Asshole: A Memoir

Part 03. My Life, B.C.

A quick summary of my life before cancer: 

I was born 16 September 1954, to Charles and Martha McKeen. My father came from a poor family in Ohio and he and his brother supported the household during the Depression, while my grandfather was laid off from the railroad and my grandmother took in laundry. Not sure what Uncle Richard did, but Dad worked as a soda jerk at the local drug store. 

Dad got a football scholarship to the University of Chicago — still in the Big Ten at that point — then earned a degree in philosophy, on his way to a wartime-subsidized path to medical school. 

My mother grew up on a farm north of Indianapolis and always said she was unaware of the Great Depression. The Harlos farm was prosperous and no one went without food. She met my father while they were working summer jobs and were married in 1943. The wedding photo, with dad in his Army uniform, hangs in the entryway to my house. There’s a picture I like more though — later that afternoon, both of them at a table with glasses of beer in front of them. Yet my mother claimed to have never tasted beer in her life. 

Brother Charles and Sister Suzanne preceded me. I was unplanned. At six months, I was whisked off to Warrington, England, just outside of Liverpool. My father felt that he owed everything to the military, so he signed on for a major commitment in the newly formed United States Air Force. We were in England 1955-1957, sharing airspace with the local lads who became the Beatles. 

After that, it was Wiesbaden, Germany (1957-1959), Omaha, Nebraska (Offutt Air Force Base, headquarters of Strategic Air Command, 1959-1962); Homestead, Florida (just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962-1965), and Fort Worth, Texas (1965-1968). 

Dad’s 20 years were up then, and he went into private practice in Bloomington, a bucolic college town (home to Indiana University; hail to old IU) in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. 

I began working for the local newspaper when I was 14 and so stayed in town for college. I worked at one of the town’s newspapers for four years and was given extraordinary — some might say insane — responsibilities for someone so young. I covered city government as a reporter during the week, then was news editor for the weekend editions. I worked like a nut, too — 75 hours a week most weeks. 

I kept it up until the newspaper folded in December 1973, when I was one semester away from graduation. The closing of the paper was devastating to me. I was 19 and I thought my life was over. Turns out, the shit was just beginning. 

That’s when I was twenty, and my father died died of a heart attack. I moved home for a couple years to take care of my mother. 

I planned a life as a journalist and worked for the Palm Beach Post, the American Spectator and then the Saturday Evening Post, before I decided to go to graduate school for a vacation. 

My plan was to return to the Saturday Evening Post, but a teaching job came up and suddenly, that became my career. I taught at Western Kentucky University, 1977-1982; University of Oklahoma, 1982-1986; the University of Florida, 1986-2010 (the last dozen years as journalism department chairman); then moved to Boston University, again as chairman. 

I was married at 21 and had three children: Sarah (born 1979), Graham (1982) and Mary (1987). Mary was born as that marriage was ending and I began my 15 years in the bachelor wilderness. With a few periods of exception, I was serially monogamous and a couple of these between-marriage relationships lasted five years. 

But my first loyalty was always to my children. Their mother had moved back to Bloomington, Indiana — conveniently, where my mother and my brother and his family lived — and so I’d do monthly drives up from Florida to spend long weekends with the kids. We also got holidays and summers together. 

When they were more or less grown, I felt I could think about a serious relationship again. I met Nicole, a single mother, and we married. I adopted Savannah, who was then four. Because I was significantly (22 years) older, Nicole said if we were going to have children we should get started. So along came Jack (2002), Travis (2003) and Charley (2005). 

I thought I’d be carried out of my University of Florida office in a box, so I was surprised when we decided on the move to Boston University. Nicole was more excited about it than I was. She’d never lived outside of Florida and had spent most of her life in Key West. But she embraced New England and shoveled snow in flip flops. 

The move also put us a lot closer to her mother. She lived in a lovely town in northern New Jersey and was just a five-hour drive away. It beat the hell out of the long Florida-Jersey haul. 

We moved to a little town on the South Shore of Boston Harbor. We had a milkman. The guy at the front desk at the post office knew the whole history of who lived in our house. Each May, as our village’s spring baseball season began, the players, the school band and the parents paraded from the picturesque town common (used in the film The Witches of Eastwick) to the baseball field. Afterward, we all drew straws and the resident with the shortest straw is stoned to death. 

Okay, maybe not that last part. We lived in a Norman Rockwell painting, not a Shirley Jackson short story. 

But the move brought a lot of challenges: difficult adjustments for the kids, a reconnoitering of our relationship, and the death of Nicole’s mother from cancer. 

No wonder that when I told her I was sick, her first response was anger. She’d just lost her mother after caring for her for two years. Now, six months later, she was looking at going through that whole ordeal again. I thought of it as “cancer fatigue.”

Next: Part 04. Aunt Edna