Thursday, August 17, 2017
"The Broken World," Prologue
In order for the reader to understand this story, a few words must be said about a family and the patriarch of this family who died nearly fifty years ago. In many ways he was a typical American man. He was extremely frustrated, and I have rarely known an American man who wasn’t deeply frustrated in one way or another.
Although he died a material success, after a long marriage and fathering five children, in the end he was bitterly unhappy. And the truth is that to his last days, he didn’t really know why he felt that way. Of course, in this he also wasn’t particularly unusual. Vast numbers of men go to their graves bitterly unhappy, without ever really understanding the reasons. If Michael O’Connor was unusual at all, it was only in the extent of his potential and in the corresponding violence of his disillusionment.
He was born in 1903 on a Wyoming sheep ranch owned by his father, Patrick O’Connor, an Irish immigrant. The place was twenty thousand of the most desolate and windswept acres in all creation, along the Outlaw Trail, near the Hole in the Wall.
Of the three sons in the family, the eldest, Patrick Jr., was the father’s favorite. He had earned that honor by becoming a champion bull rider, something his father admired, and by repressing his own identity and mimicking his father in everything he did. This was the best way of winning approval, because there was no one the old man admired as much as himself.
Patrick Sr. had arrived from Ireland in the 1880s already a hostile man. His true occupation in life was cursing fate, the weather, God, his misfortune at having the two younger sons who didn’t remind him of himself, and his inability to keep a water pipe from freezing or to shave out of a frozen bucket.
He had fled Skibbereen, Ireland after murdering a tax collector during mass evictions, and this was why he was willing to resign himself to a life of obscurity on the Wyoming plains and why he was inwardly always back in Ireland, reliving old vendettas. The death of his wife after the birth of their youngest son, James, was his final proof of God’s indifference.
When the three brothers weren’t digging sheep out of snowdrifts in fifty-below-zero weather, they were enduring their father’s endless diatribes; and in the few moments he wasn’t in a violent rage, he was incessantly praising Patrick and belittling Michael and James, essentially for being someone other than himself. And yet beneath all of his colossal egotism, he secretly considered himself a failure.
Especially during the endless winters, their house was a prison, a tyranny in a tempest of blinding snow; and Michael realized when he was young that in order to survive, he had to escape. So he stayed up long hours studying, only to roll over in the morning to the sound of his father pounding a pot and shouting, “Get up, my lovely scholar, or I’ll pour the hot oatmeal over your precious head!”
It turned out that Michael had a photographic memory; and by the time he was sixteen, he could recite much of Shakespeare and other, classical works, including the Iliad and Odyssey. He dreamed of being a professional actor, but he realized it would be more practical to study medicine, and with tenacity so ferocious it was almost self-destructive, he eventually achieved, at the age of twenty-six, the nearly unheard of for an immigrant rancher’s son, a scholarship to Cornell University.
When his father heard the news, he grunted indifferently and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find some way to make a failure out of it.”
And sure enough, as though his father had cursed him with those words, it came to naught. It was 1929, the stock market crashed, and the bank that held his scholarship fund failed.
This was Michael’s proof of God’s indifference, and it became his lifelong justification for vindictiveness, a violent temper and self-absorption that bordered on outright narcissism. In short, although he detested his father, through some sort of twisted alchemy, he eventually became a carbon copy of him.
When his father finally died of his own spleen and got his chance to have a few choice words with God, Patrick Jr. inherited the ranch.
This new lord of the manor, of course, accepted their father’s judgment that he himself was the only success in the family, but he was threatened by Michael’s potential, so he played the tyrant even more than his father had.
God, the bitter memories Michael had of those days! The endless struggle to drag sheep out of snowdrifts in the dead of night in arctic temperatures! The wind that stabbed so brutally that he cursed and begged God just to let him die and get it over with!
And maybe some of his inner demons came to him out of those snow-blind nights, but the truth was more straightforward than that, although, again, Michael never understood it himself.
I was told that as an old man, he broke down crying once when he heard a father say a few words in praise of his son. Michael pretended that his eyes were irritated, but everyone could see that he was crying. All he felt was a profound isolation that came up in him suddenly, and he saw those empty expanses of snow and nothing more, because he couldn’t make the connection, couldn’t consciously comprehend the source of his pain. It would have been too much for him, and so he kept it buried.
Finally, when he couldn’t take another moment of his elder brother’s hostility, he took the one hundred and thirty-five dollars he had managed to save, said goodbye to his brother James, and simply walked away.
That was in 1932, the start of the Depression, and the only work he could find was as an itinerant sheep rancher. When he occasionally got to town, in Cheyenne or Denver or Tucson, he acted in amateur theater; but that was the extent to which he fulfilled the promise of his life that had once been so high. He wandered from place to place, working until he couldn’t stand it anymore and then moving on again.
In a theater in Santa Fe, Michael met his future wife. She was attracted by his intelligence and his classic Irish wit and charm, but he felt they were too poor to marry. At last he realized that he wasn’t getting any younger and his chances for making money weren’t getting any better, so he gave in, and they were married in 1935.
Her name was Amelia, and the ceremony was in a white adobe church near the Arizona border with Mexico, under a blistering sun, and they spent their honeymoon in a shack without running water. Michael worked for a while in a machine shop in Tucson, under a tin roof, where he almost died of sunstroke. Then they moved to Gallup, New Mexico, and lived for several years in a converted chicken coop. In Gallup, Amelia taught English to Navaho children; and Michael worked for a despotic old rancher named Gallagher, whom he referred to as “a man of truly low caliber.”
Amelia was from a family of ranchers and miners in South Dakota. Her people had arrived in a covered wagon and built the first wooden frame house in the state. Her grandfather had known Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and had once seen Crazy Horse riding with a group of braves not far from Deadwood.
A practical, religious woman, with strict moral principles and a strong work ethic, she might have been at home in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, but that was only one side of her personality, for she also loved literature, foreign cultures, history, and Pueblo Indian art and was in general quite educated for a “frontier” woman of her generation. There was a quality in her that was innately refined. She didn’t seem to be the daughter of an isolated miner, a young woman who had lived in remote and difficult circumstances. Instead, she gave the impression of having grown up in a cultured family.
It was this side of her, the creative, intellectual side, that was attracted to Michael and that set her apart from her stolid, unimaginative parents. Although she had been the one to pursue him, Michael had gotten the better end of the deal. She loved him unconditionally, while his feelings toward her were more ambivalent. By the time they met, he already had the air of a man settling for things in life, a man whose dreams were prematurely behind him. And yet in his own way, he did love her, as much as a man who is terrified of his feelings can love anyone.
When World War II came, Michael took the civil service examination and scored so highly that he was immediately hired by the Park Service and made much better money than he had sheep ranching. But he had to travel all over the Southwest, and sometimes he was away for many weeks at a time, performing resource surveys on public land.
In 1943, to his own tremendous surprise, he was hired as the director of personnel at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Essentially, this meant that he did background checks on new employees, verified academic credentials and otherwise kept track of records, and so forth. His hiring had been largely due to his remarkable memory; he could recall precisely every name, face, and resume he ever examined. Also, his personal security clearance came up perfectly clean. There was no information about him at all except for the record of his admission to Cornell, and mostly because of office politics, this turned out to be a great advantage, and he became the only person in a senior position at the laboratory without a college degree.
And so in late 1945, he found himself standing amid the pyroclastic glass at the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb had been detonated. He had the highest-level security pass and out of curiosity decided to visit the site. Until then, he hadn’t faced the implications of the work he had come to almost haphazardly in life, and he became deeply depressed. He had wanted to be a doctor or an actor. Now he was not sure what he had become. It was a time of soul-searching that was nearly intolerable for a man with an already unbearable amount of disappointment and pain. For months afterward it was difficult for him to sleep, and he had the first of a long series of strokes that would eventually end his life.
During the 1950s, he moved from Los Alamos to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and he became increasingly disillusioned. Although he loathed Stalin, he was not as anti-Communist as he had been anti-Nazi, and the McCarthy hearings left him fearing the loss of American civil liberties. As an Irishman, he was adamantly opposed to all forms of empire, what he was afraid the United States was becoming, but by then he felt too old to alter his course in life. He had five children, a son and four daughters to bring up, and he kept his misgivings largely to himself.
In later years he could still be witty, even charming at times in public, but at home he had taken to drunken tirades and black depressions. The darker side of his nature increasingly took possession of him. With four teenagers at home, sex was a subject so forbidden that the merest allusion to it drove him to fury, and he made it clear that all of his children were a disappointment to him. As far as he was concerned, none of them had inherited his intellect or reflected his former potential. He was especially cruel to his son Ryan, whom he called “a failure in waiting,” and to his daughter Mara, who was a rebel.
In spite of his assertions to the contrary, she rivaled him, both in passion and brilliance; and she was the most infuriated by his tyrannical self-absorption. A vicious struggle ensued between them, which, along with her rejection of both scientific progress and spiritual faith, culminated in her taking cyanide at the age of nineteen.
Her death was a fatal blow to Michael, who really did love her but didn’t know how to deal with his own complex emotions of frustration and fear.
He took to sitting up late at night drinking whiskey, reciting lines from the tragedies and having long, bitter arguments with his dead daughter. At those times no one dared to get near him, not even Amelia, who had done everything she could to bring him out of his despair.
On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he had his final stroke. And for all his intelligence, on the day he died, he didn’t understand himself any better than when he had walked away from his father’s ranch, almost thirty years earlier.
One night shortly before his death, his daughter Cait heard him reciting Dylan Thomas in the darkness, in a trembling voice.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And rage he did. Rage, despair, and self-hatred were his father’s gifts to him and the gifts that he handed down to his own children; and in spite of anything else a father does, no legacy is so enduring.
Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower
Cover Image, Zdzislaw Beksinski
Note after serialization of entire novel:
This is the final chapter of my novel, The Broken World. I want to thank all of you for taking the time to read it. I've had about 7,000 hits on the blog while serializing it, enough to make me feel it was worth the while. I'll begin serializing my second novel, Ode to Belladonna, sometime in March. Meanwhile, I'm compiling my first collection of poems, which may take another year of more, and I'll publish some of those poems here as well, along with those new essays I feel are of any value. Again, thanks for all of the up-votes, and the appreciative comments regarding my novel. It makes it All a pleasure for me!