Category Archives: Emotion

Life with a Drill Sergeant, Chapter 3 – Cuba

I’d never been on a plane like this before.  There were no individual seats – just 2 long benches, one on each side of the aircraft.  No stewardesses, no drinks, nothing.  My sister and I were the only kids; everybody else was dressed in military uniform.  I don’t even think there were seat belts on this ‘puddle jumper,’ as my dad called it.  I also couldn’t understand how there could be so many bumps in the air.  I tried really hard not to throw up.  Thank goodness that the flight from Florida to Cuba was a short one.

We landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a.k.a. “Gitmo.”  It was 1989.  I was nine and my sister was six.  My dad was a 31-year-old Marine training us as if we were his little soldiers.  We weren’t very good at taking orders, but we tried our best to keep him happy.  I feared and loved my father the way Catholics fear and love God.  We stepped off the plane and walked into an outdoor sauna.  I was instantly soaked and sticky.  I felt uncomfortable breathing in the thick, moist blanket of air.  It was time to adapt to the ungodly humidity.

We stayed in the Marine Corps barracks until our house was ready for us to live in.  Our small dorm room had two little beds as hard as the polished concrete floor.   We were provided with clean sheets and scratchy, olive-green wool blankets.  We ate at the chow hall with all the Marines.  I wasn’t expecting the food to be great, but when I saw the lobster, steak, potatoes, french fries, ice cream, and chocolate milk I got excited!  The amount and variety of food being served was unbelievable.  I don’t think that my taste buds were as developed because my dad didn’t seem quite as impressed with the quality.  We ate until we were stuffed and took some leftover french fries home with us.  We decided to take an ‘after dinner stroll’ to check out our new surroundings.

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We spotted the infamous hutia (pronounced “hoo-chee-uh”) better known as the “banana rat.”  It looked like a huge rat (the same size as a bloated cat), and apparently they liked french fries.  The banana rat cautiously moved toward us and my dad suggested that we give the massive rodent some of our fries.  My sister and dad were enthralled with the new animal but my eyes were taken with movement in the background.  Just behind the banana rat were some palm trees and thick foliage.  Something was slowly and smoothly sliding through the leaves on the ground.  My eyes didn’t want to believe what I was seeing.  It was a massive Cuban boa constrictor and it was heading in the direction of the banana rat…and us!  I was really excited and curious, so I pointed it out to my dad. He thought I was just making things up until he saw what I was talking about with his own eyes.  In a worried tone he said that it was time to go and so we did.  I kept asking him about the snake and he kept changing the subject.

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When we finally got our 2 bedroom house we had to wait several weeks for our furniture and belongings to arrive from Ohio.  In the meantime we were provided with “Flintstone furniture”.  My dad called it that because it looked and felt like something out of the Stone Ages.  It served its purpose and I thought it was fancy.  It looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office and so I thought that it was special.

When we examined our new home for the first time we found a large tree that shaded most of the backyard, and from the tree hung a tire swing!   I ran over to play on it and felt that I was stepping on tons of black seed pods.  I picked one up to examine it closer.  My dad told me that’s how the banana rat got its name.  They didn’t eat bananas; their feces looked like tiny, black bananas.  I dropped the hardened poop from my hand and realized that there was very little grass on the ground – the entire backyard was littered with banana rat feces.  I asked where the rats were.  I found out that they lived up in the palm trees and stayed there during the day, because they are a nocturnal species.  Huge rats that climb and live in trees!  At night I heard dozens of them scampering around in my backyard searching for food.  They were skittish creatures that didn’t cause any harm except that they crapped all over your yard and creeped you out with the sounds of their sporadic movements in the dark.

I recall a distinct memory that still tugs at my heart.  My sister and I were hanging out in our new home.  My dad was at work.  It was still summer and school wouldn’t start for another week or so.  We were playing with our Barbie dolls on our Flintstone furniture when we saw it at the same time – our first encounter with a big, furry, black tarantula.  My sister and I squealed and jumped on top of our thick, wooden coffee table.  I didn’t know what to do, but as the older sibling I was in charge and would have to come up with a plan.  I didn’t know how dangerous the tarantula was, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I quickly ran into the kitchen to look for some sort of insecticide.  I found a bottle of 409 All-purpose Spray Cleaner.  I sprayed the tarantula continuously unloading half of the bottle on the poor critter.  At the time I felt like I was the hero and I was saving my little sister from the mean, old spider.  When it stopped moving and started to shrivel up and I was certain that it was dead, I got a broom and swept its limp carcass out the front door.  When my dad came home I told him what had happened.  To my surprise he was disappointed in me.  He said that the poor spider suffered a slow death and that I should’ve just swept it out the door while it was still alive.  I no longer felt like the hero; I felt like I was the bad guy.  My falsely interpreted victory was short-lived.

My sister and I were no stranger to chores.  Our dad made us sweep and swab the entire house at least once a week (it felt more like three times a week).  There was no carpet in the house but there was plenty of floor space.  My dad taught me how to mop properly just the way the military had taught him.  I was expected to help do the laundry, wash and dry the dishes, sweep and swab our 2 bedroom house, and keep my bedroom clean.  My ‘perfectionist attitude’ actually worked against me because I would do a stellar job cleaning every single smudge and speck of dirt, while my sister just made more of a mess.  Basically, all of the cleaning was done by my father and I, and I hated it. I hated doing the mindless work, but I couldn’t allow myself to do a ‘less than perfect job’.

Our house was immaculate yet they still came.  Every corner I turned in my house was done in fear; fear of something so horrible and disgusting that I may actually be experiencing heart palpitations as I write this.  I feel dizzy, nauseous, and ready to collapse just thinking about them:  Cuban cockroaches.  These are no ordinary roaches, no sir.  The first time I saw one in my house was one of the worst days of my life.  The image of that enormous, flying roach has burned its memory into my mind.  Yes, that’s right, they are freakin’ huge and they fly!  On average they were at least 2 inches in length and hearty sons-a-bitches.  They had girth.  Their size and ability to fly intimidated me so much that I ran away in fear and locked myself in my dad’s bedroom – This was the only place they didn’t go because it was too cold in there.  My dad had an air conditioner set to full blast in his room that ran 364 days a year.  He turned the A/C off for only 1 day a year to let the frost melt off it and to “give it a rest”.  I even ran over to my neighbor’s house (who I had never met) and asked them to please help me get rid of the disgusting bug.  How can a supposed bug be the size of a small bird?!?  And my fear never went away because where there was one there were always more.  It’s like they took turns or something.  They were a slow-moving, deliberate, persistent army.  They would send one soldier out to scavenge; he would be killed and the troop somehow knew of this, and then another meaty replacement would be sent out in his place.  I rarely ever saw 2 roaches in my house at the same time.  This went on for 3 long years!  I felt like these were not ordinary, simple bugs.  These nasties didn’t just accidentally stumble into my house; they came inside with intention.  They intended to be sneaky little scavengers that showed no fear…until they met my dad.  His method for getting rid of pesky roaches was simple:  Kill them with your hand.  I could never watch this.  The idea of it was so disgusting that I couldn’t be in the same room when it happened.  My dad would see the offending cockroach and make steady eye contact with it.  His body language and menacing stare froze the roach in its position.  He told me to get him a paper towel.  I always gave him two or three and he would only take one and tell me to stop wasting paper towels.  He would approach the roach like a tiger – Steady, slow, and without fear.  And when he came close enough to his victim he would quickly snatch up the plump roach with the paper towel and squeeze until the rodent’s greenish-colored blood oozed out.

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Life with a Drill Sergeant, Chapter 1 – Ohio

My dad called us about once a week.  During this phone call I told him that Rueben was hitting me.  He asked me to put Rueben on the phone.  Rueben was my mom’s stepfather.  Apparently, my dad threatened to “break him in half” if he ever touched me again.  My dad didn’t even know the worst of it.  He would find out about Uncle Charlie’s treachery 2 years after it happened, however, the information that he had on ‘Stepdad Rueben’ was enough to get him to file for full custody.  My mother agreed.  Shortly after that phone call my dad got on a plane to Hawaii to pick up his daughters.  My little sister and I were so sad to be leaving my mother.  I cried for a long time on the plane.  My dad gave me a box of Milk Duds to cheer me up.  I continued crying as I ate the whole box of chewy chocolates.

(Please refer to my blog post entitled “Long Lost Emotional Candy” to read about my experiences in Hawaii).

When my dad was awarded (oh the irony!) full custody of my little sister and I, we went to live with him in his small, upstairs apartment in Oxford, Ohio.  I was almost 7 and my sister was 3.  My dad was a drill sergeant in the Marine Corps and a single parent.  As we drove towards our new home from the airport my dad made a stop at Toys R Us.  He told us that we could pick out any present that we wanted.  I picked out a special Barbie doll named Danse – she was part of the Jem and The Holograms doll collection.  I picked her out because she had a rainbow of colored stripes in her hair.  Jem and The Holograms was my favorite cartoon at the time because it was all about singing, fashion, and pretty girls with crazy colored hair.

As I sat in the backseat of the car admiring my beautiful, new doll I didn’t realize that my dad was being pulled over.  I didn’t hear the police siren and I’m not sure my dad did either.  The cop had his lights on but my dad wasn’t sure who was being pulled over.  It was us and my dad was pissed.  He was being pulled over for speeding.  He was guilty, but he tried explaining his case anyway.  He told the police officer the truth about picking us up from the airport and being excited to take us to our new home, but he omitted the part about making a pit stop at the toy store.  The cop saw us with our unopened toys and asked him if we made any stops along the way.  My dad wasn’t a good liar and I could tell that the police officer just wanted to be told the whole truth.  That’s it.  I felt like my dad got a ticket for lying.  That whole ordeal seemed to go on for ages and my dad’s patience grew thinner and thinner.  By the time we were back on the road he was boiling mad, shaking his head a lot, and talking angrily to himself.  That wasn’t just ‘road rage’ I witnessed; that was my first preview to the fury that awaited me.

About a week or so after my father picked us up from the airport, I saw a side of my dad that reminded me of why my mother left him.  My sister and I were roughhousing with each other in the living room.  I don’t remember exactly what happened but I do know that my sister’s head came very close to the sharp edge of our coffee table.  My dad saw this and turned into The Hulk.   With both of his hands he grabbed me near the roots of my hair and lifted me high into the air.  He started screaming at me and both my sister and I were scared out of our minds.  He carried me this way into his bedroom and threw me on his bed.  I laid there crying and shivering like a defenseless animal.  I don’t remember feeling any physical pain.  Mainly I was in shock.

Growing up with my father wasn’t completely terrible.  He reminded me of the character in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  One moment he was so loving, generous and affectionate and then, out of no where (it seemed like ‘nowhere’ at the time) he was an enraged lunatic.  I once believed that I went from a horrible situation in Hawaii to a far worse one living with my father, but that no longer is the case.  I learned a hell of a lot from my dad and I know that he did his best.  Unfortunately, he never learned how to deal with his anger in a healthy way and he took out his aggression on those who were closest to him.  He was a child once, too, and his environment and upbringing influenced how he dealt with his emotions.  He was 22 years old when I was born and wasn’t prepared for the great responsibility that came with raising 2 little girls on his own.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to raise 2 children on my own without any parenting skills while earning very little pay from a high-stress job.  I learned a lot about my father’s deep-seated pain and suffering.

Good days usually involved watching my favorite cartoons.  My dad let us watch a lot of TV and it was awesome.  He would sometimes watch our favorite shows with us, which was even more awesome, because he was spending time with us.  Our Barbie collection grew quickly as my dad “spoiled us rotten” (as he would always say).  My little sister and I would get all of our Barbies, their clothes and accessories, and, of course, the Barbie convertible and we would set up an area to play in front of the TV.  We’d watch Fat Albert, Nickelodeon, Alvin and The Chipmunks, He-Man and She-Ra, and GI Joe.  My dad always made sure that we had a box of Jello Pudding Pops in the freezer for all of us.  My favorite was the chocolate-vanilla swirl.  Cartoons, Barbies, and pudding pops….that was my bliss.

My dad didn’t cook much, but he did know how to use a crock-pot.  He would throw in a couple of cans of Campbell’s Cream of Celery and Cream of Mushroom, some broccoli florets, and big chunks of beef.  He would let it simmer for hours and I would ask him often, “Is it ready yet?”  And, oh my god, it was worth the wait.  When he finally dished us up a bowl, the meat was so tender that it would fall apart on your fork.  I ate mine with a spoon because the soup was my favorite part.  My dad showed us how to sop up the soup with a slice of Wonder Bread.  We would eat our meals together in front of the TV – my dad in his recliner and my little sister and I at our table (a small, round,  kid-sized table with a top made of particle board).  Our Barbies sat beside us and waited for us to play with them again.  Those were such good days.

Crock-pot stew was kind of a big deal because it happened infrequently.  Most of our meals were TV dinners, hot breakfast sandwiches from Arby’s, sugary cereal with marshmallows, KFC Extra Crispy chicken, and my favorite…pudding pops.  It’s no wonder why my dad often called my sister and I his “little puddins.”  My dad rarely cooked because he didn’t know how (with the exception of crock-pot stew, of course).  We ate out often.  My dad was a huge fan of all-you-can-eat buffets so he’d take us to Ponderosa or Sizzler.  “There goes the Bottomless Pit,” my dad would say as I made my way back to the buffet for my fifth helping.  I was embarrassed about eating so much, but I was genuinely hungry.  I expended a lot of energy chasing boys around the playground.  Seriously though, I ran a lot.  My dad was a runner and it was in my blood.  I was also hyperactive from the amount of sugar I consumed.  Both of my parents were physically fit for most of their lives, so I had good genetics on my side in that respect.  Without realizing it, I balanced out my sugar and processed foods intake by running a lot and eating ungodly amounts of meats and vegetables.  Also, I rarely ate any dairy products because I didn’t like the taste.  My dad was just happy that we ate a lot.  He was proud of the amount of food I could devour considering I was small and bony.

My dad jogged a lot back then – 3 times a day.  When he went out for a run he would leave my sister and I at home by ourselves.  We were so consumed with playing with our Barbies that it didn’t concern us that he was gone.  30 minutes later he’d return and do his push-ups and sit-ups outside the apartment complex.  These were the times when I left the “Barbie land” and explored other areas of the house.  I found a dusty ABBA cassette tape that my father denied was his.  I would listen to it from my tiny cassette player, and sing along while dancing around the house.  In those moments I felt like a “Dancing Queen.”  I was too scared to dance like that in front of my dad or anyone else.  The pain from Hawaii was stored in my hips and I did whatever I needed to do to hide it.  That combined with a drill sergeant for a father resulted in a little girl who was somewhat stiff and rigid in her body and mind.

My father would wake us up ridiculously early so that my sister and I could take our bath, get breakfast, and go to daycare.  He was so tender with us during those early morning hours.  He would lift us up carefully from our bunk beds (I had the top bunk) and place us on our big comfy sofa in the living room.  We had one of those classic sofas from the 80’s – It had a dark brown, burnt orange, and cream-colored flowers print and felt like velvet.  With our heads still snuggled in our blankets he would turn on the TV at a low volume.  I would hear the Scooby-Doo music playing and my eyes would start to open.  Once we were both awake my sister and I would take a bath together.  I would wash my entire body from head to toe (and in between my toes) with a bar of Irish Spring soap.  I used to scrub incessantly at my skin until I created a thick layer of foamy soap all over my body.  I did this during every bath and I would spend a minimum of 45 minutes in the tub while my sister would play with her Barbies.  My dad would try to comb my long, impossibly thick, black hair with a men’s grooming brush.  That didn’t even come close to working.  On top of that I would often fall asleep with my chewing gum still in my mouth and the next morning I would find it stuck in my hair.  After this happened a few times my dad really started to get annoyed.  He had to cut a lock of my hair with a pair of scissors just to remove the gum.  I made a valiant effort to spit out my gum before bed but sometimes I’d still get a bright green gob of gum in my hair the next morning.  I was convinced that it was no longer my fault and that the gum was coming from our shampoo bottle.  I really believed it and I was so convincing that my dad stopped buying that brand of shampoo (sorry Pert Plus).  A huge nappy mess of hair grew at the back of my head until my dad would take me to the hair salon to get my hair properly combed and cut.  He took me to the same woman every time.  She was young, pretty, and very hip.  She would patiently and gently comb out my ‘rat’s nest’ until my hair looked and felt like black silk.  My dad was convinced that she liked him, but he thought every woman liked him.  He liked to ham things up.

I was a perfectionist and my father saw that as a good thing.  A little bit of perfectionism can be useful, but more often than not, it is to our detriment.  I strived to make straight A’s in school and was disappointed year after year for only getting A’s and B’s.  I engrossed myself in music and learned to mimic the pitch, rhythm, and sound of every song I heard on the radio.  I did not want to explore my own singing style – I wanted to sound exactly like the singers on the radio.  I began obsessing over my physical appearance to where it became a top priority in my life.  These compulsions would continue growing deeper and stronger all the way up until my late 20’s.  I believe that my environment and upbringing played equal parts in contributing to my neurosis.

The good news is that I am now aware of these learned behaviors and I am making a conscious effort to either alter them or eradicate them from my life completely so that I can bring myself  back into balance.  I’ve made a lot of progress, but I still have a long way to go.

In the next chapter I explore my social adaptability at school and day care in Ohio.  My father accidentally finds out about what really took place in Hawaii.  I discover more about my fears and desires through gymnastics, tap dance, and moving to a new country.