(or, How I grew up in 1950’s California in a dysfunctional family that belonged to an “End of the World” religious cult.)
I’ll try to keep it brief, strain out the more tasty morsels from which you can deduce the sense of the broth they come from.
The family unit in those days consisted of Dad, Mom, me and my younger sister, Bizzy Bee. We were not lower middle class, we were poor. In 1952 we moved into a cold water 3 room shack with an outdoor toilet. It was situated in a grove of eucalyptus trees about 20 miles outside downtown Los Angeles in the San Fernando valley. I was 7 and my sister was 5. I was put into the first grade in the middle of the semester . No such thing as kindergarten or pre-school in my family. My first memory of school was when I was escorted to a classroom of 30 children which interrupted the lesson. 30 pairs of eyes watched me as I was led to the rug in front of the teacher. The teacher introduced me to the class. At her prompting they all said “hi, Gregor” in unison. I was very aware of my shabby clothes and shoes at that moment and was relieved when finally allowed to sit down among the boys on the rug.
The next day the morning began with the flag salute. I had been instructed over and over by my parents that I was not to salute the flag. If I were to participate in ‘idolatry’ I would be destroyed at Armageddon instead of living forever with lions and tigers for pets. So, I didn’t. I stood at attention with the group but with my hands at my sides and my lips not moving. Heads began to turn and whispers of “why aren’t you saluting the flag?” soon got the teachers attention. She had been told the situation and seemed to take an attitude of cold tolerance for the little Jehovah Witness boy. How long is the flag salute? Less than 15 seconds. I counted every one of them, every morning for the next 11 years when I finally quit school 8 months before graduation.
My mother had been pulled out of 4 th grade in the 1930’s due to what was called “persecution”, that is to say that in those days not saluting the flag had not been before the Supreme Court and many school teachers would not accommodate JW beliefs. Her family didn’t see the value of an education anyway due to the short time left until Armageddon.
In the early 40’s Dad was declared 4-F due to a heart murmer and was not drafted. His 3 brothers all went to prison (about 2 yrs) for refusing to be drafted or even serve as conscientious objectors (CO’s were given non combat jobs, such as hospital work). But the leaders of the cult decided that this would still amount to supporting the military and it was not acceptable.
There was an incident in the early days of WWII, when patriotic furvor was peaking that proved to have an affect on my life over many years, maybe it still does. My father and his cousin were standing on a sidewalk in the shopping area of a small town offering the Watchtower and Consolation magazines to passersby. A mob soon gathered and beat the hell out of them. Dad fell against the curb and was knocked unconscious.
He soon began to exhibit symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and was hospitalized. About a year after this, at age 24, he met and married my mother who was 15 at the time. I was born two years later in 1945.
Shortly after the birth of my sister in 1948, Dad suffered a relapse and was again hospitalized. He underwent dozens of electro-shock treatments.
One of my earliest memories of him is the evening my grandfather, mom, infant sister and I picked him up after his discharge from the state mental institution in Stockton, Ca. He got in the front seat of the car and I observed him from the backseat while he and my grandfather talked. He was a stranger to me then and pretty much remained a stranger the rest of my life. He stilled professed the JW doctrine but he never was considered “zealous” by the rest of the extended family. All were devout, active witnesses.
Dad would hold down a job for awhile and then move to another. He used alcohol to deal with his demons but the alcohol only brought out his deep anger and bitterness about life in general. He was a mean drunk.
In the summer of1953 my grandparents came and picked us up at the eucalyptus grove house in grandads 1952 Mercury sedan and the six of us drove across the US to New York city for the eight day international Jehovah’s Witness convention at Yankee Stadium. We went into the Bronx stadium just one day and listened to the rest of the convention over loudspeakers in a mud-swamped tent city in New Jersey. Though I was only seven, I picked up on the palpable enthusiasm of my family after this immersion in cult diatribes for eight days. The New World would be here soon! No more of the wicked old system of things. To me this meant no more poverty. No more of dad’s drunken rages.
We returned from New York. Grandad and Grandma waved goodbye and we resumed our humble lives. A couple of years later we moved to another rental house in the nearby community of Sylmar. I went through the standard misery of starting in a new school. Dad continued his routine of holding down a factory job during the week and then bringing home a few quarts of beer on Friday. Setting at the kitchen table he would grimly work through the beer while mom hovered around him trying to get him to eat dinner. About halfway through the beer he began to transform from Dr. Jeckel to Mr. Hyde. This was about the time my sister and I would go to our little room. We knew what was coming. But we couldn’t escape the horrible sounds of dad’s ranting and mom’s crying and pleading. One incident that will stay with me forever began one night when there was a terrible scream from mom, angry guttural curses from dad followed by the crashing sound of plates and glasses being thrown. It seemed to never end and my sister and I clung to each other, feeling more terror than usual. Then dad threw open the door to our room and stood there swaying with blood pouring down the side of his face. With a burning glare in his eyes he said in a low growl, “All you sonsabitches can kiss my royal red ass!” SLAM! Went the door as he returned to slapping mom around. Sis and I, the 9 and 12 year old “sonsabitches”, trembled.
The blood came from a wound in which he lost a chunk of his ear when he banged into an open cupboard door. In years to come the little notch at the top of his ear made it impossible to forget that evening. But the sequel was even worse.
A couple of months later, after his ear had healed and the scab was gone, it was yet another Friday night of horror. From our room as we listened to the usual shouting and crying came a blood curdling scream from mom as she began to shout, “NO! Quentin, NO!”
As a 12 year old boy I was traumatized by the impulse to run help my mother but at the same time absolutely terrified to confront my father. Sometimes my feisty little sister would shout through the door, “you leave my mommy alone!”. This emotional dilemma had been becoming harder and harder for me. On this night the commotion quieted down abruptly. Suddenly, mom was gathering up gauze and tape and iodine while dad sat numbly in a chair with blood running down the side of his face and soaking his shirt. I have never seen anything since that so chilled me to the bone.
Dad had gotten ripping drunk and decided to fix his other ear so it matched the scarred one. He took a pair of long handled pruning shears and while standing in front of the bathroom mirror, with my mother pleading with him not to do it, he had cut off the top of his good ear.
I grew up. I dropped out of school, got married at eighteen. I clung to the cult for the promises it held out and because my extended family, two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were all I had. I became an elder. A few years later I woke up to the fact that the cult had nothing to offer but control and false hopes.
My dear wife and I will be married 47 years tomorrow. Dad died several years ago (I loved him, or maybe it was just pity, but that is another story) and Mom is now 83. My sister and I haven’t spoken in years and probably never will .
The idea of a pet lion no longer interests me. The Jehovah’s witness religion never came through on anything except heartache and regrets.