’s death hit Grandmom, my mom and her brother, Uncle John, very hard. My mom thought as Granddad grew older, he became more disillusioned and isolated and angry, and ultimately killed himself because of it. It’s the same narrative Grandmom wove. But beyond insisting on this depressing narrative, my mother also never forgave him for it. As I discovered later, there was more to this story.
The summer before, Grandmom was granted a Protective Order on Granddad. They had one too many whiskey-fueled arguments and all the skeletons in the closets came out and ultimately threats were made. The Protective Order covered my mother, uncle, and me as well. This meant we effectively ostracized Granddad, right at the time we were all supposed to be getting back together as a family. No one saw him or heard from him for months.
Mom identified with the guilt and shame she felt: She was now the daughter of a suicide. The cherry on top of that sundae was that according to her religious beliefs, suicide was a non-negotiable one-way ticket to Hell. Which also meant, according to her beliefs, she had no hope for ever seeing him in the future in Heaven, and for all intents and purposes he was in Hell, at this very moment, experiencing conscious torture and torment, and would be doing so for eternity – even when one day she herself would be in Heaven—and there would never be reconciliation between them for all eternity.
This is the one man she craved acceptance, approval and affection from. She claimed she never got it. He claimed otherwise. It’s hard to tell who to believe. I have to believe them both. It was and it wasn’t enough. She became more fervent than ever to receive something, anything from The Father.
Within months, Grandmom and Uncle John got saved. Cordell and my mom used Granddad’s death to persuade them that the only explanation for this and for everything, the entire purpose for being, was only found in the Bible and they ate it up like desperate little Indian Macaques.
Within weeks I witnessed Grandmom get “baptized by the holy spirit” and start speaking in “tongues” as Cordell laid his big mitts on top of her frizzy head, her arms held wide in a V. She kicked Jim Beam to the curb and started drinking the New Wine with Jesus. She and Uncle John were newly converted zealots and were on fire for The Lord.
I suddenly found myself in an entire family of Jesus Freaks.