Chapter Two: The Long Downhill

by | May 3, 2021

A photo of dad and family circa 1961, taken by Margaret Louise Huddleston (aka mom). I am second from the right, the boy with his fly open.

Introduction:

I’m worried about men. I believe many of the world’s woes, from gun violence to domestic abuse to climate change, have their root cause in men’s health, which I submit is presently not good, nor has it been for some time now. I want to see that change, so I am doing the only thing I know how to do that might help. I write.

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The Long Downhill 

I gripped the handlebars with sweaty palms and steadied myself, my six-year-old heart pounding in my chest. Below me lay the long downhill of Severnside Drive in southern Maryland, and below that the wide expense of the Severn River itself. The paved road seemed a mile long back then, but was probably only a quarter of that. At the bottom of the hill, which I was about to reach at 80 mph on my little bike, only recently shorn of its training wheels, the road turned sharply left at the river’s bank. There, between the edge of the asphalt and the edge of the water, lay a swampy stretch of brambles, snapping turtles, poisonous snakes, and dead pirates. To pull off my daring stunt, I would need to race down the hill and make the turn without crashing. I did not succeed. 

I pushed off okay, but just as I approached the turn, the unexpected happened – my handlebars totally detached from the frame of the bike. I careened into the marsh in an agonizing tumble of thorns, scraped elbows, and pirate’s bones. This was, perhaps, my first indication that something had gone wrong in my family. Somebody wasn’t paying attention to the important stuff, like making sure the children’s bikes are safe, and that somebody was my dad. 

I might have written off the accident as one of those normal childhood mishaps that happen to every boy who mounts a bike, but now, as I write this some 60 years later, I have the grand benefit of hindsight. Dad really did “go missing” right about that time, but now, thanks to that late night phone call with Beth Richards, I know why. He had fallen in love with her and was having an affair. 

Dad and Beth would sneak out, lying to their spouses about a need to “pick up something at the store,” and then rendezvous in dad’s car. There they would fondle and kiss, taking things right to the edge but never past it. The affair was passionate, secret and risky. Eventually, Beth’s husband got wise and called my mom, spilling the beans on both of them. Rather than face the music of his choices, dad eventually turned tail and ran, leaving a family of six to pick up the pieces. 

I remember the resulting fights between mom and dad, listening as I did from my bedroom in that house by the river. It had been a house of joy and wonder before that, full of all the aforementioned toys and gadgets, plus the benefits of a rich America thriving in the lush years after the war, before the assassination, before Vietnam, before Watergate, and before the Watts riots. It was white suburban America, and I was a white suburban boy with two highly educated parents. Life for me then was the best schools, long summers swimming in the river, scaring myself with black and white episodes of the Twilight Zone, and pelting the school bus with snowballs in a vain effort to keep it from climbing the icy hill up Severnside Drive. 

It was not entirely a life without worries. There were the snakes and pirates, spooks under the stairs, and the monstrous water pump in the basement, to which my evil brother John made me a human sacrifice. But there were real terrors too. Those were the years of America’s daunting nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. “Duck and cover” exercises at school were routine, as if, somehow, my small wooden desk would protect me from a Russian made nuclear bomb. My mom scared the bejeezus out of me by telling me not to look if I saw a bright flash in the sky, for it would melt my eyeballs until they ran down my cheeks. Come on. I was five for chrissake. But other than the prospect of having my eyeballs melt or my brain eaten by the alien monster under the stairs, life was good, and I felt relatively secure. 

That was all to end soon enough, when, in 1964, dad took a job in California. He sold the brick rambler on Severnside Drive, and we started to move. My nomadic childhood didn’t end until six years later, in 1970. By then I had been through 13 schools, three states, 23 countries, and two continents. Some of those schools were quite horrible, with raw sewage running into the halls and schoolyard fights so fierce that bones were broken. I attended  three different schools in the 4th grade, the last one in mid 60s Germany, where I was tossed in halfway through the year, sink or swim, without knowing a word of the language. German Panzer tank tracks were still visible in the woods near my home, where we were forbidden to play because the ground was still littered with unexploded World War II ordinances. 

The German kids hated me because of what our fathers had done to their fathers during the war. They bullied and picked fights, and called me “Ami,” short for “American” — a not-so-nice term intended to be as vicious as any racist slur. 

I learned to survive, eventually mastering the German language and the culture, but without much direct help from dad, who is there but not there, much like a ghost who appears with a chilly gust and then vanishes. Indirectly, and perhaps intentionally, dad helped me learn how to survive, much like the father helps a boy named Sue in Johnny Cash’s famous song of the same name. I learned to adapt and defend myself in a foreign world, skills that served me well (for the most part) throughout my life, but not always. 

We were well cared for. There was never any want for essentials, but there was an emotional vacuum that only a father can fill. Mom did her able best to manage a brood of six, but she eventually bought into the feminist myth of the “super woman” who can do it all, and that a “woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.“ (A bumper sticker I remember seeing as a young man). Assuming the role of both father and mother, mom gave dad a pass and an excuse to bow out and serve his own selfish interests, that of career and hobbies. Dad became the classic ’60s father, an emotionally distant figure whose principal job is to be the breadwinner and keep the cars running. Forget about the bikes. 

Another myth mom believed at that time, and that she tried to hide from us kids but couldn’t quite manage to do, was that Beth Richards was still among dad‘s many hobbies. But she was not. As I was to learn from Beth herself, dad said goodbye to her when he said goodbye to the house he built with mom by the river. He didn’t see Beth again for ten years. By then, in 1974, I was graduating high school as a “trans cultural kid“ (TCK) – not quite American, not quite German, both and neither. 

*** 

I can only imagine the anguish dad felt during those ten years, for he loved both women – each one as different as night and day. Mom was a hardy farm girl, raised dirt poor during the harsh years of the Depression, caring but driven by her own demons conjured up by a maladjusted father I never knew, and a stoic mother. She was pretty woman with dark brown hair and high cheek-bones, a doppelgänger of my youngest daughter. Mom was large boned, big breasted, shapely, and strong…able to whisk babies from danger with a single hand. She matched both my father’s intellectual brilliance and, being highly practical, his emotional chill. I never once heard either of them say to me: “I love you.” As Depression era folks, that just wasn’t in their nature. 

Beth, in sharp contrast, was 13 years younger than dad, artsy and hip, a blonde, curvacious photographer, warm and sexy, emotionally expressive, and deeply in love with him. Unlike my dad, who dressed like a penniless hobo, Beth had style. She had verve and intelligence, both intellectual and emotional. They met on the stage of an amateur musical, the kind my dad loved to perform in until the day he died, but where my mom was unlikely to ever set a foot — forget about bringing us kids. I only remember seeing one of his plays my entire life, a choice I now regret. 

When I finally caught up with Beth and her new husband in their Florida home in 2011, she told me the story of how dad broke her heart when he left for California, and how he kept running even as she chased him, and us, around the world. I learned how dad did everything he knew how to avoid the complications his own heart was pulling him into, how he remained faithful to mom in ways I still don’t understand, and how he and Beth finally rekindled their romance in 1974. The story, which I will tell in the pages of this book, are reminiscent of The Bridges of Madison County, played out over decades on an international stage. 

I made audio recordings of my visits with Beth so I would remember every detail, and I promised myself I would not release them until after mom died lest I hurt her more than she already was hurting. Once, when mom was in her 90’s and a few years from her death in 2019, I offered to tell her the truth, how dad had been more faithful to her than she knew, but she didn’t want to hear it. She had her version of the story, the one I heard as a child, and she took it to her grave.

*** 

When Beth and I parted, as friends, she gave me photos she took of dad performing on stage, ones that I had never seen: dad as the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, dad in a barbershop quartet, dad dancing with a cane in The Music Man. She gave me pictures of him shaving, and close up, the kind that only a lover takes. Beth really did see, through her heart and her photographer’s lens, a man my mom could not, or would not, see. 

But Beth did not see the father I wanted her to see – the one who knew me and loved me. “I’m sorry,” she told me when I visited her. “But your dad didn’t really ever talk about you that much. He did the best he could under his limited abilities. He was well developed mentally for reading and writing and engineering, but he was underdeveloped for loving and giving and receiving his real self. He needed to be in fantasy because his reality wasn’t comfortable and he didn’t know how to handle his reality. He was a tormented man.” 

This was her view of dad, one, and only one, of a complex man. But my view of dad began to change when, one day long after saying good-bye to Beth, I found a box of his belongings tossed amidst the chaos of my mother’s cluttered garage. One small slip of paper in that box held a clue to dad’s true identity. 

###

 

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