Harry, my Stepfather

When I was a 4 year-old boy and just beginning to register the world around me, I did not realize I had actually forgotten who my original father was while meeting the new stepfather, Harry. He did not look like we did, and honestly, he did not like the looks of us either. We were wild, untamed and born to a father, who while very civilized and educated, did not behave well at all. My mother was heartbroken and helpless as far as making money was concerned, loved us all very much and only stopped having children because Lisa, the youngest, had finally answered her prayers for a little girl. The five of us siblings were living in a small detached apartment in Ontario, and I was the eldest of the last three born, with Todd behind me and Jay and John two and five years ahead of me. The later knew what had happened to my father, and were upset about it. My first memories of my birth father were of him picking us up and taking us to the mountains for the weekend, where he lived in a cabin with his new wife and eventually my half sister Cindy.

Harry had a troubled life as well. His parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses followers and he had been beaten, abused and lived a barren life on a farm in Missouri. At times he was chained to the front porch as punishment for whatever. His mother told our mom when they met, that Harry was insane. Harry was treated in a mental hospital with electric shock therapy for what I am not sure. He did eventually move in with another family who loved him very much. At some point he left them, hitched a ride on a train, obtained a motorcycle and headed west for a better life. He was a loner. He was dressed like Marlin Brando in the “The Wild One” when he arrived. He worked in a gas station, and through social connections unclear to me, met my mother. They “hit” it off. We did not go to the wedding ceremony. The next day Harry arrived and he stayed.

Harry always tried to be the best father he could be to us. The trouble was, he had no idea what a good father was. I can understand that even now. His intent was to establish order through discipline. While that was a good instinct, his weakness was in restraining his temper while applying said punishments. They soon betrayed his emotional makeup. He suffered, in my opinion, from severe depression and insecurity and he fought all attempts at therapy and counseling. Like many children of this time we were routinely whipped with a belt and expected to behave quietly. That might have been possible with another set of kids but each of us in our own unique way foiled him at every step of our childhood. We were “cruising for a bruising” he would tell us menacingly when we acted up.

Harry eventually started to work in a trailer factory and that industry’s growth potential led to him becoming very ambitious. He launched out with a partner in a business venture that would eventually provide him with more wealth than even he could comprehend how to use. First things first however. One day I arrived home from kindergarten (I walked alone in those days) to a completely empty house. It was locked up so I sat down on the front porch and cried. Sometime later my uncle drives up in a car and picks me up and says we have moved to Claremont! That house will become our first real “home” and also the scene of many unfortunate episodes—too many to list here. Besides, this story is not entirely about suffering from abuse. It is about why it happened and where I went after enduring it.

Harry once again is trying to do the right thing. There are good schools in Claremont. The house while still south of the “tracks” put us kids in the right area to go to those schools. In 1961 the house cost thirteen thousand dollars with the chance to build up equity instead of paying rent. This was something he understood very well. He did not graduate high school and he did not test well either, but Harry read the newspaper, books and inherently had an IQ at least as high as mine was then. He did not drink too much and rarely got drunk. He did not have affairs with women and was interested in moving up the social ladder. My mother liked this about him of course. When his new business venture started making money, a new battle ensued. How was that money to be spent? Harry insisted it get poured back into the business while my mother wanted to go out and buy things! This battle never stopped and it never ceased to nag at his very soul. My mother does indeed have a problem with spending money and desiring things beyond her reach. The real issue here though is now there is a never-ending source of stress for Harry: business income ebbs and wanes, troubles with the foremen and crew, just running a business that was started from scratch, making sure he was not being robbed every day. These things caused him no end of worry while he still carried emotional issues that are were no longer being attended to. He begins to snap on a regular basis. Depression in men often leads to violent outbursts, not crying and weeping. My brothers and sister, all in our not entirely innocent way, would find ways to pull his trigger. John sympathized with the hippy movement. Jay was gay and not out yet. I was smart and wanted to constantly prove that. Todd was getting into legal trouble. Lisa adopted a careless attitude. None of us kids are like another. We look alike but we do not get along. We confided, but in the end could not understand each other’s choices, so we competed for what little love was left in the house.

Incidents of all kinds—some very minor—would trigger an assault. Being wild boys, we have all done something that deserved severe punishment however the episodes were marked by the seemingly smallness of the infraction. I will list just one that occurred in the house at that time—one that happened to me. Harry had a thing about making noise at night and flushing the toilet. One night I get up and go pee in the bath room and for whatever reason I do not flush the toilet. I am about 10 years old I think. I go back to bed. Harry gets up and runs into our dorm room (he built that addition for us so Lisa could have her own room) with us four boys in it. Harry questions “who did not flush the toilet?” I answer. He rushes to my bed, picks me up in his arms and hurls me into the standing bookcase headfirst. It in turn falls down atop me, trashing all the handmade models we boys have assembled there. I do not remember much after that but you can imagine variations of this event happening to each of us in turn while the others watched in horror. To be honest, Todd, the youngest boy, took the worst of this simply because his bed was closest to the door and after a beating he would often say, “let that be a lesson to you all.”

On John’s 16 birthday (I think) something stranger and more sinister happened. John liked the counterculture movement and Harry, like the rest of America, was trying to put a stop to it in their own homes. Instead of the traditional gifts and a cake, we got to listen to an audio record. This record had a man’s voice telling us that if we wanted to grow a beard, it must be grown in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, and not as a sign of protest. John was like, “what the fuck?” That evening ended with the coffee table being broken over John’s back as Harry beat him with it. John was older than me and good sized. He could have fought back, but he adopted the Gandhi defense due to his beliefs about the Vietnam War at the time. I did not share in those beliefs—I was only 11.

Harry was having a rough time with John and he decided to buy a summer trailer in a very low rent park in Newport Beach (85 dollars a month). He felt that the surfer boy culture might be a healthier diversion for John than the drug culture he was running towards. The marriage at this time was being shaken to the core as well. For all intents and purposes it was like a separation where Harry would come down and visit on the weekends, and sometimes every few months. I loved that park and still have the friends I made there today. It was a low rent white trash environment, but many of the owners there actually had big money. They just enjoyed living low there. Because Harry was now scarce and I was older, around 16, I was getting pretty mouthy. One day I muttered under my breath that something Harry was doing was stupid while we were alone. He returns with a large sized monkey wrench in his hand and holds it up to as if he is about hit me in the head with it. He threatens me about calling him stupid again. I submitted. This event marked a turning point, as I was not actually hit. I was still not quite brave and big enough to just stop him. It certainly crossed his mind that if he hit me it would be a fight to the death.

Later that summer one of my close friend’s dad invited us all to sail to Long Beach on their sailing boat. It would be an overnight trip where we would stay in a hotel there and then sail back the next day. This family did not know about Harry and that he had issues with educated men. I thought the whole thing was a bad idea but what the hell. I’m still alive and I am almost 17. Let’s go! Several embarrassing things happened on that trip, not the least of which was that Todd got knocked out by the boom as it swung by on a tack while sailing up a channel. The trip back was long and against the wind. Harry did not have the proper headwear on. By the time we made homeport the sun had fried his brain and he was ready to explode. Todd left some shoes on the steps that drop into the boat’s cabin. Harry snaps. He takes Todd and throws him overboard into the water as he rushes down onto the dock to continue the assault. I intervene. He throws two roundhouse punches into my jaw as I try to grab his wrists. While we struggled I yelled at him that I don’t want anybody else to get hurt. I was working out and on the football team so I was actually able to hold him off me and settle him down enough that we all could continue unloading the boat. You could not believe the tension when we all returned home. Nothing was said to me about it, but one thing did change. He finally stopped the physical abuse—as far I know.

At this time, I was about to enter college and go to art school. John had left home. Jay had moved to Colorado as a ski bum. My going to college was a big deal. It would get me out of the house and into a world that was all new and exciting to me. Harry was willing to spend money for the tuition and supplies. All that was asked of me was to do the odd job, like paint a house or clean up parts of his work property when I was home. It was also implied that I would not get a car until I graduated, which is in fact what happened. I had no car so that it would be easier for me to focus on my studies and art. I understood that because girls then and now distract me to no end. I went to school for 6 years plus and received an MFA. The only hitch was when I grew a beard and he threatened to pull my funding. I called that bluff but kept the beard for only a while. During this long period of time, the marriage was on and off but they stayed together. Once my mother asked me to write to him when he was (in her words) “depressed” to see if I could cheer him up. I wrote a letter and it basically said, “Thankful am I” that he took on the responsibility of raising our abandoned family. I also acknowledged how hard it had been for him to do this. I also said it is something I would never have done—take on five unusual kids from another man and marry a women who thought money grew way faster that it did.

I graduate from school, get my car and move out as soon as possible. I get one chance at teaching before the Reagan Recession forces me to reassess what I am really going to do for money. I did not just want to teach art. I wanted to get married, travel, do things and have things. The shipping industry provided all that for me but meanwhile my stepfather actually did get rich. He sold a leasing company that controlled many of the units he had built in mobile office space and, with my mom, built a trophy home in Palm Springs. He spent more than he should have on that home and that is still causing problems for my mother to this day. Watching that episode led me to pay off my own home early and keep it nice and manageable. Harry and I did talk about money, life and politics. We of course differed on most topics. He was very honest about the money part of his knowledge. I still remember asking him how business properties could be going up in price while remaining empty. He did not have a good answer to that, and as we all know now, there was none. He confided to me once that of all the boys he was most impressed with me and actually liked me as a person. That led to a conversation about standing up to one’s father and how that threshold has to be crossed. I referred to the family’s past as dysfunctional to him and again he disagreed. To him it was all an insurmountable challenge, and despite the emotional carnage, he got to the top of the heap anyway. I actually admire that despite all the anger and hurt he caused.

Harry passed away in 2002 during an elective surgery that was too dangerous to succeed. He was still able to golf going into that operation but wanted to bet that he could cheat death yet again. He had already had two bypasses done and the veins they removed from his legs caused his legs not to react well to the abdominal aorta that burst during the procedure. In the days after that funeral, a friend of the family was trying to make sense of the money situation. He found Harry’s hidden cash in a brief case and within that pile of money was the letter I had wrote him while in college. That letter had never been mentioned to me after I sent it to him and I had forgotten about it. You can imagine what it meant to him.

Harry, my Stepfather

Mark Ramstead

Temecula, United States

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Artist's Description

This was written from memory with no consultation of my brothers and sister. Some events may have happened or been perceived differently than what I describe here. Each of us has our own story, and most of the chapters remain to be told. In reality though, most of this unhappy tale will be forgotten as we all look forward.

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