Now, I have spent the holiday season locked up, locked out and over there, but my strangest holiday was Thanksgiving in the orphanage.
My grandmother wanted to name me Dudley Dwight. Thank God that didn’t wash, but if the truth be known my grandmother was the anchor of our family. After her passing my brothers and I moved quickly from being mere children of divorce, to hyper-speed dysfunctional, to the hard landing of becoming wards of the state. This change of status was accompanied by all attended trappings: foster homes, boarding school, institutions and the like, until, eventually, in my 16th year, I was in route to an orphanage in McKeesport, PA.
I began this journey with another hard ass criminal named Craig. We shared the same offense status, having both been found guilty of having nowhere to go. So we were handcuffed and leg shackled to and in the backseat of a mid-sixties black and chrome less Ford station wagon.
It was mid-October and the weather was right out of central casting: all gloom and doom, the sky, a new bruise gray. There were intermittent showers to further the atmosphere. The dick head driving was a dick head; enough said, as he immediately laid down the law of no talking. So Craig and I sat silent and shackled for four hundred miles.
And, en passant, what’s the use of being an orphan if you can’t have one dark and destitute Thanksgiving? Don’t you folks read Dickens?
About a month later, this little roundball cutie of a social worker called all 80 or so of us orphans together. Her pitch was with Thanksgiving coming up, fine and friendly families had been recruited to provide each and every one us that recipe of Thanksgiving: turkey, family and football.
Old time orphans were familiar with this drill, but I detested it right away. These people were strangers, nice folks maybe, but strangers nonetheless. And I was tired of being pawned off on strangers.
And, en passant, what’s the use of being an orphan if you can’t have one dark and destitute Thanksgiving? Don’t you folks read Dickens? It’s Thanksgiving; bring on the grub or the gruel, but just don’t pass us around. That’s what I was thinking, but this is what I proffered:
I don’t know these people, and what I like about most about Thanksgiving is not white meat or cranberries, but that it’s a day to be comfortable. At ease, get it? I’m sixteen and I’m not comfortable anywhere, anyhow, at anytime, so hell, no, I won’t go.
Well this took Miss Butterball aback, as no one previously had balked at this turkey of an idea. I mean, think about: come Thanksgiving day, the orphan all duded up meets fine folks for the first time and off we go to the family feast. Forget it. At sixteen the only drumstick that concerned me was the perpetual one in my pants.
Now to make matters worse for miss social worker and the support staff, Craig, my aforementioned partner in crime, was quick to join the revolution. We were roommates, after all, and both sons of the Old Dominion. Well, after a bit of browbeating and repeated warnings of “no Thanksgiving meals available,” they acquiesced and said it would be O.K. if Craig and I stayed “home” for Thanksgiving.
Came the day in question, and after all orphans but two had departed, Craig and I shared cold turkey sandwiches, potato chips and an obligatory can of cranberry sauce. It was a blast and so did our stereo. There was no one to bother about volume.
Toward sundown we both were feeling a bit melancholy and talk turned to our families, or lack thereof. Craig was an only child and he was curious about what it was like to have a brother. He had bought the cliche that brothers always fight.
I told him my brother, Brad, two years my junior, and I never fought. I quickly amended that, recalling the Rolling Stones Riot. Seems Brad, a brilliant and introverted kid, not known to suffer fools, was tired of my thirty-some straight playings of The Rolling Stones song, “The Under assistant West Coast Promo Man.” Later, during a break from all day, same song, air guitar and while I was preoccupied in the bathroom, Brad broke western, removed the Stones from the record player and smashed those limeys to pieces.
I caught him in the act and admit it got physical. Basically I just yelled at Brad, and restrained him. I shoved him back into his room. This escalated his anger. He couldn’t hit me so he swung and hit his reflection in a mirror, shattering it and pulling back a fistful of glass shards. I drove him, without license, to a nearby doctor for quick repair.
I told Craig he was lucky; that in the circumstances we found ourselves, being an only child was probably best. There was less emotional second guessing, outside concerns, and guilt.
I was the oldest son. My brothers had been my responsibility. We were abandoned when I was thirteen years old. For five months my brothers and I lived alone. The neighbors got wise, clued the cops, then we quickly found ourselves in some “beyond parental control” purgatory. I felt I had let my brothers down. They were in foster care and both detested it.
I was convinced, I told Craig, that I had missed or misread an option, that I was too damn smart to have allowed all this to have happened to my little brothers. Obviously I wasn’t smart enough.
It was the first time I had admitted such feelings. Craig thought blaming myself was bullshit, but he was quick to agree that he understood why I felt that way. See, I was right. I couldn’t have shared that kind of talk around a stranger’s table on Thanksgiving. You need to feel comfortable on Thanksgiving and I had achieved that. Craig gave the music more volume. Rock and roll.
No longer would children in the Old Dominion be treated as criminal solely for having irresponsible parents.
At the orphanage I had a few more policy battles. I won some and lost some, but all in all it wasn’t such a bad deal. I wasn’t there long. About six months after that Thanksgiving, my brother Brad became the first ever emancipated minor from our home state. Brad’s victory was alphabetical only. I was really the first.
A lawsuit had been decided. No longer would children in the Old Dominion be treated as criminal solely for having irresponsible parents. No more handcuffs, nor shackles; and no more orphanage. I was out of there that day. Two months before my seventeenth birthday I was on my own. I caught a train. Next stop, Mrs. Patterson’s “Rooms for Rent“ on Grove Avenue in Richmond, VA. She was expecting me.
By the way, about my brother Brad. Well, right before he was forty years old, the gutless little son-of-a-bitch drove three hundred miles to Kentucky. He rented a cabin and killed himself. What a selfish, spiteful, hateful thing to do. I will never forgive him.