So Many Secrets, part 7: Sink or Swim
I was in my bed reading a book when I heard the back door close. It was after bedtime on a weeknight and I was supposed to be asleep. I don’t recall if my mom was in bed or working at the time, but my dad had been out having a couple beers, and when I heard the back door close, I knew I was going to be in trouble if I was caught awake after bedtime, so I quickly reached over and clicked off the bedside lamp.
At the bottom of the stairs which led to my second-floor bedroom, I heard the door open and then silence. After a moment, my Dad’s voice said “Troy,” in a grim, serious tone. I didn’t answer. I wanted him to think I was asleep.
After a moment, he said “Your light was on a minute ago, now come down here, right now.” I hadn’t even thought about the light and whether it was visible from outside the house. Of course it was. From where my dad would park in the driveway, he would be able to see the second story window in the hallway, right outside my room, and the light emanating from my reading lamp.
I got out of bed and, wearing only my underwear, descended the creaky wooden stairs to the main floor. When I reached the landing at the halfway point, where the stairs turned at a right angle, I could see him standing in the dark hallway at the bottom of the steps, holding the door open with one hand and staring at me from behind the brown tinted eyeglasses that concealed his eyes from me for most of my childhood.
When I got to the bottom of the stairway, he closed the door behind me then grabbed a handful of hair on each side of my head and slammed me against the wall. I started to cry almost immediately. He lifted me off the ground by my hair until my toes no longer touched the floor, and with his face inches from mine, he said, “When we tell you to go to bed, you go to fucking bed,” he spat. “Do you understand me?”
I wanted to nod my understanding but my head was supporting my bodyweight, so I just said “yes,” and he let me back down on the floor. I could smell the beer on his breath, like I had before, like I would dozens times more, but it would be years before I recognized the smell for what it was… the breath of an alcoholic who had a hard time driving past any bar without stopping for a drink.
I haven’t written much about my dad, largely because he’s been a non-presence in my life for more than 30 years–I haven’t spoken to him since I was a teenager–but I guess to truly understand me, where I come from and who I am, I need to explain this part to you.
My biological dad was gone before I could remember. He was an Air Force guy from New York who was stationed at the Air Force Base in Minot and knocked up my mom when she was still 17. I’ve been told it happened in the back seat of his car on “Inspiration Point” on New Year’s Eve, 1968.
Real specific, huh? How many people know exactly when and where they were conceived? Do you know? Should you know?
At any rate, he was gone before I was old enough to know him, and I have no memories of a time when he was in my life. It was just me and my mom until I was five years old, when she married the man I’ve always referred to as my dad. I’m gonna leave his name out of this story, because he’s still alive and there’s no sense calling attention to him for anyone who doesn’t already know him, but there is one story about his upbringing that I believe is reflective of the upbringing I would later receive.
He and my mom had only been married a couple of years when we took a drive, a long roadtrip, and ended up at a place I had never been before–a cemetery in Towner, North Dakota. My dad got out of the car and walked into the cemetery while my mom and I waited in the car, her in the front seat and me in the back. My dad knelt down at a gravesite, crossed himself, and remained there long enough that my short attention span wandered. When I looked out the window again a few minutes later, my dad was still on his knees but he was twitching in a manner that it took me a moment to recognize.
“Mom, is Dad crying?” I asked. She answered me in the affirmative. It was obvious. He wasn’t just crying, he was sobbing. It was the only time in my life I would ever see him cry.
When he returned to the car many minutes later, I asked him if he was OK and he said he was, but my parents felt it was necessary to tell me the rest of the story.
My dad came from a family of 16 kids and when he was a boy, he found himself playing along the river one day with two of his brothers. They found a mattress and, it seems like a silly thing, the answer obvious, but the boys wondered will this thing float? They decided to find out. They threw the mattress on the water, and, hey, it floats. Thinking they had just created their own raft, they hopped on the mattress and made it to the middle of the river before it became obvious that the mattress was soaking up water by the second and it was not going to float forever. The problem was, none of them knew how to swim.
The mattress went under and the boys went into the water. My dad managed to dogpaddle his way back to the riverbank, but his brothers went under, and only one of them made it out. The other brother drowned.
To be clear here, I’ve been told by one of my dad’s siblings that my dad never went on the mattress with his brothers, simply watched from the riverbank and ran for help when the mattress went under. Maybe I heard an exaggerated version of the story, or maybe I’m misremembering as it was told to me, but I digress.
Days later, immediately after the funeral, my grandpa had plans for my dad.
“Go upstairs and put your grubby clothes on,” he said, and my dad complied.
My grandpa took him to the lake in a fishing boat, went out to the middle of the lake, and full well knowing my dad didn’t know how to swim, picked him up, threw him overboard, and said “Sink or swim,” as he fired up the motor and drove away.
That’s how my dad learned to swim.
That’s the story as I remember it being told to me. As I said, I haven’t spoken to my dad in over 30 years, so there might be details I’m getting wrong, and it’s quite possible I may have angered someone by telling it, and for that, I’m sorry. Again, a member of my dad’s family has told me that my Grandpa was not a good man, but also has suggested that this particular story, of being thrown in the lake, was purely fabricated by my dad. I don’t suppose I have any way of knowing what the truth really is.
The larger story, though, is really about my life and how I got here, and I reserve the right to tell it. Some would call this deflection–that I’m making excuses for how I turned out the way I did, and maybe I am. I would ask you to consider what it does to a kid to be raised like my dad was, to be thrown in a lake by your own father so soon after the death of your brother, perhaps out of anger or sheer callousness, and then what it does to the next kid, me, when his dad lifts him off the floor by his hair for reading a book after bedtime, or when he holds his son’s hands in a sink filled with scalding hot water to teach him a lesson. How responsible is my father for his behavior considering his father’s? How responsible am I to my son, considering my father?
The truth is, a kid that comes from a family of substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse, and family dysfunction ends up with all kinds of challenges. Personality traits that need to be overcome, relationship challenges, sensitivity to certain behaviors in those around you, problems with feelings of self-worth… you struggle to the point of fatigue. It’s one wave after another, crashing over you, again and again, and you have to sink or swim.
I’m still learning to swim.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.