The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.
I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.
My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.
My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.
But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.