Origin Story - An Explosive Experience

Jim:    During my early childhood and teenage years, I spent an enormous amount of time with my father and grandfather.  In addition to the farms, my grandfather owned several apartment buildings in Kittanning.  My father, as the eldest male, felt he had to be overseer – which meant as next in line, and volunteered to be handyman.  This led to one of my most formative incidents in my life, which shaped my attitude for years to come.  When I was nine (9) years old, my father insisted that I try out for little league.  I remember the tryouts.  All the children would go to the field and take ten (10) swings at a pitched ball and take infield practice.  All the coaches would be there, watching to pick players for their teams.  There were no girls involved – remember, this was 1963.  I remember my turn at bat.  Swung and missed every pitch.  I remember the humiliation like it was yesterday.  No wonder.  I sucked.  I spent every summer and weekend at the farm.  One of the coaches took pity on me and picked me to try out for his team.  He was a neighbor of ours.  Unlike today, when everyone makes the team, back then the team could only have a certain number of players.  I did my best, however it was not good enough and I was cut from the team.  Lying in bed that night, crying myself to sleep, I vowed never to feel like that again.  I would not care about anything.  My philosophy of life became if at first you don’t succeed, quit – or better yet, do not try at all.  I remember that day.  That was hard.  And, that’s what I felt like.  I never cared again.  I really didn’t for a long time.  Still, I was my father’s son, and all that that entailed.  My father was a real taskmaster.  It was a subzero morning in February.  My father shook me awake and told me to get on my work clothes.  The gas lines have frozen again.  Let’s go, he said.  On the farms my grandfather owned, there were gas wells supplying the homes he rented.  Every cold snap the water would condense in the lines and freeze, blocking the flow of gas to the homes.  My grandfather would get a call, and James, Sr. would call James, Jr. – meaning James, III (myself) would be dragged out of a warm bed to help remedy the situation.  We would stop and pick up the usual gang of roughnecks who, for some reason, worked for the pittance my father paid them.  I found out later they all owed my father money. Many of the times my father would get a call from one of them from a bar asking for a loan.  I would walk to the bar with $20.00 or $30.00 and find them.  I knew every sleazy dive in Kittanning.  They were indentured servants.  Anyway, my father’s usual method of operation was to place bales of hay underneath the gas lines where he thought the blockage was present.  Anybody with a lick of sense knows not to go looking for a gas leak with a flame.  This time, he thought the block was at the well head itself.  He had the men place a large amount of straw around the gas well.  I expressed my opinions.  Perhaps this was not such a good idea. And, as usual, I was rebuffed.  A few seconds after the hay lit, there was a tremendous boom.  Fortunately, I had my back to the well and was still blown about ten (10) feet into the snowbank.  When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing and started screaming that I was blind.  One of the guys pulled me up by the collar of my coat.  My father asked if I could see, and after I told him I could, he said well, then let’s get back to work.  I justified my drinking for years because of episodes like this.  He didn’t care.  He really didn’t.  Can you imagine that?  All the hair was burnt off the back of my head.  It was brutal.  Another yearly chore was mowing the cemetery.  And, I do not mean mowing the family plot on Memorial Day.  I mean mowing the entire cemetery.  In fact, there were two (2) Catholic cemeteries in Kittanning:  St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s.  Back in the 1800s the Germans and Italians had a feud.  I never received a satisfactory explanation for this, however the Germans were buried in St. Mary’s and the Italians were buried in St. Joseph’s.  The parish was always short of funds, and the maintenance of the cemeteries suffered until my grandfather took it upon himself to handle the upkeep.  This meant of course that my father was involved. As my father had his own workforce, my brother and myself, he volunteered me for the effort.  My grandfather would pick my brother and me up early in the morning and drop us off at the cemeteries to mow all day.  I knew where all the deceased members of the parish were buried, knew every tombstone, knew every epitaph.  When we worked at St. Joseph’s there was a well with a handpump.  My grandfather would always caution us to filter the water before we drank, as many of the residents were buried in wooden caskets, which over the course of time had disintegrated.  This allowed buttons, teeth, and various non-perishable items to get into the water.  The things you learn.  At St. Mary’s, there was no well, so he would give us a couple cans of beer if we got thirsty.  And, we were barely teenagers at the time.  Germans thought beer solved all the problems.  I could take the heat and the bugs, but every now and then they would forget to pick us up at the end of the day.  Being that young and being in the cemetery after dark was no treat, especially when you had your little brother with you.  I did get to know the history of many of the deceased.  Probably the most interesting was the gravesite of Colonel William G. Sirwell. The colonel was born at the Allegheny Arsenal, a military installation near Pittsburgh in 1820.  He began his military career in 1839.  He formed the first military company of African Americans called the Hannibal Guards.  Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Sirwell organized the 78th regimen of the Pennsylvania volunteers and served valiantly throughout the war.  He was particularly noted for his action at Chickamauga where his men were trapped behind enemy lines.  Having run out of rations, the men faced starvation.  He and his men gathered acorns and made stew.  Upon his return to Kittanning after the war, he served in various town offices – being at one time Postmaster and Justice of the Peace.  Although the colonel was not a catholic until a few weeks before his death, he provided room in his home for a visiting priest to celebrate mass before a church was built.  When he passed away, the men of his regimen thought so highly of him that they carried his monument – a solid granite obelisk – up to the cemetery on their backs.  The tombstone is engraved to our beloved commander William G. Sirwell.  Engravings of acorns surround the inscription.  I’ve often told this story to visitors to the cemetery.  The road to the cemetery is Sirwell Street.  There are no Sirwells left in Kittanning, however we always plant a flower at his gravesite every Memorial Day.  If you have not guessed by now, I developed a problem with alcohol.  Most of my early memories were associated with it.  At the family gatherings it would be the centerpiece.  When we were old enough to walk without stumbling, my cousins and I would serve as gophers, bringing beer to the men and high balls to the women.  A high ball is a term you may not have heard.  A high ball is nothing but whiskey mixed with ginger ale or 7-up.  I remember all the bars back in town.  Back then they were called beer gardens.  There were at least five (5) on the main street of town.  There were other neighborhood taverns in every section of the Borough.  And, this was in addition to the clubs and fraternal organizations.  Growing up in a small town was a radically different experience compared to what my own children experienced in the 80s and 90s.  The pace was slower, and the unity and togetherness of the family was paramount at a time that there were no cell phones and computers to complicate people’s lives.  The adults turned a blind eye to drinking.  They believed as we were not on drugs, well, boys will be boys.  I will not belabor the progression of my illness – however, this was the start.  Coming to the climax of my issues – coming out of a blackout, I found myself in the passenger seat of an automobile.  Being a bit disoriented, I attempted to discern my location.  Turning to my left I saw my mother behind the steering wheel.  Where are we, I asked.  Pittsburgh, she tersely replied.  What are we doing in Pittsburgh, I got up the nerve to ask.  Having you committed, she replied.  I soon found myself in a hospital.  I went through the examination and intake, and apparently they agreed with my mother that I belonged there.  After being pumped full of valium to ward off delirium tremens I was taken to my room, or should I say, cell.  Given time to reflect I asked myself how a simple farm boy from Kittanning, Pennsylvania ended up being locked down in Western Psychiatric Institute.  I remember my father’s best friend often telling me there were more nuts per square foot in Kittanning there than anywhere else in the world.  I was wondering if I was one of them.  I particularly remember being called into the psychiatrist’s office and having him sitting down across from me, and trying to find the person, place, thing, or situation – some event in my life that made me the way I was.  However, after listening to him for a while, and trying to interject – finally I stopped and then I said tell me doctor, have you ever heard the beast roar?  Have you ever felt the beast roar?   And, he said to me I have no idea what you’re talking about.  And, I said then we have nothing further to discuss.  And, apparently, he had no sense of humor about that comment and confined me to my room for the rest of the week.  So, I hesitated on talking to psychiatrists about that in the future.  However, three (3) weeks later I was released and came back home.  It was in that hospital that I was introduced to the 12-step program of recovery originated by Alcoholics Anonymous.  I was taken to a room filled with unstable people who looked like they had just been dragged from the Allegheny River, and I was scared out of my wits.  There was an attendant that came with me, and I grabbed that person and said don’t you dare leave me here by myself.  I first thought that I was nothing like these people – that I was different.  I left that meeting in complete denial.  I later learned that they were all recently admitted patients, people who were probably as bewildered and uneasy as I was.  So, I came back home and had another stint at another hospital because, obviously – remember what we often talk about during these podcasts is that people have behaviors.  People do have behaviors.  And, what we look for is what drives those behaviors.  The things that we do in our life, such as drinking alcohol, such as taking drugs, such as gambling, such as doing any type of activity which takes us away from being ourselves – to stifle, to buffer, to dull, to take away the thoughts and feelings that are so painful to us.  

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