I came into this world through the usual channels, navigating vaginal walls, into the loving arms of a mother (probably the swatting hands of an obstetrician first) with whom I would not be reunited with for eighteen years. My best guess is that I spent, after release from a St. Paul hospital at which I was unceremoniously circumcised, two weeks in some type of foster home. Waiting to be adopted, too young to care why I was there waiting, the agency Childrens' Home Society was on my case. In February 1965, I was the choice of a thirtyish Jewish couple and their naturally born 2-year-old daughter. Fred was from Germany. He had come here, narrowly escaping Hitler, with his family in 1939. Barbara was from New York, had descended from Russian Jews, and she and Fred arrived in Minnesota in 1959.
Richfield in 1965 was far from the progressive Minneapolis suburb it is today. When I went to high school there in 1981, I was one of the few students of color and, aside from a visually impaired kid, the only disabled one. I go there today and the white kids I called my friends then are now the minority. When I, the first and only born of a brief affair between a black man and a white woman, came into the Amram's house I raised the level of progressiveness. As February of 1965 brought bombs raining down on North Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement was irritated. Right or wrong, productive or counter-wise, it was accelerated. Fred and Barbara were progressive in a word, the quintessential follow-the-rules activist. If they were opportunists or altruists, they got out the word, they got the job done. In their early years in Minnesota, the marched for civil rights. In one instance, at a 1966 rally at the capitol, I was pushed in a stroller as my dad marched.
For many, the War in Vietnam shed a napalm cloud over the Civil Rights Movement. The fires now offended three races. The war was corrupt from its roots in French-Indochina. My parents came to Minnesota at the right time to get in on the ground floor of each arbitration. They were progressive in mind and in politics (both had supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for president in 1948), I was progressive in just my physical being on our all white block on Aldrich Avenue. It can't be genetic as in a physical trait, but culturally their progressiveness rubbed off on me. And, decades later, upon meeting and forging a relationship with my biological mother, I found that, although being of the Woodstock generation, she was at least as progressive as Barbara. In November 1967, when our senator Gene McCarthy agreed to seek the Democratic nomination for president as an anti-war candidate, Fred and Barbara were two of the professionals, the intellectuals, working with hundreds, maybe thousands of students, draft resisters, hippies turned Yippies, who were “clean for Gene.” I grew up in a house (detailed in 2017's Ten Years and Change: A Liberal Boyhood in Minnesota) that was infused with the brief but intense McCarthy campaign, the war and its influential aftermath. Around 2015, through social networking, I made a connection with a very skeptical half-sister and, through her, my locally living half- brother. I arranged a meeting with him. During our brief meeting I learned a fair amount about our father, some of which told me who he was politically. My biological father had worked for South Dakota Senator George McGovern in his 1968 and 1972 campaigns for president. To me that is not progressive. It is quite liberal, but my biological father was not a McCarthy Democrat. On hindsight I guess the difference is negligible. Both opposed Humphrey and the hawkish ways he tended to for the appeasement of his boss, President Johnson. My dad, Fred, was a McCarthy delegate at the '68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He, a five-year-old witness to the actual Gestapo, was within earshot as Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff ranted, in nominating his candidate, “And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” The senator was of course referring to the police riots that were going on outside the convention's amphitheater.
Shadows in summertime belonged to the maple tree in our front yard. As the days dwindled down to an impending fall, so did the tree's seeds in their pods like helicopters. An awning had slotted aluminum and watched over the front step of our rambler. On one side of the house, on the window of the room where I shared a room with my sister, was a shade that caught the shadow of winded lilac pedals escaping their source in the corner of our backyard. For at least three summers, before my life's trajectory changed, there was a commonality. There were friends out all the time, in the evening, when the gnats and plastic wiffle ball bats got in your eye. It was when anything could happen, when the immediate neighborhood condoned our play, our antics, the nightly quests to infuse infinity with the merits of today. We tramped the block, policing our quarters, looking to make a buck for our chores. And then, when the sun had painted the sky an amber fading to blue, when crows instinctively knew what guarded our block from marauding cars, from the spaces in the maples that parted on cue, we'd collect on the lawn of her house. The girl with the three older brothers I never knew, who babysat for me and sis sometimes, was usually doing something in the garage—perhaps waiting for us younger kids. She gave use rides, one at a time, like at an amusement park, spinning us from her tanned arms. Our screams felt oblivion as we neared, as we came closer to exhaustion, as did she.
In the winter of 1971, a car came down 73rd in Aldrich Avenue. Things changed. It was in front of our house, more or less, in front of the girl's house who had provided those halcyon evenings of spinning fun. The blow checked be out of this world for six weeks, I rested with my childhood undone. I had random brain activity, like fuzz on a television. It flickered, my eyes darted aimlessly, tirelessly, as the Vietnam War escalated. In 1971 veterans gathered in Detroit, on my sixth birthday, for war crimes to be investigated. From March 1971 until I could walk on my own, my winters and summers were spent rehabilitating and getting to know my dad in probably the tightest bond we had before or since.
The lapping sounds of Mile Lacs Lake spoke to me. U.S. 169 fed into the abysmal giant like a parched tributary. Our abruptly swayed car sampled the creature comforts of the swallowed town of Garrison, with Ojibwa moccasin feet dancing around the fish that hid in tall grass. The heads of fish waited in rusty tin pans outside shuttered homes for neighborhood dogs. For my two cents, for the development of my sixth sense for that fishy smell, Mile Lacs was the denominator. It separated measured time, time that lasts for its increments. South of it existed a life of pressure, of commitment, of responsibility, of affluence. North of it lived a life of whimsy, an uncalulated world, endless summers of living life by the drop. The human eye could not see across it and for me, at six, peering over the backseat of a station wagon, it looked every bit more infinitesimal. Air was insulted in the cabin land of ore, red stains on tire and rusty iron smell and then the brined breeze to dissipate it all, I anticipated the loon's call. It became clock-work, two and a half hours from the cities. We arrived as the sun was in its final setting throes, deep orange conniptions casting lures over Tame Fish Lake, its adjustments, its catnip for loons. We arrived hearing the calls of water skiers on their final runs, the outboards gurgling on their last siphon of gas. That is where I learned to walk again. It was harder the second time.
Callings in life rarely manifest themselves, and my true passion was not apparent to me. After a high school experience which left me sure of my verbal ability, I enrolled at Winona State University. If for nothing better, to be away from a home dynamic that was combustible, conducive to my rebellion. I may have favored English courses more, lending them my full attention and getting better grades than I did in anything else. Writing was on the wall. Still, by my sophomore year in 1985 I had declared sociology as my major area of study. I remember an exercise in one class that asked us to write where we saw ourselves in five years. I thought of the Bob Newhart Show in the '70s. His character's life was how I saw myself in the future, by 1990. I wanted to live in a high-rise apartment, have a beautiful working wife like Emily, get to my own work by public transportation, and be a noted psychologist. WSU is not a school for me, for someone who is not numerically inclined. Math, either by nature or subconscious resistance, is out of my command to learn. WSU had a general requirement. I went north. The University of Minnesota in Duluth had no math requirement in their liberal arts program. I filed the proper papers and transferred to UMD. All was on track, group dynamics, general psychology, basic sociology courses, and then statistics hit. I was spooked and took a sabbatical. I needed time off to regroup, to find my true passion, what had collected dust on the wall, had been calling out in glib voices from little witticisms I'd put on my dorm room door at WSU. Maybe going back was a mistake, and the tools to be a writer could have somewhat more cheaply been acquired by attending classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I returned in the fall of 1987. I read the classics. Atrocious poetry was coaxed from a mind hell-bent at becoming a writer. I was prolific out of a sheer need to be. I took creative writing courses to learn the current mechanics of writing, of story formations, of the types of conflict people like to read. I muscled through, even faring satisfactorily in a summer school course in botany, which did require the slightest of analytic thinking. I found myself in Minneapolis in 1990, in urban decay, in the drug-free zone of the Stevens Community. For four years I lived among the panhandlers and lesser pussy prostitutes. On most corners, under a nefarious awning, existed a check cashing outlet, a government repository for welfare mothers, who usually turned tricks in-between checks. At night I was serenaded, my ear was tuned to the imminence of a siren filling the night with sound, red, and blue, careening toward a fight or the local crack house. It wasn't by choice that I lived there. My second job post-college was at a transitional care center in the area, what the local cops said was the worst crime location in Minneapolis. At 25, who worries about getting shot. I don't drive, and in my zeal to write, frown on taking more time out of my day on public transportation. Logistically, situationally, living in that area was my fate. In the time I spent in that den of iniquities I was mugged only once. For a writer it was an experience I'll always see as valuable. I saw how a whole other section of society lived, one I would never see in Richfield, at least not outside my door. I was in it, the thick of inner-city plight, as portrayed in the poem “The Hustler” (Scenes the Writer Shows, Trafford, 2013).
My first publication was in a minuscule, likely out-of-print, journal called the Unicorn Reader out of Manitoba. This was in 1998 after my third post college job at a health club. I saw that the club opened each day. I let in the Yuppies, the tight-faced runners, and the hush-puppies. The latter consisted of the septu and octogenarians, the often bitchy, impossible-to-please whirlpool sages. One such habitual complainer we dubbed “the ogre,” need I say more. I kept a journal of my days at the club and pieced together half a dozen short stories. One—The Den of Antiquities—was published. I was elated! Someone recognized me work, my years of infatuation with the written word and how it can be presented. When people, at the turn of the century, thought the electronic world as they knew it was going to collapse, I felt more inclined to write than ever. I partied like it was 1999! If the grid had crashed, I'd have had evidence of a thriving and optimistic civilization, one though with doubts, in its beginning, about the mortality of its technology. A few more publications scattered the years. Inspired by 9/11, exhausted by the religious and faith bound connection to so much evil, blood, deception, molestation, I felt it was high time someone at least present a tally, a scoreboard of the positive effects of religion versus the negative. Would God Move a Ping-Pong Table: A Cumulative Analysis of Faith & Religion (Loft Press, 2006) I regard as a throw-away. I was chomping at the bit to write something substantive. Except for a chapter from which the title is derived, based on true events, the book is dry, filled with theory and conjecture, with mind-numbing facts describing the bloody, often counter-productive, path faith and religion have taken from The Crusades to September 11,2001. If the book generates any kind of following, it will most likely be of the occult type.
Every writer thinks they have the “great American novel” in them. Many have. I did not, at least at age 49. The title Agent of Orange (Trafford, 2014) was a word-play that is missed by most. It had nothing to do with the debilitating chemical used to remove foliage in Vietnam. The words were separated by the preposition “of” which tells a much more unique story. The main character, the male protagonist, Corporal Chauncy McClarren, is an angry veteran of the Vietnam War. His anger is less for his experience (he enlisted) and his thankless homecoming than it is for his awful childhood and the way he is given—or thinks he is given—false leads and false hopes when he goes in search of his biological parents. He is a gentleman, having been reformed by the US Marines from the resentful biracial man that his upbringing in early 60s northern California had made him. Chauncy is methodical. He is fastidious and accepts nothing at face value. His exploits take him from the U.S. to the Caribbean, to Germany from the U.S. and back more than twice. Each place he goes, picks clues to his past, or present, he arranges things so they are coherent, legible, traceable to him. He is a “gent of arrange.” The book has auto-bibliographic tendencies. I dedicate it to my biological father and the “biracial sons who sometimes feel a need to know their other half.” At the time I did not know much about him, and the little I did know was only because he had achieved modest celebrity playing football here in Minnesota, and later in a professional career. My story posed a search for a couple that had had an illicit interracial affair, a generation born out of the black men who mingled with German women, a race in Nazi Germany known as Reinlandbastards.
For all I knew, there was plenty of ladder left to climb. I consider each success as one rung closer in my Jacobean ascent. As a member of a Loft writers group, I was chosen to read my poetry at their 2015 dedication as an International Peace Site. It's like that, each vague, tiny recognition of my ability as a poet or writer to a community is assurance that I am not writing in vain. My book Ten Years and Change: A Liberal Boyhood in Minnesota (Calumet/Wisdom Editions, 2017) was nominated for the 2018 Minnesota book award. Like the actors say, it is an honor just to be nominated. Calumet submitted it. They thought it was something to be considered in the category of Minnesota nonfiction. From my beginnings, in the imbue of civil rights and watching—and later participating—in ending the War in Vietnam, politics has been second nature to me. The last book and the manuscript I just finished have political themes. It seeps in, if only unconsciously. I don't know if that means one is constantly at odds with the world, often just tickling windmills in provocation. Maybe it is the grand conflict of man against the nature of man, the continuous struggle, the dichotomous ruin. Its the level of conflict that's abundantly inherent, implied and complied with for the sake of humanity's existence. There is much to be said, to be written, communicated in one of the many mediums technology offers. I choose books.