Bil Browning

31 Days: Is that a Hamster in Your Hat?

Filed By Bil Browning | September 12, 2011 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: hamster in your hat, older stepfather, parents divorce, Walter Jones

The backstory behind this photo is after the break.

walter-danny.jpg

I'm doing a series of posts for 31 days that will feature a photo from my personal collections and the backstory behind the picture. I'm trying to stick with shots that have not appeared on the site before. I'm using the stories as a writing exercise to help me prepare for writing a book. You can find the rest of the series posts here:

I've blogged before in this series about the many pets and critters in my life through the years. What can I say? I'm a regular Elly May. All told, there've been several dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, a chipmunk, and Danny, a precocious little hamster my stepdad got for me about a year after the chipmunk was set free.

Danny's favorite activity was to ride around on Walter's cowboy hat. Forget that stupid wheel that spins but goes nowhere, a ride in the hat meant he got to see the world! Quite honestly, Danny was probably my least favorite pet and doesn't have many interesting stories, so I'm going to tell you about Walter instead.

Coming Together

My parents got divorced when I was young; Dad walked out on Mom on my tenth birthday. Walter was an older man who lived across the country lane on land that used to be a soybean field. There was a big scene in the yard when Dad left and Walter walked over after Dad had left to make sure Mom was okay. Shortly after the divorce was final, she married him.

Mom didn't necessarily want to marry Walter, but she had a young son to feed, bills to pay, and no job when Dad left. She started working at the local grocery store's deli, but it only paid minimum wage. My parents had just built my mom's dream house a couple of years before, but there was no way her salary could cover all the bills. While Dad had run off to a ready-made home with his new girlfriend, we had no place to go.

Walter had just bought his house and land for cash. He had no mortgage. He drove a Mercedes. He was recently divorced and retired. He was also 72 while Mom was in her early 40s. She didn't love him, but she had to provide for me, so we left our beautiful new home and moved across the lane into his doublewide trailer where Mom had to look at her dream sitting vacant until it was sold to another family.

Time Spent Together

Walter had lived a full life. He'd recently retired from being a cross-country trucker, but before he took up the 18 wheeler, he'd been a guitar player for country music star Mel Gibson's band. He could play any instrument with strings perfectly and while his voice had long ago faded, those fingers could pick a banjo faster than anyone I've ever seen since.

He had dozens of reel-to-reel recordings of various country stars in concert with him accompanying. We regularly went to country music shows and met Mom's singing idols. She was a country music lover and ate up meeting Mel Tillis, Grandpa Jones, Loretta Lynn, Roy Clark, Dolly Parton, and Conway Twitty. We'd go back stage and Walter would play with the band or the star in the dressing room. After one of Grandpa Jones' performances at the Grand Ole Opry, he autographed the banjo he'd used on stage and gave it to Walter. It read, "To the only star older than me. I couldn't have done it without you. Love, Grandpa Jones."

We did a lot of traveling with Walter and since he'd been a trucker he always wanted to drive. He liked to drive for on hours on end without stopping and bathroom breaks were frowned upon. He'd been everywhere and done it all, but it seemed there was never time for us to stop and see it too. Mom used to joke that going on a trip with him went like this, "Have you seen such-and-so landmark? Well, you're not going to see it this time either; we have to keep on going."

Walter and I got along about as well as a pre-teen boy who'd just been abandoned by his Dad and a stepfather could. I resented him and rebelled constantly. I complained about him regularly. He was slow, set in his ways, told the same stories repeatedly even though I didn't care about them the first time, and smoked More cigarettes.

Mom wasn't particularly Walter's biggest fan either. They fought constantly. She was resentful of being "forced" into marrying him, hated looking at her dream house across the street, and was generally still bitter over divorcing my Dad. Walter was a rebound relationship that sprouted roots like a dandelion. While the flower is sorta pretty, it's still a weed that'll take over quickly if you let it go.

She would get angry with him and storm around the house or go for a drive muttering to herself, "He'll die soon and then I'll be free and have my own money." She hadn't married for love; she'd married for survival. Because he was retired and on social security, both Mom and I were able to draw off of his benefits too and it brought in quite a tidy sum that we'd lose if they got divorced. She felt she had to stay.

Defending the Homestead

As a few years passed, Mom eventually couldn't take any more. She'd grown to despise Walter, I already hated him with a teenager's passion, and even my normally placid grandmother could only say bad words about him. Grandma was a few months younger than Walter and I don't think she ever forgave him for that.

Mom had an affair with a married co-worker from the grocery store at the end of the relationship. When his wife discovered what was going on, things took a turn for the ugly. I was home alone the day that she came to the house to confront my mom and spill the beans to Walter.

She stormed up on the porch, beat on the door with the ferocity of a woman spurned, and demanded to talk to Walter or Mom. When I told her they weren't home she started spouting off threats about what she'd do to Mom if she caught her, how she'd find Walter to make sure he knew what was going on, and how much she wanted to hurt Mom for doing this to her. She was in a rampage and I was afraid - both for me and for Mom.

When the woman started insisting that she be allowed to come in the house and wait for one or the other to show up, I refused. She tried to barge her way in, but I locked the screen door. She tore it open and started banging on the front door's windows when I slammed it shut in her face. She was cussing my Mom and me with everything she had; she'd completely lost control of herself.

Walter was also a gun lover. He was an NRA member and regularly went small game hunting in the woods around our house. As the woman continued trying to smash down the door, I reached into the coat closet and brought out Walter's .22 pistol. I warned her to go away from behind the door and she cussed me for being "that bitch's brat" and how she'd show me too while she continued her barrage on the door.

That's when I opened the door. Her fist fell on my chest as it swung open and I pulled that gun up to shoulder level as Walter had taught me and pointed it in her face.

"Bitch, I have no idea who you are or what you're talking about, but you need to get the fuck out here before I blow your fucking head off," I told her calmly as I cocked the pistol. "You may be older, but I've got a gun."

She lit out of there like her heels were on fire. I followed her to the edge of the driveway with the gun shaking in my hands. I kept the gun aimed at her until she got in her car and started to spin gravel at me in her haste to drive away. I shot the pistol into the air and shouted in her open window, "I'll kill you if you mess with my Mom."

I rushed back in the house after she'd left and called Mom at work. I told her in a rush what had happened as I shook and tried to breathe normally again. I didn't know why the woman had come to our house or what it was she'd been talking about but I relayed what had happened to Mom in a rush. It was silent on the other end of the line and then Mom simply said, "Thanks Bil. I'll take care of it. She won't be back."

Coming Apart

When Mom left work that evening, the woman and her adult daughter were waiting for Mom in the parking lot. A co-worker had walked mom to her car after hearing what had happened earlier in the day. As they were almost to Mom's car, the two women stepped from around a big pickup truck and the furious wife slugged mom in the face. As the daughter stepped in to take her own swing, Mom's friend took her upside the head and knocked her back into the truck and out of the game.

Mom had her blackjack (a short leather rod with a lead weight at the end she called her "equalizer") in hand when she'd walked out of the store and if the woman hadn't snuck up on her things probably could have been avoided with a few yelled threats and some chest beating. But once the woman had hit her, all bets were off. Mom swung the blackjack and struck the woman in the shoulder. As the woman screamed and backed off, Mom got in her car and drove off with her friend.

They drove around for a while until they could return for her co-workers car. Then slowly Mom drove home where Walter was waiting for her. He'd heard the news quickly; it was a very small town. When he'd returned, Walter had ordered me to feed the dog early and then go to my room and stay there until I was told to come out.

When she got home with a swollen cheek and black eye, the fight was fast and furious. The two of them screamed and yelled and cursed each other with venom in the living room while I listened at my bedroom door. When Mom told him, "If you hit me...", I opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

I'd already made the threat once before that day, so I did it again. "If you hit her, I will kill you," I told him as I stood in the entrance to the living room. I was behind him, but he heard me and he lowered his hand as he turned my way. "I will shoot you, I will cut your throat as you sleep, I will beat you till you die," I threatened. "But you will not hurt my Mom or I will kill you."

He ordered me back to my room and Mom murmured her agreement, but I stood my ground with all the ferocity of a 15 year old who's scared, threatened, and cocky. The two of them continued arguing but since I was in the room, things quieted down considerably and by the end, they'd agreed to divorce.

The next day, Mom and I went apartment hunting and found a small place in town. It only had one bedroom, but the upstairs landing was big enough to put in a twin bed for me. Mom started cleaning houses to supplement her income and I took on three or four paper routes and mowed people's yards in the summer to make ends meet.

There was no privacy and we had very little money, but Walter wasn't there anymore.


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Great story, Bil.

A gun is a very difficult element to introduce into a narrative. The insertion rarely feels real. It often feels contrived. As if you weren't certain that an oft told tale had enough steam for a formal reiteration. Even if the gun really was part of the encounter, I'd eliminate it. The story doesn't need it. Really, this is a story not about Walter but about your mother who comes to us in the best of narrative ways, through a telling of her actions and words. Augusten Burroughs approach to bringing his mother to the page was very similar.

Thanks Tony! I think that's some of the most valuable feedback I've received on any of these posts. I really appreciate it. Let me know if you've got any tips for the other posts.

This post is on my "To Read" list, but I want to ask:

Are you putting these "31 Days" photos out into the public domain, or does the "Copyright 2004-2001 The Bilerico Project ..." protection apply to them? I presume you consider them copyrighted, especially if you are collecting stories to put in a book.

This great photo is very cute, and lends itself to creative captioning. Without reading your story yet, one caption I'd like to put on it is, "A bit grumpy today? Try doing something silly!" ... the man's facial expression isn't really that grumpy, just maybe a bit grumpy ... and thus I think my caption works.

But I'm not into ripping off copyrighted material, especially not from my friends.

I think the gun really worked well in the story. It pointed up to the extreme lengths a teen boy would/will go to protect his mom. Picking up a gun always sharpens the emotions present in the story, like a neon sign pointing the way to a pivotal moment. Often our dislike of violence and guns makes us squeamish about them in our stories, but its a fact of life that desperate times do call for out of context actions.