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Family Background and the Gray Period - Part 4


Unfortunately, poverty was not the only serious family problem that we faced. A shameful family secret, that even now I have a hard time talking or writing about, revealed itself in my tender childhood years: that my father had a serious problem with alcohol. Having alcohol dependence or being an alcoholic is a disability. Years later I would learn that the condition is a complex behavior syndrome that many call a “disease.” The risk of alcoholism is partially a result of each individual’s degree of genetic predisposition to it, and partially of psychological, environmental, experiential, and social factors in the individual’s life. Its critical negative effect is in impairing a person’s control of his or her own behavior – both in determining how much to drink and in deviating from normal standards and mechanisms for regulating other aspects of conduct and behavior. Alcohol intoxication causes a loss or lessening in the brain of control over behavioral choices, and, for a person with alcohol dependence, a problematic inability to avoid drinking to excess and controlling oneself in other ways. Estimates are that some 14 or 15 million Americans (around seven or eight percent of the population) meet the clinical diagnostic criteria of an alcoholic or “problem drinker.” Additional millions experience some negative consequences from their drinking habits. The problem is not simply one affecting those individuals who are themselves alcohol dependent, but for families – approximately half of American adults have a close family member with alcoholism.

Of course, I did not know any of this as a young kid. All I knew initially was that sometimes my dad was not his usual self, was noticeably more mean, belligerent, or demanding, and that those times occurred after he had had several beers or came in with a smell on his breath of what I learned was whiskey. Drinkers sometimes get sleepy, some become exaggeratedly sociable, some get giddy, some become mean and paranoid. Dad was each of these at various times. Generally uncomfortable in social situations, he routinely turned to alcohol to lubricate his social interactions. Many times, this seemed to work, at least for a while, as he would become more outgoing, fun-loving, talkative, and amusing after a few drinks. Usually, if the drinking continued (or even sooner if he was in a bad mood or on edge), our father turned into a mean, paranoid, irrational tyrant. It was really a Jekyll and Hyde scenario and it became very important to us to determine which one we were dealing with. When he came home, the quality of the next several hours would depend upon whether he was or was not under the dark-side influence of alcohol. Over time, Jack, Sherry, and I became adept at telling when Dad had been drinking and tried to make ourselves scarce or to maneuver around his difficult moods and not become the target of his anger or biting disapproval. When he came into the house, I eventually could tell whether or not Dad had had drinks just by hearing his voice or looking at his eyes. People with alcoholism are usually unaware that their intoxication produces physiological changes that may be discernible to sensitive observers.

Our dad’s drunken rants and rages could be not only irrationally judgmental and unreasonable, but terrifying. To us young kids, large and muscular Dad could seem like a dangerous giant, and, while he almost never erupted in actual physical violence, the threat of his doing so was always there, either spoken or unspoken. Poor Mom, relatively quite small and slight, was even more likely than us kids to become the target of Dad’s verbal abuse and temper tantrums, and all of us were traumatized when he took it out on her. It was pure hell when he was worked up and leveling all kinds of crazy accusations, and wildly blaming her for all sorts of supposed slights and faults.

Usually when we woke the morning after a drunken evening, Good Daddy would be back. This posed troubling and perplexing questions for us – Who was that person who impersonated our father last night? Where did he go? When will he come back? Can I trust the version who is here now? Did we do anything to cause the bad version to show up or act the way he did? Can we do something to cause Good Daddy to stay, and Bad Daddy to stay away? The situation instilled feelings of uncertainty, exaggerated caution, and fear – the very opposite of the haven of safety within which children thrive. Much of the time, we were disturbingly afraid of the unpredictable Goliath we were living with, unsure what he was capable of when in his intoxicated personality.

Dad surely got a predisposition to alcoholism honestly, in that he almost certainly inherited the genetic susceptibility to the condition. Without airing too many details of dirty family laundry in public, I can say that in my father’s generation and in those that preceded it, heavy drinking was a family curse for the Burgdorfs. Alcohol was a serious problem for both of my father’s parents and for his siblings. Two of my Burgdorf uncles (one was a great-uncle), died of brain cancer that family lore attributed to having “pickled their brains” in alcohol – that they essentially had drunk themselves to death. Actually, although the American Cancer Society has indicated that heavy alcohol use can damage the brain, no doctor ever asserted a direct causal link between my uncles’ heavy imbibing and their brain tumors. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that for these two men, their dependence upon and excessive use of alcohol cost them dearly in terms of lost jobs, homes, and relationships, and the ability to achieve their potentials and lead satisfying lives.

Two legendary events in the family involved hunting accidents. In one, my father’s brother, in his teens, mistook another teenager for a deer, and tragically shot and killed him. In another, my Grandpa Jack leaned a loaded shotgun against a car-door at the end of a hunting trip, then absentmindedly opened the door. The gun fell over, discharged, and blew his kneecap to pieces, resulting in a dramatic limp for the rest of his life. In both instances, most in the family believed that the participants in the incidents had had too much to drink (yes, including my teenage uncle; several members of my father’s family, including my dad, started drinking and getting drunk in their teens). Karl Marx supposedly said that “Drink is the curse of the working class,” an observation that was purportedly restyled by pundit/humorist Oscar Wilde (and later repeated by Groucho Marx) as “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” In any case, booze was certainly a curse for my family.

My mother told us that my dad had started drinking during his high school years – social underage drinking – encouraged by an older friend. By the time that I was a couple of years old, his drinking problem was already seriously established. From my early memories, he kept a half-pint bottle of Old Crow inexpensive Kentucky bourbon whiskey tucked under the driver’s seat of his car. Twenty-four-bottle cases of beer – he preferred a local brew called Sterling – were fixtures in the trunk of the car and in our house. When my parents had friends over, the refreshments centered on “highballs” (whiskey with soda, ginger ale or some other mixer) and cold beer. A cooler full of iced beer was always present at family gatherings. And, despite the limited family finances, Dad routinely went to bars for drinks after work.

Whatever pleasure Dad derived from drinking, he paid heavily for it. Mom later related to us that, while I was a baby, Dad had hit a parked car on his way home from a drinking spree, with legal penalties and substantial financial repercussions relative to family resources. On another occasion, he spent a night in jail after being apprehended by the police for driving under the influence of alcohol. Some years later, he went out drinking with a friend, they got plastered, climbed into the friend’s car (the friend was driving), and crashed into a bridge abutment, resulting in my father’s head busting through the windshield. He was lucky not to have been killed but suffered serious gashes in his forehead from which he had scars for the rest of his life. Another time, he was in a bar for after-work libations, when two men came in with guns pointed and, in addition to cleaning out the cash register, demanded the patrons to hand over their wallets and valuables. My dad, bolstered by “liquid courage” and perhaps by desperation over the fact that he had a sizeable (from our perspective) unemployment check in his wallet, laid his wallet on the floor and then began to sidle toward the robbers with the hope that he might get the jump on one of them and overpower him, in anticipation that the distraction of his doing so would give the other bar patrons the opportunity to do the same to the other gunman. This impulsive maneuver did not, however, go unnoticed by one of the robbers, who, as Dad edged sideways, fired a shot past him, and said, “Don’t move fatboy!” Dad said later that staring down the barrel of that pistol was truly scary – an admission that, for him who tried always to maintain a stoic, macho image, was very uncharacteristic.

Many of the negative consequences for him of his drinking problem were less dramatic. On a few occasions when he came to the dinner table after having a lot to drink, in the middle of the meal Dad keeled over face first, sometimes into a plate of food, which had to be unpleasant for him and was pretty disgusting for the rest of us. Sometimes, he would, a bit more conveniently, pass out on the bed with his clothes and shoes on. Yet, he prided himself on his ability to “handle his liquor” and almost never threw up from it.

Sometimes drinking just made my father really stupid. A striking example that I will never forget was when Dad decided to take Jack and me, aged 5 and 7 respectively (I think), fishing with him. We had a good time out in the boat, occasionally catching a fish and enjoying being on the water and doing an activity with our father. Dad, as was his wont, had a cooler of beers in the boat with him, and pretty much “chain-drank” them one after the other. Jack and I, both fair-skinned, were dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. Sunscreen was only beginning to come into common use in the mid-fifties and Jack and I did not have any or even know about it. When it started to get hot in the boat in the midday sun, Dad suggested that we take off our shirts, and, not knowing better, that’s what we did. We proceeded to sit, totally unprotected from the sun’s rays for some four or five hours. As any halfway aware parent would have anticipated, we got a horrendous sunburn, that only got hotter and more painful after we returned home. The pain was excruciating, we were as red as ripe tomatoes everywhere except for the skin our shorts had covered, and our backs and shoulders gradually were covered with nasty blisters. Both of us, who generally tried to be brave boys and not shed tears, cried most of the night, while Mom tried a variety of ineffectual home remedies, such as rubbing vinegar or lard on the most painful areas, while grousing half under her breath about the stupidity of her husband in letting her sons get broiled. Talk about a father’s sins being visited on his children! Somehow we survived that agonizing night, and our sunburns gradually became less painful over the next couple of days (without any medical assistance). As young as we were, we learned a vivid lesson that, when Dad was drinking, we could not count on him to keep us safe.

Davy Crockett Christmas family photoSome of the worst times for us in regard to our dad’s intoxication were holidays. Our mother loved holidays and always tried to make them as festive and fun as she could. Even when times were tight, which was the norm for us for most of the 1950s, she somehow managed to marshal whatever money was available to make holidays special. When we kids were very young, we, like many children, thought holidays, and particularly Christmas, were magical. When Dad stayed sober, they usually were – with gifts, food, and warm gatherings with our extended family. Part of family history is captured in a photo of Jack, Sherry, and me (along with several young relatives), when I was seven, smiling in front of a tiny Christmas tree on a card table. Jack and I look proud dressed in buckskin shirts and pants, and wearing simulated coonskin caps (in 1954 and 1955, based upon a TV series and movies, Davy Crockett was the rage). Little Sherry is hugging her new baby doll. Decades later, as I looked at the picture with our mother, I still thought that those Davy Crockett outfits were some of the best gifts ever, and this was one of the best Christmases of our childhood. Mom’s reaction was that to her that photo portrayed the worst Christmas moneywise we had had. She explained that Dad had managed to get the little tree (I think of it as like Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree) as one of the last things left over when a tree-seller closed up shop on Christmas Eve, and that those buckskin outfits and doll were the only gifts our parents could afford that year. I never asked Mom how they had scraped together the money to get the gear, but I have since assumed that the grandparents chipped in to help. I consider that Christmas, and that picture, as testaments to how, even in the hardest of times, Mom and Dad, working together, could make Christmas wonderful for their children.

But as time went on, Dad’s drinking all too often spoiled Mom’s plans and our joyous expectations. He used most holidays as an excuse to get liquored up, and then behaved very badly. Even when he was more subdued and civil, if he had been drinking we still felt considerable tension about whether and when he might erupt. On Christmas Eve, the family tradition was for us to go visit the homes of our aunts and uncles, and then to wind up at the home of grandparents for a big family celebration. The various visits and festivities included exchanges of gifts for the children, admiration of each home’s elaborately decorated Christmas tree, jokes and animated conversation, and perhaps some singing of Christmas carols. At our final destination, the Merrick grandparents’ house, we could expect Grandma’s cookies and pies, Grandpa’s eggnog with or without brandy, dishes of candy, and a big ham (that should be distinguished from Grandpa Merrick himself) covered with cloves and pineapple rings. On Easter, a somewhat similar pattern was followed, but the visits took place after we went to church for Easter Sunday services and, instead of Christmas presents, the exchange was of Easter baskets chock full of candy. Predictably, we kids were in a fever of excitement and could hardly contain ourselves in the hours before the merriment would begin.

With few exceptions, Dad got ready for these holidays by boozing it up. On Christmas Eve, he would hit the taverns for several hours, and on Easter morning he would usually start drinking at home, often going out to the car to retrieve the bottle of Old Crow under the car seat and having a shot or two, or several. Among the inhibitions and standards that alcohol apparently relieved my father from were those related to schedules and keeping track of the time, or maybe awareness of and the obligation to heed the expectations of others. On Christmas, Dad almost invariably did not get home until well after we were expected at our first stop with our relatives, and then insisted on taking an inordinate amount in getting himself cleaned up and dressed. This meant that after being keyed up and impatient for the festivities to begin we had to wait hours more before we could set out. Our lateness also meant disrupting the schedules of our aunts and uncles regarding our visits, and forced the proceedings at our final stop – our grandparents’ house – to begin very late at night, after they had been waiting hours for us to show up. My dad showed the same disregard for the clock and the torture of keeping us waiting on Easter. He insisted that we would go to church on Easter Sunday, but after a few drinks consistently dawdled until we were significantly late. I remember wandering into the church, heavily crowded with the Easter crowd, as much as a half-hour or more after the Mass had begun, and trying to find a vacant pew that we could crowd into, with everyone staring at us in what I perceived as irritation at the disruption.

When we finally managed to get at last to the visits and celebrations themselves, Dad was usually bad-tempered, ready to take offense, disdainful and condescending toward the opinions of others, generally perverse, and certainly no fun to be around. I felt sorry for our relatives for having to deal with our drunken dad, and embarrassed that he was my father. Over time, the big holidays went from being almost ecstatically joyous occasions that we kids greatly looked forward to and treasured in memory after to being events that we anticipated with a confusing mixture of excitement and dread.

The instances cited here are merely a few examples, just a drop in the bucket compared to what we experienced day-to-day. It is difficult for me to know how to communicate effectively the ongoing atmosphere of unpredictability, fear, disgust, confusion, conflicting emotions, and suppressed rage and outrage within which we lived as little kids. The fact was that when he was intoxicated our father became a scary, erratic, perverse bully. Naturally, his menacing bullying engendered feelings of fear, worry, and helpless anger for Mom and us kids. It is fair to say that we were traumatized by our dad’s behavior. It was not predictable when he was going to come home; whether or not he would be under the influence when he came in; whether, even if he had not been drinking, he would start drinking at home; and, if he had imbibed, what kind of mood and behavior his drinking would induce that day. If he stayed away from alcohol or was not home, we could expect the following hours to be relatively good; if he had been drinking, things would be tense and unpleasant at best, and perhaps quite ugly. One result of this situation was that my siblings and I became wary and circumspect. We wanted to quickly size up Dad’s drinking status, and, if he was not sober, to constrain our behavior in such a way as not to provoke his anger – essentially we walked on eggshells around him.

Dealing with problems and feelings about our dad’s alcohol dependency was complicated by the fact that we were mostly silent about it. Although we might warn one another that “Dad has been drinking,” or acknowledge some discomfort with his conduct, and although Mom sometimes bitterly referred to him as a “no good drunk,” we were all mostly constrained from talking about the issue, and did not share our personal feelings and emotional reactions with each other. We certainly tiptoed around confronting our father about it directly. And if we did not say much within our immediate family, we surely did not say anything outside the family. Dad’s booze problem was a family secret – something that we were deeply ashamed of and never wanted other people to know, much less talk with us about. Our absence of verbal acknowledgment of the alcoholism problems we were facing not only strengthened the notion that it was too shameful even to talk about, but left each of us more isolated and feeling more different from and alienated from other people. I know that was how it affected me.

In my perception of the first part of my life as the Gray Period, my father’s alcoholism was a major cause of the grayness. While I was working on this section, I was surprised to learn that in French, the phrase “to be gray" (être gris) means “to be drunk,” and that around the turn of the 20th century, college students in the U.S. used “to gray” as slang for “to get drunk.” Accordingly, the connection between drinking alcohol and grayness was something recognized by many others before me.

For me and my parents, the burdens of poverty and alcoholism were further complicated by my disability.