Early February at Fort Carson, Colorado isn't a good time to be stuck outside working in the motor pool. The only thing worse than the motor pool is being down range out in the field during a field training exercise. But then there were rare occasions when dealing with hardships out in the field were preferable than getting tangle up in old family issues.
“Specialist Vaughn,” my platoon sergeant called out while walking up from our company's motor pool repair bays. “Lieutenant Chase is on the phone, he wants to talk with you ASAP. Haul ass up to the office and find out what he wants.”
“Roger that, Sergeant Blackledge,” I said taking just enough time to put away a couple of pieces of equipment back into the platoon's storage container before double timing down the line. My seemingly responsible and prompt response still earned me a hateful glare from the man.
My platoon sergeant, SFC Blackledge, was a huge, African-American guy with a baked-in bad attitude when it came to anything I was involved. To this day I never really understood his dislike for me. I definitely wasn't the platoon fuck-up, we had three new privates fresh from Advanced Individual Training (AIT) who were all competing for that title. The general consensus among the other members of the platoon was that if you combined the intelligence of the three new guys a squirrel would probably still beat them at tic-tac-toe.
At the time my best guess for why Blackledge enjoyed hassling me was that I was the perfect average soldier. I was almost three years into my enlistment and my gung-ho mentality had long since died. It had been replaced with a new perspective of doing just enough to keep the NCOs and officers above me happy. I had one year and a couple of months or so left of active duty and my ass would be going home.
As most things go, the army during the late-1980s was pretty cut and dry. This is a gross simplification but as long as you shined your boots, performed basic hygiene, and could read a map most American males could be a success in the United States Army. But for me the glamour had long since died and whatever Rambo-esque dreams I might have entertained had long since been crushed by your basic standard issue reality.
Thinking on it now, my carefree attitude may have been the source of Blackledge's distaste for me. In all modesty if I had stayed motivated and played the dog and pony game by looking good and performing beyond basic standards, I'd probably could have made promotion way beyond just sergeant (E-5), which I would unexpectedly make the following month.
After arriving at the repair bays I stepped into the office and was handed a phone by one of the people working there. “Specialist Vaughn reporting, sir,” I said or something similar.
“Vaughn,” LT Chase said in a tone of voice that betrayed a touch of annoyance, “your dad called the company commander. He's in town and wants to see you.”
“Ah yes, sir, did someone die or something?” I ask back confused. At that moment I couldn't remember the last time I had talked with my father. My mom and dad's marriage and their final divorce back in 1977 had been Chernobyl-like in its messy, complicated nature. So bad that one of the few absolute certainties in this universe is the fact that those two fucked up individuals should have never been allowed to live on the same continent, much less marry and have children.
My mother had legitimate mental issues that in South Carolina went unrecognized and, of course, totally untreated. She was the child of hard working but poor parents whose education never went beyond a couple of years of high school. South Carolina was, or still is a backwater provincial land with a grossly under-educated population lacking any true idea of how mental health can affect individuals and society as a whole.
Mom's way of coping with her issues was to drink. She was a chain smoker as well, which brought on a whole other series of problems. Finally there was infidelity, something she would actually talk about to us kids once she had a few drinks in her system. Her other favorite subject of conversation was to tell her children how much farther she could have made it in life if she had never had us.
Dad's issues were a little more abstract but he was also a product of Southern society and culture. He was a hard worker but showed next to no emotion to his kids other than rage when they did something bad. Beatings with a belt were the usual punishment for infractions raging from not doing homework to breaking one of his possessions.
There was also more than a little resentment when he had to use his money for us kids. I clearly remember department store trips to buy new clothes for my siblings and I with him whining about how much money was being wasted. Adding more insult to these injuries, after mom and dad separated he got us for the weekends. Which most of time had us hanging out in his mobile home as he worked on cars outside. I vaguely remember catching him telling a neighbor, who had asked him to go on a fishing trip, that his damn kids were here so he couldn't do anything this weekend.
“Don't know Vaughn,” LT Chase answered bringing me back out of my memories. “But prepare to copy this phone number.”
LT Chase calls out the phone number to a local motel and the room number. I write it down on my notepad sort of figuring this meant no one was dead. My father had always seemed a few french fries short of a full happy meal when it came to common sense. But not even he would travel from deep in the bowels of bumfuck Texas and come to Colorado Springs just to tell me some member of his family was dead.
“Tell me something Vaughn,” LT Chase interjects without warning, “why haven't you talked to your father in several years?”
Whoa, that was the other thing about dear old dad which I had forgotten, he loved playing the victim. “It's a long messed up story, LT,” I respond wearily.
“Okay, I get it, Vaughn.” He says before hanging up.
The rest of the day plays out as usual with me wondering if I should contact my father. Got to admit I was more than slightly pissed with him playing the abandoned and forgotten father. Dad had promptly gotten remarried suspiciously fast after my parents' divorce was finalized. Can't really fault him for that with mom long experienced in blazing new trails in roadside motel exploration.
His new wife brought with her a couple of daughters and by all accounts he was a great step-dad to his new kids. My siblings had spent some time with them a few summers back while I was over in West Germany playing soldier. They reports I got from them about a happy, affectionate man was a truly alien concept considering the sullen individual I remember that only reluctantly took his own kids fishing.
After the company's final formation and being released for the day I found myself drifting towards the rack of payphones in the barrack's day room. With mixed emotions I dialed the motel number and asked for his room when the desk clerk answered.
“Hello,” a lady said in a sweet voice.
“Yeah, this is Eric. I got word that my father was staying there.” I replied figuring I was talking to his new wife, my step-mother by default.
“Oh Eric,” the lady said, “we've been hoping you would call. I'll get your father, hold on.”
A second or two later he picks up the phone. “Hey Eric, it's your father,” he says like there was some question who it might be. Remember, a few fries short of a full happy meal.
“Yeah...dad,” I say hesitantly not really comfortable labeling him as such. “You're in Colorado Springs, what's up?”
“Lisa has a band competition here tomorrow, and we decided to see if you wanted to have dinner with us tonight.”
Running this information through my brain, I had to figure that 'Lisa' was my step-sister, someone who I had not only never met but didn't have a clue what she looked liked. Full disclosure, I didn't know what his new wife looked like either because I had literally never been in the same location with the lady. When my parents officially divorced, dad stayed in Texas and my mom and siblings and myself went back to South Carolina. Dad's new family life began about three or four days after everything was finalized.
Being the oldest of my siblings, I knew neither of our parents were worth much in the way of consideration. Going with our mother back to South Carolina was the safest course since we had her family to fall back on for support. But I admit, I was considering his offer of dinner. Part of me thought it would be interesting to meet at least a couple of members of his new family.
“So how about it?”He asked in an upbeat tone that I found both curious and slightly irritating. Past experience had taught me that my father expected instant acceptance and that any hesitation on the part of me or my siblings was a personal insult to him. There was way too much baggage in our past for me to have any enthusiasm about this reunion. I wasn't a kid anymore, I was an adult in my twenties and the few times I remember talking to him in the previous years he clearly still thought of me as a child.
Out of nowhere a question popped into my head that I had to ask before giving him my decision. “How long was this trip up to Colorado Springs planned? I mean you guys didn't just receive news about the band competition the last couple of days.”
“Oh, its been in the works for the last couple of months.” Dad replied offhand not realizing what it meant for his own flesh and blood to be an afterthought. Such actions were typical for him, for some reason his own kids were never a priority. Truthfully, it bothered me a lot that he somehow expected me to drop everything and rush across town to see him. He served in the army himself and knew the end of the duty day didn't necessarily mean a soldier was free to leave the post. It was either that or his offer for dinner was never be meant to be accepted. That he would use my refusal as yet another example of him being the victim. Given that the trip to Colorado Springs had been months in the planning, the fact that he didn't call me until the day they arrived tended to support my conclusion.
I simply didn't feel like being played that day. “No,” I said to him, “had you called and arranged something in advance it could have happened. But no, I'm going to the mess hall and then hang out with a few friends.”
“Okay,” he said in a tone that I felt was indifferent. He started to say something else but I cut him off.
“Look, it was great hearing from you,” something I didn't really mean, “but your arrival was totally unexpected and, honestly more than a little inconvenient for me. How about we try this again sometime in the future.” After that I hung up and didn't think about him for the rest of the night.
Was I cruel? Probably. Should I have given the man the benefit of the doubt? Maybe, if the weight of too many disappointments wasn't bearing down on my shoulders at that moment. The one good thing out of this cluster fuck was that I learned to treat my own kids completely different.
The coming years would bring my father back into my life. Namely him showing up unexpectedly at my house a couple of weeks after the birth of my son. My wife made me play nice. But dad never really changed and my patience with him only got shorter. My brothers somehow developed a phone relationship with him over the years with nothing but silence between him and myself.
Recently, I got word from my brother, Wilson, that dad asked for my phone number. Thankfully, Wilson told him he would have to ask me first. As I talked with my brother I thought about it for a couple of minutes. My decision was ultimately no, curiously there is no bitterness on my part. I found myself indifferent to the man and his life. Whatever relationship we might have had has long since passed into nothingness.