Chapter 5: It Starts to Get Really Dark

This is the fifth in a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.

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Chapter Five
It Starts to Get Really Dark

       I still remember what I was wearing the first day of high school. Isn’t it strange, the things we remember? I don’t remember much of anything else . . . oh wait, there were a couple of things — the legs on some chick named Jennifer, who happened to be a cheerleader that happened to sit next to me in first period. The cheerleader outfits in high school just looked different, or maybe it was the shape of the girls wearing them . . . Sorry, I got lost for a minute there.

       The other thing I still remember vividly is the announcement that a student could not have more than ten unexcused absences per class per semester, or the consequences would be a grade of “I”, representing Incomplete. Finally, someone that understood me; an I would be my highest grade since Ms. Bass. Relief was on the way; this high school thing was going to work well for me.

       The school even had an authorized smoking area for students outside and adjacent to an intersection of hallways. They had a pot smoking area as well, out in the parking lot; but I don’t think that area was quite as “authorized” as the other one. Both worked out fine for me, since I wasn’t big on authorization anyway.

       Back to the ten unexcused absences thing. On the twelfth day of school, my parents got a call from the counselor at the high school stating that I had already achieved a grade of I (incomplete) in five of my six classes. I had attended creative foods a couple of times, so I still had a fighting chance for an F in that class. After hanging out with some friends in the parking lot (see aforementioned unauthorized smoking thing), I heard they were baking a cake in creative foods. For some reason, after being in the parking lot, I could’ve eaten a horse; but I settled for a cake.

       Dad hated smokers, drinkers, drugs, derelicts, and long hair. I was five for five all of the sudden; and when I started getting caught, Dad could project cold in a way I have never seen since. Looking back now, he and Mom were really struggling, though I was too young or naïve to see how deep it was. Lori and Mom were struggling, we were all struggling.

       It got really quiet and really cold in the house. We were not in a good place; communication shut down, totally. Lori continued to do well academically and ended up being valedictorian, but all of that was overshadowed by the strain in the house. The laughter completely ceased. It was either silence or a brief fight. I don’t remember anything on the faces of my parents other than heavy strain and angst. I think I would have taken the angst look over the strain, given a choice; at least angst has passion. Heavy strain looks like fatigue and defeat. It was only a couple years since Montgomery, and the pendulum had totally swung.

       We were in absolute misery. The strange thing is, this was all I knew; so I thought life like this was normal. And I also thought, If it’s normal, and both parents are always in my ear and on my case, then our family misery must be my fault.

       This is roughly the time frame the pastor came by to do the exorcism or Baptist séance or whatever he was there for. He wanted to tell me about God. How dare he assume he cornered the market on God knowledge? I knew all about God; his name was Frank and he slept with my mother and he was not pleased with me at all. Many years later, a shrink explained transference to me, and told me that I had assumed God was like the primary authoritarian (Dad) in my life. Yikes, that’s not good at all. The shrink was right; I had looked at God as a being like Dad, disappointed in me, snooping around to find out what I’m up to, and then expressing his disgust with me or just walking right by me with the heavily strained face that I had grown to hate. If God operated like Dad, why would I want to go hang out with Him? Church was out, as was prayer, and slowly even the thought of God conveniently faded away.

       But there’s good news. We fixed it all; we were geniuses. Dad traveled eight days a week to foster his career with one of the large computer manufacturers. Mom got a job and went to the doctor for medication and slept a lot. Lori worked after school and then stayed in the car, driving wherever she could, or else drank heavily and slept a lot. I pursued my parking lot career at the high school and chased any and everything with shaved legs. (I enjoyed being distracted with girls, as reality was horrible, and girls were very distracting-looking about then.) I mowed lawns to buy beer and that parking lot material and stayed gone every minute of every day and night. Problems solved, right?

       Well, let the conflict really begin now. Mom was a worrier, and I was off wherever with whomever, drinking or smoking whatever till dark-30 in the morning on school nights. Thank goodness my parking lot academic career and six I’s report card plan didn’t require me to be well rested. But on weekends I did rest well; I drank so much at whoever’s house, I’d not even wake up to go home. Mom worried; but what’s she to do?

       The great thing about being a derelict in my community was that every home was in deep trouble. I had one friend whose folks actually went to Europe for two years and left the high school kids home to raise themselves. I had a girlfriend whose folks were divorced and had kind of a non-parental-capacity thing going on. Her Dad left and joined a religious cult that involved nudity and some young girl and lots of alcohol. (I think that particular religion started in the high school parking lot, but I haven’t confirmed that.) Her Mom went to bed with a bottle of 80 proof and we never saw her come out of her room. I did see her occasionally though, up at a pub in one of our malls “sipping” 80 proof something or another. Either way, she was not on duty at the house.

       Kids and visitors at that house did whatever they pleased, which worked out great because that’s exactly what we wanted. They had a really cool built-in bench table that we played quarters on for hours and hours daily, and then nightly for hours and hours more. For those of you that don’t know, quarters is a drinking game that should inebriate an elephant in about eleven minutes. I, on the other hand, could play for hours. This was actually my greatest achievement in high school. The sick part is that we really thought of it as an achievement.

       We were a twisted crowd, but what could they have expected, really? They played Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson on the same radio station. That’s enough to screw up even a good kid. We had Jimmy Carter in the White House (yikes), Nixon had just stepped in his own dung, and we had rightfully chucked him out. Many of the grown-ups were still trying to be hippies and prove that the establishment was evil. At the golf course, they sold pants for men that looked like somebody shot a pink and teal couch, and you could accessorize with white patent leather loafers and a three-inch- wide white belt with a pot leaf belt buckle. None of that may sound cool to you, but you would’ve had to see it with the little alligator on the shirt. It was really quite handsome. We had Cheech and Chong for role models, and the Love Boat reminded us that everything would be okay if we’d get on a boat and head somewhere warm and sleep with a stranger.

       Good grief, it’s a wonder we survived.



Next: Up, Up and Away  


Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at or by phone at 678-429-0901

Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.

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