There was a lot to admire about my mother. I think what I admired, and to be honest, envied, most about her was the absoluteness and utter resolve with which she held to her priorities in life. I suppose part of that was simply a matter of her generation’s need to keep its eye on the prize if it was going to survive a devastating economic depression and then a horrific world war. But even among her contemporaries, let’s say among her seven sisters and three brothers with whom she’d huddled in a sod shack in the Dakotas during the dusty time, Millie stood out as a person who kept sight of what was most important…..in her case, her family, and every fiber of her four-foot-eleven frame was laser focused on keeping and protecting it. I can recall many stories growing up that cast a light on this pre-occupation of my mother’s, but few more dramatically than the time she went after the guy who broke my crown.
I can tell you the exact year. It was 1965, the year ‘Batman the Movie’ came out. This was the first one, with the TV series cast, Adam West and Burt Ward, and the crazy camera angles and the WHAM, SPLAT, BOF cartoon graphics punctuating the fight scene punches. I was a junior in high school and, as such, I normally didn’t get a lot of actual movie watching in at the drive-ins, (if you catch my drift), but this night I was with Stevie, derived from Stephanie, and she and I were just marginally interested in one another romantically. She was a very funny girl from another high school and we made one another laugh, especially when supplied with a non-stop stream of material from the masked crusaders.
After the movie I took Stevie straight home and we parked in her parent’s driveway; they were well off and lived in the country on a couple acres of land. We’d be left alone, and laugh time was over. I remember I’d set the brake on my ‘56 VW bug and I was just leaning over and reaching my right arm around Stevie when suddenly my body was wrenched back with the force of a ‘jaws-of-life’ claw and what felt like a steel pipe was shoved into my mouth. It went in deep, scrapping the roof of my mouth and digging into the soft skin in the back of my throat. I was trying to see what was happening, who was doing this to me, but it was dark. Then Stevie started screaming.
“Lance, Lance, stop! STOP! STOP!” She was hysterical, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Yeah,” came a bellowing response, “I’ll stop. I’ll stop after I kill this piece of (expletive).”
And in a terrifying flash I knew exactly what and who. The WHO was Stevie’s ex-boyfriend and the WHAT was the barrel of a pistol shoved in my mouth. My eyes were squinted shut, I was holding my breath and my heart pounded in my chest. I distinctly remember wondering if my last night on earth was going to be distinguished by having watched what was probably the worst movie of the 1960’s. WHAM, SPLAT.
And then, as quickly as it had happened, it was over. Lance, the jealousy-crazed, apparently not-so-ex, junior college football playing, boyfriend jerked the steel barrel out of my mouth, cracking the crown in my lower left quad in the process, and then ran up the driveway laughing and screaming like a wild Indian who’d just scalped a white settler. As Lance got into an awaiting car I heard the sound of more laughter….a carload of Indians.
Stevie was sobbing. “Are you okay?” she kept asking. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry. So, so sorry. Are you okay? Are you okay?” I said I was, even as I spit blood and the awful taste of metal out on the concrete driveway. We sat for a minute in the darkness and Stevie’s sobbing melted to sniffles. Finally….
“What are you going to do?”.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“You know, like, are you gonna go looking for Lance? What a loser he is. Cause if you are, I wanna come along.” I detected a hint of excitement in her voice. Then she leaned over and kissed me on the lips.
Stevie and I went to different high schools, we lived in different towns, hung out with different groups of friends and, as I was quickly deducing, had very, very different reactions to near-death experiences.
“No,” I said, “I’m going to go home. Right now. My mouth hurts.”
It was a forty-minute drive from Fremont back to Hayward and I don’t think it’s at all an exaggeration to say that my mind covered more ground in that forty minutes than during any forty day period of my short, seventeen year life. As I sped by the illuminated billboards that lined Highway 17, I thought back trying to remember any other times in my life when I’d come close to dying, or at least thought I’d come close. There was the time when I was barely out of infancy and my father held me by the back of my pajamas, dangling me out of a second story window as a practical joke on my old uncle Louie (nearly killed him); the time my cousin Tommy pushed me off a dam into rushing water, (nearly killed me); the time Tommy, (same sadist cousin), shot me in the ear with a BB gun, (he was aiming for my eye), the time my dad and I were driving down Highland Boulevard, the steepest road in the Hayward hills, when our breaks went out; and the time my buddy Chuck and I rolled his De Soto on Crow Canyon Road (we just left the car there and walked home…..idiot kids). Driving down 17 that night in the dark in my little black VW, none of these incidents seemed even in the same league as the gun in the mouth. If the big jealous linebacker boyfriend had pulled the trigger he’d have put a hole through the back of my throat, right where my spinal chord attached to my brain. Man, would I be dead. With this thought I realized that I was shaking and my teeth were actually chattering, I mean audibly clicking together. Obviously it was some sort of delayed reaction; I was more terrified driving home than I’d been in Stevie’s driveway.
Even before I could step through the front door my mother was there, grasping my left forearm, squeezing it like a vice as she pulled me across the threshold.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Huh? What? Whaddahya mean? Nothing’s wrong.”
I tried to pull away but she wouldn’t release my arm.
“Now you listen here, I want to know what happened tonight, and I want to know right now. And why is there blood on your mouth? Were you in a fight?”
“No, I was not in a fight. I do not fight. You know that. Now let me come in and we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you about one very crazy experience I had tonight.”
Millie had a unique and supernatural gift—she knew things about her children, my sister and I, before she could possibly know them. Sometimes even before they happened. My mother wasn’t a clairvoyant in the general sense….her gift of knowledge was very specialized, very focused on her kids. She just knew things, and obviously tonight she’d sensed I was in danger.
We sat down at the kitchen table and both of us lit cigarettes. (Yes, in 1965 mothers and sons smoked together…..I know, it seems strange now even to me.) For a moment I considered lying about what happened. If my mother’s gift was focused clairvoyancy, mine was deft story telling; I’d had seventeen years of practice lying to my mother and there was no one better at fabricating on his feet. But I thought better of it. Why not tell her the truth? It would sure be easier than lying and besides, it might make me feel better…..calm me down, maybe.
So I told my mother the story of the jealous boyfriend who shoved a pistol in my mouth and threatened to kill me. I only changed one part—I told her that afterward, when Lance left with his friends, I found the pistol on the driveway and found it was a toy….a cap gun. She listened to the entire story in silence and then got up, walked into the laundry room and returned with a flashlight.
“Open your mouth,” she said. I obliged and Millie shined the flashlight in my mouth. Then she stuck her index finger in and felt around.
“OUCH”, I yelped, “that hurts.”
“Hurts? HURTS? I’ll tell you what<