Friday, July 6, 2007

The Stupidest Kidnapping

When I reflect on my vast fat-stupid-jerkitude, I am often consoled by what an interesting life I have lived. Quite a few people have come to think of me as a wonderful teller of tall tales, though I only embellish a little for humorous effect. If all my other projects fall through, I could just write a book about what has happened to me in my life so far, it would probably keep me in sauerkraut-and-banana sandwiches for the rest of my life. (Yes, I have tried that combination too.)

Until I was old enough to take care of myself like a responsible adult, without depending on Mummy and Daddy to bail me out of trouble (i.e., about 30), I tended to think of my parents' divorce and the whole custody drama as the most interesting chapter of my life. It is the well-spring of many of my best stories, based on experiences that seem more unusual than they actually are. Nowadays, I mostly consider my short stint as a parish pastor, and the circumstances under which it ended, to be the central feature in the landscape of my life. It certainly casts a huge shadow. I suppose that means I'll have to write two semi-autobiographical novels. Maybe the second one will enable me to supplement my diet with that nice chickpea-and-feta salad I recently fell in love with.

I love it when I can make people gasp in awe at the experiences of fat, stupid old me. I am always looking for opportune moments to drop the breathtaking statistic that I went to 13 different schools before I completed 12th grade. Another statistic that often raises eyebrows is the fact that, though I have only lived in 7 different U.S. states, I have moved across state lines 12 times. I can beat almost anybody I know at the game of "who has been lost or delayed at the most different airports" and "who has had car trouble on the most different interstates." I have already made mention of my sadistic little game of making people guess the state where I was born in under 50 tries.

Through these and many other self-aggrandizing anecdotes and gimmicks, I can quickly convince the average person that, even though I have never been abused, arrested, or treated for any serious illness or injury, I have had the most tragic life they have ever heard of. Or, if I emphasize a different set of anecdotes and gimmicks, I can persuade them that, although I have never won any important awards or distinctions, have not yet sold a manuscript or achieved an ambition or been wildly successful at anything, I am one of their most remarkable acquaintances. Actually, once they get to know me better, they find that I'm just a fat, stupid jerk with a knack for impressing people.

Well, I have had some interesting experiences, after all. My future stake in the sauerkraut-and-banana industry depends on them.

Here's one so off-the-wall that always makes me giggle to tell about it. I am living proof of the "We'll laugh about all this someday" principle. At the time - when I was just a hair short of 12 years old - it made me physically ill. But it all seems worthwhile when I see the shock in an acquaintance's face when I reveal to him that I was once kidnapped twice in one day.

If I really believed in magic, I would be tempted to say I led a charmed life when I was a kid. A vicious dog attacked me while I was collecting for Jerry's Kids, and its owners were so guilty that they contributed enough cash to meet my goal, saving me from having to hobble around on a mauled leg on a muggy Labor Day collecting donations. (Also, I never got gangrene or rabies.) Two or three times, when I wandered away from home and got lost, or got separated from my parents in a crowded public place, or missed the school bus, etc., I accepted rides home from total strangers without getting robbed, violated, or strangled. My "can't nothin' touch me" streak continued into adulthood, when I not only walked away, but actually drove away, after an 18-wheeler swatted my Ford Aspire off I-70. I could go on and on about the experiences I had no right to survive, and from which I emerged without a mark on me. But how can I laugh about being kidnapped twice in one day?

It may help to know that this double-kidnapping had nothing to do with my penchant for accepting rides from strangers. It is, after all, part of the soap opera of parental divorce and custody that furnishes most of the material for Vol. 1 of my self-serving, unwritten autobiography.

I've taken a long time getting around to it, but it's really quite a short story. The parts of it that I could expand really deserve to be separate chapters, because they contain so much juicy material: how Mom left Dad and took up with Stepdad, vowing to make a new home for my brother and me; how Dad's reduced circumstances furnished me with the right to point at any cockroach-infested, inner-city tenement and say, "I once lived in a place like that"; how the severity of my allergies became a barometer of my emotional state; and how, towards the end of summer, Mom and Stepdad-to-be announced that they were ready to discuss custody arrangements.

We drove down from Minnesota to Nebraska to talk with them. They showed us the tidy little house they had rented, the home they had set up for us. Dad had some concerns he wanted to discuss with Mom, so she suggested that Stepdad-to-be take Ryan and me out for an ice cream.

We knew something was off two blocks from the house, when we should have turned right to go to the ice cream shop, but we turned left instead. Stepdad-to-be drove us clear out of town and down the road to the next town, where some of his friends lived. He brought us into their house and introduced us. It soon became clear that this little detour had been planned well ahead. We were simply meant to wait until our Dad gave up and went back to Minnesota with his tail down.

Dad turned out not to be so easily discouraged. He realized his negotiations with Mom were going nowhere. Cops and lawyers (his and hers) got involved. Whatever they said frightened Mom enough that she called Stepdad's friends' house and told Stepdad-to-be that it was time to bring us back.

The rest of the negotiations were refereed by the local constabulary. Eventually things were worked out so that Ryan and I would live with Mom and Stepdad. My Dad's rights and concerns would be respected. We were even offered the choice: stay one last night with Dad at the home of his out-of-town friends, or start enjoying our new home and our new bedroom right away. We liked Dad's out-of-town friends, and we wanted to say goodbye in private, so we decided to go with Dad.

We did stop at those friends' home on our way back to Minnesota, but only long enough for Dad to consult his lawyer. Then we drove straight through the night, and I suffered the worst sinus pain of my life. Only the novelty of being kidnapped a second time in 24 hours, and by someone who arguably had a right to do so, redeemed the hellish monotony of our second diagonal trip across Iowa in one day.

My parents always insisted afterward that it was silly to call either of these incidents "kidnapping." But one has to stretch the truth if one is going to dine out on one's experiences as a fat, stupid jerk, and the experiences that made one ditto. Besides, what else would you call it? Many kids are "kidnapped" by their non-custodial parents. So what if everyone, at the time, believed my mother to be the custodial parent? The stunt that she pulled was fishy enough to interest the police, and the police's interest was hot enough to make my Mom sweat. And so what if possession is 9/10 of the law? My father's possession of Ryan and me was temporary, by an oral agreement which he broke by driving us across state lines that night. And as a result of this "non-kidnapping," Dad felt it necessary to instruct us, our neighbors, and our teachers to deny my mother and her family access to us. During the next couple of months our lives were overshadowed by at least a mild fear that our loving and beloved grandparents, or uncles, etc., would put us in the uncomfortable position of not being able to open the door to them - or that, if the door was opened, they would make it hard for our Dad to see us again.

Dad's decision to keep driving to Minnesota that night was the right decision. I agreed with it at the time, far more than I agreed with the trick my Mom and Stepdad-to-be pulled. It had far-reaching effects, though. In spite of my mother eventually getting custody, the incidents of that day were a turning point in the way I thought about my family, particularly Mom and Dad. I came to see their relationship, their divorce, and the kinds of parents they were in a new light. I learned not to assume that "with Mom" was necessarily the right place for a kid to live. I learned to see my father's pain, fear, and sacrifice - in short, his love - and to measure this love differently beside my mother's more needy, smothering, controlling love.

Unlike a conventional novel, this story didn't have a happy ending - because it had no proper ending at all. More readily-expandable chapters followed the day of two kidnappings: the chapter in which Dad, Ryan, and I started a new life in a new state, with a new home and a new school and everything - and how it lasted all of one week before we were separated by an ironclad custody agreement; how Mom's family made sure we didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Dad this time; how the bright, hopeful adventure of starting over with Mom and Stepdad turned into a tragedy of family conflict, substance abuse, mental illness, and more family conflict; how two weddings and the birth of a half-brother brightened an otherwise miserable couple of years; how a do-gooder pastoral counselor stuck his oar in and made things worse; and how moving in with my Dad and Stepmom probably saved our lives but wasn't the end of all our problems. My family is still working out its problems - both sides of it - over 20 years later. And some of them were not so much solved as transformed into 99.44% pure guilt when my Stepdad died in 2004. If I do write a novel from life, it will be one of those open-ended, postmodern ones.

Which probably means I'll be able to upgrade my sauerkraut into peanut butter...

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