My childhood began inside a brown, single-wide trailer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The décor was depressing—dark wood paneling, furniture upholstered in varying shades of baby shit, pea green shag carpet, and linoleum like a psychedelic hangover. When I reflect back on the Seventies, I don’t remember disco. No offense to John Travolta, but that was just some bullshit on tv. I only knew Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. I was born into something wrong, something dissonant. America had lost a war in Vietnam. Nixon had resigned in disgrace. My mother and father were members of a fallen generation. Every penny counted and they were at each other’s throats. The trailer was a place to escape so I spent as much time as I could outside.
There was a big iron swing set behind the trailer that was painted green. Sometimes the children would climb up the sides and look at each other through the top pipe or yell through it. When I was four I liked to play in the dust, spread it on the sidewalk and let it run though my fingers. I could play like that all day, not even bothering with trucks, and sometimes I would fill a bucket with water and make mudpies. A sweet, brown-haired girl with a freckled face lived nearby. She liked the mud and the dust too. We would play together blissfully for hours, hardly aware of the passage of time or how dirty we were until our mothers scolded us. This was a Garden of Eden without any apple trees, and the garter snakes never spoke to anyone.
The girl was lonely when I went away to kindergarten after turning five. She knocked on our door two or three times a day that first week after summer ended. My mother would kindly turn her away and inform me how much the girl missed me when I returned home. We remained friends but something had changed. School was too bewildering and demanding for me to even think of her while I was there. My skull was filled with the bright light of learning.
One day some older kids goaded us into kissing on the swings. Our relationship was obviously platonic and this seemed wrong. A troubled look crossed the girl’s face, but then she smiled and I felt myself lost in that smile, hardly in my own body anymore. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was spying on us out her bedroom window. Both our eyes were clenched shut as our lips drew ever so slowly closer. I could feel the warmth of the benevolent sun on my cheeks as I leaned into her.
The moment was shattered forever like a plate by my mother’s screams. She dragged me inside and made me stay in my room. The humiliation of it was terrible and I pleaded that it was the teenage kids that made us do it. “Thank God I had been looking,” she said angrily as if a disaster to my wellbeing had been averted.
I hardly played with the girl after that and she soon moved away. I don’t remember her name, just as I don’t possess a distinct memory of any kisses that happened after, only the one that was stolen from me. My mother was a physically affectionless woman. She never hugged or caressed my brother and me that I can recall. She always loved us but she could only express it in the form of worry. I think her own love frightened her. My mother was tough as a dandelion root.
I suppose she had to be.
My father was the angriest person I have ever known. Hate emanated from him like radiation. Sharing a room with that man was enough to give you cancer. He didn’t have any friends, just the ones who had taken up residence in his head. He was always talking to himself, and when he wasn’t calling my mother a “cock-sucking whore” or a “goddamn bitch,” he was laughing hysterically like a madman. It was a frightening spectacle for a child to watch. His face would spasm as he launched into these laughing jags that seemed to last forever. Who could he possibly be talking to, I wondered. I could only hear my father’s side of these conversations.
We watched a lot of westerns together on television. When I think about my relationship with my dad, I always recall the scene of the men transporting nitroglycerin over the mountains so they could blow up a railroad bridge somewhere. I saw this trope repeated in a bunch of movies. Inevitably, some idiot would fire off an errant pistol shot and the cowboy leading the mule with the nitro would take off his hat and stomp his boot in frustration.
“Goddamn it! Don’t you know this is nitroglycerin? You’re going to blow us all to kingdom come!”
Early on, I learned not to provoke my father’s tirades. I approached life as if I had a load of nitroglycerin on my back. Because I did. I was careful and quiet, especially at home and at school. I tried to be the perfect child for my mother and father, but things had a habit of exploding anyway.
Along with a chorus of other children, I stood onstage cloaked in white with a collar of gold tinsel around my neck. I was soaked in nervous sweat, the spotlight upon me. Our collective voices seemed strangely powerful in the calm of the dim auditorium. From stage left our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Trague, stood behind a dais and spoke into a microphone.
“Of whom did heavenly angels sing and news about His birthday bring?”
“Jesus,” we replied.
“Now, can you name the little town where the Baby Jesus was found?”
“Bethlehem,” we cried in unison.
“Where had they made a little bed for Christ the Blessed Savior’s head?”
“In a manger in a cattle stall.”
“What is the day we celebrate as birthday of this One so great?”
“Christmas!” we answered and the room exploded with applause.
After the play ended, I located my parents in the crowd. They seemed upset about something. My mother gathered up her leather purse and with my brother cradled in her arm we headed for the aisle. Her pale face quivered behind her Coke-bottle eyeglasses.
“They won’t get away with this,” my father declared.
That night I listened to them from the sanctuary of my bedroom. Their voices were hushed yet forceful. I felt like I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t imagine what it might have been. Afraid and confused, I climbed under the covers of my bed where sleep found me.
My parents were atheists. My father, especially, was devout in his disbelief. Never having sat my skinny butt in a pew or been sent to catechism classes like many of my friends, his hatred of Christianity was baffling to me. Both my parents had been raised in the Catholic faith. My father was a lefty and the nuns in his school used to strike him with a ruler when he wrote with his naturally dominant hand. I’m sure my parents weren’t the first to unintentionally inflict their own childhood traumas on their children.
In 1977 my father sued the Sioux Falls School District for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, better known as the separation between church and state. The story was on the local television news all the time and the Argus Leader published several letters to the editor penned by my father. I was intensely aware of all the animosity his lawsuit had stirred up and I felt uncomfortable in the media glare. The whole experience provoked a self-consciousness and shame that left me socially paralyzed well into adulthood. I learned how to make myself disappear from a room. That whole period was so overwhelmingly stressful that I would blackout the entire school day. I’d come home not being able to remember anything.
My father often emphasized the fact that the lawsuit had been filed in my name. It was Justin Florey versus the Sioux Falls School District. He made it out like this legal battle had been created for my benefit, as if his actions had been altruistic. Even at five, I fully comprehended my father’s contempt for authority and his desire for attention. No one had ever asked me and I had nothing against the Lord Baby Jesus. To me, the play was beautiful and no one had ever complimented my performance. I certainly avoided life’s stages after that. Like Andy Warhol said, my father got his fifteen minutes. I guess I got mine too.
Around Christmas, I would receive dozens of cards in the mail from well-meaning strangers. My father used to open them up and read them to me. The cards amused him. It was all a big joke. Like many people nowadays, we celebrated our Christmas in a secular way. Well-meaning folks assumed my father was some kind of Santa-hating fanatic and we didn’t observe the holiday at all. We had a tree and presents like everyone else, only the star atop our tree had a hammer and sickle.
My father’s letters to the editor were well-written and direct. He composed them on a yellow legal pad. His ballpoint pen held to his lips, he struggled for the proper expression for his thoughts. He was a writer, of a sort, and watching him engage in that process had an influence on me. I would not be a writer or anything else without my father. I strive to be a better version of him. He was easier to be around when he was writing. It made him quieter and calmer. He was able to channel his tumultuous feelings onto the page and, later, seeing those words published in the newspaper ameliorated the feelings of inferiority that plagued him.
In one of the letters my father defended himself against his detractors with a constitutional argument:
“The Argus-Leader calls it a minority vs. majority issue. In a sense it is. Many of our founding fathers were Christians and the overwhelming majority of Americans then as now are Christian. If our founding fathers had decided on a state religion rather than on separation of church and state and freedom of religion it is obvious they would have chosen Christianity. They wisely opted to protect minorities, knowing full well the only way to keep a country from being divided against itself is to afford enough protection to minorities so they are not fearful of being swallowed up by the majority.”
His argument would have been better served if he had ended his letter four paragraphs sooner as the injured minority. Unable to help himself, his fury gets the better of him as he writes:
“Many letters to the editor have expressed religious beliefs. I feel free to express mine. I am an atheist; by that I mean a non-superstitious individual. Christianity is extremely offensive to me because of its supernatural aspects. I find the God in the Old Testament to be a murderous monster, a sort of supernatural Adolph Hitler.”
Public institutions are vastly more respectful of diversity these days. Mostly because our country has become more diverse. But I’m sure lawsuits like my father’s have something to do with it and I don’t see that as a bad thing. Public school teachers have no business indoctrinating other people’s children with their personally chosen religious beliefs. The case was appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, but they declined to hear it. Looking back though, it does seem like a lot of hullabaloo for some kids singing Christmas carols. All these years later, I do find it curious that my father, who professed a belief in UFO’s and Bigfoot, should have been so upset about the supernatural aspects of the Bible.
The corpse woman’s eyes were gaping black sockets. She was propped on a wooden chair with her slack arms and fingers stretching toward the floor. Her abdomen was charred and gutted like a bomb had exploded inside of her.
My father had clipped the photograph from the front page of one of his leftist newspapers. He glued it to some poster board to serve as a visual aid in the presentation about the war in El Salvador I was to give to my first-grade class. The death squads did this. Reagan paid them. My father coached me on what to say. He seemed angry with me. I guess I wasn’t enthusiastic about the project. I looked at the grainy photograph carefully. I believed what he told me, but it seemed like a long way from where I lived and what could I do about it and who would care? It was a mature way of looking at the world for a six-year-old.
Trepidation filled my guts the day he dropped me off at school with the dead woman’s picture. When life got that way, I disappeared inside myself and walked through it disembodied as if in a dream where whatever happened didn’t matter and I could awake from it unknowing and someone else. The other children were curious to me, especially the girls. I felt apart from them. Not better, just different. At recess, I watched them with my back leaned up against the brick wall. I was not unhappy. I took it all in, absorbed the scene. The balance beam, hopscotch pads and tetherball courts were all animated by the frenzied movement of the children in coats of different color as they ran shrieking like sea gulls. The playground was like a painting to me, a foggy painting, and I knew there was magic in the fog. One day the teacher called my parents and told them that I stood alone at recess and never spoke to anyone. My mother told me I had to play with the other kids.
“Is there something wrong,” she asked?
“Nothing,” I blurted defensively.
I realized then for the first time that life was a social racket. It was not enough to do the work they gave you. You had to pretend to feel a certain way and count the number of friends you had and lie about it to get more if you did not have enough. The thought of it made me so sick and twisted up that I could barely piss.
Finally, the end of class came. The teacher, an elderly woman with bright red lipstick and her gray hair in curls, told me I could share what I had brought with the class. I could tell by the tone of her voice and the coldness of her stare that she did not like me. But this did not concern me much because I understood that she would be dead or in a nursing home soon. What frightened me were the other kids who were going to realize what I had already realized about myself–that I was a freak. And I knew this freak label wasn’t something I was going to wear for a day and take off like a sticker. It was something far more indelible than that, a tattoo. A tattoo I was going to have to wear on my forehead. Shamefully, I went to the coat closet and retrieved the poster board. Standing at the front of the classroom, I waited for the teacher to introduce me. My classmates chattered away at their seats as they awaited the bell that would set them free.
I cleared my throat and began to speak: “This is a photograph of a pregnant woman who was murdered in her kitchen by the El Salvadoran government.”
Continuing, I could see to my inestimable relief that hardly anyone in the class could hear me or was even bothering to look at me. What a miracle! I felt as if I had been spared at the last minute from the gallows. Soon the bell rang and I thundered outside with the rest of them. After my mother had transported me home, I brought the poster board inside and hesitantly returned it to my father who was drinking a beer on the couch as he watched television. He seemed dejected and avoided eye contact.
“You didn’t show it to them, did you?” He said it accusatorily. It angered me that I should humiliate myself like that and not even get credit for it.
“I did, Dad. I showed it to the whole class.”
A smile passed over his face. “That’s great, son. You did a good job.”
He gave me a quick hug and returned to his depression.
Around this time, my mother had a short but important talk with me. No one else was in the room. I don’t know if I had been questioning my dad’s erratic behavior or maybe I was just old enough to understand.
“Your father was in the Vietnam War,” she said. “He was a corpsman. That’s why he acts the way he does. Don’t ever ask him about it. It will upset him.”
I would never know my real father, the man he could have been. I would only know the damaged imposter who came back from Vietnam. It was the lie I told myself then, and it’s the lie I tell myself now. Like most lies, it contained an element of truth. It allowed me to love him.
Roger Florey liked to wear jeans with a khaki military-style shirt and cap. With his black hair and beard, he closely resembled his idol, Fidel Castro. All he needed was a cigar and a leather holster and it would have made the perfect Halloween outfit. Dad was always cooking up these schemes for revolución. For a while, he was going abandon the family to take up arms with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
I was just little boy. “Dad,” I said to him. “You don’t even speak Spanish. What good would you be to these people? And how would you even find them in the jungle?”
I recall this wounded look on his face like I wasn’t on his side. He abandoned that fantasy eventually. But there was always something else. I wondered why he didn’t just find a better job and join a union. There were a few left. It was all escapism. He couldn’t deal with regular life or his place in it.
At one point, I remember my parents hauling me and my brother to embassies. They wanted to leave America for a better life in Cuba or the Soviet Union. Again, I thought, you don’t speak the language. If you can’t make it here in this flawed, yet golden, land of opportunity, what hope do you have over there where everyone is poor? I imagined the drab government housing we’d inhabit. They thought these communist countries were some kind of workers’ paradise. Maybe my mother was just placating my father. I never knew where she stood in all of it. It got to be where I couldn’t sleep at night. My sweat would smell like skunk piss and I’d taste pennies in my mouth. The stress was unbearable.
I became my most terrorized when my dad plotted the assassination of James G. Watt, Reagan’s controversial Secretary of the Interior. Watt’s appointment aroused a furor amongst environmentalists. A lap dog of the fossil fuel industry, Watt regarded public lands as a resource to be exploited rather than preserved. A geeky man with a rotund, bald head and oversized, metal-framed glasses, he was frequently lampooned by political cartoonists for his resemblance to a lightbulb.
Watt had scheduled a visit to the Eros Data Center, a federal government facility outside of Sioux Falls where geologic maps and surveys were created using satellite imagery. My father had maps of his own and a deer rifle. He had reconnoitered the scene and selected a weedy spot atop a hill for the kill shot. He owned plenty of camouflage clothing. I was his captive audience as he drunkenly discussed his plans with newspaper clippings about the upcoming event spread out on his weight bench. It was all theater, a one-man show with his distorted shadow cast up on the wall of the trailer like an ogre. Pow! Pow! He would pantomime the Winchester thirty-aught-six’s recoil after each shot and cackle as he pictured Watt’s brains splattering from his head like John F. Kennedy’s. It was pretty serious. I thought he might do it. I couldn’t imagine the Secretary of the Interior having that big a security detail. He’d be back in the news again. Dead or in jail.
Like my father, I knew the exact date of Watt’s arrival. I eyed the calendar and studied my father’s behavior, trying to assess whether or not he would actually follow through with the murder. The dread inside me grew more pressurized with each passing day.
Ultimately, nothing happened. Watt visited and got back on a plane. I watched it on the local news.
“You and your brother still need me,” my dad said.
My father and I walked on opposite sides of the street as we delivered communist newspapers. We had started out early to get the job done before the summer day grew too hot. I had spent the day before helping him roll up the newspapers and secure them with rubber bands. That way they wouldn’t blow away and we didn’t have to walk all the way up to each trailer. I was petrified that someone would come outside and confront us. One man finally did, a suspender-clad senior with an overabundance of pink flamingos in his front yard.
“I don’t want this crap on my porch!” he shouted crankily and waved the newspaper at my father who strode quickly away snickering to himself.
For the most part though, the trailer court seemed empty with everyone off working. We walked until the Daily Worlds were gone. For a while, my father was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Sometimes meetings were held inside our trailer. They seemed like a sad lot of middle-aged losers, most of them still living with their mothers. My father used to lecture me about feudalism. When the Weegs raised the lot rent, he rampaged about it for days. He hated the Weegs and I hated them too. They were the family that owned the trailer court we lived in just outside the city limits. They were our oppressors. They named the streets after their kids. He told me we were like serfs.
My father and I were hiking back to the car after a morning of duck hunting. I was too young to hunt myself yet, so I just carried my Red Ryder BB gun for practice. We stopped on a hillside and my father pointed down to a patch of slough below us.
“Did you see them?” he asked. “There was a family of Bigfoot down there.”
“No,” I responded skeptically, “I don’t see anything.”
The prairie grass bent with the wind. He smiled at me.
“They ran off,” he said. “There was a mother and a father and real little one. We scared them. They were protecting their child.”
“Ok,” I said, “it’s muddy down there. Let’s go look at their footprints.”
“It’s not safe,” he said. “They couldn’t have gone far. They must be hiding in the cattails.”
I scanned the area he was talking about and imagined them looking back up at us, dark silhouetted figures caught by surprise. I did not believe him. What I wanted to know was did he believe himself? So much of my past is like that. I spent twenty years not venturing down to check the footprints in the mud because I was scared to know what was real and what was imagined.