Richard C. Murphy, PhD

Difficult Times

I calmly walk into the bathroom where my dad is in a drunken rage, yelling at my mother.  I yell at the top of my  lungs, “I hate your guts.”  The response is predictable and my plan is working.  He abandons my mom and goes after me.  I run and slam a door behind me.  He runs into it, giving me a bit of distance.  I run to my bedroom, slam the door, and jump out of the window, where I had removed the screen.  He is now further behind and is unlikely in his state, to make it out the window.  He is out the front door yelling that he won’t take any crap from a snot nosed kid and that he is going to whip my ass.  I’m laughing and challenging him to catch me if he can.  My mother is at the door, horrified, pleading with us to calm down.. think of the neighbors.

One day my mother picked me up from school and said there had been an accident.   While measuring the level of oil in a large petroleum tank, the ladder my dad was perched on slipped and he fell.  It was probably a story or two high and he shattered his leg.  A few days later he was released from the hospital and came home to be strung up in a hospital bed with a trapeze like system that elevated his leg.  Recovery was slow and my mom had to go to work to support the family as we had no insurance of any kind.  The best option was to be an Avon Lady so she could have flexible hours to take care of us.  Eventually my dad recovered but had a limp he called his “flat wheel.”  He returned to driving a truck in construction but things had changed.

After my dad had mobility we returned to the after work beach ritual but now after a few weeks of no income while he was recovering, hospital bills, and payments on the new car he was different.  The omnipotent and charismatic adventurer was a damaged man leading a mundane life and hating it.  Adventures of somewhere else dissolved into the pitiful reality of a man ill-suited for the relatively sedentary life of a truck driver and construction worker. Rationalizing his plight as a victim of forces beyond his control he became a fallen hero humiliated by his own inability to adapt and succeed in an artificial world called civilization.  He had been able to survive and succeed in the natural world, the real world as he called it, and in other cultures where people lived close to nature.  He was a good survivor, hunting, fishing, and working with local people.  But city life where one needed an “education” was not something he had prepared himself for. 

Drink offered escape into the past where he was a hero who had met challenges and thrived. He was smart and tough.  He took advantage of those qualities to explore the ocean and far off lands.   Now in a city, his skills and experiences were not marketable.  Here his options were limited and he would be reduced to reliving past adventures.  The first few times I heard a story I was captivated but after many reiterations, I grew sick of what seemed to be excuses for the present life.

In those days we still went to the beach to body surf but now as we returned home from the beach the atmosphere was dark and one had to be extremely careful. The smallest misstatement was likely to set off an onslaught of abuse.  This was a time for caution.  My mother could see it in his eyes and we both knew that a difficult night was about to begin.

He had a “short temper” and was explosive in his reaction to just about anything that did not meet his approval.  Yelling, insults, slammed doors, and exaggeration became almost common. In later years I remember coming home from school, seeing his car, and getting the feeling in my stomach one has when one goes into a final knowing one is going to fail. I felt sick. The next morning after one of his vitriolic outbursts he was cheerful and apparently apologetic, even though he never apologized.  If it was a weekend he would be happy to drive my buddies and me to a surf spot from Huntington Beach all the way down to Tressles at Camp Pendleton.  He would  bring his bottle of hard cider and a fishing pole.  If eyebrows were raised by my buddies, he calmed their fears by saying, “Its ok this is only hard cider.”  They thought this was very funny. By the time we finished surfing he was happily intoxicated and entertained us, at least them, with stories of his past.  For me, they were the same old stories I had heard far too many times before.

In spite of the negative side of his drinking, there was a funny and creative side.  He loved words, as did my mom, and he always had something to contribute.   If it was taking another swig, he might make a toast but instead of salut, to your health, or here’s mud in your eye, it was “Salud a patuse, a viva la pupula fache.  Atostu gotsa.”  I once asked him what does this really mean and he said he did not know.  Another interesting one liner was, “Bosco, the dog faced boy, eats ‘em alive.”  I asked who was Bosco and what did he eat.  He did not know.  One of his favorite poems was, “The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were full of blisters. He climbed aloft, his pants fell off and now he wears his sisters.”  Another was, “Captain Fadink of the Horse Marines, fed his wife on pork and beans. She popped all night.  She pooped all day.  And she finally pooped herself away.”

All of this was fun in the beginning then sort of fun with my friends but by the end I hated all of this BS.  But he was the only parent willing to drive us surfing so it was all tolerable and I took advantage of his generosity.  In fact, he loved me and he loved being there to take us off to enjoy the ocean.  My friends were polite and appreciative and they were a good audience.  At least during those times, we all were winners.

Back home it was a totally unpredictable roller coaster.  Would this be a happy evening or a war zone?  We never knew. When I was really young she was a Cub Scout den mother, she helped me work on my Scout merit badges, and took our den to local industries for an educational experience. She never complained and many times explained to me that my father was stressed and that he did not mean the hurtful things he said.   That was certainly logical but totally irrelevant to a little kid who has had a big bully of a father go off on him.

Often in his fits of rage he would start yelling at me and make me cry.  That would escalate things and he would tell me to quit my sniveling or he would really give me something to cry about.  At other times he would say that if I kept crying he would dress me up in girls’ clothes with a slip, dress, and pink ribbons.  As a little kid, before the teenage years, I really thought he might do this, which, of course, made me cry more.  After a particularly mean and hurtful session, the next day he was happy and nice, apparently as an apology or to get me back as his ‘chum.”  But after a few years of this, I had enough.  I remember saying to my mother that I would not let him back in as my pal. The roller coaster was too much – I just switched off. I could not trust him to stay nice and his gestures of driving us surfing and such were totally inadequate to compensate for the hurt.  After that I hated him and vowed never give in to his post outrage offers of friendship.  My decision was final – it was over!

Financially things were not good.  I still don’t know why two people with jobs could not manage their finances.  They took out loans, and then loans to consolidate the other loans.  The worst was one evening when the doorbell rang and a guy from some collection company asked if Mr. Murphy was home.  My dad said yes and asked what was up.  The guy said the loans were long past due and as a result he had been hired to take away our furniture.  This really freaked me out, to think that our furniture was going away, and we were to live in a house with no furniture.  An unthinkable future played out in my mind – I couldn’t have friends over, I would have to sleep on the floor, I wouldn’t have a desk to do my homework on, no dinners at a table.. and on and on.  Although this dramatic scenario never took place, the event shook my foundation and made me think very hard about who these people were and what I needed to do to avoid being like them.  I thought they were stupid and vowed never to let myself fall into such a situation. I still can feel the fear, insecurity, and anger.  I made a decision, a decision in concrete, – I was going to get an education, earn a good living, and have economic security.  I wanted to have adventures but after I had taken care of my future. I would never allow myself to fall into the economic pit my parents descended into.

As I got older his going off on me had less of an impact because I had a life outside of home.  By the age of 11 I had a paper route and earned enough money over a few years to buy a boat.  This was my exit strategy to get out on the ocean to water ski, dive for fish, and just hang out with others my age who also had boats.  Since I could not look to my parents for spending money, I realized that the more I could earn the more freedom I had.  This was a major motivation to  work, particularly as things got worse at home. I ended up having to get a lock on my paper route collection box because my dad would steal my money to buy booze.  I could not believe that a father would seal from his son.  What a jerk!

By the time I was in my mid-teens, my dad had quit working.  He went fishing every day and drank a lot.  This really pissed me off because it meant my mom was working to support us all.  What kind of a lazy bastard was he, to do absolutely nothing while my mother worked her ass off to support us? When I was 16 and got a car, I got other jobs and ended up supporting myself except for a place to live and food.  I paid for all of my clothes, gas, insurance, and other stuff.  Things were getting worse and worse. 

His abuse continued to escalate and one night when he was on a tirade, yelling at my mom, I had enough.  I was still intimated by him physically so trying to take him down was not an option I considered. But I felt the need to get him to stop yelling at my mom.  I made a plan.  First I drove my car a block away and parked it.  Then I took the screen off my bedroom window.  Then I went in to the room where he was having a melt down and yelled at the top of my lungs that I hated his guts.  Predictably this diverted his anger from my mom to me.  Perfect, I succeeded!  As he went to grab me and “whip my ass” I ran to another room slamming the door behind me.  He, being drunk, ran into the door.  Once open, he followed me into my bedroom with that door slammed in his face. He opened that but by then I was out the window, which was a real challenge for a drunk, and he went out the front door to catch me. By then I was running down the street yelling to him to “come get me if you can get your ass in motion.”  My mother was at the front door pleading to us both to be quiet, think of the neighbors.  What a pitiful circus.  I slept in my car and the next evening everything was calm.  Neither my dad nor I gave a shit about the neighbors but my poor mom was totally humiliated.  She did not deserve this crap particularly since she was the one who earned the money he spent to by booze

I watched my mom become more and more stressed both from real work and from the situation at home.  She was the nicest and most generous person I have ever met. She never complained, she had compassion for my poor alcoholic father, she loved him, and she did what was necessary for us all to survive. On the other hand, by that time I had zero compassion, infinite anger and resentment, and did everything I could to make my dad as miserable as my mother and I were.  I shunned him and made critical comments whenever the occasion arose.  As he would launch into one of his stories, that I had heard far too many times, I would point out a flaw in his logic or explain that he was incorrect on some fact about the ocean. He did not like being corrected and often retaliated, yelling, “Listen, smart ass, I have forgotten more about the ocean than you will ever know!” I made no verbal response but my face and body language clearly communicated disdain and contempt.  I was generally as obnoxious as a teenager could be (which can be pretty obnoxious).

After a few more dramatic episodes I made a decision.  I told my mother that either he was out or I was out BUT I would not live in this sick environment. I said, “He is killing you but I will not let him kill me. I won’t live like this!  Either divorce him and kick him out of the house, or I’ll move out and live on my own. I have a job and will survive just fine.”  Predictably, my mother was horrified and hurt.  But she could see I was very very serious.  What a terrible position I put her in – to have to choose between your son or the husband you still love.  I did not want to hurt her but I felt I was doing this as much for her as me. I had a life outside of home, she did not.  She was trapped with no alternatives that I could see.  I was certain I was doing the right thing for her.  I’ll never forget the day she told him.  He was devastated and so was she.  I felt sick – sick with empathy for them both because they did love each other and sick that he was such a pitiful vestige of the real man he used to be.  There were no winners, we all lost.  

I saw him once after that. I came home from college and found him in my mother’s apartment.  I had a complete melt down and told him to get the hell out and never come back.  By then I was physically comfortable taking him on so my anger had no limits.  He raised some objection and I got in his face and said, “leave now or get your alcoholic ass kicked all the way down the stairs.  Do it now!” As he moved toward the door, I grabbed a carving knife and followed.  Part way down he stopped to give me some more of the old shit I had heard all my life and I put the knife to his face.  Very very calmly I said, “I’m a college boy and you are an old drunk.  I’m just about ready to stick this in your gut.  As you get carted off to the hospital who do you think the police will believe caused this you or me?  Now get your drunken ass out of here and never come back!”  I felt not one iota of remorse! That was the last time I spoke to my father but not the last time I thought about him.