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The Long WinterOne Man's Journey Through the Darkness of Foster Care
By Paul L. Owen
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Paul L. Owen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Early Years (1970-1976)
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I was born in September 1970 in a sprawling mid-sized town in Idaho called Pocatello. I suppose, or, I guess I hope, that's an Indian word for something. For me the "Indian" (in the Native American sense) is a symbol of the past, back when the world still made sense, before human progress suffocated our spirits. The world of those who lived close to nature, lonely and isolated, yet fully alive, like monks waking up early for prayer.
Whenever I think of Pocatello, the place of my own beginnings, it is always winter in my mind. I am in an automobile, and someone else is driving. I hear the voice of Uncle Norman commenting on how dirty the air is now, with all the pollution and growth.
"Nope. It wasn't ever this aways when I was growin' up."
I stare out the window. To the right, freeway exits and homes of various sizes come and go quickly. That's where the people are, in their warm houses, sitting around kitchen tables, children busy with homework. Fathers sit in recliner chairs, watching TV with glazed expressions, while dogs sleep on the carpet with their feet in the air.
To the left are hills, covered with sagebrush and snow, inviting us to hear their wordless witness to a simpler past, still remembered by the sad mountains in the distance. I see mountain men, Mormon settlers, Indian tribes camped by riverbeds, smoke from their campfires reaching upward, like priestly hands lifted in prayer, wolves and grizzlies still roaming about the land.
Somehow in the late 1960's, my mother and father, Leona Jardine and Leon Owen, met in Pocatello. My mother told me that they both worked at Deseret Industries, a kind of Mormon used-goods shopping center. Perhaps they worked some shifts together, and he nervously offered to buy her lunch one day.
"Sure, that would be quite nice," she replies, with a tight-lipped smile and a nod.
You can buy most anything at the "D.I.," from toys, to clothes, to kitchenware, to furniture, and washers and dryers. All at a discounted price, courtesy of the Mormon social machine. My mom took me there once, when I was very young, and told me that is where she first met my dad.
Looking pensive, she remembered, "He was a very sweet man."
For that reason, the location became a kind of sacred space for me, a place to visit when my father was gone, and I would search for connections to him. Connections at all.
On one occasion, years later when I was growing up in Idaho Falls, I came out of the D.I., where I had been wandering the aisles with no money to spend, into the heat of an Idaho summer. The sun was bearing down like a furnace as I exited the cool interior of the spacious building. I could smell the nearby pavement, the grass and the trees. My senses were bombarded by sprinklers, houses, buildings, and cars on busy streets. I had nowhere to go, no place that required my childish presence on a summer day.
As I wandered about in no particular direction, I can remember finding a bag of barbequed pork rinds on the grass beside the parking lot. Like a pirate with a newly discovered treasure, I sat in the grass and devoured every last one of them. I felt masculine and content, like a young hunter-gatherer, living off the land.
My earliest memory though, comes from an earlier time when I was still living in Pocatello with my mom and dad. I am very young, young enough to eat in a baby chair. I am in a room, a basement, and alone. This frightens me, and I begin to cry loudly. Around me, on the walls, are cans of food. I look at those stacks of cans, not knowing who or what they are. Years later, I was shown pictures of myself as a baby, in just such a room, with the cans on the shelves. Whether it was taken on that occasion I do not know. But in my first conscious memory, I am abandoned by my parents, left to the custody of cans and silent walls.
Next thing I know, I am riding with my aunt Bonnie in her car. There she sits, with her reddish hair, and her country clothes, a resolute look on her face as she steers. Someone had decided that my mom was not able to take care of me. I know she went to an insane asylum (as they called it back then), and that may be the reason I lived with my aunt and uncle. Or maybe that was the reason she went insane.
Leona Owen had a challenging life. A high fever during her infancy left her severely handicapped on her left side, affecting her leg and her arm. She walked with a pronounced limp, and the fingers on her left hand were shriveled into something like a clenched fist, extending uselessly from the end of her deformed arm, scarred from childhood surgeries at the Mayo clinic which did her no good.
She was confronted from the beginning with obstacles too strong to conquer. She would never finish high school, never learn to drive a car, or pursue a career. Her charitable employment with the Deseret Industries where she met my dad was the only job she ever had. Providence had cut her off at every turn, frustrating every hope, every plan and dream. She must have accepted early on that she would never travel to distant lands, never achieve noteworthy accomplishments, or gain the attention of a society that is only interested in those who succeed.
So for whatever reason, when I was very young, I lived for a while with my aunt Bonnie and my uncle Norman out in the country, in Menan, Idaho. A quiet land of fences, fields and old country homes with big grassy yards and trampolines. Mormon families mostly, with wholesome breakfast tables, hard-working dads, dull routines and buried secrets. Mothers hang clothes on the wire as little children play on the lawn. Labrador retrievers bark and chase cars along gravel roads, for reasons known only to themselves.
I am driving with Aunt Bonnie to the local store, which is a great adventure. It's one of those small country stores, where people go to buy odds and ends and seek the presence of familiar faces. It must have been summer, as the weather is hot, and my bare legs are sticking to the seat of the car as I fiddle with my seatbelt. I am full of excitement as we arrive.
As she closes the car door behind me she warns, "Now don't you run off little mister. You stick next to me. And don't touch anything."
We walk through the tall aisles of canned goods and boxes, and Bonnie buys me a bottled orange soda. As we return home, the warm summer air blows into the car, and my senses are full of hay and grass and contentment. A woman sings on the radio. Her enchanting voice is sealed forever on my memory. She is singing the melody in my head as I type.
"I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden ..."
"Aunt Bonnie, what's a rose garden?"
"It means that we don't always get the things we want in life," she muses. She doesn't look my way, and seems lost in thoughts of her own.
Eventually my mom got me back. And the next thing I remember is walking hand in hand with her to the local A&W. By this time my dad has taken ill with cancer, and is enduring a miserable death at the veterans' hospital in Salt Lake City. (One of the handful of things I do know about my dad is that he was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.) My mom purchases a root beer float for me when we arrive at our destination. I feel loved and protected as we sit there together, just the two of us against the world.
I can still see the seat I am sitting on. It is a stool with a swiveling red seat, with a counter in front, looking out the window onto the busy boulevard. Cars pass by on the way to their various destinations, scarcely giving the two of us a second's thought. I wonder what was going through her mind as she sat there next to me, watching her son grip an icy mug with his little hands, full of root beer and ice cream and a mother's love?
Some months later I am ill with bronchitis, and a doctor has come to visit our apartment. He is older, dressed in a formal way, with suspenders, and carries a black bag. I remember finding it difficult to pronounce the name of the illness, and the doctor commenting with a chuckle that it is an awfully big word for a child my age. The doctor talks with an optimistic tone about the upcoming school year, when I will attend a full day of classes, not a just a half day like kindergarten. The thought causes me no small amount of anxiety about the future, mixed with childish excitement.
I enjoyed visiting with the old doctor, and soaked up his attention. "Open wide," he orders, as he looks down my throat. "That's a good man." He was kind and fatherly, and carried himself with a wholesome air.
He reminded me of the doctor on Little House on the Prairie, the prism through which I interpreted the world and all my experiences in those days. The show was an image of the way the world is supposed to be, captured and preached every week on our small, black and white TV screen. A safe world in which fathers are always there, firm but kind, full of wisdom, always working hard to take care of the family. Communities that gather around the weak and the unfortunate, caring for them when the chips are down. A dreamy alternative existence, full of teachers and doctors and preachers who each in their own way make the world a better place to live.
The one-story apartment building we lived in at the time was humble by any standards. It was a converted home that had been broken into apartments. We had no bedroom. I slept on a cot in the kitchen, while my mom slept in the living room on the couch. Our landlord thought himself a theologian of sorts. I once asserted in his presence that Jesus had lived his whole life without a single sin (having recently learned that point of theology in Sunday school at the Mormon Church).
The landlord-divine corrected me. "Jesus did sin once," he said in a low tone. He then gravely informed me that when Jesus was about to go to the cross, he sinned against God by trying to escape his divinely appointed fate. Jesus lost his nerve and tried to avoid doing God's will. He had a very somber look on his face as he passed on to me this secret gnosis. I stood corrected, and made a mental note to be more discerning in the assessment of my Sunday school lessons from that time forward.
When I brought up the point to my teacher the following Sunday at church, she was not receptive to my critically-enlightened views. This same landlord also let me in on the little-known secret of his own true identity. He just happened to be the brother of Michael Landon from Little House on the Prairie. I was so impressed! It never occurred to me that he might not be telling the truth.
The absence of my father left a gap that my mom tried to fill by contacting the local chapter of the Big Brother organization. The Big Brother appointed to me was a tall, friendly black man with an afro, who drove a big blue van with a mural of some sort on the window, as was popular in those days. He and his girlfriend, a thin woman with long, straight, blond hair and a pleasant disposition, took me to McDonald's for the first time in my life. They ordered me a hamburger, presumably a Big Mac, and laughed playfully at my attempts to fit my small mouth around the bun.
"That's a pretty big burger isn't it little guy?" my Big Brother said with a smile and a chuckle, his arm resting in a fatherly way across my shoulders. I nodded in agreement as I opened my mouth as wide as possible and tried to chew a path through the interior of the juicy burger.
Sometimes my Big Brother took me home with him for overnight stays. One time I was tucked into bed when someone that I did not recognize appeared at the door. I was laying there in the bed falling asleep, clothed only in my underwear, when the strange man suddenly showed up and entered the room.
"Hey Paul," he said as he stepped towards me. "I thought you might like some company." He sat down on the bed and continued to talk. He spoke with a gentle, soothing voice, attempting to put me at ease as he stroked my hair, and then reached over and uncovered me from underneath the blankets. I was bewildered, looking up at him with blue, five-year old eyes, as he stroked my cheek and began to touch my bare skin with his fingertips.
He began to kiss me, first on the cheeks, then on the lips.
"Come on, it's okay. I won't hurt you baby."
I found it hard to breathe as he covered my small lips with his own and forced his wet tongue into my mouth, his saliva choking my throat. I felt like I was suffocating. My memory hides the details. Emptiness and melancholy. The next day I am returned home to my mother, quiet perhaps, not quite myself. I don't remember any more visits to my Big Brother's house, but questions linger to this day. Where on earth was he, and why was I left alone in his house with a strange man?
My dad died of breast cancer around that time. Shortly before his death, we went down to visit him at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City. I can recall very little of that brief encounter, my sole memory of him. I do remember at one point, talking back to my mom for some reason, and that my dad sternly instructed me not to talk to her that way.
"Look me in the eye. Do you understand?"
"Yes," I nod my small head, looking up at him like a god.
What was it like for him to look at his little boy, knowing that was the last time he would see me on this earth? What went through his mind as he held me in his arms, lingering in that moment, before he watched me walk away, holding my mother's hand as I looked back at him? And what was it that he whispered in my ear, as he kissed my cheek before putting me down?
I can almost remember.
Then, like some passing dream in the middle of the night, he was gone. I have the faintest glimmer of my mother receiving the news of his death in our gloomy little apartment. I remember nothing at all of his funeral in July, though I am told it was very hot, so hot that one of the soldiers assigned to participate in the ceremony fainted from sunstroke.
Growing Up in Idaho Falls (1976-1979)
* * *
My childhood years may have been challenging, but I thought little of it at the time. We stayed in that little apartment for about two years, through my first grade at Hawthorne Elementary. I remember next to nothing of that time, apart from the names of my rotund kindergarten teacher, Ms. Daily, followed by Mrs. Ingram in the first grade. I do vividly recall one school lesson, in which we were introduced to the alphabet through colorful characters associated with each letter. "P" (for Paul) was a very cute porcupine. I was so proud when the time came for the character representing my letter to come onto the screen. The "P" character gave me a sense of identity, a sense of place, in the bewildering world of elementary school.
It is during this period that Ruth Hudson entered the picture. She was a distant cousin of my mother through her own mother's side of the family. A busty woman in her fifties, whose face bore stern expressions, Ruth was devoutly Roman Catholic, and thus never really fit in with the mainstream of my mother's Mormon family. My mother's family was very proud of our pioneer roots, and our direct descent from the Prophet Brigham Young and his first wife. In the absence of a father figure, she seemed to take the role of a disciplinarian when the occasion called for it.
Once, when I was five or six, she caught me smoking cigarettes with the neighborhood children. I can think of nothing more natural for a little boy to do with his friends on a summer day. As a remedy, Ruth made me inhale the smoke of one of the cigarettes until I vomited. She towers above me still, sticking the smoking instrument of torture into my mouth.
"Go ahead, breathe it in. Deeper. It's not so fun now, is it mister?" But truth be told, it was worth it. Cigarettes have an almost irresistible attraction for little boys.
By the time the second grade rolled around, we had moved. Perhaps the landlord had raised the rent, or maybe it's just that Ruth found an affordable place for us to live where there was a bedroom for my mother to sleep. In any event, we relocated to a different part of town, populated by Mexican immigrants. For the first time I became conscious of these people, who seemed to keep to themselves, and spoke a strange language. Sometimes I would play with their children. That was when I first learned to ride a bike (a birthday present from Aunt Marie and Uncle Howard) without training wheels. It was a neighborly Mexican who took the training wheels off, and helped me learn to ride on the road by pushing me along.
Excerpted from The Long Winter by Paul L. Owen Copyright © 2010 by Paul L. Owen. Excerpted by permission.
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