I want to start by telling you every word of this is true. You may read some of this and think, “there’s no way” but in reality, the stories I’m going to share are quite common where I grew up.
I also want to be clear that while I’m not here to bash poor people, I am more than happy to talk shit about my own messed up family. That is one of the few benefits I gained from growing up with them. I’m allowed to laugh.
Where I’m from
My father and mother were born and raised in the countryside of southeast Missouri. My grandparents were factory workers and farmhands. Their education was limited and they would qualify as “dirt poor”.
My mother was one of five kids and my father is one of six. When my mother was 17, she became pregnant with my older brother. My father dropped out of high school his junior year and they were married. I was born when he was 19. By age 22, they were divorced and my father was raising two young boys on his own. My mother left to join the Air Force.
Here is one way to determine if you grew up poor. If you are 36 years old and most of the homes you lived in as a child have been torn down, you were probably poor.
This is where I lived during my senior year of high school.
Home sweet home.
The top half of that building has two apartments. My father, my brother and I shared one with my uncle. We moved there after my dad decided to blow up his second marriage by intentionally getting caught having an affair with a black woman.
Did I mention southeast Missouri is still a pretty racist place to live?
I would show you the trailer we moved into six months later, but I can’t because it’s been torn down. A funny story; one day the cops arrested my brother after finding a bunch of stolen items hidden underneath it. He didn’t do it though, my cousin did. In a strange bit of irony, he stole the tools from the father of the girl my brother knocked up about six months later.
I love small town life.
Okay, this post has been pretty depressing so far, but I promise I’m getting there.
“You are responsible for your own life,” is one of the central themes of The Big Dick Chronicles. I want to give you a glimpse into what I grew up with specifically to point out that none of that shit matters.
With everything I experienced, had I chosen to adopt a “poor but arrogant” mindset, it still would be entirely my fault. I know this because I had choices to make at every step along the way. Nothing was predestined. But I did learn one crucial truth that I can only truly appreciate now.
When you are poor, you have no room for error.
My older brother dropped out of college because he didn’t keep coolant in his truck and blew up the motor. He was attempting to commute 60 miles to school and lost his transportation. Poor maintenance, lack of funds, goodbye higher education.
No margin for error.
Okay, let’s move on to the heart warming part of the story. This is mostly a tribute to my father (he’s still alive and doing fine by the way), who had the foresight to teach me some surprisingly simple lessons. But be forewarned, simple doesn’t mean easy.
These are the lessons he has taught me.
1. You must value learning.
My 23 year old father taught me to tell time when I was four years old.
Every time he sat down to relax, he had a book in his hand. Every evening in our home found the three of us sitting around the living room, watching tv and reading books.
He was not a demanding man, but he made it clear that he expected our best in school. Once we proved we were capable of something, that became our new normal. Good grades were expected because he knew we could. My brother graduated 3rd in his class and I graduated 1st in mine.
If you come from an educated family, this may sound common place. But realize that my father was the only one on either side of my family that actively encouraged learning for his children. I have several cousins, and one sister, who didn’t finish high school. In our modern age, this is unconscionable to me, but it’s true.
2. Keep your nose clean
I come from a long line of criminals, going back generations on my father’s side.
We’ve had moonshiners, druggies, and thieves. I still have 2nd cousins who run chop shops in St. Louis. My dad’s sister was the first person to offer me drugs. Most of my family has been arrested for something at some point in their life.
My father was arrested once; because they mistook him for his brother. I remember being 7-8 years old and hiding under the covers in my grandparents living room when the sheriff came looking for my uncle. He was hiding in the bedroom. He had escaped from prison in Michigan where he was serving time for stealing cars.
When my grandfather died, the death bed discussion among my aunts and uncles was about how to break into my cousin’s house to steal grandpa’s pain pills.
Folks, I wish I was making this stuff up.
In a family that was always looking for the easy answer, my father refused to participate. He avoided the drugs that were rampant in our family, and stayed out of jail.
Again, most people would consider that last sentence a no-brainer, but it was the culture of our family. It was, and still is, expected that you’re going to end up in jail at some point.
You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to stay out of jail, but you’d be surprised. I had a cop read me my rights when I was 16 because I had wrecked my truck and my uncle (the escapee) towed it away from the scene and hid it at my grandparent’s house. In case you didn’t know, that’s called fleeing the scene of an accident with property damage.
The scene of the crime. Technically, I own that power pole.
I went to the station and squared it away. The fact that I came in on my own is the only reason I didn’t go to jail.
No margin for error.
3. Work your ass off
My father worked. It was never fancy, but he always found his way into a supervisor or management position everywhere he went. Most of his life was spent in factories, but wherever he went, he did his best.
He had no tolerance for the men who complained about actually being expected to perform at their job. “You want me to bust my ass for minimum wage? Hell no. I’m doing just enough to not get fired.” He expected them to bust their ass because it was right. Because it was what he did every day.
I graduated high school at the top of my class. I had a 4.0 gpa and was headed for college in the fall but I took an unconventional path for my summer job. I was a chicken catcher.
Just like this, except for the mask. Masks were for pussies.
This was one of those jobs you didn’t even apply for. If you were willing to work, you just showed up. If you stayed, you got paid. It was by far the nastiest, most grueling work I could imagine.
No one expected me to make it. “College boy, what are you doing out here? This ain’t for college boys. You won’t last a week.”
But I did make it. And I was damn good at it, too.
I learned a lot from those guys. First, I learned that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Second, they valued one thing; can you work?
I had never been admired for my work ethic before. They didn’t give a shit about my education or my ambitions. They wanted to know if I could keep up and come back tomorrow.
I took that job for one reason. I knew that when I went to college I would have to work every minute I wasn’t in class. If I could handle that job, anything I had to do during college would be a cakewalk. I was right. It’s still the worst thing I’ve ever done.
4. The right marriage choice is crucial
This time my father taught me what not to do. He is currently on his fourth wife. My father suffers from a severe fear of being alone. It has led him to make poor choices in choosing a wife and he found himself starting over numerous times.
Don’t get pregnant in high school.
If you do, the odds of ending up a single parent are astronomical. My dad did it. My older brother did it and he called me the other day to tell me his 18 year old daughter did it. Being a single parent is hard enough. Doing it while poor is damn near impossible.
Everybody in my family has been divorced except me and my grandparents. Seriously. For two generations, everyone in my family (older than me. I’m exempting the younger relatives that are just getting started) that has ever been married, is divorced. Divorce has heavily affected my family financially and emotionally, and it led to complete instability in the lives of the kids in my family. This is a topic that deserves its own post, so I’ll move on for now.
So I took my time. A long time. And I’ll be damned if my first attempt at a relationship didn’t almost ruined it all. Like I said, no margin.
My wonderful wife is only the second relationship I’ve ever had. After almost getting sucked in by a co-dependent young lady with a ton of issues, I realized I needed to get it right on the next try.
It wasn’t fun and loneliness hurts like a bitch. But it felt like my options were waiting for a legitimately good fit, or calling my dad to tell him there is another grand kid on the way and we’ll set a wedding date soon.
My wife was worth the wait.
5. No one is going to take care of you.
This is the lesson I am most thankful to my father for teaching me.
As a single parent, working for just above minimum wage, my father made the decision not to accept any public assistance. We survived on what he earned and it wasn’t pretty. We weren’t homeless, but we lived in low end rental houses and trailers. My father drove a mid-seventies Chevy Nova with a missing door handle. You opened the door with a screw driver.
What was his reasoning? “I made my mistakes. They are mine to take care of.”
When I turned 18, my father gave me one of the most important speeches of my life. “Son, I love you but you’re on your own.”
See, my father had married for a third time and taken on three new step-children by this time. They needed the support more than I did.
So I took that to heart. I drove my ’64 Ford truck to college and scraped by. I ate peanut butter and jelly in my dorm room on weekends. Not sandwiches, just peanut butter and jelly. I didn’t have money for the bread. I cooked cheap frozen burritos on the hot plate of my coffee pot because I didn’t have the money to rent a microwave for my room. The coffee pot is also hot enough to cook Ramen Noodles if you let them soak long enough.
Even though I didn’t feel it at the time, I was a man. And he expected me to be capable of doing what men do; providing for themselves, finding their own way, building their own lives.
Why did this matter so much to me? My dad’s generation in my family is falling apart. They are in their late 40’s and 50’s and whatever health the drugs haven’t taken is being consumed by diabetes and heart disease. In large numbers, they barely work; their entire existence is reliant on government assistance. And most of my generation is following in their footsteps.
I don’t see my family much anymore. Distance helps; we’re about five hours away. But we made the decision that they were more a liability to our family than an asset. I don’t want, or need, my children being influenced by them. And sadly, they refuse to be influenced by me. I’m at peace with that.
When we go back home, we visit my father and my grandparents and that’s it. We’ve had to separate ourselves from the rest of the family and that’s okay. We’re just going different directions, I guess.
Am I unbelievably blessed? Absolutely. I don’t doubt that for a second and I thank God that he was watching over me as I went through that stage of my life. But the choices I had to make were not monumental. The difficulty was not getting distracted by all the dysfunction going on around me.
So there you have it. The origin story of the Big Dick Chronicles. It’s been an interesting ride.