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Thirty Rooms to Hide In

Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock 'n' Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Thirty Rooms to Hide In
    Book Description:

    Author Luke Longstreet Sullivan has a simple way of describing his new memoir: "It's likeThe Shining. . . only funnier." And as this astonishing account reveals, the comment is accurate.Thirty Rooms to HideIntells the story of Sullivan's father and his descent from being one of the world's top orthopedic surgeons at the Mayo Clinic to a man who is increasingly abusive, alcoholic, and insane, ultimately dying alone on the floor of a Georgia motel. For his wife and six sons, the years prior to his death were years of turmoil, anger, and family dysfunction; but somehow, they were also a time of real happiness for Sullivan and his five brothers, full of dark humor and much laughter.

    Through the 1950s and 1960s, the six brothers had a wildly fun and thoroughly dysfunctional childhood living in a forbidding thirty-room mansion, known as the Millstone, on the outskirts of Rochester, Minnesota. The many rooms of the immense home, as well as their mother's loving protection, allowed the Sullivan brothers to grow up as normal, mischievous boys. Against a backdrop of the times-the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, fallout shelters, JFK's assassination, and the Beatles-the cracks in their home life and their father's psyche continue to widen. When their mother decides to leave the Millstone and move the family across town, the Sullivan boys are able to find solace in each other and in rock 'n' roll.

    AsThirty Rooms to HideInfollows the story of the Sullivan family-at times grim, at others poignant-there is a wonderful, dark humor that lifts the narrative. Tragic, funny, and powerfully evocative of the 1950s and 1960s,Thirty Rooms to Hide Inis a tale of public success and private dysfunction, personal and familial resilience, and the strange power of humor to give refuge when it is needed most, even if it can't always provide the answers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8274-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[ix])
    (pp. 1-3)

    Rochester, Minnesota, is a privileged white enclave of conservative Republicans nestled in the southeastern part of a Democratic state. It is the little town where kings come to fight cancer and presidents go for surgery. When Kennedy’s best and brightest call for doctors, the phone rings here in Rochester’s centerpiece, the gray marble slab of medicine that is the Mayo Clinic.

    A few blocks away from the Clinic on Fourth Street is the First Methodist Church. In the sanctuary this hot July day, dressed in black, sit many of its good doctors, all friends of the forty-five-year-old surgeon who lies...

    (pp. 5-7)

    Rochester, Minnesota, is a rich little town. The Clinic had been producing buckets of cash since the 1920s—and let it be noted here, 1920s money wasrealmoney. The large houses that began springing up around the Clinic were baronial estates built in a time when “cutting corners” meant cutting actual corners, like the edges of magnificent scrolled woodwork surrounding a home’s five or six fireplaces. Many of these estates went up on the hills southwest of the Mayo Clinic, an area nicknamed “Pill Hill.” Our home, however, was four miles out in the country.

    You couldn’t just pull...

    (pp. 9-13)

    Forty years after we moved out of the Millstone, I’m sitting in my mother’s study going through a box of old family photographs.

    Was there some kind of national photo law in the 1950s?

    “Okay, on ‘three’ I want everyone to look into the sun, squint hard, and make an ugly face, all right?”

    It’s likely that the proud fathers were all saying, “Look at the birdie,” but in the pictures everybody is staring flat into a retina-frying supernova.

    I squint back at the photos. I can see the details. They’re right there in front of me, but no matter...

    (pp. 15-19)

    He wanted to be the next Albert Schweitzer,” Mom says, sitting now with a fresh cup of coffee. “He dedicated his career and life to a service so altruistic. He was going to be a medical missionary.”

    She’d met Roger in the fall of 1941 on a blind date at Ohio Wesleyan College. In the summer of ’43, Roger went on to medical school in Rochester, New York, and Myra joined him there with plans for nursing school. But during her physical exams, Myra was told her X-ray revealed a “scar” on her lung and that it was likely to...

    (pp. 21-25)

    For many years after our father’s death my brothers and I unfairly laid all the blame for Dad’s low self-esteem squarely in the frosty Puritan lap of his mother, Irene.

    H. L. Mencken described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.” Irene rarely seemed to be having one, and certainly nobody standing near her did. She was a chilly woman who banged the Bible more than she did her husband, shamed her only child at every opportunity, and sucked all sense of hope and joy out of every room she ever entered. Hugging...

    (pp. 27-31)

    I do not know if all children are born atheists, but we six were.

    Watching my mother try to get us to Sunday school an observer might have thought we were vampires being dragged out into the noonday sun to fry. We made the process of getting dressed and off to Sunday services such a whiny mess that, except for our father’s funeral, few of us have any memories of sitting in a church at all. Photographic evidence, however, establishes that our parents succeeded at least once. And we have Grandma Rock to thank for that.

    There is a family...

    (pp. 33-37)

    A wag observed that a firstborn’s birthday is enshrined with detailed memory: “Our beloved son entered the world at precisely 1:19 a.m. on Monday, the sixteenth of August, in the year 1947.”

    The next child’s birthday is remembered as “January ’49.”

    All the third gets is, “He was born, uhhh, the year the grocery store burned down, right?”

    As the fifth son of six, I arrived late to a noisy party that had started years ago and, as neither firstborn nor baby, I was a face in the crowd. Collin, my only little brother, was born in 1957 and from...

    (pp. 39-43)

    During Roger’s itinerant youth, his father took a pastorate at the Methodist church in Daytona Beach, Florida.

    There in the same town, several miles away in the halls of Seabreeze High School, walked our other grandfather, the school principal. The clipped approach of his steps got the attention of students lingering outside classrooms, but it was his voice that ran Seabreeze High for thirty years. Long before there were public address systems, there was the booming, benevolent basso profundo of my maternal grandfather, Rubert James Longstreet.

    Grandpa RJL began his career in education first as a teacher, then advanced to...

    (pp. 45-49)

    The Civil War was not my introduction to the whole idea of “sides”—thathad been formed by fighting with my brothers. But the fact that grown-ups had once broken off into warring groups so clearly defined they even had uniforms, well, this was fascinating: conflict institutionalized. On top of that, these guys had forts. Andfortswere cool.

    My very first forts were sculpted on my mother’s dinner china. Fort Mashed Potatoes was indeed a mighty structure, its high ground commanding the entire plate. Bristling with baby-carrot cannons and staffed by green-pea army guys, it was impregnable to all...

  12. COLD WAR
    (pp. 51-53)

    For now, the thick walls of the Millstone were a safe place for my mother to raise six little boys. But beyond the gates at the end of the driveway the country drifted into a period of dangerous intolerance: the Cold War was getting into high gear and civil rights were more than a decade away. The 1950s were a combination of boredom, paranoia, racism, and sexual repression. If the Religious Right could travel back there today, they’d break the return switch and set up shop in Paradise. They had Russians to hate, generals to vote for, “Negroes” to fear,...

    (pp. 55-57)

    A few years ago, an arsonist nearly burned down my brother Chris’s house. Neither Chris nor any of his family was there at the time, though the family hamster died. The morning after, Chris and I drove back to his house to examine the damage. When we pried away the firemen’s temporary plywood door and entered, the smell of wet charcoal was strong. I watched Chris walk through the dripping cavern of his old bedroom, where ceiling insulation hung down like pink stalactites. As he looked for possessions worth salvaging I noticed a clock on the wall. Its hands had...

    (pp. 59-63)

    You-know-who came home in a foul mood tonight.”

    That sentence, in one of Mom’s 1958 letters, was the lump in the breast, the iceberg off starboard bow.

    In 1958, the term “chemical dependency” didn’t exist. “Boozer” might have. “Party guy,” definitely. But “alcoholic”? “Chemically dependent”? Forget about it. Alkies flew under the radar. You could smack the wife, wreck the car, take a shit in the neighbor’s birdbath, and as long as you showed up for work on time all anybody did was roll his eyes.

    “Having a delicious highball or two is a great way to unwind,” read the...

    (pp. 65-69)

    The Millstone sat on its hill in Minnesota for nearly thirty years before the first television was carried across its threshold, or lugged, rather. In 1958 Dad brought home the single heaviest object ever to exist in the house—a “portable” TV. If I owned the thing today I could string a purple rope around it and charge people admission just to cool off in its shadow. The old black-and-white was as portable as a box of anvils and was moved probably twice in all the time we owned it.

    My brothers and I, of course, met it at the...

    (pp. 71-75)

    It always happens so fast.

    Mom’s making dinner and you’re having a snack at the kitchen table maybe thinking about Spider-Man or Daredevil, and a rabid dog leaps gracefully up on the table and walks down the length, grinning through its foam.

    Maybe something else will attract its attention, you think, maybe somebody will break from the pack and try for the woods. You freeze. You don’t even move your eyes. You stare into the pattern on the plate, into the flowers, past the bee.

    When Dad had a drink he became predatory. Some drunks get amiable, some maudlin, all...

    (pp. 77-79)

    My memories of JFK’s assassination want to come in shivering from the cold of a Minnesota November and stand by the big furnace in the Millstone’s basement. It’s been turned on since October, and you can see the flame in its belly through the slots in the iron door, roaring orange to send steam up four floors to distant radiators.

    Outside in the valley, thin not-quite-winter snow blows through the fields of cut cornstalks. In the yard, our secret summer places are abandoned; June’s bicycles are in the garage, July’s toys in the bushes under a layer of leaves and...

    (pp. 81-87)

    We had no Nine Eleven to compare with Eleven Twenty-Two but looking back, similarities exist. The exact freeze-frame answer to the question, “Where you were when you heard?” The empty feeling the adults must have had when returning to work, picking up useless tools from wooden desks that no longer mattered really.

    As my mother wrote, “There is too much and nothing to say.” The murder of JFK painted America black. Yet on that very day—November 22, 1963—something good happened too, an ocean away. On that day in England, Parlophone Records releasedWith the Beatles,the second album...

    (pp. 89-91)

    If you were bad in a previous life, you came back as a bug in our yard.

    Any anthill inhabited by the stinging red kind was subject to, forgive me, “The Red Anthill Solution.” This usually involved a magnifying glass or peeing on the colony, and it brought more joy than pest control ought to bring. Fireflies, too, were sacrificed matter-of-factly to produce glow-in-the-dark war paint. We were kinder perhaps to larger animals, like Caesar our collie, but sooner or later every living thing at the Millstone was a Comic Victim. One game involved a cat and a tire swing....

    (pp. 93-95)

    Death was introduced to me by a hamster.

    The Millstone was home to many hamsters over the years—so many we had a nickname for the species. The word hamster, when spoken as if you had a stuffy nose, was “habster.” We shortened it to “hab.”

    The hab I loved the most was Mama Hab. Mama lived in a small cage on my desk, which filled my bedroom with the comforting smell of cedar shavings. It was here she bore six babies that looked like pink kidney beans; and it was here I watched in horror as she ate them....

    (pp. 97-101)

    The sexual and political repression of the 1950s created its own worst nightmare—longhairs playing rock and roll that made the girls shake their boobies. It made the men with short haircuts and white short-sleeved shirts put down their slide rules and try to stop all the tomfoolery. But by 1964 guitars and amplifiers were being dragged into basements all over America, including the Millstone’s.

    For a Sprinter, this was the coolest thing that could possibly happen. Real rock and roll right in your own house, with cigarettes and everything. The Pagans were just five high school boys, but to...

    (pp. 103-107)

    Chris Raymer is a chemical dependency counselor at La Hacienda, a treatment center in Hunt, Texas. He says he’s heard a thousand reasons for alcoholic drinking.

    “My job is so hard.”

    “My boss is so mean.”

    “I have so many responsibilities.”

    “I need to relax.”

    For fun, we’ll throw in “My wife tries to dominate me.”

    Chris says every “reason” is simply an excuse to drink. As an example he facetiously mimics one patient whose circular logic went, “One day, it’s ‘Yay! The Yankees won! Let’s have a drink.’ And the next it’s, ‘Shit! The Yankees lost. Let’s have a...

    (pp. 109-113)

    At the Millstone we had no father figure, and when a sane adult male drifted into our lives, we swarmed him like a lifeboat. There were two such men in our world—the Tonys.

    One was Dr. Tony Bianco, himself an orthopedic surgeon at the clinic and head of his own large household of seven just down the road. The other man we looked up to—often literally—was our dentist, Dr. Tony Lund.

    In Dr. Lund’s waiting room I’d page through theChildren’s Highlightmagazines, stare at the goldfish in his quiet aquarium, and actually look forward to being...

    (pp. 115-121)

    Mom says the earliest sibling argument she can remember was watching toddlers Kip and Jeff ride trikes in a circle and fight about who was ahead of whom, each loudly redefining the other’s position on the circle.

    Kip was born in 1947. With no brother to irritate him, correct him, or attack him things were peaceful until 1949, when Jeff was born; after which began a twenty-five-year-long series of arguments between brothers that ended only when we all went away to college and had Nixon to be pissed off at.

    Every brother was assigned a nickname calibrated to irritate him....

    (pp. 123-127)

    By the fall of ’64, Roger’s drunkenness reached a level that even Mom, thick of skin from years of abuse, could no longer bear. The night’s booze had begun to linger on Dad’s breath when he arrived at work the next morning. His boss, Dr. Mark Coventry, weighed in expressing concern, and now with pressure from two sides, Roger grudgingly agreed to see a Mayo psychiatrist. “But he is very slippery about any promise to stay with him,” warned Mom in a letter to Florida.

    Two problems made this effort futile. Alcoholics are fabulous and convincing liars. And psychiatrists are...

    (pp. 129-133)

    My good brother Jimmy just phoned to tell me about your illness, Papa. As I told Jimmy, if only I had delayed the move out of the Millstone by two short days I could have found a housekeeper and come to you in Florida. But to leave the boys out here in this little house at this time is out of the question. They are already so very upset by this move that I cannot leave them even for a few days. I hope you will not think me callous—it is a hard choice to make—but I hope...

    (pp. 135-139)

    It is midwinter—January 1965—and the sun is setting.

    The driveway gate to the Millstone is open and the two Irish wolfhounds have run away.

    Snowfall has gathered unplowed for a month and almost entirely blocks the driveway. Chris, thirteen, is sitting on the stone gateposts at the end of the driveway, looking at the house he used to live in. A scarf covers his mouth. Of the six boys, he is the one who looks most like his father: aquiline nose and intelligent eyes that have a dark and haunted look—like the windows in the house at...

    (pp. 141-145)

    I cried two times that spring. The first was when I heard that Stan Laurel of our Laurel and Hardy films had died.

    The snows were melting in Elton Hills, running off the great hill where the convent still frowns over the small houses of north Rochester. I’d come indoors from snow-damming the cold waters as they came in freshets down the edges of Thirteenth Avenue and was warming up in my bedroom when Jeff leaned in and told me Stan Laurel was dead.

    Something happy and good was taken from my world in that minute. Let fathers be assholes,...

    (pp. 147-159)

    We used to play an incredibly scary version of hide-and-seek called “Beaster.” It was the last organized game any of us remember playing with Dad before he went over the edge.

    It was always played at night. To begin a game of Beaster the six brothers would scatter through the four floors of the Millstone and extinguish every light. Wherever you were when the last light went out, the game began.

    My father, armed with a rolled-up newspaper, was now waiting for you somewhere on one of the four floors of the huge house. His job was to whack you...

    (pp. 161-165)

    I’m with the band.”

    That’s what you say when you’re a roadie or a groupie going past the ropes.

    “I’m with the band” is the essence of borrowed cool. If there had been a 1965 bouncer who stood between the Pagans and me, my patter might have been different.

    Yes, I know I look like Ernie Douglas fromMy Three Sonsbut let me through.

    Why, yes, I do happen to be a Sprinter, but perhaps you haven’t heard me perform the opening drum roll from ‘Wipe Out’? So if you’ll just let me . . .

    Oh yeah? Well,...

    (pp. 167-173)

    By the summer of ’65, we found ourselves back in the Millstone playing Beaster for real. Now we crept through the house at high noon wondering when Dad’s anger would lurch from a corner. It could come for any of a hundred reasons now: for roughhousing, for being a child, for existing.

    Nothing had changed as a result of the three-month separation. When Dad came home from work, the hinges of the liquor cabinet creaked the same as before and by dinnertime he’d be hovering behind Mom making his accusations(“You’ve never liked sex, have you, Myra?”)and she would...

    (pp. 175-179)

    Open this door, goddammit!”

    BOOM!The oak door rattles. My father is outside the door. He is drunk and pounding with a flat hand. In his other hand is either a drink or the rifle. From inside we think we can hear that ice-in-glass clink, but we can’t be sure.

    It is July 1965. A half hour ago I’d been alone down in the fallout shelter reading one of my superhero comic books. The basement is cool and quiet in the summer and a good place to hide year-round. Dad had begun drinking at noon and by three was raging,...

    (pp. 181-185)

    The main juvenile officer in the Rochester Police Department was a man with the perfectly cast name of Dutch Link.

    Dutch was the guy who sent the hoods upstate to the juvie in Red Wing. He also had say over which bands were allowed to play in the policesponsored mixers at the armory. Dutch became acquainted with the Pagans in both capacities.

    The armory was the best steady gig in town, and all the bands wanted to play there. But Dutch was no desk cop and knew all about the Pagans’ occasional drinking during performances. Kip remembers Dutch “calling us...

    (pp. 187-189)

    Most chemical dependency counselors will tell you alcoholics do not voluntarily submit to accepting help—they simply run out of options. Old-timers in AA often say the door to their meeting rooms ought to be just one foot high. “Like those dog doors,” one member told me, “because that’s how most of us came to our first meeting—crawling on our hands and knees, completely humbled.”

    Whatever made our father finally decide to accept help in August we’ll never know. Perhaps he woke up that next morning, saw his black eye in the mirror, and knew he wouldn’t be able...

    (pp. 191-193)

    For decades alcoholism was considered a lack of willpower at best, a moral failing at worst. It wasn’t until 1956 that it was even classified a disease by the American Medical Association, and even then treatments for addiction were medieval: electroshock therapy, insulin shock, heavy sedation.

    That this was in fact the kind of treatment my father was about to receive in Hartford is no dishonor to the doctors there; it was simply the best medical thinking of the time. Western medicine loves to cure stuff, but alcoholism can’t be cured, only arrested. No matter how many needles doctors stuck...

  36. CASE #34233
    (pp. 195-199)

    On my desk, dropped carelessly by the office mail-room boy, is a manila envelope that may contain some answers to my father’s death. Inside are his psychiatric records that I’d ordered months ago from the Institute of Living in Hartford; fifty single-spaced pages of his private conversations with psychiatrists; Rorschach interpretations, IQ tests, and other measurements of Western medicine that had been dutifully recorded and stored away in a file cabinet through four decades of Connecticut winters.

    I open the envelope as if it were an undisturbed crypt.

    From the Hartford psychiatrist’s notes on my father, August 31, 1965


    (pp. 201-203)

    In August 1965, the Beatles’ song “Help!” was number one on the charts and occasionally you could hear one of the Pagans playing it on the piano in the Millstone’s music room. From their concert at Shea Stadium, the Beatles moved through America, arriving at the Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, on August 21. There, to the grinding envy of the other brothers, Jeff saw the Beatles live in concert.

    Back at home, we gathered on the floor of Dad’s study to watch the concert on television. It was a happy night in a house that was enjoying an uninterrupted...

    (pp. 205-209)

    I have just returned from Hartford very much encouraged and—this you will find hard to believe but will have to accept as a fact—in love with my husband! This whole thing is so mysterious to me—the working of the mind and the heart—that I realize you cannot be expected to understand any of it—nor do I.

    From the moment of arrival in Hartford, I could see this was a new man! He looks in splendid health—thinner, tan, his face free from the harassed lines and frantic eyes. He may be greyer but he looks...

    (pp. 211-215)

    Dad’s sudden return to the Millstone was a car crash in backward motion. The metal popped smooth, the pieces of glass flew out of our hair and assembled into a window, the grill of the Mack truck that hit us backed away—and there was Dad again, sitting in the kitchen, smiling.

    He simply showed up back at the Millstone. He never apologized to any of us, showed no contrition, made no amends, just walked in the front door—a drunk driver striding through the hospital ward where his victims lay, waving and smiling in at everyone through the eye...

    (pp. 217-221)

    The weather records for Rochester, Minnesota, say January 29, 1966, broke a record when it reached thirty degrees below zero. It couldn’t have been much warmer five days later, the day my father started back at the Clinic and got the call about his mother.

    On the flight to his mother’s deathbed in St. Petersburg my father wrote a letter to his oldest son, Kip. Somehow, during what had to be a stressful week of coming back home and returning to work, my father was able to come out of whatever dark waters held him and—in a voice that...

    (pp. 223-227)

    Mom says she knew Dad began drinking again soon after he returned from his mother’s funeral in Florida.

    There was now only one bottle of booze in the Millstone: gin, kept on hand for visitors and Clinic gatherings. Mom and Dad had agreed it would be okay to keep one bottle around the house as long as Mom was in charge of it and it was kept in a locked cabinet in the dining room. One March evening Myra had company, and when she went to the cabinet, she saw the lock had been compromised. It was broken but didn’t...

    (pp. 229-231)

    In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a phrase for it: “hitting rock bottom.”

    Few alcoholics recover without reaching this place, one that AA describes as a point of “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” By now Roger had racked up quite a few excellent candidates for rock bottom—publicly accusing his best friend of sleeping with his wife, jail time for a DUI, a fistfight with his son.

    Getting just one of these wake-up calls would be enough to make most people tilt their heads and say, “I didwhat?” But to be noticed over the day-to-day insanity of an addiction, a rock...

    (pp. 233-235)

    On the phone is Myra Longstreet’s best friend from Seabreeze High School, class of 1941. Tacy Moore, now eighty-nine, is speaking from her home, still in the Daytona Beach area, ten miles up the road from R.J. Longstreet Elementary School.

    “There was simply never a finer man than your grandfather,” says Tacy, long an admirer of the old professor.

    Fine men were in fact hard to come by for both Tacy and Myra. Over the years, Myra’s friend had also suffered a horrible marriage to an alcoholic, and the weight of those decades is evident in her thin voice today:...

    (pp. 237-239)

    The addict loves drama.

    “I’ll show them,” thinks the drunk as he leans over the bridge and looks into the swirling waters below. In the movie playing in his head, he writes the Famous Final Scene. It will be a scene so touching, audiences everywhere will weep and as they cry, they’ll blame themselves.“How could we not have known?”An usher comes down the aisle handing out packs of Kleenex and still the people keen,“Oh, Tortured Arteest! Please come back. Come back and explain again how your burdens were heavier than ours, your sadness deeper. We’ll mix your...

    (pp. 241-243)

    Back in May 1961, Mom was at the sink peeling potatoes when she saw Ernest Hemingway walk by the road out in front of the Millstone wearing his trademark turtleneck sweater and knitted cap. For a woman whose library included copies of the famous writer’s best works, seeing one of the century’s acknowledged literary masters stroll by her back window was worth a phone call to her best friend.

    “Ithoughtthat was him,” JoAnn Bianco confirmed. “He passed down here just a few minutes ago.” The phone lines buzzed a few times around the neighborhood until it was established...

    (pp. 245-247)

    The last time I saw him was the morning I took him to the airport, June 28th. Roger leaned in the car window to kiss me goodbye and heaven must have been watching over me, for my last sight of him was one which filled me with tenderness and the old love.

    His first stop was Newport News. Mark Coventry phoned later that first week to say the Newport News doctors had called to say Roger was arriving for interviews intoxicated and irrational. A three-way effort was made by Mark, me, and the doctors in Virginia to get him to...

    (pp. 249-249)

    Charles R. Sullivan, deceased.

    The body was embalmed by arterial injection. The heart weighed 310 grams. There were no congenital anomalies. The heart valves and myocardium were normal. The coronary arteries showed grade 1 arteriosclerosis. The trachea was filled with partially digested food material. There was no blood within the aspirated material. The right lung weighs 490 grams and the left lung weighs 515 grams. The pleural surface is smooth. Dissection of the bronchial tree reveals the entire tree of both lungs to be filled with partially digested food material. The stomach is normal and contains partially digested food similar...

  48. ROOM 50
    (pp. 251-253)

    To learn what happened to my family in that hot July of 1966, my archaeology has taken me to some odd corners where the artifacts have come to rest: the dusty boxes of letters in my mother’s attic, the quiet stacks in Mayo’s Medical Library, and the wet char of my brother’s ruined house. Today it has taken me to Georgia, where I’m watching the young medical students file out of a modern five-story building into the Augusta heat. I am standing across the street, Laney-Walker Boulevard, looking at a building that’s part of the Medical College of Georgia. On...

    (pp. 255-257)

    On the dresser of the room where my father died were three pharmacy-sized bottles of Placidyl and Librium, a total of 700 pills in a prescription filled, according to the labels, just twenty-six days earlier; 442 of the pills remained, leaving 258 unaccounted for. And the cause of death on my father’s autopsy is “pneumonia involving the left lung; type undetermined.”

    Placidyl is the trade name for a depressant called ethchlorvynol, prescribed hesitantly by doctors as a short-term solution to insomnia; it’s no longer even available in the United States. Librium is a sedative used for symptomatic relief of mild...

  50. SUNDAY, JULY 3, 1966
    (pp. 259-265)

    When I woke Sunday morning 10:00, I was sick. The room was whirling about me and when I stood on my feet I grew instantly nauseated, faint, and broke out in a clammy sweat. I sent one of the boys for a Dramamine (seasickness pill) and went back to sleep. Later I realized my trouble, affirmed by Tony Bianco, that it was heat prostration. Rochester had had unrelieved temperatures in the low 90s since the middle of June. I had conscientiously pressed salt on the boys everyday—but had not taken any myself. I began licking salt that Sunday afternoon...

    (pp. 267-269)

    And so Jesus said to the worshippers gathered at the foot of his cross, “Come closer.” And they came closer.

    “What is it, my Lord?” asked one.

    And Jesus said unto him, “I can . . . see your house from up here.”

    This joke used to make us howl. We’d collapse to the floor, delighting in its blasphemy. Yet even as we professed active disbelief in God or an afterlife, we did in fact believe in an unseen world—ours was the one full of all the scary shit. We little ones believed in ghosts and monsters. We believed...

    (pp. 271-273)

    Death caused by a long illness oft en allows a family to prepare for the end. At the Millstone, however, we had moved in one leap from alcoholic insanity to religious ritual, and we understood neither. One day there’s a mad dog foaming through its teeth and the next a minister is smiling in through the screen door. All we really knew was that we were angry, and even our anger we didn’t understand.

    If we could have had our way, there would have been no funeral, no viewing. We simply would have raised the drawbridge to the Millstone and...

    (pp. 275-281)

    After days of oppressively hot weather, Wednesday, July 6th dawned clear and cool. I wore a plain black dress, with ¾-length sleeves—white cuffs and a wide white horse-collar which I had pinned up from its low line—it was a favorite dress of Roger’s. I had no hat but I wore that black lace mantilla that Mother gave me and white gloves. And as I dressed I knew I was dressing for Roger for the last time. At 9:30 the Towey Funeral Home limousine came.

    Jeff, Chris, Dan and I rode down in family car behind Mom, Jim, Col...

    (pp. 283-287)

    Being twelve years old in Rochester, Minnesota, in the summer of ’66 was a good thing. There had been family trauma for nearly ten years, yeah, but nobody’d died. Well, not counting my dad, but the point is we were all alive, the seven of us—the ten actually, if you count Pagan and my hamsters.

    On one level, it was kind of cool having a dead dad. At school, I was able to strike some seriously sad poses for Debbie Laney, leaning against the bike rack with a look that said, “Yep. My dad died. Pretty sad. Me? Nahhh,...

    (pp. 289-292)

    My dad died of “pneumonia.” It’s on the record. But ifIever turn up dead, bring my Mom in for questioning and grill her about what little bastards we were when she tried to start dating again.

    After ten years of life with the Volcanic Thunder Bourbon God you’d think pretty much anybody Mom brought home would look like a fucking Ken doll. But for some sad reason we weren’t ready to be friendly to anyone Mom invited to sit in Dad’s seat at the table. Of particular note was a good man named Dick Swanson, a contractor Mom...

    (pp. 295-299)

    There are places in the world where bad things happened. In these places the illusion of time grows weak and if you stand still enough you can hear what happened there, lingering like the last notes of a sad song. If you go to Dallas and stand in Dealey Plaza where Mr. Zapruder stood, you can fade back to November 1963 and, at the sound of the shots, throw yourself to the green grass and weep.

    In the summer of 2007 I went to Rochester and visited the Millstone. I should say I went to visit the nice family who...

    (pp. 301-303)

    Grandpa Rubert James Longstreet, a man who did many great things, died on October 9, 1969, at age seventy-seven. Monnie was with him in Florida when he passed after a short illness. My mother took the train south again and attended the funeral with her little brother, Jimmy, again at her side. In Rochester, a family friend stayed with the three of us still living at home, and when Mom returned a week later she bore with her several boxes full of green books bound by Grandpa. They were the letters—a conversation of thirty years. She never went back...

    (pp. 304-304)

    “My name is Luke and I’m an alcoholic.”

    I’m in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Austin, Texas.

    I’m not visiting. I’m not here trying to learn what my father was like. I’m here because I’m a member of AA, in recovery, and I belong here. I’m an alcoholic.

    I grew up promising myself that no matter what else I became, I wasn’t going to be a drunk like my dad. And yet I became one.

    How I became dependent on booze and drugs will have to be a story for another day. As for this story—about the years I...

  59. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 305-305)
  60. Author’s Note
    (pp. 305-306)
  61. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-307)