The Thornwell Years

In my unpublished autobiography I wrote about my two years in the Thornwell Orphanage, when I was six and seven years old. In 2001 Patrick wrote this response. Special thanks to Lee Liming for reminding me of this letter.

Dear John:

Bravely done. It’s probably as difficult a subject for you as for me.

There are a couple of inaccuracies, and though it is painful to me to do so, I will try to tell the truth here.

You say I had been working on a book and went to New York to get it published. Well, it is true that I was always trying to write in those days, and had in fact published about that time (1959) a “one-minute” play called “The Visit”, in the Experiment Theatre Anthology, published in Seattle. That play, so far as I know, was only performed once, here in Deia around 1979.

But the real chain of events leading to my exit from our life together on the edge of the golf course in Winter Park was a bit more complicated, and tawdry, if you will.

The first year out of college, (57-58) I taught in a Vero Beach elementary school, $3,500 a year, $90 a month for rent. I made our beds from scrap lumber. Taught French after school, sold instruments for the school band, worked weekends playing in places like the Satellite Inn and many dives up and down A1A around Cocoa.

The second year we were in Eau Gallie, mostly by the influence of John Dillon. It was impact time along the coast near Canaveral, and the salary jumped a thousand dollars a year. It was tough going, however, with huge classes, and growing. Rents also climbed. Money was still a problem, and I worked two summers for John clearing mangrove around his A-frame on what’s-the-name-of-the slip of land along Melbourne? and doing gardening for some of the family’s wealthier acquaintances. Night clubs, ditto. Worked with Paula, a red-headed singer from North Carolina, her English alto sax player and a drummer from another planet. Learned to smoke and drink in the bars in self-defense.

The third year, Mom’s next door neighbor in Winter Park, assistant principal in the Robt. E. Lee Junior High, convinced us to move to (was it Julian St?, off Fairbanks?) and teach in his school, advanced English classes with creative writing introduced into the curriculum. New schools were popping up all over the state. It was the big education boom, and I was being groomed, I was led to believe to get into the administration, and eventually be a school principal.

It was never to be. (Now I say Thank God.) I hated school when I was a student, couldn’t wait to get out. Then I spent a wonderful 4 years in college, and thought maybe a couple of years in teaching would get me back to the more or less intellectual atmosphere you find (found?) in college towns in the South. Books, concerts, the civil-rights movement for political involvment…Interesting people, in short. Then I spent in all another 10 years in the classroom as a teacher — Florida, Queens, Long Island, Missouri, Turkey, and very, very, briefly Mallorca. I still wanted out of the classroom, maybe even more than the poor students.

But I digress. We rented a 3 bedroom place on Julian St., I think it was. A couple of blocks from Mom’s house on Stanley St. She and Dad loved to be with you kids, and the idea was D and I could both work and start getting ahead. But she had her hands full with the babies, and it was really too soon for her to get out in the world.

So I left at seven-thirty for Rbt E Lee, taught until three thirty, then home for 2 1/2 hours. That time was spent in various ways, flying a kite with you. Washing piled-up diapers. Do piled-up dishes. Practicing a few minutes on the baby grand we had splurged on before leaving Melbourne.

Then it was off for the six to two o’clock shift proof-reading at the Orlando Sentinel. Home at three. Repeat at school five days a week, six at the Sentinel.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, professional tragedy struck. A short story I had typed in college and never looked at again, cost me my job. It concerned hitching around the country in ’53 before starting college. I went to Oregon with roommate Lee Liming for a job at the Coos Bay lumber camp, bought boots and other necessities from the company store, etc. etc. set for getting muscles and money for university, and the strike began. Then Frisco to work in the Berkely Bowl, setting pins. Then across Route 66 where we were picked up and robbed by GI’s on AWOL heading for the Mexican border.

The last stretch home, somewhere in Alabama, maybe Gadsden?, and this is where the story started — a mass of hooded citizens ranted around a fire, and I swear to this day somebody was hanging by his neck from a tree branch at the fringe of the activity.

We were strangers in those parts and jumped in the first car we could get to stop, Lee in the back seat, me up front. Now, we had learned to try to size up our drivers for straightness after a couple of experiences up along the Canadian border, but this time we didn’t even look at him. Lee was sawing logs in ten minutes, and my ead was bouncing lightly off the doorframe when I felt the guy reaching for the zip on my fly.

That was enough for Mr Punshon, bless his soul. The daughter of a certain Mr. Zimmermann, on the school board, showed this to her dear old pop, who took it to Punshon, who sent for me during the homeroom. Did you write this, he asked. Will you sign this resignation? It was, I have to say, with a sigh of relief that I left his office, got into the old Studebaker and started out of the parking lot. The tie rods let go and I left the old blue buggy straddled next to Edgewater Drive and walked home through Dubsdread.

Things happen in bundles, David Wade said in one of his poems back at FSU. That night when I tried to punch in at the Sentinel by boss — name gone with the wind — whom I always liked, a real old-fashioned newspaper guy, met me by the clock. As usual he wore a green eyeshade, smoked his straight-stemmed pipe and cleaned his rimless glasses as he told me to pick up my pinkslip the next day. I had been letting too many errors go by. No wonder, I was dying for sleep about half the time.

At this point I started hitching several times a week back over to the coast, trying to make the music gigs my source of income until something else worked out. I applied for jobs also with the Maitland paper, really an advertising rag like the ones they give away nowadays. One of my uncles, Ward I believe it was, took pity and let me help him build a couple of four room houses down along the Tamiami Trail, but that was only Saturday half a day and sometimes Sunday. He owned a box factory out along 17-92, but he had all the employees he could afford.

Getting a teaching job in the middle of the school year was nearly impossible. Substitue teaching required a car, not to mention a reputation.

So it was that I began staying at your Aunt Phyl’s place for a while, hitching back only after the weekend gigs were done with what little money I got together. One of these trips back to Winter Park, I was picked up on Highway 50 (see attachment) by Dan, who ran a crew for Rainbow Studios, out of Chicago. The next day I was out in the territory knocking on doors of houses with trikes and slides in the yard — “flags” in the parlance of the trade.

I had a little gift of gab, made a few bucks. Then I withdrew all my retirement money from the Florida school system (in those days, you chose that or Social Security, not both). With this I bought a black 88 Olds from Mom’s neighbor on Stanley St. One of the guys I worked with selling baby pictures was dying to get back to Chicago where he said the money grew on trees. With a car, he said, I could run my own crew. That meant Rainbow Studios not only would give my operating expenses, they would pay me an overwrite of 2 dollars for every appointment my crew members sold, plus my own sells, at 3 dollars a shot.

To make a long story short (giving up the band in Cocoa meant waiting for them to find another bass player, I had to make peace with my own crew manager so he would give me the good word in Chicago, and last but not least, try to reassure your grandfather as well as your mother and my mother that I intended to take care of you all, one way or another, for the rest of my life.

And that is exactly what I thought I would do at the time. It worked for a while. From Chicago I sent money orders. From Toledo, Ohio they knew me at the money order window where I picked up my commissions from Chicago, sent in the next week’s appointments, and mailed whatever I had left after the hotel and food bill back to Julian Street.

But Toledo, and Mari, and el Greco’s painting in the museum, plus the NY Philharmonic on the radio, plus the conning talk of Tom Maypes, of the House of Wisdom, led me to DC, where I still made enough to send home some. Then to New York, where everything I had, every article of clothing was stolen out of the car on the first night, and revelled in being in the Village we had read so much about in FSU. Paris of the Lost Generation beckoned. But I rented an apartment above the Cafe Bizarre, and Donna and the girls soon joined me in an ill-fated attempt to live up to my promise. (Where were you at this time?) The swings in Washington Square. The walks together around the village. And the tearing of my heart from all directions. I did not want to let D down. I did not want to live without Mari. I was teaching on Long Island, driving every day to Suffolk County. I did not want to teach. I wanted to live adventure and write about it (I still thought then I could write, if I only had a chance). At night above the Bizarre, I would write poems of love-struck suffering and sleep in the same bed with your mother in dismal, abject moods that would never have allowed us to be happy. All my good intentions were crushed by my own selfish desires. Surely Donna had similar yearnings, but it seemed virtually impossible to achieve them all together.

I lost the job at Island Trees Junior High. For teaching 1984 by Orwell in what I called my Anti-Utopia class in advanced English. Three months later, shortly after I met you in the New York Port Authority bus station and smuggled you into Mrs. Rice’s rooming house with Mari and me, I was on Icelandic Airlines on the way to Europe. I had 400 dollars in my pocket, and did not return to the States for 2 years.

Ironically, when I finally got a salaried job in Izmir, teaching (again!) in the Air Force Dependents school, I started sending money back, but D tracked me down (she had a real knack; once she found me in Lake Ronkonkama, living in an unheated summer cabin under 18 inches of snow under Mari’s married name of Irvin! Maybe it was John’s contacts?) and wrote to Mr. Price, the Baptist principal of the school. He couldn’t tolerate a person of my low character, and fired me on the spot, first week of the second year on the job. That was not a big help for child support.

The business in Turkey I’m still trying to write, in a story called Zambak, after a sloop which nearly killed me and my bandleader Billy Bielmeier on Izmir Bay. Somewhere I have the frontpage article where Mari has been given the news that I am lost at sea, and she is photographed being consoled by the harelip piano player in whose group I sometimes played.

The adventures had begun, and have not finished, but sweet little writing has come out of it, unless you count science fiction and porn (under 17 pseudonyms, all in 1973).

Too busy trying to make sense out of things…

By the way you very kindly gave me a copy of F&SF with Supernovas and Chrysanthemums in it. I made a stupid mistake. Now I have 2 copies of that, but what is missing is “A Rag, a Bone” August, ’71.

Sorry to have been such a selfish bastard. I lay it all to youth, and the ambitions inspired by college courses founded in the Humanities, especially Literature. My heroes were Steinbeck, Hemingway, Pound, Stein, and a hundred others who wrote in English, or Spanish, or were translated from other languages (Mehmet, My Hawk, Steppenwolf, Zorba) …

But of course, each of us designs himself, and none other is to blame; though many may take credit for whatever good we put ourselves up to.

Much love from the Daze of Wine and Roses…