Writing For The First Time, Almost The Last Time

July 14, 2011

The Poor Poet (Der Arme Poet [Dutch), Carl Spitzweg, 1839. In public domain.

I spent most of the summer of ’81, my summer before seventh grade, A. B. Davis Middle School and Humanities writing my first book. I’d been inspired by my second-place finish in Mount Vernon’s city-wide, K-12 writing contest, which came with a $15 check. It wasn’t really a book in any adult sense of the word, but for eleven-year-old me with all my interests in war and weapons back then, it was a magnum opus. It was a book about the top-secret military hardware the Department of Defense didn’t want the rest of America to know about. I remained consumed with reading about war and military technology in my spare time — I wouldn’t have learned the word “fortnight” otherwise! Everything from the B-1 bomber to the M-1 Abrams tank to the Trident submarine and MX missile was to be in this scoop on the latest in military high-tech.

M-1 Abrams with 105 mm cannon, circa 1980. (Source/www.cj-jeep.com)

I even wrote a letter to the Pentagon for declassified pictures of these weapons, which I received in mid-July. It would be another two years before the M-1 Abrams with the 120mm cannon went beyond the prototype stage, so I knew even then that someone at the Department of the Defense had made a mistake in sending me these photos.

By the time of my brother Yiscoc’s birth (one form of Hebrew for “Isaac” and pronounced “yizz-co”) later in the month, I’d written nearly fifty pages on these weapons and why they were so cool for the US military to have. Especially in light of the Soviet military threat. Unfortunately, they didn’t declassify the fact that America’s latest tank used depleted uranium in parts of its hull or in its cannon shells. That would’ve been a real scoop at the time.

Three weeks after Yiscoc came into the world, all of us spent the afternoon at White Plains Public Library. I did some more research for my military book. But I deferred on this book, not really sure that this was what I was meant to do and be. Not only would it be the last time I worked on my military hardware book. It would be the last time I’d write anything that I’d hope to publish for a decade.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I stopped writing, except for school or to journal about getting beat up by my

Peacekeeper (MX) Missile test launch, November 26, 2002, Vandenberg AFB, California. (US Air Force). In public domain.

stepfather Maurice. Maybe it was because of the cares of this world, the steady drop into poverty and welfare, the very nature of being a Hebrew-Israelite for three years, or having a stepfather who terrorized us for so long. Or maybe it was going from one to two, then three by ’83, and four by ’84, younger siblings in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Maybe I just looked at myself through the eyes of my Humanities peers and saw someone who could only play Jeopardy! and sing high-falsetto, not a person with a gift for the written word.

As I’ve thought about those lost years — an eight-year writer’s block, really — three things come to mind. One is that my father Jimme was completely absent from my life for more than a year between April ’81 and August ’82, mostly because of a baseball bat (more on that next week). Two is the reality that I grew to hate, actually, literally, hate, my stepfather, who saw himself as a writer (he was an okay writer, never published, but not really the point). I dare say that I couldn’t hate him as passionately as I did and then turn around and embrace myself as a writer at the same time.

But the third thing involved answering the question, what kind of life would it be for me to pursue writing as a passion, a career and calling? The only people who ever asked me that question were my teachers. My eighth-grade and twelfth grade English teachers Mrs. Caracchio and Ms. Martino and my Western Civ II TA Paul Riggs. They at least made me realize that my biggest fear was being as impoverished at forty or fifty as I was at seventeen or eighteen.

Luckily, once I left Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh and Pitt in ’87, I became interested in writing again. And then once my stepfather became my ex-stepfather two years later, I found myself writing for me in volume for the first time in seven years. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d have writer’s block. Still, the longest I’ve had writer’s block since ’89 has been a day or two.

Yes, I’m still a struggling, though published writer. But I’m not Edgar Allen Poe, like I thought I’d be in pursuing this calling.


The Tyranny of Salvation

April 18, 2011

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite, April 18, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

Thirty years ago this date, on a sunny Saturday in April ’81, the false prophet known as my stepfather came back into our lives with a new religion, delaying my spiritual growth by at least three years. The day before both Easter and Passover that year, me, my mom and my older brother Darren became Hebrew-Israelites, Black Jews, Afrocentric Jewish Negroes, strange folks among strange folks in our strange land. It was supposed to be my and our salvation, the beginning of glorious times. Instead, it was a hell on Earth like no other, with fists, kicks and empty stomachs to look forward to for the next three years.

An excerpt from Boy @ The Window seems appropriate here:

“Maurice returned to our lives in April ’81 after a six-month separation from my mom (sort of, because unbeknown to us, she was pregnant with my younger brother Yiscoc, a Hebrew variation for Isaac) claiming that he was a different man, a changed man, thanks to an allegedly reincarnated Balkis Makeda and his Hebrew-Israelite conversion.

This was the religion my stepfather converted to after he and Mom had separated. In the period before his return, my stepfather had been working on Mom, attempting to convince her that he was now a good man and could be trusted as the man of our house. He loved Jehovah, had stopped smoking, and had learned how to love himself. And he had changed his name to Judah ben Israel, not legally, mind you. The name literally means “Lion of God and of Israel,” and referred to my stepfather as a royal descendant of Jacob/Israel, the immediate father of the Israelite people. It was in this context that my stepfather gained a sense of himself and control over his world.

I didn’t know what to think at first. After I had watched Maurice load up on lamb shanks and pork chops on the first Saturday in October six months earlier, I hadn’t expected him to come back at all. I already thought of the man as the great pretender after three and a half years of living in the same 1,200 square-foot space together. That, and eating like he was Dom DeLuise at a banquet, were his only true talents. As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after Mom’s divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.

The Kufi, cute on some, a symbol of a curse for people like me, April 3, 2010.

Still, despite my confusion and skepticism, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that Maurice’s conversion was real. Especially since Mom had decided to welcome him back into all of our lives. I had to. Because becoming a Hebrew-Israelite wasn’t exactly a process in which free will was involved. Our mother told us that this would be our religion “for the rest of our lives.” Then our stepfather came to explain this “way of life” to us, and we put on our white, multi-holed, circular kufis for the first time. I had no idea what Mom and Maurice had pushed us into.

A part of me was on the outside looking in, thinking, “this is crazy.” But we were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon. Darren, to his credit, played along as if being a Hebrew-Israelite was just a role in a school play.”

I lost many of my sixth-grade friends when I showed up to school the Tuesday morning after Easter and Passover with a kufi on my head, including my best friend Starling (see April 2009 posting “My Best Friend” http://wp.me/pRU8Z-1E).

I might not have lost my childhood thirty years ago on this date. But it was the beginning of eight years wandering in the wilderness. It was a bitter, tyrannical wilderness, populated by wolves in sheep’s clothing, Maurice Washington number one among them. I stepped on many landmines in the process of finding myself again.

Still, those years are ones I can’t get back. It’s amazing that I found God at all, given all of the crap we’re told by spiritual leaders about the road to salvation.


Never As Good As The First Time

April 12, 2011

I know. Today marks 150 years since a bunch of rebel rednecks besieged a fort in South Carolina after months of talk of civil war across the South and North, beginning the bloodiest conflict to date in American history. I’ll get to this in the next couple of days. Today, though, marks a more personal and bloody anniversary for me. You see, today’s the twenty-ninth anniversary of experiencing unadulterated child abuse for the first time.

Although much of what I’d gone through prior to April ’82 in terms of my parents’ and stepfather’s use of discipline would be considered abusive now, I wouldn’t have seen it that way when I was twelve. You run away from home, you get an ass-whuppin’. You tell a lie about your brother, you get whupped with a belt. You don’t clean up the kitchen properly, you stand in a corner of your room with the lights off, with one leg up in the air and your two arms balancing books for an hour.

Yeah, that was life at 616 before Maurice, Judah, whatever you want to call the man, became almost psychotic (based on my experience, actually bipolar) after becoming a Hebrew-Israelite in ’81. And, in the process, also making us Black Jews. Poor, misguided, conflicted Hebrew-Israelites we were. But not him.

Suge Knight Mugshot. Face and beard of my ex-stepfather from 30 years ago.

My idiot stepfather’s ego was stoked in this religion.

And it came out in the worst way on this second weekend in April ’82. It was a week after a freakish late winter/early spring storm had dumped 12-18 inches of snow on the New York City area — Mount Vernon included — and kept the schools closed for a few days. In the previous couple of months, Maurice had become a hanger-on at a newly opened Karate studio down the street from 616, next door to the old dry cleaner business on East Lincoln Avenue. He made me come to the studio because he wanted to show me “how to be a man.”

But when I’d see him on my almost daily runs to the grocery store, he mostly hung out with young Turks and wannabe thugs from the Pearsall Drive projects across the street. Maurice smoked up a storm of Benson & Hedges Menthol while talking about women, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and about me as his “book-smart kid,” at least when I happened to walk by.

I knew what that meant. My stepfather was making it known that he thought of me as soft. This would have disastrous consequences for me later on in ’82, as I’d come to be robbed by a guy called “Pookie.” But as far as this part of Mount Vernon was concerned, it was nothing like the poorer, almost exclusively Black South Side. At least where we lived, people didn’t go into parks with baseball bats attempting to put people’s heads in orbit, like with my father Jimme the year before.

Maurice had tried to teach me and my older brother Darren Isshin-ryu Karate two years earlier. Beyond that, he’d been showing us a variety of basic moves since ’77. Despite myself, I did pick up a few moves. Now he decided that I would learn how to fight no matter the consequences. It was all about breaking bones and inflicting maximum pain. When I told Maurice that I didn’t want to learn, he said “You will

D'Angelo Mugshot, circa 2010. A slightly better doppelgänger for idiot Maurice Washington from '82.

learn because I’m your father” as he started to throw hard punches into my midsection.

After I yelled “You’re not my father!,” he drop-kicked me to the floor. Maurice, all six-foot-one and 270 pounds of him, then pulled me up by my arms, slammed me back-first into a mirrored wall, and punched me several times in the head, chest, and stomach until several of the men in the studio surrounded him. My stepfather, completely exasperated and winded, yelled “Don’t you EVER say that again, muthafucka! I’ll kill you next time!” I ran for home with a knot on my forehead that didn’t go down for almost a week.

By the time that knot on my forehand began to shrink, I’d been feeling lonely and betrayed for nearly a year. It’d been exactly fifty-two weeks, a full year, since the asshole had come back into our lives with this earth-shattering religion. Now we were more broke than ever, I had lost my best friends, and in fact, had no one I could call friend. With this latest karate episode, I knew I was cursed, at least, that’s how I felt back then.

I wasn’t a normal kid before the Hebrew-Israelite period in my life. So I didn’t have a natural progression toward adulthood — I was struggling to remain a kid but succeeded at only having adult issues by the time a drop-kick knocked me to the floor of a karate studio. So, because of my virtually photographic memory and those terrible times, I often flip one of Sade’s refrains from “Never As Good As The First Time.” The thorns I remember, the roses, I forget (except for Crush #1). And Maurice second stint as a husband and father “didn’t live up to the dream,” ‘cuz his second time with us was “not quite what it seemed.”


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