The Trap of Nostalgia

I grew up in two places, primarily, and they are both special to me, but the first thing I think of when I reflect on either one is gunfire.

The place where I lived was the home I grew up in on Buckingham Way. My parents moved us away from there after a FBI sting operation at a mini-mart a stone’s throw away resulted in two Agents dying and the killers hiding out in our neighborhood. One of them in the house behind ours. We were trapped until the criminals were found later that morning; my first experience with quarantine. I remember it being a lot more fun than the current one.

The second place I grew up in was my Dad’s store on the very outskirts of Fresno, where he sold guns, fish bait, sodas, candy, and cigarettes—and not always safely (I’ll spare you the details in this post). Despite the violence of the area and my father’s occupation, I spent a LOT of time in “The Shop” working, playing, shooting plastic army men out back with a BB gun, waiting for dad to finish work so we could go to a movie, and playing “fish out of water” with the minnows in the tanks he kept in the back. Just to torture them. The Shop is firmly imprinted as a magical place on my brain, burned alongside every terrible thing that happened there and because of it. In The Other Side of Fear, my forthcoming book* about all the violence Dad suffered at the Shop and the growing up I did in between it all, I describe my time there this way:

A full-sized Donkey Kong video game cabinet sat near the front door. I spent every possible minute jumping barrels and rescuing damsels in distress, my Atomic Fire Ball cooling in a Dixie Cup full of water next to the joystick (a low-rent chemistry experiment that made it easier for me to skip the “fire” and get right to the sugar). Meanwhile, just a few feet away, someone would ask Dad if he could see a handgun before purchasing a Coke and a pack of Marlboros.

I knew there wasn’t much to it. The entirety of the Shop seemed quite a bit smaller than the three-bedroom house we lived in. Definitely dustier. Winds from the surrounding countryside and farmlands kicked up the dirt surrounding it on the regular, pushing it all inside and casting a thin blanket of wispy grime on the cracked cement floor. A broom behind the counter justified its existence by shooing it all away on at least a quarterly basis. Deep, muddy puddles dressed the Shop on all sides after a rain, with the exception of the side it shared with the bar next door. The front faced out toward the highway, a flat slab of concrete its only accouterment. If you could see it. The manmade parking surface was usually covered in oil and sludge.

The backrooms—secret places at every grocery store and mini-mart my father didn’t own—didn’t hide anything special. Just palettes of beer and soda. The walk-in freezer housing the fishing bait Dad distributed throughout the Valley, as effective as it was as a refuge during the summer, reeked of worm and earth.

I was Bill’s Son, the little prince within the Shop that was his kingdom. The Donkey Kong games were always free of charge. So were the New York Seltzers (always the Vanilla Crème) that gave such sweet relief when the temperatures swelled and the swamp cooler wasn’t cutting it. Drinks, Frozen Burritos of questionable nutritional value, and candy (whose nutritional value—or lack thereof—was never in question) were all there for the taking. Long as I asked King Dad first.

That is a child’s description of a childlike time, devoid of any discussion of the perils or appropriateness of such a place. I didn’t even blink as I ran past the .45’s and the 30 ought 6’s on glorious display in their glass cases. The moral implications of my father making his living by selling instruments of death were too unknown for me to even consider. Neither did I ever imagine that any of the many robberies or arson fires the Shop suffered could occur while I was there. They never had, so why would they? And it never, ever crossed my mind the emotional and financial toll running such a place and depending on it for income took on my mother and father. Not even when Dad desperately sought employment or business opportunities elsewhere did it occur to me that maybe he didn’t love the Shop as much as I did. I thought he just wanted a change of pace; somewhere else fun that I could run around in.

I try not to be nostalgic. There’s so much that’s new, and so many things old in this world I’ve never experienced that I think looking back, even wistfully, can be a trap. We can sometimes mistake times gone by as the very best times, especially compared with today, but it’s often not really the case. Saturday Night Live isn’t “not funny anymore,” you’re only remembering the good sketches. Likewise, recalling the 1950’s as a golden age for morality in the United States is to deny the reality of so many Black Americans and women for whom it was a time of denied rights and diminished personhood.

The Shop wasn’t just my own personal arcade and Dad’s kingdom. It was his death trap.

When I look back on my childhood, the wonderful sits alongside the horrific, comfortably. This is why I can both be glad my daughters haven’t ever experienced the violence and fear my brothers and I did, and I can want to tell them all about it like it was the coolest thing ever, too. Because it was. It was very cool. Fun, even. That’s both the prerogative of youth and the privilege of looking back. Of nostalgia.

TheShop2020

Yesterday, I went and visited the site of the Shop, right at the end of Hwy 180 going West out of Fresno. It’s not there anymore. It was demolished some years ago, and nothing has been built to take its place. The Shop was right there, in the space where there is now only dark brown dirt and odd pieces of litter thrown out of speeding, passing cars.

I got out of my car and walked around a little. At near 100 degrees, it was hot, as it always seemed to be whenever I visited the Shop, even in the winter. There’s an AM/PM going up across the street and the highway didn’t used to end right there, but otherwise the surrounding area looks the same.

But it doesn’t feel the same. I got out of the car because I wanted to feel the space again, or at least see if I could. But I couldn’t. The Shop is gone, and it took all the ghosts with it.

Probably better that way.

*The Other Side of Fear is due out Oct. 13, 2020 from Cedar Fort Publishing and will be available in a variety of formats.

 

RBDM: Table of Contents (Limited Time Only)

UPDATED: The blogs containing the chapters have been removed, as promised, so the links below will not work. I leave this post up to preserve the reason for the removal at the end of it, and also for those curious about the book itself. Hopefully, I’ll bring the whole thing to you again one day, bright and shiny and new.

ORIGINAL POST:Below is a table of contents for all the chapters. If you haven’t finished yet, you should be able to find where you left off and pick it back up. I’ll leave all the chapters up for another week or so, but after that I think it’s better to take them down, including this post. If you’ve been reading along, I’d love to hear from you. Even if it’s just a “hi.” I miss contact with the world!

RBDM TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue – Ready: The funeral is over and it’s time to go to the cemetery, but before we get there my mother has a striking revelation to share.

I.

Ch. 1 – Shooting: Eight years earlier, two men burst into my father’s store and immediately begin shooting.

Ch. 2 – The Call: Alone and dying, my father desperately dials 911 to get some help.

Ch. 3 – Bullets: While my brothers and I dance in the living room, oblivious, my mother receives a mysterious phone call telling her to get to the hospital immediately. 

Ch. 4 – M&M’s: At the hospital, Mom crumbles and I get a whole bag of M&M’s all to myself.

Ch. 5 – Educated Guesses: My father is in critical condition and no one–not even the doctors–know if he’s going to survive. But I do.

Ch. 6 – Playing the Part: While dad struggles in the hospital, I head back to school to enjoy all the attention thrown my way.

Ch. 7 – A Suspicious Peace: Dad returns home from the hospital and I become a bullet wound cleaning expert.

Ch. 8 – Superdad: Months later, Dad is unstoppable, coaching little league, attending Sixth Grade Camp with me, and running down a guy who steals from him.

II.

Ch. 9 – The Wrong Side of Town: On the night before 7th Grade begins, a FBI sting operation gone wrong in our neighborhood prompts Dad to grab his gun and head out on his own to track the criminals down. 

Ch. 10 – A Friend in Need: When helping one friend comes at the expense of my relationship with another, I’m at a loss for what to do.

Ch. 11 – Fight: A friend turned enemy wants nothing more than to beat me to a bloody pulp. A school yard confrontation leads to big changes.

Ch. 12 – Hollywood: A reality show comes calling and Dad leaps at the chance to reenact his shooting for national television.

Ch. 13 – Talking to a Dead Man: The shooting reenactment airs on television and my eyes are opened to what Dad really went through in a whole new way.

Ch. 14 – Edited for Television: Dad’s rush to the hospital is depicted, and he talks about the shooting and what he was really afraid of in his own words.

Ch. 15 – How It Ends: How Dad knew he was going die young. Plus: The reenactment concludes with my national (embarrassing) debut.

III.

Ch. 16 – The Nerd Herd: A move across town means a new school and new friends. 

Ch. 17 – Breaching Brute Protocol: High School begins and I’m determined to make a new start, but the four bullies picking on me at once have other ideas.

Ch. 18 – Good Intentions: Sick of all the misinformation out there about my church, I’m determined to go to a friend’s church and correct her pastor. My parents have other ideas.

Ch. 19 – Sitting On a Chair with Wheels: Is God real? Is my church true? I honestly don’t know and it’s tearing me up inside. A caustic confrontation leads to Dad trying to talk me down.

Ch. 20 – Flood: Holed up in a church building late at night, my friends and I have no idea our entire town is flooding, threatening to trap us.

Ch. 21 – The Last Time: I finally get the answers I’ve been searching for, just in time for Dad and I to make peace and go on a road trip together.

IV.

Ch. 22 – Speaking in Tongues: My life as a missionary begins, but there’s a catch: I have to speak Spanish. I hate Spanish.

Ch. 23 – Bad News: Ten months into my mission, I receive a phone call from my grandfather with news I do not want. 

Ch. 24 – Faithless Prayers: While waiting for confirmation that I what I know in my gut is true, I pray.

Ch. 25 – Worse Than Death: How my father died and the devastating first few moments after I found out. 

Ch. 26 – To The Lord: The Mission President and his wife come to visit and console me. I’ve got a big decision to make about what to do next.

Ch. 27 – Being a Human Being: It’s the morning after and I want nothing more than to do the missionary work I’m supposed to do. But are my motives less than pure?

Ch. 28 – In the Absence of Kneeling Dragons: I return home from my mission many months early to a very different world.

Ch. 29 – The Shoulders: The house has been overrun with mourners, and I doubt very much all of them are there for the right reasons.

Ch. 30 – Speaker for the Dead: Mom has asked me to speak at Dad’s funeral, but I have no idea what to say. A forgotten recording reveals Dad’s feelings about the shooting in his own words and confuses me further as I wrestle with his contradictions.

Ch. 31 – The Eyes of a Dead Man: The day of the funeral has arrived and it’s my turn to speak.

Ch. 32 – Grounded: It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’m home. Should I stay home and not return to the mission?

Ch. 33 – Life After Death: It’s been a long week. Two moments stand out in particular, putting everything else into perspective.

Epilogue: Decades have passed. What happened to me? To my family? What’s the takeaway?

Why take it all down? Because:

I’m just going to do it. At the encouragement of my wife and a few of you, I’m changing the name of the book to The Other Side of Fear and I’m shopping it out…again. After 7 years.

RBDM CH 33E copy

The funny thing is that The Other Side of Fear is SUCH a better title and I don’t know why I never thought of it. That’s really what the book is about: what is on the other side of the worst thing thing you can imagine happening? This is such a theme in my life (and I’m sure many others). I have faced down my worst fears many times–literally the worst things I could think of–and you know what’s on other side of that? Peace. Quite honestly, it’s peace. The worst thing is never so bad as you imagine it to be, and you can never anticipate the ways you will grow and learn and change from those awful happenings. Calamity is how God operates on us. It’s how He fixes us into who we should be (but only if we allow it). And that’s a good thing. That’s what’s on the other side of fear: good things.

Maybe the syncing up of all this with the coronavirus is nothing, but it feels oddly right and clarifying. I’ve been in the house for two solid weeks now, and despite the occasional passing panic when I give into the temptation, I don’t really have any trouble centering myself. There’s a great freedom in knowing the universe will you up at any given moment and that you can take that beating and emerge victorious.

So, into the world this book goes once more. Maybe it will find a home, or maybe it won’t and I’ll get beat up again. Whatever happens, I’ve certainly got enough time on my hands to find out.

23 Years Ago Today…

I can’t let this day go by without acknowledging it. 23 years ago today my father was shot twelve times in an armed robbery and my life and the lives of my family were changed forever. And, in my estimation, for the better.

Here’s a couple of videos showing what happened that day.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I wrote my book, Raised By a Dead Man. Because of that, and because there’s so much more story to tell. Thanks for remembering with me.

15 Years Ago Today

A still from the segment on "Rescue 911" that featured Dad's story

Today marks the 15th Anniversary of my father’s death. This is insane because I was 19-years-old when he died. (I’ll wait while you do the math.) I’m fast approaching a time when it will be longer since he’s been gone than the time I had with him. And yet, in a lot of ways, it feels like his death was just last week.

Coincidentally, I wrapped up my latest revision of the manuscript for my memoir today. (I’m not yet ready to talk about WHY I did another revision, but suffice it to say that this is a significant day for more than one reason.) The one passage I think I’ve struggled with the most over the course of my many, many rewrites hasbeen the one where I describe my thoughts and feelings immediately after finding out Dad had been killed.

For those of you that remain unaware (and, as often as I freely talk about it, that’s almost hard to believe), my father was killed in an armed robbery at his store 8 years after surviving a previous armed robbery. At the same store. Sometimes, lightning does strike twice. (Especially if you sell guns.)

Getting down on paper the various odd, monumental, despairing, uplifting, cynical, hateful, joyful and, ultimately, peaceful things that went through my head that night has just been an absolutely huge challenge. How do you take people on that journey with you? What words could possibly communicate those feelings? It helps that my memory of that night is about as clear as any memory I have, but still… it’s been a challenge.

I was in a unique situation when it happened. I hadn’t actually seen him in the flesh for 10 months.  I was serving as a missionary in Arizona, off in my own little world of cacti, no grass and a big, hot sun. When the call came in, I had just gotten home from a long day of knocking on doors and riding my bike and looking ridiculous with my helmet and tie ensemble. I couldn’t have been more shocked by the news–nor less surprised.

Dad always said he was going to die relatively young. He insisted he wouldn’t get to see all of his sons reach maturity. I’m the oldest of my four brothers and the youngest of us when he died was 9. (Hi, Tyler.) Everybody thinks bad things happen to other people. I grew up thinking we were the other people. It was kinda true. That’s a lot of what the book is about–what Dad knew and how that changed the way I saw the world and how much of a gift it was when he was finally taken from us. A bad thing does not always equal “a bad thing.”

There’s a hope and a responsibility that comes with knowing, and I’m glad Dad had the wisdom to tell us what was coming. My life hasn’t been the same since, but I can’t honestly say it’s been for the worse. Dad’s death marked a moment in my life when I stopped being who I was and became someone else entirely. We don’t get many moments like that, but when they come–however they come–they are an opportunity, I think. To grow, to change, to reassess, to gain empathy and understanding and experience. I hope I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity fully. I think that’s pretty much the point to life in general.

I’ll go visit his gravesite later today. I know he’s not there, but that’s as good a place as any to reflect and remember. And to be grateful.