Why Chuck Wouldn’t
Get Out of the Car
From Homegrown in Florida (University Press of Florida, 2012)
A memoir of a languid late-summer day at Homestead Air Force Base, the southernmost military installation on the mainland. It’s the summer of 1963, hot, and I’m hungry. During my stay at Homestead from 1962-1965, my father, Charles L. McKeen, was the hospital commander.
We said grace in my family, but not for religious reasons. We did very little for religious reasons. This was unusual, considering that both my parents had traditional, church-going, Midwestern childhoods. But Sunday was nothing special around our house. When I woke up, Dad was already making his rounds at the hospital and Mom was in bed with The Miami Herald. We never went to church.
I suppose Mom finally began to feel guilty about all of this, because that summer, when we were visiting her parents in Indiana, she called a minister and asked if her sons could be baptized. The minister balked. These things should be handled by her home parish, he said.
“But my husband is in the Air Force,” she said. “We don’t really have a home parish.”
And so the minister consented. My brother was 14 and I was 8. I think the minister was startled to see two uncomfortable boys wearing suits on a sticky afternoon, rigidly marching down the aisle. Before Mom had arranged the date, I hadn’t known what a baptism was and when it was explained to me I became intrigued by the idea of someone pouring water over my head while I was wearing my good clothes. But the minister disappointed me with only a moist palm. My brother, a fan of the German philosophers and a fledgling agnostic, was a less-willing participant and chose to denigrate the ritual. When the minister removed his hand from Chuck’s head, he rubbed his fingers together, as if trying to remove something. “Greasy kid stuff, huh?” my brother said.
We said grace because my mother wanted everyone at the table before we started eating. She spent many dinner hours rounding up Chuck, or me, or Dad, while trying to keep whoever was already at the table from finishing dinner before the latecomers arrived. She was also upset about how we dressed. We usually came to the table wearing only shorts and often carrying reading material: Hardy Boy mysteries (me), Neitzsche (Chuck) and Annals of Surgery (Dad). We were such slobs.
Mom did not care for all of this. “How would you like it if I came to the table in only my bra and panties?” she asked.
“That would certainly liven things up,” Dad said.
She was serious about it, though, and so she created these rules: No one without a shirt would be served; reading at the table was forbidden; no one would eat until grace was said; and grace would not be said until everyone was at the table.
For some reason, Mom chose not to say grace herself. Dad was willing to go along with her rules, but he also declined to return thanks. Chuck, the pimpled, alienated high-school intellectual, was above all of it. And so the duty fell to me.
With no other model on which to base my grace, I used the prayer my fellow Cub Scouts and I recited before snack time at our weekly pack meetings: “God is great, God is good and we thank Him for our food.” After a year of my brother’s snickering, I began to experiment with other graces: “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub. Yeah God! Amen.” Chuck loved it, but even Dad thought it was disrespectful. Mom pouted. “Why are you mocking it?” she asked. So I returned to the sing-songy paean of my fellow Cubs. My parents wanted us to respect religion, even if we didn’t practice it.
But Chuck didn’t respect it. He was a thinking man, he kept telling me, and thinking men did not think much of religion.
He and I shared a room, despite our six-year age difference. Now that Dad was a lieutenant colonel and hospital commander, we were assigned to a four-bedroom house. But Chuck and I still shared, out of habit as much as anything else. Chuck was a good brother and didn’t beat me up as big brothers were wont to do. But he never stood up for me either. Once we were playing with his archery set in the back yard and he overshot the target, sending an arrow through Colonel Callahan’s porch screen. I ran to get a closer look. “Oh God,” I said, “are we going to get it.” I turned around to find Chuck gone. He later said he had suddenly tired of archery. I suffered Colonel Callahan’s wrath solo.
Other than that minor personality flaw, Chuck was a pretty decent guy. After Dad turned out the lights, Chuck would talk to me until I fell asleep. He usually told me what he had learned and read that day. He was good in all subjects __ especially science and math, my worst classes. He told me about the universe and the concept of infinity. He told me to think of our solar system as just one atom in a larger being. Maybe we were just one atom in some large being’s socks, he said. This worried me.
“What’s going to happen when he changes his socks?” I asked.
“The universe will end,” Chuck said. I considered this for a while. Then Chuck asked, “Who do you think made the universe?”
“God, I guess.”
He leaped on that. “Then who made God?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a bug made God.”
“Then who made the bug?” Chuck asked.
It scared me to think about it. But Chuck said he thought about that stuff a lot.
Chuck spent the summer before his senior year working as an orderly at the base hospital. Ever since he was my age, Chuck had been saying he wanted to be a doctor. Dad wanted to make sure Chuck would see medicine from the ground up, so he had him do all the work that orderlies have to do: mopping floors, cleaning up spilled bed pans and assisting retired officers who had trouble moving their bowels.
Dad and Chuck left for work together just after seven each morning, while I was still asleep. They didn’t come home for dinner until six. That was a boring summer __ my first without my big brother to hang out with. I’d ride my bike over to Alan Rinehart’s house and maybe we’d pick up Paul Franks and spend the day around the canal that cut through the base housing area. We’d try to fish, but we were more likely to catch a disease from the scummy water than anything we’d want to eat. My midafternoon we’d be wiped out from the heat. Alan’s dad was new to Florida too. His last post was Thule, in Greenland, so his mother was worried he’d get heatstroke or something. So by the middle of the afternoon, she’d make Alan come home and take a nap. Paul’s mom didn’t like having kids inside – even her own – and so I’d usually head home, all the way from the enlisted men’s quarters, when Alan and Paul lived, to the part of the base where officers lived. When my brother was around, we did all kinds of stuff, like raiding the food and the leftover booze from the patio at the Officer’s Club. Alan and Paul were OK, but I missed my big brother.
Back home, I’d sit at the kitchen table and beg Mom for something to eat. But she hung by her rules. She wouldn’t give me dinner until Dad and Chuck were home, we were all at the table, and grace had been said.
I used to sit there for an hour before dinner, begging for scraps, waiting for the sound of the front door and two sets of footsteps in the hall. But one afternoon the door opened and only one set of footsteps came in. I was reading about Frank and Joe Hardy and The Missing Chums in between spurts of groveling. Mom was sautéing onions for pepper steak.
“Where’s Chuck?” she asked, after Dad had kissed her.
“He’ll be in in a little while. We can go ahead without him.”
“We will not. Charles, you know we don’t eat until everyone is at the table.”
I couldn’t stand to wait anymore. “Mom, I’m starving to death.”
“Chuck’s having some problems.” Dad was trying to lower his voice, but I was only about 10 feet from the stove. “He just wants to be alone.”
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked
“He’s just upset, that’s all.” Dad glanced at me, then at the onions. “Oh, this looks good.”
“Was it something at work?” she asked. “Did a patient die that he knew?”
“Nothing like that. We talked about it. Just leave him alone for a while. He says he’s not hungry and that we should go ahead and eat.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m starvino.”
Mom untied her apron and turned off the stove. “Where is he?”
“Martha, I promised we’d leave him alone.”
“Where is he?”
Dad sighed. “He’s in the car.”
Mom walked passed him, into the hall.
“Honey, I told him we’d leave him alone.”
“I’m his mother,” she said, opening the door. I heard her step outside and I got up to follow.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Dad asked.
”I’m his brother.”
Chuck was sitting in the shotgun seat of Dad’s white Cadillac convertible, wearing his stupid hat. It was one of Dad’s old Borsalinos, and I’m sure it looked great back in the forties and fifties, when people wore hats, but it looked dumb now. Chuck had found it in a closet and worn it to work every day and even wore it once when we went shopping in Miami. That was bad enough, but he took to taking it when we’d go down to Long Key to go finishing every other Sunday. It was weird, seeing this skinny, pasty-white dude wearing a hat like something out of the forties.
There he was, in that dumb hat, sitting in dad’s car, just staring at the wall at the end of the carport. We didn’t have a garage __ only general’s quarters had garages __ but we did have a carport, separated from the house by a storeroom.
“I tried, Chuck,” Dad said, shrugging
Mom leaned in the car door. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Chuck said.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “Your father says you’re having problems.”
“My only problem is that I’m not hungry. Go in and eat.”
“We’re not starting without you,” Mom said
“Yeah,” I said. “We can’t eat until you get to the table. And I’m starving to death.”
“I’m not hungry,” Chuck said. “I’ll be in later. I just want to sit here, O.K.?”
“I made pepper steak with onions and double-baked potatoes,” Mom said.
“I don’t feel like eating, Mom. I just want to sit here a while.”
Mom stood up, sighed, and looked at Dad. He only shrugged, sitting down on the storeroom steps. I laid down on the cool concrete floor of the carport. Mom stood by the car, apparently planning to wait out Chuck.
It was an odd way for him to act. I was surprised he wouldn’t talk. Chuck loved to talk and argue. But now he was quiet, and so were the rest of us.
“Did something happen at work?” Mom asked finally, just to get him to speak again.
“No. Work’s been great.”
“What’s bugging you then?” There was an edge in her voice. “Maybe we can help.”
“There’s nothing you can do, Mom.”
“But it might help just to talk about it,” she said.
Chuck stared at the wall.
Dad cleared his throat, then said softly, “Chuck’s beginning to feel his age.”
Mom hooted. “Oh Chuck, is that it?”
“It’s not funny,” he said.
“I’m not laughing at you, honey. It’s just that you’re only 17.”
“He’s worried about next year,” Dad said. Chuck was looking down now, studying his hands.
Next year, of course, was when Chuck would fly the coop. He’d been accepted by Indiana, Illinois, Vanderbilt and Chicago. Dad had gone to the University of Chicago, so Chuck was leaning toward going there.
“You’ve never made anything but A’s,” Mom said. “College will be a breeze for you. You’ll love it.”
“That’s not why he’s upset,” Dad said.
“He can’t decide where to go?” Mom asked.
“Ask him.” Dad nodded toward Chuck.
I was on the cement floor of the carport and had to look up at Chuck, framed in the car window. He’d started to cry. He bit his lip, still without looking at us, and said, “I don’t want to leave.”
“You don’t want to leave?” Mom asked.
“Oh __ that’s it.” Mom waved her arms and stepped back from the car. I was glad she understood, because I sure didn’t. Chuck was always telling me how he couldn’t wait to be on his own. He could sleep late on Saturday mornings, not have to clean up his half of the room (like he ever did) and stay out at night as long as he wanted.
Chuck just looked down at his hands.
“It’s part of growing up,” Mom said. “You have to leave home. We’ll miss you, but you have to go.”
“I want to go to Miami-Dade.”
“Chuck, if you really want to be a doctor, then you have to get into a good medical school. And you won’t get it one if you start out at a junior college. They want four years at a good university. Med schools look at things like that.”
“But I don’t want to go so far away.”
“Part of college is leaving home. You can’t put it off, Chuck. It’s time to grow up.”
“I told him he might be able to sit out a year,” Dad said. “He could keep working at the hospital and make sure he really wants to go into medicine.”
“No, Charles. He can’t run away from it. He’s got to start his own life.”
Chuck’s eyes shut. “But Mom __ I don’t want to leave.”
“We don’t want you to. But you have to.”
“I wish I was a kid again.”
“No you don’t.” Now Mom was starting to cry.
“Yes I do,” Chuck said. “I wish I was a little kid again.”
“Chuck, no one likes to get old,” Mom said. “I don’t like it, but there’s nothing we can do about it, is there? Is there?”
“We just have to live with it and go on. We’ve got to be grateful we’re alive and for having what we have. Don’t make this all harder than it is.”
Chuck wiped his face with the back of his hand. The only sound was his sniffling. I didn’t want to keep looking up at him, so I looked at the hubcaps. It was getting darker outside the carport.
Chuck didn’t cry very often. He cried when Uncle Gene called to tell us Grandma had died. And I on his 16th birthday, Mom had a bakery in town make him a cake. The baker asked what Chuck was interested in.
“Philosophy,” Mom said.
“Anything else?” the baker said.
“Well, he wants to be a doctor.”
“Lady,” the baker said, “those are hard things to work into a cake decoration. I need something I can put on a cake.”
“He likes sports,” Mom said. “He likes to watch football on TV.”
“Say no more,” the baker said. “I got the perfect cake.”
It turned out to be a big sheet cake decorated like a football field. In the middle of the green icing was a brick-sized chocolate-colored football, made of butter, powdered sugar, milk and food coloring.
When the cake was presented to Chuck after dinner that night, he blew out the candles, took a few bites, then left the table. Mom got up to find him and I tagged along. He was in our room, crying. “He said he was sad about turning 16,” she told Dad. I ate the football by myself and threw up.
“Why don’t we go inside now?” Mom had stopped crying but her eyes were still red. “I’ll finish dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Don’t start that again. You’ve got to eat, Chuck.” She started to walk toward the front door. “You’ll be in in a minute, right?” She looked at him until he nodded.
Dad stood up and leaned on the car door. “You all right now?”
Chuck nodded, then broke down and started crying again. “It just goes so fast, Dad.”
“I know.” Dad put his hand on Chuck’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to die.”
“I know,” Dad said. “It’s over before we know it and we can’t do one damn thing about it.” He stepped back. “Come in when you’re ready.” Mom made a noise like she was about to say something, but Dad gave her one of his looks. He took her by the arm and led her inside.
I heard someone across the street start his mower. This was the best time to mow, just before dusk. It was a good sound to hear. I put my head on my arms, almost numb from the coolness of the cement. I closed my eyes.
After a couple of minutes, Chuck opened the door and stepped out of the car. I didn’t want to look at him. I never liked to look at people after they’d been crying. I got up fast and was going into the house when I heard him behind me and felt his fingers digging to the veins at the back of my neck.
“Not a word to anybody. You tell Ricky Wilson and I’ll rip your lungs out.”
“Promise,” I gasped.
He released me.
I said my Cub Scout grace and Chuck didn’t snicker. He didn’t offer much more than “please pass the potatoes” for dinner conversation. Nobody talked much.
Chuck said he didn’t feel like talking that night and we put the lights out early. I listened to his breathing a long time and knew he wasn’t sleeping.
“What are you thinking about?” I finally asked him.
“Lots of stuff. I’m thinking how small we are. How we could just as easily have been born in Czechoslovakia. I wonder if I’m really alive, or just part of someone’s dream.”
He grunted. “I don’t know about that.” Then he sighed. “But somebody’s dream.”
He didn’t talk for a couple of minutes, then he said, “I was thinking about when you were born. I remember it. I remember Mom came out of the hospital. She was in a wheelchair and she was holding you. It was the first time I saw you. You were so small and your eyes were closed. It doesn’t seem that long ago. You were just a baby and now you’re growing up too.” He sighed again. “I’m just thinking about getting old.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“It’s hell,” he said. “Pure hell.”