In 1923 I almost died.
Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't even exist for another 44 years.
For a few seconds, on top a building, my Grandfather stood with tears running down his cheeks and a small caliber pistol in his right hand.
If he had pulled the trigger, not just one man--one very depressed and hopeless man--would die; he'd take with him the four children his wife would never carry, their children (including me) and so on.
All of my children and grandchildren would never exist stretching off into the darkness of eternity itself.
It was on the way back from Seagoville, near Dallas, my grandfather told me about it the day he drove out to the prison where I was to be released on parole.
"I was going to shoot myself in the head."
I can still feel the strange dread in the pit of my stomach as he spoke. This was supposed to be the happiest day I'd ever lived. Freedom came in every breath of air in my lungs outside the prison gate. The sun was high and bright and my life returned to me for the first time in three years. Those were long years for a boy of 20. Very long. (1967-1969)
All I could manage to speak was the one word, "Why?"
"Your grandmother was going to leave me. She had met somebody else. I followed her. I saw. I knew. I climbed a ladder outside a dance hall and watched them. I climbed back down and bought a gun at the pawn shop and returned. I walked in and straight over to the table where they sat."
I wasn't even alive yet and I had almost been extinguished in such a hideous, anonymous, helpless manner! How cruel is that? When I awoke this morning, this memory was fresh in my mind. For whatever reason--I can't begin to guess. I sat up in bed and exhaled slowly trying to shake it off.
I got up and brewed a bitter cup of coffee in the semi-darkness, going over it in my head, replaying the memory obsessively. What is the old saying?
'The Devil is in the details."
My grandfather pulled into a barbecue stand where we used to go for lunch way back before prison had crashed into my life and all that was 'normal'.
He had gone quiet for a while, lost in his own memories. I recall wondering if he was even aware he had said what he'd said out loud.
For the first and only time, I bowed my head for a silent prayer before a meal in front of him. When I finally looked up, I could see he was embarrassed. Suddenly, so was I.
We ate in silence and got back in the car. We'd be 'home' in another twenty minutes.
I was often uncomfortable being in his presence.
He was a man who carried secrets, never met my gaze, and sometimes gave in to tempestuous fits of anger. At other times, he was generous, fun-loving and upbeat. He was a climate unto himself. I learned early on to keep an eye out for brewing storm fronts.
We rode along the turnpike between Dallas and Ft. Worth with our windows down in his 66 Ford Falcon. I had so many thoughts and emotions on my release day--I couldn't really put two thoughts together about my future. I stared at the OUTSIDE WORLD which was now MINE. Again.
Presently, my grandfather continued.
"I pulled the pistol out of my pocket and stood in front of them. Until that moment, I really had no plan--it was all anger and adrenaline. I cocked the weapon and found myself pointing it--not at HIM--but HER. I don't know what I said. I was in a fog. Sad, confused, desperate. I said whatever I said and walked out. I wandered around the French Quarter for about an hour. We were living in New Orleans at that time. Then, I climbed the fire escape to the top of a men's store called Maison Blanche. I needed to look out at the city at the world; at life itself a final time. At the top, I walked to the edge and looked down. That's when I saw it. I picked up a stray bit paper under my foot. I read it and decided to live. It was just an advertisement--a handbill that a breeze somehow had blown on top of a building."
We were turning down the final few streets before the driveway of the house where, before prison, I'd spent 20 years of my life. I couldn't wait to see it and rush inside and experience the passionate thrill of security in my own home.
As we turned into the long driveway, I saw my cat sitting alert on the front porch swing. His tail was snaking nervously at the car's approach. Did he know? Is that possible?
We drove past the familiar trees I had climbed as a boy, the pecan tree, pear tree, and I could smell honeysuckle. The four o'clock flowers my grandmother planted all those years ago swept over me like a gust of perfumed happiness.
This house, the yard smells, my cat, and the sweet life I'd left behind to serve the fearsome God Jehovah---it was all too much to bear! I began weeping uncontrollably.
My grandfather pulled into the overhang of the garage and switched off the motor. He was lost in his own feelings of 'overwhelm' at that moment. Memory can be kind, or cruel, or punishing.
"The handbill was an advertisement for Art School. I discovered in that frozen instant of time, the pause between life and death--I wanted to be an artist. I climbed back down the fire escape off the building and never again thought about what I'd almost done."
I sat stunned.
In the blink of an eye--the only reason I existed at all was that a handbill for Art School caught a suicidal man's eye before he shot himself. He found his dream between heaven and hell.
That day was April 15, 1969, and I wouldn't completely understand what my grandfather told me for another 5 years, in June of 1974.
It was to be the day I decided to leave this world--of Fort Worth and Jehovah's Witnesses--and start a new life in California--as an Artist.
What strange mystery runs in our blood? I cannot say.
Art is there. Art saved my life.
In 1923 I almost died. Holy shit!