The phone rang in my room at Sigma Chi, waking me out of a deep, hung-over sleep. The fraternity house at the University of California Santa Barbara was quiet as the dead at this hour of the morning.
It’s Sunday, I thought. Let it ring.
My girlfriend, Kristen Hodgins, lay close, keeping me warm. But she gave me an elbow in the ribs as the phone kept ringing. Can’t be avoided, I guess. I reached over her shoulder, picked up the receiver. It’s my mother, calling from L.A.
What crazy ass shit is this going to be?
“Ronnie, come on home. A man just called to tell me your father is out in the desert near Banning, walking backwards and burying his money in the scrub. You got to help me go get him before he hurts himself or does something really crazy! I need your help, right now.”
“Just arrested and on his way back to jail,” she says.
Of course, I thought. I didn’t have to say it.
Don’t get me wrong: my own path had taken some wrong turns. But my big brother, Bill, was a whole other disaster story. Still, he had learned how to completely confound a number of determined cops who’d rather let him out quick than deal with him in one of their holding cells. “Billy can’t help,” said my mom.
I lay there stroking Kristen’s smooth, tan back, smelling the salt coming in off the ocean, feeling the warm Santa Barbara early morning sun already streaming in through the window. The surf was calling.
No, no, and no. Mom’s brothers, cousins, and other relatives were either absent, busy, fed up, or otherwise unavailable. Yep, same old family story. No need to say more, really.
“I’ll be there,” I tell her, already worrying about what I might find out there in the desert. I pulled on my clothes, kissed Kristen goodbye, and took off.
Driving south on 101, I remembered how my Mom would always load us three kids into the car after school when she got home from work and head out to go visit my Dad at Long Beach Veterans Hospital psych ward. Like clockwork, he’d either check himself in or get hauled there by the cops for being crazy drunk or just acting nuts .
My mom never acted like visiting him there was strange, or embarrassing. It just was what it was—a family trip to see Dad. We’d always stop at Foster’s Freeze, and she’d get me, my brother, and my sister some burgers, fries, and a coke, a great treat for us. When we got to the hospital, we’d go in with her and see him, unless he was really acting up . Or we’d wait in the hallways, staring at the old guys walking around bent over their canes, or the younger guys in wheelchairs, just cruising the hallways with nowhere to go.
Sometimes we just waited for her in the car.
Dad was almost always angry, but his really bad mental issues would flare up a couple of times a year for two to four weeks or so. He would just go crazy inside his skin , writhing and squirming and squinting and wincing and then cursing one word after another through clenched teeth at some unfortunate target: Goddamnmotherfuckinsonofamotherfuckinnogoodsonofagoddamnmotherfuckin’ –- whether it was a real person or just someone in his head who nobody could see but him.
We used to laugh so hard when Billy and I started smoking weed and copying Dad’s anger fits.
Dad’s troubles had started up big time when he was in the Navy, and he’d seen a Navy shrink while he was in the service. They diagnosed him officially for a nervous disorder they politely called “shingles”. He was honorably discharged, so he couldn’t have caused too much trouble then. But when we were growing up, it was a different story. He would lose it for several days, and then come out of it. I don’t think the doctors ever really figured it out.
Anyone could see that his bad craziness had a lot to do with him being a chronic alcoholic. My mom had to drive him to the hospital on three separate occasions when he was “sick,” as she called it. Usually, it meant he had downed an entire bottle of something—he loved Seagram’s. But anyone could see that his mental wires were crossed way beyond any damage done by alcohol poisoning. Over the years he was also diagnosed with everything from explosive behavior disorder and acute paranoia to manic depression and schizophrenia.
As a kid, I couldn’t understand what the problem was. Sometimes I figured it was just the pressure of life. Trying to make ends meet and support his family drove him over the edge. His drinking, or the stress of not drinking those times he tried to stop got to be too much for him. I thought he’d get it together when things got better, but things never seemed to get better. As I got older, the psychological stuff got worse. Dad got angrier at Billy’s antics, Billy got more psycho just because he liked to, and our sweet, shy, beautiful sister Susie left the whole shooting match, running away to join a cult. I couldn’t blame her, really, even though it was hard on all of us. She thought she’d found a more understanding family, better than this harsh unforgiving one that we all grew up in.
Through it all, my Mom held her steady Hawaiian course. In the end, I guess, I learned to think like she did about our life: it was what it was.
Causes Ron McElroy Supports
Surfrider Foundation, LA Mission, World Vision,Green peace, UCSB.